South Mountain Trails 101: The Holbert Trail

This trail has a bit of an identity crisis, so it is best split into two parts, as there are two very distinctly different sections with their own unique features to offer.

Part 1: Water Tank, Petroglyph Hike

Distance: 1 mile one way; out and back trail

Difficulty: Easy

Getting there from the South Mountain Environmental Education Center (SMEEC): The Holbert Trail trailhead is located off the same large parking lot as the SMEEC. Simply head east down South Mountain Rd. along the parking lot. There are bathrooms at the trailhead and a large ramada area.

Figure 1: Holbert Trail trailhead

Part 2: Dobbins Lookout via Extension Trial or to National Trail

Distance: 2.5 miles one way to Dobbins Lookout; 3 miles one way to connect to National Trail

Difficulty: Moderate to difficult

Getting there from SMEEC: It is possible to directly access Part 2 of the Holbert Trail, bypassing Part 1, by parking at the beginning of the water tank service road. Exit the SMEEC parking lot and turn right onto the main road, exiting South Mountain Park. After about ½ mile, turn right onto Thunderbird Trail. Turn right onto 7th St. Continue straight onto Mineral Rd. There is a parking area along the road next to another water tower and just outside the gate to Mystery Castle. A short path leads from the parking area to the access road. Continue south along the road for about 1/3 mile to meet up with Holbert Trail.

Figure 2: Parking area off 7th St. and Mineral Rd. to access Holbert Trail via water tank service road

Part 1: Water Tank, Petroglyph Hike

Holbert trail starts out from the parking lot in a flat, exposed area and cuts across multiple washes. It would be easy to get off trail in this area as it is so open, but there is good signage throughout to keep you on track. This section of the trail is great for kids and anyone with limited mobility. Other than a few washes, it is flat, even terrain, dominated by creosote bush. Shortly into your hike, you will pass through a cook out area with two large fire pits. There are benches and trash cans. It is a big, open space that could accommodate a large group gathering.

Figure 4: Cookout area

The trail continues across another wash from the cookout area. Just look for the trail marker post. This next short section of trail has some of the best petroglyphs of South Mountain and is a major highlight of this hike. These images were left behind by the ancient Hohokam people. It’s an amazing connection with the history of the mountain. Please be respectful of them by refraining from touching or adding your own graffiti.

Figure 5: Petroglyphs

As you continue down the trail, you will see a water tank off in the distance, which marks the end of this section of the trail. The trail meets up with and continues along a service road to the water tank for the final stretch of your hike. At this point, you can decide if you want to take a break in the shade and head back or continue onto the second part of the trail.

Figure 6: Service road and water tank in distance
Figure 7: The water tank marks the end of section 1 of Holbert Trail

Part 2: Dobbins Lookout via Extension Trial or to National Trail

Part 2 of Holbert Trail begins to the right of the water tank up a rocky slope. Here the trail takes on its second identity. The trail is narrow, rocky, and often steep, winding up through Box Canyon. This part of the trail is challenging at times, and not well suited for children. After about ½ mile you hit wide switch backs. The trail is narrow and rocky.

Figure 8: Narrow rocky trail
Figure 9: View looking back over switchbacks

During the spring you may be rewarded with multiple chuckwalla sightings. The chuckwalla is a large grey lizard found throughout the southwest. The males at South Mountain have a bright carrot orange tail. They live in rock crevices, which abound on Holbert Trail. Often seen out basking in the sun on rocks, when threatened they hide in crevices where they inflate their bodies to wedge themselves in safely. 

Figure 10: Male chuckwalla basking in the sun

The most popular destination is Dobbins Lookout, which can be access from Holbert Trail via an extension trail about a mile past the water tank. Watch for the “Dobbins Ext” sign off to your right.

Figure 11: Sign for Dobbins Lookout Extension Trail

The extension trail is about ¼ mile. This 2,330 ft. lookout point is the highest viewpoint you can hike to in South Mountain and gives incredible panoramic views across the city. Also accessible from the Summit Road, Dobbins Lookout has bathrooms off to your left as you exit the extension trail and amazing views off to your right. Enjoy sprawling views of Phoenix from the shade of a large stone ramada built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s. You’ll also find an observation tower with a compass pointing out different landmarks around the Phoenix area.

Figure 12: Stone ramada at Dobbins Lookout
Figure 13: View from Dobbins Lookout

Holbert Trail continues southwest from the Dobbins Lookout extension trail turnoff for about ¾ mile before meeting the National Trail. The trail crosses Buena Vista Rd. and ends at the TV Rd. This section of trail is relatively flat and easy. It offers more amazing panoramic views.

Figure 14: Views of the valley along the final stretch of the Holbert Trail

At the end, you can continue across the TV trail to meet up with the National Trail, which extends 14 miles across the park east to west and connects to many South Mountain trails.

Figure 15: Final sign post of Holbert Trail before crossing TV Road to connect with the National Trail