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Tuesday, November 5, 2019


South Mountain Park, Phoenix
View from the National Trail on the Gila Range of So.Mtn.
South Mountain cuts an impressive profile in the skyline south of downtown Phoenix.  
The “mountain” isn’t a singular massif as the name implies, but a conglomerate of three parallel ranges that sit within the park boundaries and dovetail in a way that creates a fascinating environment of canyons, washes and rugged pinnacles. Over 50 miles of trails explore the park’s nooks, alcoves, high points and heritage sites.
The Ranger Trail crosses a scoured bajada.
Trails range in difficulty form the barrier-free Judith Tunell trail near the South Mountain Environmental Education Center to the challenging routes that ascend the three ranges for panoramic views of the Valley. As the park undergoes a major freshening-up in advance of its 100-year anniversary in 2024, there are more reasons than ever to take a hiking trip to this 16,000+-acre municipal park and Phoenix point of pride. Improved facilities, more and better trails and upgraded trailheads will undo much of the spoilage caused by nearly a century of use.
The Ranger Trail departs from the Five Tables picnic area
Seed pods on a Foothills palo verde tree
An edge-hugging section of the Ranger Trail.
Hikers looking for a trail with a moderate level of difficulty and enough elevation gain to get to outstanding mountaintop vistas, will find the Ranger Trail is an excellent choice. Beginning at the Five Tables picnic area where crowds are lighter than at many of the park’s bigger trailheads, the moderated-rating route heads up to a scenic notch in the Gila Range, the linear hill that rises at the cusp of the Ma Ha Tauk Range to the north and the massive Guadalupe Range to the east. 
The Sierra Estrella Mountains on the western horizon
A few yards from the trail, the route crosses a mesquite-cluttered bajada—a wash-like geological feature where debris and sediments scoured from the surrounding mountains have cut a deep channel through the foothills. The first 0.7-mile of the hike is an easy walk through open desert with sporadic palo verde trees, huge saguaros and fragrant creosote shrubs that frame views of the pointed peaks of the Sierra Estrella Mountains on the western horizon. 
Much of the Ranger Trail follows a rocky, edgy path
Where the trail crosses Summit Road, the route begins a continual climb on edge-hugging switchbacks that  dodge in-and-out of stony clefts and tight bends.  On the way up, views of the geometric layout of downtown melts into suburbs and distant wilderness mountains. Sometimes, pop-pop sounds of target practice coming from the nearby police academy rifle range echo off the slopes. 

View from the top of the Gila Range in So. Mtn. Park
The Ranger Trail ends just a few yards from the National Trail, a 15.5-mile path that’s the highest and longest in the park.  The final trudge to the crest pays off with sweeping 360-degree vistas that incorporate urban centers, farmlands and sprawling bedroom communities. 
Ranger Trail crosses Summit Road 
Although this perch makes for a satisfying 3-miler turnaround point, the hike may be extended by consulting the park map. One easy add-on option is to head hike 1.4 miles east on the National Trail to the iconic Telegraph Pass Lookout for a 5.8-mile trip. 
View of the destination high point on the Ranger Trail
Fragrant creosote shrubs line the lower section of the trail
Steep switchbacks near the top of the Ranger Trail
LENGTH: 3 miles round trip
RATING: moderate
ELEVATION: 1,443 – 2,278 feet
From downtown Phoenix, go south on Central Avenue to the main park gate. Continue one mile on the main park road (Steven Mather Drive) to the turn off for the Five Tables picnic area, turn left, go 0.1-mile and turn right into the trailhead parking area.

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