South Mountain Park
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The largest urban park in the country—and perhaps the world—South Mountain Park (10919 S. Central Ave., 602/495-0222, 5 a.m.–10 p.m. daily, free) is where many Valley residents escape from the city to hike, bike, horseback ride, and picnic.
Don’t expect large grassy meadows or shady forested hideaways, though. South Mountain Park is 16,500 acres of bona fide Sonoran Desert, preserving hardy creosote bushes, palo verde trees, and dozens of varieties of cactus. You may even come across a few critters, like jackrabbits and lizards (many of the snakes, scorpions, and coyotes that also live in the park tend to come out a night when it’s much cooler, but you should still keep an eye out for them).
South Mountain Park also protects hundreds of petroglyphs and pictographs, rock art created by the Hohokam and other indigenous tribes. These small drawings, carved or painted onto stones, depict people, animals, and geometric patterns, and anthropologists theorize they may have been a means of recording history, part of religious ceremonies, or even ancient street signs or border markings.
If you’re not interested in exploring the more than 50 miles of trails on foot or by bike, there are a few scenic drives, including a 5-mile winding road that snakes its way up the mountain to the popular Dobbins Lookout at the summit, where the panoramic views reveal Phoenix’s sprawling suburban growth.
For more information about South Mountain Park’s wildlife or where to find rock art, visit the South Mountain Environmental Education Center (10409 S. Central Ave., 602/495-5078, 7 a.m.–1 p.m. Fri.–Sat.).
© Jeff Ficker from Moon Phoenix, Scottsdale & Sedona, 1st edition