Distance: 4.6 miles
Best time of year: Fall, Winter, Spring
Last hiked: 2016 March
The Kiwanis Trail has a fair amount of sentimental value for me. Aside from a single road trip just before I moved out west for the first time in 2004, the Kiwanis Trail in South Mountain Park was the first trail I ever went hiking on. As such, it opened up a brand new world of exploration and meaning. In that moment, my life as a video game addict died and I was born anew as a nature enthusiast and conservationist.
I had always wanted to hike the trail again, but my explorations in Phoenix always took me elsewhere. Then I was never able to get around to making it in that direction in my brief visits back following my move to Jackson Hole. Having secured a base camp nearby the area in preparation for the Arizona Trail, I now had no reason not to revisit it. Being a more avid hiker these days, I saw a great way to make a loop originating on the Kiwanis Trail, and then taking advantage of the National, Ranger, and Las Lomitas Trails to get a great taste of the South Mountains Park in just five miles.
As mentioned, this loop begins at the Kiwanis Trail Trailhead, found east of the main entrance station on the north side of the South Mountains. A gradual ascent begins up a steeply eroded desert canyon, lined with trademark Sonoran Desert vegetation all along the way: saguaro cactus; palo verde trees; barrel cactus; and cholla cactus, just to name a few. The trail dips in and out of the canyon’s wash, a rocky channel for rain pouring off of the canyon’s walls. In the rear, views of downtown Phoenix begin to peek into view through the angular canyons, converging just below the fractured cityscape.
The canyon’s rocky walls blend in with the canyon floor as eventually the canyon begins to widen after climbing a bit of elevation. Soon, a road comes into view as the trail snakes around the canyon to meet it. The trail crosses the road, and continues its ascent, but it’s also here that the Kiwanis Trail ended, and on the other side of the road, you’ve now joined up with the National Trail. The National Trail is now guiding you up a few short switchbacks to the Telegraph Pass Lookout, the destination for many others you might be sharing the trail with, and an all around great vantage point. It doesn’t compare, however, to the view up above the lookout. Regardless, before reaching the lookout, you’re now presented with your first views to the south, having reached the crest of the ridge. Suburban homes line the foothills of the mountains below you as the urban confines does its best to continue to consume the natural resources at its feet. To the east are gorgeous Sonoran Desert covered mountains, marred by a series of communication towers that can be seen from dozens of miles away. Behind you to the north, much of Phoenix has come into full view, nestled between the mountains you’re standing on and much more prominent mountains on the other side of civilization.
A short climb up and you’ve reached the Telegraph Pass Lookout. Check it out if you’d like, but know that the best is yet to come. Just up the trail from the lookout, you’ll see to the right, just on the other side of a small ravine, a noticeable break in the rock formation. This is where the orange-colored Telegraph Pass granite immediately breaks into the Estrella Gneiss. The Telegraph Pass granite is from the Middle Tertiary Period, dating it to a few dozen millions of years old, while the Estrella Gneiss is Precambrian, making it at least a couple billion years old! Think about that as you continue the ascent.
It doesn’t take much more climbing before the trail begins to level out atop a dramatic and sweeping 360 panoramic vista of the surrounding urban desert. To the west, the National Trail continues its scramble along the ridgeline you’re presently on, while the east yields surprisingly dramatic views of the South Mountains’ higher elevations. Looking north is the sprawling city of Phoenix, consuming the desert floor, interrupted by islands of protected mountains. South is a vast Sonoran Desert wilderness, broken up by the occasional agriculture endeavor where substantial water is brought in to make the effort feasible.
For the next three-quarters of a mile, the jaw-dropping views never let up. This section of ridgeline along the National Trail is arguably one of the most impressive stretches of desert scenery found anywhere in the Phoenix area. The Ma Ha Tuak Range is just across the small valley in front of you and they successfully steer your vision away from the urban metropolis and more westward toward the towering Estrella Mountains beyond the Gila River Indian Reservation. Were it not for the noisy go-kart course and the excessively loud cars below, you could easily feel detached from the nearby city.
Tip: Hike this in the morning on a weekday to minimize hearing noisy go-karts and excessively loud cars below.
The trail begins a small descent toward the junction with the Ranger Trail. You may have trouble convincing yourself to start heading down. If so, continue exploring! Because why not? As you otherwise begin down the Ranger Trail, a few switchbacks begin steering you toward the north down toward the valley. You’re brought from one large ridge to another as views of the east begin to open up again, all of them impressive and humbling for an urban park, the largest in the country in fact.
The trail soon crosses a road where, shortly after, it connects up with the Las Lomitas Trail. Take a right at that junction and proceed along the relatively flat trail eastward. The Las Lomitas Trail is a very pleasant trail with easy ups and downs as it winds over small ridges and through larger washes. Though the dramatic views are behind you, this particular trail has a much more easy-going and pleasantness to it. This creates a natural way to unwind from the trek where you’re dropped back off at the trailhead sooner than you think.
From downtown Phoenix, follow Central Ave. south until it dead-ends into South Mountain Park. A left turn immediately after the entrance station is used for the park. The very next left turn though will bring you to the trailhead after about 0.75 miles. Look for parking near at the Kiwanis Trailhead. On busier days, you may have to park elsewhere and walk back.