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The 101 on South Mountain Park Phoenix

The 101 on South Mountain Park Phoenix

As you may know, Phoenix has no shortage of outdoor activities. The sunny weather is a big bonus, too, which makes the city ideal for year-round summer adventures.

We love going hiking, swimming, and running. And, we absolutely love how so many places in the valley make outdoor activities super accessible. 

Among our go-to parks is the South Mountain Park and Preserve. There’s so much to do, so much to see, and tons of adventures to go on here. 

Keep reading as we give you the 101 on this national park.

Getting to Know South Mountain Park Phoenix

South Mountain Park and Preserve is the largest city-managed park in the United States. It’s a prime destination for hiking, horseback riding, and biking. 

The park covers three mountain ranges – the Ma Ha Tauk, Guadalupe, and the Gila. It spans more than 16,000 acres and has over 51 miles of trails fit for any ability level of your chosen activity.

Is there an entrance fee to South Mountain Park and Preserve?

Access to the park is completely free for day use. Fees will only reflect on special permits such as events and facility reservations.

Can you drive to the top of South Mountain Park and Preserve?

Yes! It’s quite a scenic drive, too, from the park’s main entrance going up to Dobbins Lookout. It’s only 5.5 miles, but if you time it right at sunset, the view of the valley below is just spectacular.

However, we do recommend taking on one of the many trails on South Mountain Park. There’s nothing quite like the high of conquering mountains, after all.

Are dogs allowed in South Mountain Park and Preserve?

Absolutely! The park is completely pet-friendly, but remember that Phoenix laws apply and pets must be kept on a leash at all times. 

If you plan on hiking with a pet, there are difficult trails that are not recommended for your pooches. In those cases, it’s best to leave them at home or at a dog boarding facility.

What is Silent Sunday at South Mountain Park and Preserve?

Every Sunday, the park’s main road is closed-off to any motor vehicle traffic up to the 1-mile mark from 5AM to 10AM. This is to give way to non-motorized activities including walking, biking, jogging, hiking, and more.

Not only does this provide a small reprieve to the property and the wildlife, but it also ensures safe outdoor activities for the visitors.

Things to do in South Mountain Park and Preserve

There are a lot of activities to do and attractions to visit in this park. Allow us to guide you through each one.

1. Go hiking at the South Mountain Park and Preserve.

There are a ton of trails you can choose from if you plan on hiking here. We’ve chosen 10 of the best ones for every level of difficulty.

TrailLevel of DifficultyTrail LengthAverage Completion Time
Beverly Canyon TrailEasy7.6 km2 hours and 30 minutes
Buena Vista TrailEasy16.1 km4 hours
Desert Foothills TrailEasy6.1 km1 hour and 40 minutes
Ma-Ha-Tauk TrailEasy6 km1 hour and 40 minutes
Holbert TrailModerate6.4 km2 hours
Pima Canyon TrailModerate16.3 km6 hours and 25 minutes
Mormon Loop TrailModerate7.6 km2 hours and 30 minutes
Javelina Canyon and Ridgeline Loop TrailModerate6 km1 hour and 40 minutes
Pyramid TrailDifficult9.7 km3 hours
Bursera Loop TrailDifficult5.6 km1 hour and 50 minutes

1. Beverly Canyon Trail

Beverly Canyon Trail

Image Source: Hike Arizona

Level of Difficulty: Easy

Trailhead: 8610 S 24th St, Phoenix, AZ 85042

Trail Length: 7.6 km

Average Completion Time: 2 hours and 30 minutes

Beverly Canyon Trail is a relatively easy hike that presents great views and is fairly quiet, considering that it’s in the middle of Phoenix. 

At most, the challenge is just at the beginning during the gradual incline. Half a mile in and you’re almost 300-feet above ground. 

The ridge line is also quite steep, but by no means is it difficult to tackle. You’ll even encounter lots of bikers and dogs walking to the top. 

It’s a quick, easy workout to do if that’s what you’re after. You’ll get your heart pumping and it’s a nice stretch for your legs.

Overall, it’s a fair hike that we think beginners will really enjoy. There’s virtually no shade, so try to come as early in the day as you can.

