Trail Guide: Mountain Biking National Trail in Phoenix

Mountain biker riding down rocky desert trail in Arizona with cacti and shrubs lining trail

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The National Trail on South Mountain is easily one of the most iconic mountain bike trails in Phoenix, Arizona, if not the whole state. It’s located on the eastern slope of the mountain and its appeal is its downhill flow and the vast number of features to play around on. You’ll find rollers and drops and plenty of techy rock gardens to test your slow-speed skills. Plus, the views out over Phoenix are some of the best in the city!

Riding National is definitely a must for anyone visiting the area, but there are a few things you need to know before heading off to hit this trail – most notably which National trail section is the best to ride. Read on for help planning your National adventure on South Mountain!

National Trail FAQs

Yes! You may grumble now, but when you see an e-biker casually cruise by you as you’re gasping for breath on a steep climb you may feel a twinge or two of jealousy.

Any mid-travel full-suspension mountain bike is a great choice for National. I recommend something with 140-150mm of rear suspension travel.

This is actually a really good question because the full National Trail on South Mountain is about 12.5 miles one-way and stretches almost the whole length of the mountain. Many of the sections are very technical, steep, and not fun to ride.

What most people refer to as the National Trail on South Mountain is the 3-mile (one-way) easternmost stretch from Pima Canyon.

National Trail is one of the most popular trails in the city for its views and great riding. It is multi-use meaning that hikers and runners utilize it as well. As such, National can get crazy on the weekends. If you have the option, try to hit it on a weekday when most of Phoenix is stuck behind a desk.

As for the best time of year to ride National, it’s optimal during the winter or shoulder months when temperatures are cool. Summer can get really hot and I don’t recommend attempting to climb up National at the peak of summer unless you start before daylight.

National Trail is rated a black (expert) on TrailForks and it’s worthy of that rating. There are definitely fast, flowy sections, but there are also expert features – and one really expert feature – that less experienced riders will need to walk.

The Waterfall is the most iconic one. It’s near impossible to pedal up (unless you’re Jeff Lenosky) and coming down is a bit intimidating, to say the least.

All that being said, if you like a challenge and you’re up for a hefty climb, give National a go! A lot of people ride this trail to session its many features.

Mountain biker standing on rocky trail in the desert with bike upside down on rocks after a crash
Some lines on National are tricky! It’s a fun trail to session features and lines

What to expect

Every mountain biker is different – what I think is a tough climb might be a walk in the park for someone else and vice versa. For the ‘average’ mountain biker, though, here is what to expect on National:

A tough climb

The climb up National (and Mormon trail – see route recommendation below) is not easy. There are steep sections, rocky punches, a hike-a-bike ‘waterfall’, and about 1,000 ft of elevation gain over 5 miles. Take it slow – you don’t want to be wobbly on the descent!

Trail traffic

I’ve mentioned several times in this post that National is one of the most popular trails in Phoenix. If you ride on a weekend during the cooler winter months, it will be a sh*tshow.

Try to hit National on a weekday or plan on starting your ride early in the morning.


Like The Whole Enchilada in Moab, National in Phoenix is peppered with fun little alt-lines that you probably won’t even notice the first time around. Some are ‘sane’ while others are best left to the pros.

This is the kind of trail that just keeps getting more fun every time you ride it.

Extreme summer temps

Do not attempt this ride in the middle of the day in the summer. You will die.

Where to start your ride

National Trail is located on South Mountain, which is about 25 minutes south of the center of Phoenix. There are several places to park and access National Trail.

The main parking area is Pima Canyon Trailhead, which has restrooms, water fountains, and plenty of parking spaces. It does get really busy on the weekends, so if you ride on Saturday or Sunday try to get an early or late afternoon start.

You can also park at Javelina Canyon Trailhead just around the corner from Pima Canyon, which is where my recommended route for riding National Trail starts (see below).

How to Ride National Trail: The Mormon Loop

Alright, let’s get into the fun stuff! The best route (in my opinion) for riding National Trail is the ‘Mormon Loop’ (aka the SoMo Rolling Pin). You can do National as an out-and-back (i.e. don’t include Mormon), but the initial climb on National is super steep, loose, and rocky.

