Distance: 6 miles (loop)
Best time of year: Fall, Winter, Spring
Last hiked: 2016 February
From the urban confines of Phoenix, the South Mountains don’t look terribly impressive, nor even very inviting. A hike into the mountains, however, reveals a fascinating desert environment with surprising seclusion from the constant roar of city noise.
As the country’s largest urban park, South Mountain Park has a large number of trails. Many of these can be combined to make loops or lengthier one-way treks, provided you have a shuttle car at the end. After looking at a map of the mountains, I decided to try combining the Mormon Trail with the National Trail, heading out the Geronimo Trail. This resulted in the following Mormon to Geronimo Trail Loop.
The Mormon Trail begins its ascent right away from the desert floor. After a bit of ascending up the rocky trail, views of the surrounding city become increasingly pleasant. All the while the army of noises from the city merge into a low hum. It passes multiple attractive and rocky lookouts on its way up to its high point. It was along this trail that I saw a carrot tail chuckwalla. These amazing reptiles have a coloration that is actually unique to South Mountain Park.
At the high point of the Mormon Trail, a connector trail drops you into a small canyon heading toward the National Trail just a short distance beyond. In an unexpected twist, the noise from the city completely vanishes here (with the exception of airplanes overhead). The (occasional) peace and quiet helps bring about a new appreciation for the mountains as the metamorphic rocks increase in size to house-sized boulders.
The National Trail joins the trail in the middle of the small canyon and begins heading west. You’ll begin to notice that here saguaro cactus have become more numerous. With the urban noise blocked by the surrounding mountains, it’s very easy to forget you’re in the middle of one of the United States’ largest metropolises (metropoli?). It’s easy to imagine you’re now in a far off remote desert environment tucked into rocky desert mountains where some animal could come walking out from behind a rock.
In fact, the South Mountains are teeming with wildlife, just not the large kind. In addition to the carrot tail chuckwalla, songbirds and cactus wren can frequently be heard calling to one another and flittering in the brush. Ground squirrels can be spotted by sharp eyes as they scurry back into their holes. These small prey also feed plenty of predators, such as hawks and coyotes. Seeing these animals simply takes patience, persistence, and an appreciation for the area.
The National Trail continues its ascent up the canyon, passing through washes before beginning to level out as it approaches its high point along this loop. It soon reaches the crest of a pass where you’ll say goodbye to the sweeping views to the east. The urban desert far below and the Mazatzal Mountains and Four Peaks far in the distance soon become obscured. To the west, a vast expanse of the South Mountains await.
A short distance beyond, the National Trail connects with a car-accessible overlook. Here too is the Geronimo Trail, found on the north side of the parking area. Follow that toward a resting bench (as opposed to a natural bench) that overlooks the city to the north and follow it as it begins to head down and around a rocky outcropping.
The sides of this trail are noticeably steeper and rockier, representing more cliff-like formations of the metamorphic rock. It’s a very scenic part of the trail that can be easily enjoyed by anyone wanting to see rugged desert beauty. Its descent continues around many large rocks and cliffs and veers you down into a canyon. It’s near this point you’ll notice a fork in the trail. Continue to the right, down toward the wash. Heading straight will bring you to a Boy Scouts Camp.
The trail follows the canyon around and down back to the city of Phoenix, where you’re brought to an obscure corner in a neighborhood. From here, it’s a short walk around a few blocks back to the parking area.
Aside from a disturbing amount of litter along the trails, I thoroughly enjoyed this loop. I only wish locals did too so it could be cleaner for people visiting.
From downtown Phoenix, head south down Central Ave. for 6 miles to Baseline Road. Follow Baseline for 2.5 miles, then turn left and head east to 24th St. and take a right there to head south. After 0.75 miles, the road will end and veer to the left to become Valley View Road. The parking area for the trailhead will be immediately on the right.