2. Buena Vista Trail

Buena Vista Trail

Image Source: American Southwest

Level of Difficulty: Easy

Trailhead: Rim Rd, Show Low, AZ 85901

Trail Length: 16.1 km

Average Completion Time: 4 hours

The Buena Vista Trail is often argued to be more of a biking trail than a hiking trail, but you can do either one. It’s mostly a flat hike and there are less views, but you do get a nice immersion in a forest with lots of birds and flowers.

The thing with this trail is that it’s muddy and can be quite confusing. It’s not marked properly so be ready with a map.

It’s a hike that we love taking when we’re not really in the mood for something challenging. Avoid coming here when it’s rainy, because the soil mostly stays muddy even during peak summer season.

Some points do offer nice overlooking spots and there are some interesting rock formations to see. What we really like about this trail, though, is how peaceful and quiet it is.

3. Desert Foothills Trail

Desert Foothills Trail

Image Source: Travis T. via

Level of Difficulty: Easy

Trailhead: 14251 S Desert Foothills Pkwy, Phoenix, AZ 85048

Trail Length: 6.1 km

Average Completion Time: 1 hour and 40 minutes

If you want a relatively easy and scenic hike, the Desert Foothills is your best bet. It’s a quick out-and-about loop with an easy incline and a good distance.

Along the way, you’ll see wildflowers, nature views, and well-groomed trails. And at the top, you’re afforded a glorious view of the Ahwatukee Foothills.

Our tip is to hike at night, not just for the extra bit of challenge, but for the vibe as well. There’s usually a lot of light pollution from the city, so you won’t need a flashlight as much and you’ll be able to watch the glimmering cityscape.

Because there are a lot of bikers, we suggest taking the trail at a counter-clockwise pace. This is just so you won’t be blindsided when someone comes up behind you.

While the way up is quite relaxed, stay cautious on your way down as a few parts are steep and slippery.

4. Ma-Ha-Tauk Trail

Ma-Ha-Tauk Trail

Image Source: Trailforks

Level of Difficulty: Easy

Trailhead: 14251 S Desert Foothills Pkwy, Phoenix, AZ 85048

Trail Length: 6 km

Average Completion Time: 1 hour and 40 minutes

The Ma-Ha-Tauk trail is not our favorite, simply because it’s near a shooting range and the sound of gun shots can be unsettling for hikers. But don’t let us discourage you, it’s still a great moderately-challenging hike with expansive views.

This trail is a lot less busy compared to the other trails in the South Mountain Park. So if you’re the type of hiker that loves being alone, then we definitely think you’d love this place.

We like how the trail isn’t too easy, nor is it too challenging. It gets the heart rate up without you needing to stop and catch your breath every now and then.

The thing about this trail is that it sees a lot of horse traffic, so watch out for droppings and remember to give the right of way. Some junctions are also poorly-marked, so get your GPS or map ready.

5. Holbert Trail

Holbert Trail

Image Source: Hike and Bike Phoenix

Level of Difficulty: Moderate

Trailhead: Main Entrance, 10409 S. Central Ave. Phoenix, AZ 85042

Trail Length: 6.4 km

Average Completion Time: 2 hours 

The Holbert Trail is the most popular trail to get to Dobbins Lookout, which gives successful hikers a 360-degree view of the city. 

The trail is generally challenging in the beginning because there are a lot of switchbacks on inclines. It’ll definitely get your heart rate up.

Here, you’ll climb over gorgeous rock formations. Some spots even have cool petroglyphs carved on them, which are quite interesting to look at. 

It’s a steady climb towards the top, and you’ll mostly be walking on a mix of rocks and sand. While we’d usually recommend wearing proper hiking shoes, you could get away with a thick-soled pair of rubber shoes.

Note that a lot of people usually come here, so it’s not uncommon to encounter small crowds, especially on weekends.

Once you get to Dobbins Lookout, it’s a pretty spectacular view. And if you time it right before sunset, the experience is truly surreal.

6. Pima Canyon Trail

Pima Canyon Trail

Image Source: Andy via

Level of Difficulty: Moderate

Trailhead: 4800 E Pima Canyon Rd, Phoenix, AZ 85042

Trail Length: 16.3 km

Average Completion Time: 6 hours and 25 minutes

Over the years, the Pima Canyon Trail has rapidly grown in popularity among all levels of hikers. It’s a relatively moderate hike and there are a couple of sub-trails to choose from.

The trails are rocky with some steep points, but it’s manageable for the most part. Some areas are also overgrown, so we’d recommend wearing thick pants and proper hiking attire.

