Not Quite Mt. Everest (In Any Way Whatsoever): A Hike Across South Mountain in Phoenix
If you were to sit down with my dear friends and ask them, “What’s Ally been talking about to you lately?” they’d likely say, “That’s a weird question,” and also, “Mt. Everest.”
I recently read Jon Krakauer’s account of summiting Mt. Everest in 1996. Not to give anything away, but basically everyone dies.
That’s not entirely true (they do not, in fact, all die—cliffhanger!), but seriously, why would anyone even WANT to summit a mountain that requires you to wait in a line longer than a suburban Target checkout lane on a Saturday morning while casually relying on bottled oxygen to stay conscious? Riddle me that one, folks!
Not to get all “the mountains are calling and I must go” on you, but I do understand the desire to be a tiny speck wandering in the wilds. However, my safety-first personality beckons that my wilderness adventures remain at an altitude a smidge lower than 29,000 feet (unless, of course, in a pressurized cabin with lightly salted peanuts), and so it’s with this in mind that I begin the tale of my February hike across a desert mountain. (Spoiler: No one dies.)
The alarm buzzed while it was still dark. We loaded our backpacks with granola bars, trail mix, Baby Bell cheese (my hiking snack of choice), four bottles of water each, and then set out for the mountain, the sunrise casting a pink glow in the skies over the eastern ranges.
When we arrived at the trailhead, the air was still chilly, our breath condensing with exhales. But the parking lot was full, even on a weekday morning, as groups of mountain bikers fiddled with their gear and retirees with their pups prepared for a morning hike.
This mountain rises south of the city, and in the city’s greatest creative endeavor yet was aptly named (you guessed it) South Mountain.
From South Mountain you can see all of Phoenix—the skyline downtown, the condos of Scottsdale at the base of Camelback, the planes landing and leaving Tempe, the verdant Gila Valley stretching southward to more mountains on the hazy horizon. To the west sits the craggy, pinched peaks of the Sierra Estrella, to the east the wild Superstition range. On clear days, you can see the famed Four Peaks, star of the Arizona license plate, sometimes even glimmering with a dusting of winter snow. My eyes have scanned these surrounding ranges many times now; I’ve grown fond of them in their familiarity.
There’s a trail that transverses the entirety of South Mountain, from east to west, called the National Trail. I had discovered it while reviewing the park’s map during my visit to Phoenix last December. Walk the entirety of the trail? suggested my brain. There’s a safe—albeit long and probably involving blisters— adventure I can get behind!
I recruited my Arizona-resident friend, Laura, and my roommate, Chelsey, to join me in this ~hiking gal~ goal. I’m lucky to have friends who say yes to these sorts of outlandish invitations, even if the invite consists of buying a plane ticket back to a city where you had literally just spent the holidays with your parents. (Thanks, Chels.)
The official trail began after a walk down a dirt road to the trailhead; we followed the path down into a sandy wash before climbing higher into a slowly-sloping mountainside of many-armed Saguaros and massive, precariously-placed black boulders. Though the city surrounded us on all sides, you would hardly guess your urban proximity with the quiet of the park, the only sounds that of bird calls and a passing mountain biker struggling up a rocky incline. The skies were strikingly blue after a few rare days of showers, the sweet post-rain scent of earthiness now clear from the air on this bright day of sunshine.
We hiked 6 miles, 10 miles, 12 miles, culminating into a full 16 miles of footsteps along the mountain’s gentle ridges, down low slopes covered in purple and yellow wildflowers buzzing with bees, finally crossing a last ridge to the trail’s end at a neighborhood road on the southwestern outskirts of the city.
Admittedly, South Mountain is unimpressive compared to other mountains, like, say, Mt. Everest.
When viewed from a distance, South Mountain is simply a long, rocky, Saguaro-studded landmass bordering the city’s southern border, overshadowed by the surrounding camel-shaped and dramatically-jutting pointed peaks that hug the valley in a mountainous embrace.
There are certainly no challenging boulder fields to spider crawl your way through, no falling rock to knock you plumb off the mountainside, no hurricane-force winds to blow your face off, and no frozen corpses to step over on your way to the top.
In fact, there is exactly a zero percent chance of serious injury or death, unless you are trying very, very hard to hurt yourself on purpose, in which case hugging a cactus might be your quick lane to success (or, maybe, just hiking with no water in the middle of the summer).
I have been way too lucky to meander among many mountains in this world, to walk through fairytale forests up to ridges overlooking sparkling Norwegian fjords, to hike high into the Canadian Rockies as the grey skies gave way to a light summer snow dusting, to sit in the sunshine aside a blue New Zealand lake as avalanches echoed through the valley from spring-melt snow peeling away from cliff faces.
But this mountain south of the city, while not as dramatic or remote as its mountain brethren and sistren, is a sacred mountain to me, my own holy ground—the ancient tabernacle, the burning bush, the stone rolled back—the place where feeling nearness to God comes easier than other places. Being on this mountain feels like that first day of springtime with the windows thrown open, that sweet sip of mocha from your favorite coffee shop, that washed-over relief of finishing a task you’ve been procrastinating on for weeks.
And I had just walked 16 miles across it with two of my closest friends.
As we sat down at the trail’s terminus on the western edge of the park waiting on our Uber to whisk us back to our car at the trailhead, my body, in furious rebellion over the physical demands I had just made of it, decided to give me a taste of what it will feel like to be aging and decrepit—I could barely move for the rest of the evening.
C.S. Lewis is bae, and it’s a line in his Narnia series that describes it best as we sat waiting for our Uber chariot, the distant coyote howls floating through the cooling desert air as the sky glowed orange behind the Sierra Estrella range:
“It made her long for more adventures and sure that this was only the beginning.”
I’mma be real with you, I tend to find my favorite spots in a city and then hardheadedly stick to those few places each time I return. So for a full list of Phoenix suggestions, I recommend reading my other two posts:
HOWEVER. There were a few additional places and trails I discovered during my February visit!
Songbird Coffee & Tea House
I made a fool of myself to the audience of the people sitting on this coffee shop’s porch swing, fumbling with the street parking meters and then fumbling more when I made my rental car alarm go off and couldn’t figure out how to turn it off. (“We were just trying to figure out what this girl was doing!” they told me when I asked them about their experience.) Despite my grand entrance, Songbird Coffee & Tea House was a quiet place to spend a rainy Sunday afternoon. And let’s be real, I have a heart for cute houses repurposed as coffee shops, and this one was certainly that.
Jewel’s Bakery & Cafe
Y’all. It’s a cafe that features an entirely gluten-free menu. As if I needed another reason to want to make Phoenix my winter home—an actual place where I can enjoy brunch classics like egg sandwiches and chicken and waffles and other delicious goodies like cheesecake. I will spend all of my money on future trips at Jewel’s Bakery & Cafe.
Snakes & Lattes
Post-16-mile-hike-day, we decided that our bodies would hate us forever if we attempted another hike, so we had a chill afternoon of board games, coffee, and drinks at Snakes & Lattes in Tempe. This place has a whole library of board games—who know that many board games actually existed?!
Peralta Canyon Trail to Fremont Saddle
This moderately-easy 4.5 mile trail takes you aside a trickling creek between canyon walls, leading you up onto a saddle between the ridges with stunning views of Weever’s Needle. The trail continues on past Fremont Saddle, but we turned around from here after enjoying the views at the top (and getting hella irritated with the lame punks who interrupted our peace with a DRONE).