Mormon has a mellower grade (but don’t expect it to be easy) and just offers something a bit different. I like loops.

Route recommendation

The SoMo Rolling Pin

This loop includes a climb up Javelina and then Mormon, which is a bit easier than National (and also has less downhill traffic). Once you intersect back into National, it’s more climbing until you reach the ‘top’.

Important: The ‘top’ isn’t actually the end of the trail. It’s just the last of the climbing up National. There’s a short distance down to the Buena Vista Lookout parking, but then you have to come back up and it’s a technical climb. You’ll know when you get to the top.

  • Route difficulty: Intermediate/Expert
  • Trail network: South Mountain
  • Route type: Rolling pin 🙂
  • E-bikes? Yes
  • Mileage: 10.2 miles
  • Elevation gain/loss: 1,146 ft
  • Map/GPS: TrailForks

Route directions: Beverly Canyon Parking (you can also park at the more popular Pima Canyon which has bathrooms) > Javelina Canyon (or Pima Wash > Mormon Loop > National (stop at the ‘top’) > National back to Javelina Canyon or Pima Wash.

Route notes: National is a very popular trail so you’re likely to share it with hikers and other mountain bikers. Please be kind and courteous and share the trails. Also, always scope your lines. There are some tricky features!

Female mountain biker on National Trail in Phoenix, Arizona about to roll down a steep and rocky section of trail
The waterfall is the most technical feature on National. This line on the left is the most ‘approachable’

I don’t shoot video, but here’s an edit by TrailSage of his ride on South Mountain

Alternative Ride Option

A very different option that may appeal to the cross-country crowd or entry-level riders is Desert Classic.

This trail also starts from the Pima Canyon Trailhead and winds its way along the base of South Mountain for about 9 miles.

It’s mostly flat, quite scenic, and a good alternative for less advanced riders. It’s also a good option if you have a group/family with varying abilities and some want to do National and others don’t.

Route recommendation

Desert Classic Loop

If you want to explore South Mountain but aren’t up for National, Desert Classic is a fun, mellow, flowy trail that skirts the base of the mountain. The full trail is 8.6 miles one-way, but you can turn around any time.

  • Route difficulty: Beginner
  • Trail network: South Mountain
  • Route type: Out-and-back
  • E-bikes? Yes
  • Mileage: 8.6 miles one-way
  • Elevation gain/loss: 686 ft one-way
  • Map/GPS: TrailForks

Route directions: Pima Canyon Parking > Desert Classic

Route notes: Like National, Desert Classic is very popular with hikers and other riders. Please be respectful.

Final Thoughts

National Trail in Phoenix is one of the most iconic rides to do. It’s beautiful, challenging, and a really great trail for experienced riders or adventurous intermediates.

I hope this post helps inspire your first ride down the National on South Mountain. It’s one of my favorites and one that you can ride again and again without getting bored!

Looking for more fun things to do?

Check out these fun tours in Phoenix

Have you ridden the National Trail on South Mountain? What did you think? Leave a comment below!

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  1. Thanks for taking time to write this, it’s much appreciated! I have been otb so much I think it’s my thing! I have ridden the National from the ranger trail west and out and it was a great downhill experience- if we park a tandem car at the far west end- and start at Pima on the Far East end is it a good ride?

    1. If you start at Pima in the east and end in the west, you’ll be climbing the most popular descent (which it sounds like you’ve already done). I haven’t ridden the full National Trail, but I do know that it’s pretty rugged and not at all like the 3-mile easternmost section. If you go for it let me know how it rides!

  2. What kind of bike would you recommend for the National Trail? I’m going to ride it a couple of days with demos from Pivot. Will a full suspension trail bike work or do you need a more enduro bike? I don’t want to make the climb too hard on myself if it’s not necessary. I’m not planning on bombing it. I’m an intermediate rider who hasn’t mastered big jumps, drops, and features yet.

    1. It’s definitely not for everyone! Those technical sections are tricky the first time around. It also does get quite busy on the weekends, so best ridden during the week. All that being said, National is one of my favorite trails! If you’re looking for more riding in Phoenix, Brown’s Ranch is super fun and more cross-country.

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