Posted in family life, hikes

hiking with littles: mormon trail to fat man’s pass and hidden valley tunnel

January is really an exceptionally good time to hike the low desert – the sky is clear and brilliant blue, the little cool-weather ground plants are green, the breeze and the shadowed rocks are crisply cool, and the sun is cheery and invigorating. So I took advantage of some extra adult helping hands and decided to attempt a trip to Fat Man’s Pass and the Hidden Valley Tunnel on South Mountain. (Actually, I had intended to go alone with the kids, but my parents wanted to come too and I’m very glad they did!)

There are multiple ways to get to Fat Man’s Pass, but because Limerick is an avid climber I thought we’d try starting at Mormon Trailhead, where the trail climbs steeply upward for 1.3 miles before leveling off and descending to Hidden Valley. I may have underestimated just how steep it was… but the kids did really well! Aubade trekked up almost the entire first leg of the hike on her own two feet, and Limerick charged ahead and even took detours to boulder off on the side.

Limerick was so happy about climbing out this high that he actually let me take a picture of him!

One of the benefits to hiking so steeply up the side of the mountain was the view gained by such a rapid increase in elevation. We could see out to downtown Phoenix and over to the ASU Tempe campus, even while looking up towards the mountain let us see beautiful desert slopes.

It was definitely helpful to have an adult paired with each child for this trail, however. It was also helpful to carry a lot of water, despite the cool weather, and plenty of snacks for well-timed breaks. Jackets, on the other hand, while comfortable at the trailhead, quickly became just extra weight to carry – hiking in the open sun gets your body warmed up fast!

Rondel hiking with my dad 🙂 We mixed up the pairings throughout the hike but Rondel really loved getting to talk with my dad when they were together.

Towards the top of the mountain, Mormon Trail comes to an end at a junction with National Trail, and there is a turnoff to the left for Hidden Valley Tunnel. While you could turn in here and go through Hidden Valley beginning with the tunnel and ending with Fat Man’s Pass (giving yourself a longer descent back to the trailhead afterwards), we followed National Trail about a quarter of a mile longer to the turnoff for Fat Man’s Pass. After the sun and heat of the trail, the pass feels almost frigid, the eerily smooth rocks around the narrow path very cold to the touch; it is quite refreshing, and the pass itself is really fun to play in. The kids ran back and forth through it for a long time, and we ate a picnic lunch in the shadow of the overhanging rocks behind it.

From Fat Man’s Pass, the trail meanders down through flat sandy washes towards a tumble of rocks through which hikers must clamber or slide. When you approach them, it appears that the trail has reached a dead end, but don’t give up! Going to the left and through an opening in the rocks leads to a series of short slides; going to the right involves a short climb and a trail down to the bottom. I convinced the kids to come with me on the right to show my dad that it was an actual safe trail, but then they saw my mom sliding down the left side and climbed back up so they could go the “fun” way 🙂

Aubade playing in the sand at the edge of the upper half of Hidden Valley – the rocks behind her conceal the path down towards Hidden Valley Tunnel

The rock barrier between the upper and lower sections of Hidden Valley are really a fun place to climb around – I came with some friends back in college (we must have taken some other trail to get there since I don’t recall either Fat Man’s Pass or Hidden Valley Tunnel) and we spent a lot of time clambering up and down the boulders and joking about it being a great place to pose for an album cover photo. Aubade kept marching up to every tall rock she saw and doing her best to get to the top of it, giving my poor dad much anxiety while being exceedingly cute, oblivious, and self-confident.

When we reached the lower end of Hidden Valley not long after, we found the tunnel filled with other hikers so we didn’t stay long, unfortunately, and I didn’t get any good pictures. It is a really neat place, though – the rocks have made a literal tunnel leading out of the valley, long and thin (though not nearly as narrow as Fat Man’s Pass!) and cool, the rocks again polished slippery smooth.

Then it was back up to National Trail and a short ways to the junction with Mormon Trail, and the long (for tired little kids) descent down the mountain. Every few tenths of a mile there was a trail post with a picture showing how far you were from the bottom or the top of the trail, and Limerick and Rondel took great encouragement from these as their energy wore out – it was a great way to visually confirm that the end was getting closer! Aubade did have to be carried down as she was completely exhausted, and ended up napping on my mom’s back (we had been alternating the carrier – I had it most of the way up without Aubade, and my mom got stuck with it going down. She does have better knees though…).

Limerick explaining to Rondel that this trail post meant they were at the end of the trail! All the red on his face was chapping solely caused by the time spent hiking, a combination of the wind, sun, and stimming 😦

According to the South Mountain Trail map, the total distance of the loop was about 3.4 miles; according to my mom’s Apple watch tracker, it was 5.5 miles. My guess about the discrepancy is that the trail map measures the flat distance traveled, while the Apple watch measures the actual distance traveled, including the vertical aspect – which was not insignificant on this trail! The hypotenuse of this particular triangle was quite a bit longer than the base 🙂 Either way, it was the longest trail the kids have every hiked, and I wouldn’t recommend doing it with more than one little without help (I could have hiked with Rondel and either one of the others, for instance, most likely, but definitely not all three). However, if you can do it I would encourage you to go for it! Hidden Valley is worth the trek to get there, and the Sonoran desert is beautiful this time of year.

How to get there: from the I-10, exit on Baseline Rd and drive west till 24th Street. Turn left and continue south till the road turns left and becomes Valley View Dr. The trailhead is to the right very shortly after. It does fill up quickly on weekends, but there is roadside parking available on 24th Street. There are no bathrooms or water at the trailhead, so come prepared! Mormon Trail is the only trailhead, and the path is well-marked the entire way except through Hidden Valley itself.

Posted in family life

hiking South Mountain with littles

Winter is one of the best times of year for hiking here in the desert! The skies are deep and clear, the air is cool and crisp, and the plants are somewhat green (depending on rainfall… spring will be better for plant life if the flowers bloom, though).

When climbing a mountain, it is always logical to become animals more suited for the task; the boys decided to be ibex and spent a large portion of the trek on all fours:

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They also spent time as mountain lions, and we discussed what the city would do if a large predator such as a mountain lion or a bear were actually living on a mountain so closely surrounded by homes (probably – hopefully! – relocation. Rondel seemed to think it would be more exciting to have it stay on the mountain and randomly pop out to eat people.)

Aubade mostly stayed in the backpack, bopping my head and laughing, because she walks quite slowly still, but she did get down a few times to stretch her legs and enjoy the desert firsthand:

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The most wonderful thing about a hike is that simply being outside, in the wild, is so freeing and refreshing an experience that even a complete meltdown for the entire return leg of the trip isn’t enough to prevent the boys from wanting to go again! Rondel keeps asking me when we can climb another mountain… I just think, hmm, I need to rebuild my emotional reserves here, that was rather exhausting for me. I am so glad that it didn’t give him a bad taste for hiking in general, though. I will just need to be more aware of his limitations as he often fails to notice his own fatigue until he is at the point of emotional and physical collapse (it’s a sensory processing thing – difficulty with interoception).

And it was a great reminder for me of why I have always loved hiking! There is something unbeatable about the path dropping away behind you and the sky stretching out wide above you and the mountain rising up before you and the wind lifting your wings as you walk over the dusty and rugged desert miles. They say exercise is good treatment for depression but really I believe that outdoor exercise is key – it is for me, at any rate 🙂

(If you’re wondering, we hiked part of Telegraph Pass Trail on South Mountain! The first part is paved which makes for an easy start and, more importantly, an easy finish for tired little feet. If you have more stamina than my boys did, you can make it all the way up to the top of the mountain where the signal towers are!)