Don’t worry about getting lost, though. Previous hikers stacked rocks in most areas to help guide you in staying on the trail.

There are a lot of sunny patches, too, but it’s still one of the more shaded hikes in the Tucson area. Still, lather on that sunscreen and stay hydrated!

Thankfully, the city has invested in improving its facilities and accessibility in terms of better parking, enhanced landscape, and improved signages. More restrooms were also added and are now well-maintained.

7. Mormon Loop Trail

Mormon Loop Trail

Image Source: MTB Project

Level of Difficulty: Moderate

Trailhead: 8610 S 24th St, Phoenix, AZ 85042

Trail Length: 7.6 km

Average Completion Time: 2 hours and 30 minutes

If you’re not up to taking on the challenge of the National Trail, the Mormon Trail offers a less strenuous alternative. Once you reach the end of it, you can easily turn around and call it a day.

In our opinion, it’s one of the trails that offers the most diversity. We spotted some desert vegetation, a rattlesnake, a pack of coyotes at some point, and some rabbits.

It’s a trail that’s truly brimming with life, complete with the beautiful flora and fauna of the Sonoran Desert. Just make sure to keep your eyes peeled for any plant or creature that could jump on you.

The trail itself is rocky in some areas, but nothing that’s too difficult to handle. There’s also minimal shade here so bring a hat and a good pair of sunglasses.

8. Javelina Canyon and Ridgeline Loop Trail

Javelina Canyon and Ridgeline Loop Trail

Image Source: Visit Chandler

Level of Difficulty: Moderate

Trailhead: Javelina Trail, Phoenix, AZ 85042

Trail Length: 6 km

Average Completion Time: 1 hour and 40 minutes

For a pretty urban hike, the Ridgeline Trail will do. It starts off easy and deceptively okay, but once you get to the ridgeline, the views are absolutely stunning.

This trail is well-maintained and you can even run for the most part of it. Lots of bikers come here, too, so stay alert to avoid accidents.

The only thing is that the markers are confusing. We think they need to be updated because even with a map, a lot of people still get lost and need to turn back.

The climb upwards gives a great workout. It’s perfect for people who are looking to condition their bodies and get into more challenging hikes. 

We will say, too, that there’s not a lot of shade and it gets pretty hot around noon. Start as early as 5AM if you can to avoid the risk of dehydration and heat stroke.

9. Pyramid Trail

Pyramid Trail

Image Source: Modern Hiker

Level of Difficulty: Difficult

Trailhead: 15441 S 19th Ave, Phoenix, AZ 85045

Trail Length: 9.7 km

Average Completion Time: 3 hours

The Pyramid Trail is a steady incline towards the summit, but you’ll find yourself catching your breath almost immediately. Some people say that it’s boring because of the continuous trek, but we absolutely love the scenery.

Towards the middle, you’ll encounter a lot of switchbacks and loose gravel. Be very careful and cautious, as some people say that rattlesnakes are often seen in this area.

To be frank, it’s a serene hike that we find therapeutic. There aren’t a lot of people around either, which makes it great for quiet hikers.

The added challenge here is that there are lots of false summits. While the trail is well-marked for the most part, it does get confusing near the summit so just have a map ready.

The end of the trail is another difficult trail, which is what we’ll be talking about next.

10. Bursera Loop Trail

Bursera Loop Trail

Image Source: Arizona Hiking

Level of Difficulty: Difficult

Trailhead: 15441 S 19th Ave, Phoenix, AZ 85045

Trail Length: 5.6 km

Average Completion Time: 1 hour and 50 minutes

For those seeking more of a challenge, the Bursera Loop Trail right after the Pyramid Trail is a good place to start. 

A lot of people recommend taking on the trail at a clockwise pace for steeper inclines and more scenic views. There are lots of switchbacks and you’ll need to pass through really tight canyons at some points.

There are a lot of scenic lookout points that you can stop at. It’s also a lot quiet and less busier than other trails in the park.

The descent is quite challenging, too, and will require tons of rock scrambling. Don’t worry, though, the trail is well-marked and you won’t have trouble staying on it.

All things considered, this is a great trail to get in a good workout. It’s relatively short, as well, so it won’t take that much energy out of you, distance-wise.

2. Take your bike out to South Mountain Park and Preserve.

We’ll preface this by saying that nearly all trails located in the park are open for bikers. However, the National Trail via the Mormon Trail is probably the most popular among cyclists, so we’ll take our time guiding you through it.

