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The joys of riding South Mountain

It’s only five miles from downtown Phoenix, but South Mountain Park is another world. It’s the largest city park in the country, with acres of saguaros, hiking trails and wide-open spaces. This time of year, it’s an antidote to city life. Except when it comes to the traffic.

Nearly every morning, evening and weekend, the steep road twisting up South Mountain is packed – and not just with cars. Head ranger Scott Covey has spotted vehicles of all kinds.

“It’s very, very popular for our road bikes to use this park as a training, but you’ll also see longboarders – I’ve seen people with strollers,” he said. “You know, even hikers.”

And most take on that windy stretch of road to the top. On a good weekend, Covey estimates 5,000 people visit the park. So, does this congestion lead to accidents? Not really, Covey said.

“It’s amazing that we don’t have more incidents,” he said, “and that’s why we really stress that 25-mile-an-hour speed limit and 15 on the curves, because you can respond a little more quicker and respond a little more effectively to somebody coming down the road on a bike or somebody hiking up the road, and you not see them until the last second.”

Keeping within the speed limit going uphill is one thing. Going downhill is another. For many, zipping down South Mountain is the point, regardless of whether they’re on two wheels, four wheels – or eight. Yes, even roller skaters tackle the mountain’s famous curves. That’s a lot of sharing for one narrow road, and some drivers do say cyclists in particular race down the mountain at unsafe speeds. But biker Chris Clint has a hard time picturing it.

“You know, you hear things like that,” he said, “but in reality, it’s extraordinarily rare to actually pass a car for speed, so I can’t really say that I’ve seen that in practice.”

More often than not, Clint added, it’s the cars that make the cyclists nervous. Take Ryan Wolfinger, who was slowly chugging up the hill for the very first time. He wasn’t scared off by the traffic, but it made him vigilant.     

“There’s definitely some concerns,” he said. “I noticed on my way up that there was a motorcycle going at a pretty good rate of speed farther down the mountain, and I was a little concerned coming around this blind corner that maybe he wouldn’t see that I was there.”

But the driver did see him, and that’s usually how it goes on South Mountain. Sure, the turns are tight, and the traffic can be dense. But somehow, it seems to work out, with a delicate, courteous balance. For Bailey Rayter, also on a bike, the word “harmonious” comes to mind.

“And that’s how it should be. This is a community for everybody. This is nobody’s mountain,” he said. “You can hike, you can, you know, ride your car up, and if you aren’t in a rush, and you enjoy what’s here, you’ll be going slow anyway."

Rayter always enjoys the views at the top, but there’s often not time to look up from his handlebars while biking down. Still, it’s worth it.

“It’s pure adrenaline. It’s a rush,” he said. “The wind is coming at you. You’re trying to calculate each turn. You look ahead. You hope to sort of get it right and not do anything stupid. You know, psychologically, it’s a reward.”

For Rayter, it’s a little taste of freedom. And maybe that’s what draws so many to South Mountain, no matter what they’re driving.