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Step back into the Valley’s past—and its natural history—at South Mountain Park in Phoenix

By Shannon Nace

Jutting from an eastern point of South Mountain Park is a jumble of broken boulders carved with hundreds of prehistoric Hohokam petroglyphs. Human figures, lizards, squares, circles, spirals, and even mountain sheep decorate the stones.

       The park embraces 16,500 rugged acres of the mountain ranges at the south end of Phoenix, separating it from Ahwatukee. Once the ancient hunting grounds of the Hohokam, South Mountain is still an island of wilderness in a sea of development. On the wilder paths least taken, you can still disappear, possibly forever.

       Only 100 yards from the Hohokam carvings sprawls a housing development. A young woman sunbathes on her balcony, nattering on a cell phone. I wonder if she ever looks toward these carvings, which have greeted the sun’s arrival since the Hohokam carved them a thousand years ago.      

       A trail winds up behind the rock outcrop, through creosote bushes and cholla, leading to a spot where another traveler left a message long ago. Father Marcos de Niza, the legendary friar whose reports of the Seven Cities of Cibola launched the Coronado expedition, supposedly carved his signature here in 1539, about 75 yards above the jumble of petroglyph-covered boulders. It is now protected by a steel cage welded into place and sunk in concrete.

       On the north side of Pima Canyon, I climb a trail a couple of a hundred feet to the ridge that runs above Javelina Canyon to get a view of the city to the north. Heart pounding, breathing deeply, I reach the top, where the view and a cooling breeze are my reward. The trail snakes along the ridge, back and forth, up and down. The autumn sun backlights the cactus spines, which glow purple on the barrel cactus, vibrant yellow-green on the cholla and sunset-orange on the hedgehog cactus.

       In spring, after a wet winter, these slopes and ridges are blanketed with golden-yellow Mexican poppies and purple-blue lupine. The brittlebush and palo verde burst into yellow bloom, and the ocotillo sprout red flowers at the tips of whiplike, thorny stems.

       I leave the trail and trundle through the sandy head of a wash. Water from the last rain has run swiftly over the bedrock. Wasps circle there, laying claim to now stagnant puddles of water. Dragonflies hover like attack helicopters, and whiptail lizards scurry away as I approach. On the dry bedrock lies a pile of coyote scat full of seeds and fur, and near it a small piece of bleached and porous bone. I scan the surrounding rocks for squirrels, the large black-and-orange chuckwalla, or the banded blue-green lizards and yellow-collared lizards, and instead find more petroglyphs. In the wet sand and silt run the tracks of birds,a javelina, and perhaps a bobcat.

       Mountain lion once lived here as well. In 1996, a 2-year-old male was captured by authorities on the north side of the park, near the corner of 24th Street and Southern. With a lion’s territory ranging from 150 to 200 square miles and an open corridor to the Estrella Mountains, it could happen again.

       Close to here, a year ago, I came across a young couple who had wandered off the trail. They were scratched, looked confused and were nearly out of water. The young woman looked relieved to see me. She pulled a twig from her blonde hair as her fingers raked it back from her face. Her arms and shoulders appeared an angry pink at the edge of her blue tank top. The young man looked out at me, dark-eyed, from under a sweat-soaked Diamondbacks cap.

       “Which way is the parking lot?” asked the man.

       “East,” I said.
       “Which way is east?”

       I pointed to the sun, turned and pointed to my shadow, then raised my arm and pointed. “East!” I said.

       He looked at me as if I were a madman, as if I had just said the great sun god had told me that this way is east.

       “Go up to the trail by that saguaro, then follow it that way,” I said. “It’s easy.”

* * *

On the trail above Fat Man’s Pass, I once saw a tarantula hawk attack a tarantula half the size of a young man’s hand and drag it off. The tarantula hawk is actually a wasp with a velvety black body and reddish, translucent wings. It is a fraction of the size of the tarantula, which it stings between the legs, immobilizing it, then drags it off to a quickly dug burial chamber. There the wasp lays an egg on the tarantula, sealing both its tomb . . . and its fate. The wasp larva grows as it feeds off the insides of the immobilized but still living tarantula. Nature can be harsh and dangerous, its lessons swift and unexpected.

* * *

One spring I was jogging down into the wash when I heard the unmistakable warning of a rattlesnake. My eyes locked onto it in midstride, just below me, coiled at the side of the trail. Adrenaline kicked in as my right foot hit the ground, and I sprang high up and over the snake, landing out of striking distance. I waited momentarily, then slowly moved toward the snake until it slithered away from the trail.

* * *    

Just after returning to the path, I step aside as I hear a mountain bike approaching from behind, banging over the broken trail. I suddenly realize how much I prefer walking alone and taking in the sights. In the falling light of late afternoon, a saguaro’s skeleton lies bleaching between yellow-flowered brittle brush and the thick green stems of Mormon tea, while quail coo on the other side of the wash. One morning, at this same spot, I saw two coyotes walking parallel to me on the opposite hillside, watching me. The coyotes in this park have probably watched me far more times than I realize. It’s the nature of coyotes to watch and wait, and I’m sure their ancestors once watched wiry, sun-darkened men carve symbols on the rocks.  

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© 2003 S.B. Nace & Benjamin Leatherman

A chuckwalla lizard suns itself on a rock outcropping on South Mountain. Photo by S.B. Nace


A multicolored collection of wildflowers on South Mountain. Photo by S.B. Nace


A pair of mountain bikers ride down one of many trails on South Mountain. Photo by S.B. Nace