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Excursion redux: South Mountain, late spring

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By late May average daytime high temps approach triple digits in the Sonoran Desert of Central Arizona. Staring down several months of impending, unceasing heat, a comparatively cool morning is an unmissable opportunity to experience the desert.

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The intent here was to hike the Pyramid Trail at South Mountain. The result was somewhat different – thanks to a mutinous sense of direction. Happily, sometimes the actual hike is better than the pre-planned conception.

That conception was clear enough: follow the trail from the trail head, look at the signage at the fork, follow the sign marked “Pyramid Trail.” Unfortunately, the City of Phoenix, Parks and Rec department neglected to mention* a second fork in the road, where the Pyramid Trail intersects with a defunct mining road. Following typical form, your correspondent veered left – taking the mining road rather than the posted trail.

(*Future park visitors would be better advised to follow the directions posted here, on Hike Arizona.)

Of course, hiking an unmarked trail has its plusses – namely, an absence of (presumably navigationally sound) other hikers. Which other hikers one would expect on a cool Saturday morning on South Mountain, a welcoming oasis in the heart of concrete-encrusted Phoenix. Through a postmortem Google Maps session, wisdom was gleaned; the intended Pyramid Trail hike had metamorphosed to include not only a once-used mining road, but also the Gila Trail. By definition, unmarked trails lack signage – thus explaining the experienced lack of markers on what ought to have been a newly-“official,” clearly marked trail.

And so, the upshot: a large swath of time can be spent on the Gila Trail without encountering even one hiker. Eventually, the Gila Trail bisects the Bursera Trail – the other newly-official trail serviced by the new Chandler Boulevard trailhead. Hang a left here and it’s about 2.5 miles of steep ascending then descending switchbacks along the Bursera Trail, leading back to the parking area.

Once on the Bursera Trail, expect to encounter humanity again – though still not the expected plenitude. A note to these other hikers: please do not play music on your iPhone (or the like) aloud! You might consider earbuds/headphones/etc. – or, alternatively, simply stopping to listen to the uncanny tranquility that overtakes a lightly-travelled trail when motion ceases. Chances are strong that the sounds of birds scrounging, the wind flapping through dried out scrub brush leaves, or the other (indeterminate) audible chatters and rattles are preferable to the music selected for electronically-aided broadcast.

Things the hiker may expect to see (a representative sampling):

  • blasted desert moonscape;
  • signs of life, plants blossoming, etc. – in spite of the blasted desert moonscape;
  • the Little Boxes spreading out in the valley below – seemingly well-ordered, but in fact of piecemeal pattern – which Little Boxes you ought to be happy to be outside of and above of, for at least a fleeting moment in time;
  • possibly a greater roadrunner and pyrrhuloxia – if both your correspondent’s memory and Waterford PressThe Nature of Arizona field guide may be trusted.

Enjoy the experience while you can – South Mountain’s bucolic-within-urban setting is subject to change. Progress beckons, in the form of a proposed highway skirting the park. Under current plans, an extension of AZ loop 202 will necessitate a literal blasting of South Mountain, at the edge of the park – in order to accommodate construction of the new highway in its only “feasible” location. More on this to come.

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