The Alta Trail: A Capstone of CCC Trail Architecture at South Mountain Park

By Brian Krauss, Park Ranger

When visiting South Mountain Park, you may have heard or seen the term “CCC” in our Visitor Center or on interpretive signage around the park. The Civilian Conservation Core (CCC) were the young men whose participation in that federal program in the 1930s created the legacy of park infrastructure that we enjoy today. In addition to creating the historic structures, including Dobbins Lookout, the CCC pioneered miles of trails that traverse the park. One trail in particular, the Alta Trail, stands out with many hallmarks of CCC-style trail construction.

The Alta Trail tackles the Ma Ha Tauk Range, which towers over the northwest portion of the park. The trail ascends 1,600-feet in elevation, giving you views of the San Juan Valley, a panorama of the city of Phoenix and views west to the mighty Sierra Estrella Range across the Gila River. Starting on San Juan road, the trail slowly ascends the foothills before winding its way up through steeper sections leading to the ridgeline. Along the way, the handiwork of the CCC can be seen along the trail in more than just the trail tread itself. Stone benches and lookouts dot the trail at regular intervals, giving rest and exceptional views to hardworking hikers.

The CCC approach to trail building encompassed a philosophy of the era which addressed the whole experience of recreation. While providing the trail, the CCC also sought to encourage the viewer to rest from their efforts and enjoy the views their efforts had earned them. Rock removed from the trail tread was assembled at regular intervals into stone benches that gave reprieve from the upward climb. Designated lookout points, some in conjunction with benches, offered the viewer a place to stop and enjoy the fruits of their labors.

Trail construction of the era also had yet to fully embrace the notion of the “switchback,” sections of trail that zig-zag uphill to gain elevation. Many of the CCC trails take the direct approach to going up or downhill and simply take a straight line at steep angles. The western side of the Alta trail offers many sections of trail that challenge hikers to clamber steeply up or traverse carefully down these sections that have been eroded over time by the flow of water.

The Alta is one of the more challenging trails at South Mountain Park but rewards the hiker with stunning scenery and up-close history along the way. If you want to enjoy the Alta Trail, take the Bajada trail from the gate to San Juan road, or simply walk up the road to the Alta Trail head. The trail ascends to the south opposite the trail head. There are no restrooms or water, so come prepared for a challenging but greatly rewarding piece of South Mountain history.