South Mountain Trails 101: National Trail from Buena Vista Lookout to Hidden Valley

Distance: 4.7 miles roundtrip: 1.8 miles to Hidden Valley Access/Fat Man’s Pass. Add 1.1 miles for Hidden Valley Loop.

Difficulty: Moderate

Getting there from the South Mountain Environmental Education Center (SMEEC): Exit parking lot and turn left onto the main park road. Follow road signs for the Summit and continue until turn off to the right for Buena Vista Lookout. There is a parking lot at the lookout with approximately 10 spaces.

Figure 1: Buena Vista lookout parking lot

This lookout is not as popular of a destination as Dobbins Lookout but has equally amazing views. You’ll want to take time to enjoy the lookout before starting your hike. There’s a perfectly situated bench to enjoy the view.

Figure 2: Bench overlooking valley at Buena Vista Lookout

The connection to the National Trail from Buena Vista Lookout is well marked and has a large trail map so that you can get an overview of your hike. It starts off down a short stone stairway.

Figure 3: National Trail connection from Buena Vista Lookout

The trail starts out narrow with a slight climb through boulders. You are rewarded with vistas from all sides before even putting any work in. The trail is lined with palo verde, creosote, saguaro and ocotillo. The orange ocotillo blooms in late spring to early summer and pops out against the muted greens and browns of the desert. After a short climb you reach the ridgeline and the trail flattens out. 

Figure 4: Narrow, rocky start to National Trail
Figure 5: Ocotillo with view to the south in the background

Most of your time spent on the National Trail for this hike is relatively flat and open with slight dips and inclines throughout. The trail meanders eastward between large boulder outcrops. At times you’ll have wide open views of Four Peaks in the distance.

Figure 6: Open stretches of trail meander through boulder outcrops

The trail is popular with mountain bikers, so keep a lookout for them. Otherwise, this stretch of trail isn’t well traveled and you will probably be able to enjoy periods of solitude and abundant opportunity for wildlife viewing. Zebra-tailed lizards and ground squirrels are especially abundant. Short stretches of trail cut through rock, providing some challenge to your hike. Listen for canyon wrens as you pass through these sections. Their song has a distinct descending cascade of notes, like a balloon losing air.

Figure 7: One of the rocky stretches of trail

After 1.8 miles, you reach the turn off for Hidden Valley loop. This is such a unique and fun trail, and well worth the hike to get there. This is a great family hike. Everyone will enjoy exploring the rock formations and hidden canyon.  Foot traffic picks up considerably here, as many people access Hidden Valley from the Mormon Trail.

Figure 8: Sign for entrance to Hidden Valley Loop

You enter Hidden Valley through Fat Man’s Pass just a few feet after the trail junction. This is a narrow passageway between large boulders. You can squeeze through between the rocks smoothed by countless hikers before you or opt to hike over the top.

Figure 9: Fat Man’s Pass

Once past this unique rock feature, you continue hiking through a long, sandy wash in a slot canyon. The Hidden Valley loop trail isn’t well defined. Follow the wash and footprints heading generally northeast.

Figure 10: Hidden Valley

Continue through the wash until you come to a view out over the city. Here it looks like there’s no way forward. You will need to crawl through a triangle passage under a rock overhang to continue.

Figure 11: Crawl/slide under the rock overhang on the left to continue through Hidden Valley

From here the hike requires a lot of sliding and scrambling down over large slabs of smooth rock. This section can be tricky to get through, but also so much fun. Be sure to help children and less confident scramblers in your hiking party make their way through. Enjoy the unique rock formations and maybe have a picnic in the shade before heading back on the National Trail.

Figure 12: Mushroom rock formation

The end of hidden valley is marked by a beautiful, natural tunnel through a pile of fallen rock.

Figure 13: Exit Hidden Valley through the Tunnel
Figure 14: Tunnel

Once you exit Hidden Valley loop through the tunnel, it’s time to head back on the National Trail. Turn left and follow trail sing to Mormon/National Junction. You’ll pass signs for Fat Man’s Pass and start the return hike 1.8 miles back to Buena Vista. 

Figure 15: Follow trail sign to Mormon/National Jct. for return hike