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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 actually one of my favorite trails for awesome views, fast flow, and techy rock gardens to test your slow-speed skills.
Riding National is definitely a must for any avid mountain biker 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!
Where is National Trail?
National Trail is located in South Mountain Park south of downtown Phoenix. The full trail actually runs the length of South Mountain from west to east along the ridgeline, but the National Trail that mountain bikers ride is really just the easternmost section. I’ll get more into this below.
The main parking area for National Trail is the Pima Canyon Trailhead. There are bathrooms and a water fountain there, but the parking area does get very busy, especially on weekends.
You can also park at Beverly Canyon Trailhead just around the corner from Pima Canyon, which is where my recommended route for riding National Trail starts (see below).
National Trail FAQs
How hard is National Trail?
National Trail on South Mountain 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 climb to the top is relatively steep and definitely takes some effort, so keep that in mind before setting off as well.
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.
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 I 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 on South Mountain
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. (See recommended route below)
What’s 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.
Tips for Riding National
As I mentioned in the intro, National Trail on South Mountain is one of my favorite mountain biking trails for its awesome descent, great views, and unique trail features.
If you’re new to Phoenix or are new to mountain biking, though, National may throw some punches.
Here are a few must-knows for riding this iconic trail:
1. The Climb is tough
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!
2. Expect Trail traffic
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. Between hikers, trail runners, and mountain bikers, National Trail gets busy to say the least.
To avoid the worst of the crowds, try hitting National on a weekday or plan on starting your ride early in the morning.
Be a responsible mountain biker: On one of my rides on National, a group of mountain bikers came bombing down the trail as I was pedaling up, scattering (and scaring) hikers and other trail users. Do not be these mountain bikers. This is not the trail to go for KOM/QOMs on. Practice good trail etiquette and be kind and courteous to other people on the trail.
3. Stop & session features
One of the reasons I love National so much is that there are a lot of cool and challenging features (depending on your skill level).
I love stopping and sessioning some of the rock gardens and drops, so that next time I can ride it even smoother.
The Waterfall is the most iconic feature on National. It’s near impossible to pedal up (unless you’re Jeff Lenosky) and coming down is a bit intimidating, to say the least. Stop and session it! There are several lines through it, some harder than others.
4. Watch for the alt-lines
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.
Keep your eye out on the way up to see these sneaker lines and try to remember where they are on the way down. National is the kind of trail that just keeps getting more fun every time you ride it!
5. Be Aware of Extreme Temperatures
Phoenix is known for its extreme summer temperatures that can top 100 degrees. DO NOT ATTEMPT to ride National in the middle of the day in summer. You will likely die (literally or figuratively).
If you want to ride National during the summer months, you’ll need to get a really early morning start (like 5am) or plan on a night ride with lights.
6. The Full National Trail isn’t Worth it
If you’ve looked at a map of National Trail, you’ve probably noticed that the full trail spans the length of South Mountain from west to east for 15 miles.
You might be thinking, “Cool! More fun!” But in actuality, it’s really only the easternmost 3-mile section of National Trail that most mountain bikers ride.
The rest of the trail is rocky, very technical, and better left to hikers unless you’re up for an epically long day – mentally and physically.
Don’t believe me? I rode a loop of National Trail by pedaling out Desert Classic, hike-a-biking up Telegraph Pass trail, and then riding National Trail east from the top of Telegraph Pass. It wasn’t worth it. There was a lot of pushing my bike and cursing. The rest of National Trail is a hiking trail, not a mountain biking trail. See my route recommendation below.
Mountain Bike Packing List
Below are a few of my favorite pieces of mountain biking gear and recommendations for your mountain bike trip or ride:
National Trail Route Recommendation
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.
>> 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 directions: Beverly Canyon Parking (you can also park at the more popular Pima Canyon which has water and 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!
Make it easier: There’s really no way to make it easier
Do more: You could continue a short way down to Buena Vista Lookout, which is a fun downhill, but then you have to come back up it. It did it once and probably won’t do it again.
I don’t shoot video, but here’s an edit by TrailSage of his ride on South Mountain
Alternative Route Option
A very different option for mountain biking South Mountain 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 where some want to do National and others don’t.
>> Desert Classic
This is a good option if you want to mountain bike 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 directions: Pima Canyon Parking > Desert Classic > Secret > Desert Classic > Guadalupe Perimeter Trail > Desert Classic
Route notes: Like National, Desert Classic is very popular with hikers and other riders. Please be respectful.
Make it Shorter: You can turn around whenever you want or just to a lollipop loop with Guadalupe Perimeter Trail.
National Trail on South Mountain is one of the most iconic rides to do and one of my favorites in Phoenix. 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 that you can ride again and again without getting bored!
Save it to pinterest!
Looking for more mountain biking adventures in Arizona’s desert? Check out these related blog posts:
Have you ridden the National Trail on South Mountain? What did you think? Leave a comment below!