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The National Trail on South Mountain is easily one of the most iconic mountain bike trails in Phoneix, 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!
Learn everything you need to know for before mountain biking the National Trail on South Mountain in Pheonix
National Trail Basics
How to get there & where to park
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 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 (see next section).
Are e-bikes allowed?
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.
What kind of bike do you need?
Any mid-travel full-suspension mountain bike is a great choice for National. I recommend something with 140-150mm of rear suspension travel.
How long is National Trail?
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 three-mile easternmost stretch from Pima Canyon.
When is the best time to ride it?
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.
How to Ride National Trail: The Mormon Loop
The best route (in my opinion) for riding National Trail is via the Mormon Loop. You can do National as an out-and-back (i.e. don’t include Mormon), but the initial climb 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.
Mormon Loop Quick Stats
- Miles: 10.2 miles
- Elevation gain/loss: 1,446 feet
- Time needed: 2-3 hours
- Map/GPS: TrailForks
How challenging is this ride?
National Trail on South Mountain is not a beginner’s trail. That being said, all of the tricky spots are very walkable and most big features have a go-around. I’d say if you’re an adventurous intermediate who doesn’t mind a grueling climb (or not-so grueling if you have an e-bike), you’ll probably dig it.
There are probably a couple of features that you’ll walk on your first stab at National, but 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. There are probably half a dozen different lines from top to bottom, so take a minute to scope them out before deciding to go for it.
National Trail Tips
I’ve ridden National a few times now and here are a few tips that will hopefully make your ride fun and as enjoyable.
1. Stop at the lookout
National (or this three-mile section that we’re calling National) technically ends at the Buena Vista parking area, but most riders stop at the lookout at the junction of Old Man.
It’s a mile or so of technical descending down to the parking lot which is fun, but…. then you have to climb back up… which is not so much fun.
2. Share the Trail
National is a very popular trail. Expect to share it with lots of hikers and other bikers. It’s also a two-way trail, so please keep this in mind when descending, and please stay in control. This is not the trail to go for Strava PRs on.
Give hikers the option of taking the right of way and say hi when they pass!
3. Keep an eye out for alt-lines
The first time you ride National Trail on South Mountain you’ll probably just be focused on getting down smoothly and/or in one piece. But the second time you ride it you’ll know what’s coming up and you’ll have scoped out the best lines. This is the kind of trail that just gets better and better each time you ride it!
Just like The Whole Enchilada in Moab, National has a ton of different alt-lines that make the riding engaging and different every time you hit it. It can be a little hard to know where these alt-lines are the first time you ride National but keep your eyes open on the pedal up and you’ll see some fun features like drops, chutes, and kickers off to the side.
Alternative Trail 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.
Desert Classic quick stats
- Miles: 8.6 miles one-way
- Elevation gain: 686 ft one-way
- Time needed: 1-2 hours depending on how far you go
- Map/GPS: TrailForks
What to pack for National
Here’s what I recommend packing on your day out at South Mountain:
- A hydration pack with at least 3 liters of water. Even if you’re riding in the cooler winter months, there’s quite a bit of elevation gain on National and the desert climate sucks the moisture out of you. Bring more water than you think you’ll need.
- The 8 mountain bike pack essentials
- A breakaway helmet. I really love my Bell Super DH MIPS helmet. I climb with the chin bar strapped to my pack and then descend with a full-face (and it has definitely saved my face a number of times!).
I hope this post helps inspire your first ride down the National Trail on South Mountain. It’s one of my favorites and one that you can ride again and again without getting bored.
Have you ridden the National Trail on South Mountain? What did you think? Did I miss any tips? Leave a comment below!