Cycling the Mormon Trail to the National Trail

Cycling the Mormon Trail to the National Trail

Image Source: Two Wheeled Wanderer

The Mormon Trail is a moderately-challenging hike. Similarly, it’s not the best trail for beginner cyclists to take on.

In our opinion, it’s truly a gem destination. It’s a sweet, chunky downhill flow that’ll have both your adrenaline and heart rate up.

To start, take the dirt road that connects to the Mormon Trail and begin your ascent. Once you reach the National Trail, turn left and pedal downhill immediately. 

Mostly, you’ll encounter grueling climbs and some areas where you’ll need to walk. There are a few features we love about this trail, but the infamous Waterfall is our favorite.

It’s infamous because it’s quite the challenge to reach. And don’t ask us why it’s simply called the Waterfall, it just is (even locals call it such).

Thankfully, the rocks here have a good traction. It’s the seemingly endless barrage of ledges that you’ll need to conquer first.

Once you get past the Waterfall, you might want to slow down and navigate through the technicality of the mountain. And when you make it through this part, the trail becomes a bit easier and you get to rest before the second half of the ride.

At this point, you’ll need to power through and climb again. Take your time studying the landscape; there’s absolutely no shame in stopping every once in a while to find the best route for you.

And once you make it to the end of the trail, give yourself a huge pat on the back! You deserve those bragging rights.

Can I use my e-bike to this trail?

Absolutely! In fact, it’ll probably be much more helpful in lessening the strain on your breath and body. If you take a regular bike, we guarantee that you’ll be gasping for air almost the entire time.

We don’t discriminate against any type of bike here! Whether you choose to use an e-bike or a regular bike, we’re rooting for you.

When is the best time to ride the National Trail?

Because of its popularity, the National Trail tends to get crowded on good days especially during weekends. And when we say crowded, we mean crazy crowded, which lessens the fun for most people by a mile.

So, we’d recommend coming here on early weekday mornings. You’ll be able to appreciate the experience much more with fewer people around to share the trail with.

Any season is optimal for this trail, except for summer. For obvious reasons, the Arizona heat just gets a bit too much to handle in these months.

In our book, springtime is the best time to go. The temperature is generally cooler and there are pretty, colorful wildflowers blooming all over the trails.

Safety Reminders for Bikers 

1. Wear protective gear.

It should go without saying, but wear the proper protective gear and attire at all times if cycling. These include your helmet, knee and elbow pads, eye protection, and more.

We highly-recommend investing in good quality helmets. It always pays to be prepared and secured, after all.

Try to also wear colorful, easy-to-be-seen clothes. Bright colors and reflective clothing are helpful in spotting people on the trail.

2. Bring snacks and at least 3 liters of water.

We promise, you’ll be thirsty and hungry halfway through this trail. Our favorite snacks to bring are trail mixes and protein bars, which are light to pack but filling enough.

There are also no water fountains along this trail, so make sure to pack enough for yourself. Avoid being dehydrated at all costs, especially since the Arizona heat is infamous for this along with heat strokes.

3. Take those earphones off.

Never ride wearing headphones or anything that could distract you from your surroundings. We know it’s tempting to listen to music, but it’s best to stay alert, especially on a trail as challenging as these ones.

4. If you can, find a riding buddy.

This goes for the first timers. While you can of course try to take on the trail yourself, it would be more helpful and safer to find an experienced cyclist to come with you.

Not only will this calm your nerves, but they could also teach you better ways on how to traverse the trails.

5. Have a patch kit and a first aid kit in your pack.

In case you get a flat tire, your patch kit will come in super handy. As for your first aid kit, make sure it has all the essentials – antiseptic, bandage, epi pen, medical tape, and hydrogen peroxide.

And because we’re in Arizona, it’s also a good idea to bring a snake bite kit with you. You just never know when one of those sly creatures decide to show up.

3. Go horseback riding at the South Mountain Park and Preserve.

At the main entrance of the park, you’ll find Ponderosa Stables. It’s a private company that offers horse rentals and other guided adventures inside the park.

As you would assume, they’re known to be the go-to for horseback riding. And, they even offer specialty rides which include evening rides and steakhouse rides.

Within the South Mountain Park and Preserve, an hour of horseback riding costs $60, while it’ll set you back $90 for a 2-hour session.

