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Excursion: a hike at South Mountain, Phoenix

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“The making of gardens and parks goes on with civilization all over the world…Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where Nature may heal and cheer and give strength to the body and soul alike.”

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--John Muir

As touched on in a previous entry, Phoenix has set aside a system of trails and desert preserves within city limits. The system, as described by the city, consists of “untouched desert” – with the purpose to preserve natural open space, “[maintain] species diversity and ecological processes,” and provide for public recreation.

Among the Phoenix Desert Preserves is South Mountain Park* – the largest municipal park in the world. Totaling 17,000 acres and 58 miles of recreational trails, South Mountain Park has been described by National Geographic as a “veritable wilderness within the city of Phoenix.”

(*As an aside, a brief Public Service Announcement: the parking areas at South Mountain Park prominently feature recycling and garbage receptacles. Please use them, woman who tossed a crushed Budweiser can behind a rock at the foot of the Kiwanis trail - mere yards from a recycling bin. Do not thoughtlessly spoil these municipal wonders!)

South Mountain Park originated with a 1924 land purchase – a group of prominent Phoenicians, with the aid of U.S. Senator Carl Hayden, bought 13,000 acres of the current site from the federal government for $17,000. During the Great Depression, the Civilian Conservation Corps built many of the trails and facilities located in the park, in conjunction with a 1935 National Park Service master plan. South Mountain Park provides unspoiled habitat for a wide range of flora and fauna native to the Sonoran Desert.


John Muir, the grizzled grandfather of the American environmental movement, wrote of the transcendence obtainable by communing with nature. In exploring the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California that now comprise Yosemite National Park, Muir had revelatory experiences that shaped his understanding of the difference between civilization and nature. Ultimately, Muir concluded that the “wild is superior” to the man-made.*

(*Muir would doubtless have expressed stern disapproval of a hiker encountered at South Mountain, who – upon reaching the top of Telegraph Pass, and its stunning views of the Valley below – proceeded to gab on a cell phone.)

Referring to his time spent in the Sierra, Muir wrote*:

“These blessed mountains are so compactly filled with God’s beauty, no petty personal hope or experience has room to be. Drinking this champagne water is pure pleasure, so is breathing the living air, and every movement of limbs is pleasure, while the whole body seems to feel beauty when exposed to it as it feels the camp-fire or sunshine, entering not by the eyes alone, but equally through all one’s flesh like radiant heat, making a passionate ecstatic pleasure-glow not explainable.”

(*All Muir quotes excerpted from American Earth: Environmental Writing Since Thoreau, edited by Bill McKibben. See pp. 98, 109; from My First Summer in the Sierra.)


At South Mountain Park, solitude may be hard to come by, even on a Thursday afternoon – though the Kiwanis trail provided some diminution of human contact. Nonetheless, it is an exemplar of what an urban park ought to offer: some rugged terrain to explore; panoramic views of the city and valley below; and all this easily accessible for suburban dwellers looking for visceral experience. Get out, enjoy this beauty, and leave all thought of phone calls at the office and home.



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