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Thursday, January 2, 2020


The Natural Tunnel is a key attraction in Hidden Valley
Theoretically, hikers should be the last people who’d succumb to not being able to see the forest for the trees. The ubiquitous expression describes a common affliction of missing the “big picture” in a haze of minutia.
Lush desert vegetation on the National Trail
Hikers are not immune from its soul-sapping vortex.
Tethered to fitness apps and ear buds, some hikers detach from their surroundings in pursuit of faster times and harder, longer, more remote trails while buying into the assumption that the “best” trails exist in a faraway ether dripping in unattainability and mystique.  
Although few would argue against the benefits of setting and achieving goals, what constitutes a “best” trail is debatable.
Fat Man's Pass is the gateway to Hidden Valley
When approached from a see-the-forest perspective, even oft-maligned, old standard trails can qualify as top destinations. Take, for instance, the Mormon Trail-Hidden Valley Loop in South Mountain Park.  Because it’s located close to town, the route can get very busy.  Social media is replete with negative comments about noisy groups, irresponsible hikers, food scraps, dog poo and painted rocks meant as inspirational gifts left in trees and clefts.  But it’s a mistake to let these spoilers suck all the air out of the room. 
The classic Phoenix circuit has many of the positive components on hiker check lists. Some moderate climbing. Check. Epic views. Check. Heritage sites, gnarly rock passages and hidden finds. Check, check, check. 
The Mormon Trail climbs 700 feet up Neighborhood Can.
Watch for Hohokam rock art on the trails.
Adding to its appeal, this iconic route gets the climbing out of the way at the beginning while legs are still fresh.  The uphill portion on the Mormon Trail crawls 700 feet up Neighborhood Canyon dodging among massive boulders, slickrock corridors and desert flora adapted to South Mountain’s craggy environs. Weathered rock slabs that hang from cliffs form odd sculptures and that frame views of the Valley and surrounding mountain ranges.
Far-reaching vistas on the National Trail
At the 1.2-mile point, a sign marks the junction of two connected loops. To start with the shorter Hidden Valley Loop, continue straight ahead on Mormon Trail and head right on the National Trail.  In just under a half mile, the trail encounters Fat Man’s Pass. A tight squeeze through a slim but short crack between boulders serves as a gateway to Hidden Valley.
Petroglyph panel at the Natural Tunnel
The enchanting half-mile walk in a secluded corridor ends with a passage through a natural tunnel well-known for its rock overhangs, sandy substrate, a petroglyph panel and lush drainage-fed vegetation. Beyond the tunnel, go right at the National Trail junction and follow the route 1.4 miles to the Mormon Loop Trail. Hang a left and walk the 1.1-mile return leg that traces a ridgeline where a major rock art site as well and a wash with many more petroglyphs etched into the rock veneer by the ancient Hohokam people who were active in the area from roughly A.D. 450 to 1450 embellish the trail.
This double loop hike is well-signed throughout.
To protect these irreplaceable heritage sites as well as sensitive vegetation and wildlife habitats, it’s important to stay on trails and not touch or alter anything.
Snow-covered Mt. Ord seen from Mormon Loop 12-31-19
Photographs are encouraged, though.  
A lone Palo verde tree anchors a curve on the National Trail
The big picture take away here is that the Mormon Trail-Hidden Valley Loop is a wonderful hike just a few miles from Downtown Phoenix.  It would be terrible to let distractions asphyxiate its virtues.
Triangle-leaf bursage adds a minty fragrance to the trails
Once we lose our sense of wonder and the ability to see beyond loud, immediate things on a hiking trail, what’s left are rote progressions chronicled on Instagram. 
LENGTH: 6.2 miles
RATING: moderate
ELEVATION: 1,280 – 2,080 feet
From central Phoenix, go south on 7th Avenue to Baseline Road. Turn left (east) and continue to 24th Street. Turn right (south) and to Euclid, turn left and continue a few yards to the trailhead on the right.

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