Note that the minimum age requirement for riders is 6-years old. Children aged 2- to 5-years old are encouraged to go on pony rides instead.

While all trails within Phoenix are open for horseback riding, some trails are not ideal for horses. We’ve listed down below those trails that are highly-recommended for horseback rides.

TrailAccess Point
Beverly Canyon TrailBeverly Canyon Trailhead
Desert Classic TrailPima Canyon or Beverly Canyon Trailhead
Javalina TrailBeverly Canyon Trailhead
Pima Wash TrailPima Canyon
Pima East and West LoopsPima Canyon or Beverly Canyon trailhead
Ranger TrailEquestrian Area inside South Mountain Park
Bajada TrailEquestrian Area inside South Mountain Park

4. Have a delightful picnic at the South Mountain Park and Preserve ramadas.

Have a delightful picnic at the South Mountain Park and Preserve ramadas.

Image Source: The Living New Deal

Address: 10919 South Central Ave, Phoenix, AZ 85042

Contact Number: (602) 495-5458

A lovely park picnic is always a great idea, at least in our book. The South Mountain Park and Preserve is no exception.

Here, there are reservable ramadas and ones that can be used on a first-come-first-served basis. Below is a general guide to help you decide which one you’d like to access.

RamadaAccessAmenitiesMaximum CapacityAvailable Parking
Ramadas 1 to 9FreeTables
2 restrooms
30 to 60 pax per ramada85
Ramada 10FreeTables
Water fountain
25 to 30 pax10
Big RamadaFor reservations onlyRamp Accessible,
8 tables
Water faucet
Nearby restrooms
150 pax70
Little RamadaFor reservations only4 tables
Nearby restrooms 
80 pax30
Las LomitasFor reservations only12 tables
200 pax90

A few other reminders we’d like to point out – maximum capacities are strictly enforced, beer permits are for beers only, and amplified music systems are not allowed in the park.

If you’d like to make a reservation, we suggest calling as early as 6 months in advance as the slots do get filled up fast. There are no additional fees, except for beer permits which cost $28.

5.  Visit the South Mountain Environmental Education Center.

Visit the South Mountain Environmental Education Center.

Image Source: City of Phoenix

Address: 10409 S Central Avenue, Phoenix, AZ 85042

Business Hours: Thursday to Sunday, 9AM–3PM

Contact Number: (623) 334-7880

Interested to learn about the flora, fauna, and history of the park? You can do so at the S​outh Mountain Environmental Education Center (SMEEC).

This free resource center is frequented by students, residents, and tourists. It presents a lot of interesting facts about the rich wildlife, culture, and biodiversity inside the park.

Right outside the education center, you’ll find the Judith Tunnell Accessible Trail which has two half-mile loops – the Interpretative Loop and the Challenge Loop.

The Interpretative Loop has a lot of descriptive signs about the native plants that grow in the park and the animals living in it. 

The Challenge Loop, on the other hand, has descriptive signs, too, but it’s a steeper hike than the former. It is wheelchair-friendly, though, so we really appreciate the thought they put into inclusivity.

6.  Take a tour of the Mystery Castle.

Take a tour of the Mystery Castle.

Image Source: Roadtrippers


Address: 800 E. Mineral Road, Phoenix, AZ 85040

Business Hours: (October to May) Thursday to Sunday, 11AM–3PM

Contact Number: (602) 268-1581

Ticket Rates: $10 for adults, $5 for children

The history of the Mystery Castle dates back to the 1930s. It was built by Boyce Luther Gulley for his daughter, Mary Lou Gulley.

After Gulley learned of his daughter’s tuberculosis, he ran away from Seattle and settled in Phoenix. He began constructing the castle out of inexpensive materials.

The story goes that his daughter would cry when the sandcastles she built on the beach were washed away by the sea. So, she asked her father to build her a “big and strong” castle that she could someday live in.

Gulley then built a three-story building with 18 rooms and 13 fireplaces that were decked in Southwestern flair. He passed away before he could send for his family.

In 1945, Mary Lou and her mother were notified of Gulley’s death. Shortly after, they moved into the castle that he built.

Mary Lou gave tours around the property until her death in 2010. To this day, the castle remains open for tours every October to May.

Prior reservations are not required, except for groups bigger than 25 people. Pets are also not allowed in the castle.

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