Gila Lookout • Suappoa Peak Area • Phoenix South Mountains
• Maricopa County

Hanging valley below the Dobbins Lookout junction along the Holbert Trail

Summit towers

The "summit" of the Gila Lookout

The grand Sierra Estrella as seen from the road.

The summit is up there behind the fencing

What Phoenix looks like, from directly beside this high fence

Another summit shot from the Holbert Trail

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Date: October 28, 2012 • Elevation: 2,630-2,680 feet • Prominence: 70 feet (Gila Lookout) • Distance: 9 miles • Time: 3 hours, 30 minutes • Gain: 1,350 feet • Conditions: Blue skies and pleasant

The South Mountains are a landmark range in south Phoenix, notable for its television and communications towers that crowd the summit and are visible from a long distance. At night, the towers light up and seem to "float" above the city. The range's highest point is called Suappoa Peak, and not surprisingly, sits within the tower complex. Also not surprisingly, the towers are fenced off from the general public, so legal access is almost never allowed to the very top.

Of the various ranges and peaks that surround the metro-Phoenix area, Suappoa Peak does not have that impressive jagged pointiness that peaks like Camelback or Piestewa have. Furthermore, South Mountain has a long ridge-like profile, so the summit does not stand out, and looming behind it is the gigantic Sierra Estrella Range, hogging all the glory. Even if there were no towers atop the peak, the summit would probably not be a popular destination.

Despite this fact, the South Mountains offer fantastic hiking opportunities. The National, Maricopa, Alta and Holbert Trails, to name a few, cross the range. Here, the attraction is not getting to the top, but enjoying the desert scenery and landforms. Loop hikes are possible with easy car-shuttle options, and mountain bikers love this place, as many of the trails are also open to them, too. For the more sedentary types, there are many day-use ramadas and picnic areas. On winter weekends, the park can be extremely crowded.

I have visited, hiked and trained in the park on many occasions. After moving to Phoenix in 1992, my mother visited and we drove up the summit road, stopping at the Dobbins Lookout. I have hiked the Alta Trail a couple times, and also some in-and-out loops from the east side off of Guadalupe Road many times. When I was with the Maricopa Sheriff's Mountain Rescue Team, we'd sometimes have rappeling and raise-lower practices in these hills. In over 20 years of living here, I never once tried for the actual summit until today.

My original intent today was to explore a peak west of here in the Sierra Estrella Regional Park in the city of Goodyear. However, I discovered that the recent development of the area meant that the roads I wanted to follow were built upon, and access had become restricted. I figured I needed to do some more research on this peak, so I bailed, and decided to salvage the day at South Mountain. My goal was to explore "the summit" and see how difficult getting to the very top would be.

When I rolled into the main entrance (Central Avenue, heading south), they had the main paved road closed, this being "Silent Sunday", which is every 4th Sunday of each month. They close the roads but allow hikers and bicyclists. It makes for less crowds and vehicles, which is nice. I was not expecting this (because I had not done my homework), but I was not put off by this development. I was looking for a good hike anyway. I parked in the large parking area, as far east as I could before the road ended. The lots were filling up fast. I got myself situated, my pack in order, and walked around a little bit, reading some information off the kiosks they have placed around. I quickly determined the Holbert Trail would be my trail for the day.

I found the Holbert Trailhead near the east end of the parking area. It enters into a tight little canyon quickly, then opens up again immediately thereafter. A group of about a dozen people, adults and kids, all seemingly friends, had started just ahead of me, but when I passed them, one kid, about age 8, thought I was a group member and kept on bounding past me. I didn't mind much, but when the rocks got a little steep, I suggested it be best if he waited for his mother. I didn't want him to get hurt trying to keep up with me.

The trail comes to a large water tank, then resumes again, bending south and making long, sweeping switchbacks up the steep rocky slopes. The grades are so gentle that I made excellent time, never really stopping. After another mile or so, it swings hard left (south again) and enters a hanging valley (see the first photo at left). This is about 2 miles from the trailhead, and a side-trail wiggles up the steep slopes to Dobbins Lookout, which is an old stone ramada. This is a popular destination for hikers. I continued past, however, and saw almost no one afterwards.

The trail continues another 0.3 mile (I guess) then comes to the paved "Summit Road", or "TV Tower Road". I crossed the road and caught the trail, as it stayed on a ridge another 0.3 mile before coming again to the same road, now higher, of course. Here, the Holbert Trail ends, and the summit, with all its towers, about a mile west of my position. I decided to walk the remainder up the paved road.

Panorama of the towers and of the surrounding terrain.

My only company along the road were mountain bikers, huffing and puffing as they ascended, then flying quickly downhill, smiles on their faces. As a hiker, I made sure to stay well right and keep out of their way. The road gains up the south flank of the main summit ridge, then bends left and ends at a big paved lot, sitting directly on top of a small side summit. The lot is called the Gila Lookout, and it would be my "summit" for the day. A bunch of bikers were up here, relaxing before their downhill journey. Gila Lookout is about 2,630 feet elevation, or about 70 feet lower than the true summit, which is locked up behind all the fencing directly across the way.

The fencing is substantial and well-signed. I had no intention to hop any fences or gates, and it would not have been a "quickie" to find the summit. The towers are gigantic and plentiful. The fencing is to keep the riff-raff out. But I suspect it's more to keep the petty vandals out, those who would spray paint everything, or drink beer and litter the place. The towers are way too big to be damaged by mere humans. From below in town, they look so flimsy, but up close, they're as beefy as any big building in the city.

I was still curious enough to wander around the perimeter fencing. Below the towers on the main road, I cut across a slope to the National Trail, which cuts high across the north flanks of the summit. I later found an older trail that leaves the National Trail and angles directly upward. This was obviously the old summit trail. So I followed it, and some combination of cross-country, to get myself to the fencing. I then walked west along the fencing, following narrow trails and paths. I was aiming for the highest land I could see outside the fencing. This would presumably put me close to the actual summit.

I was able to get to my desired point, but there was no easy place to scoot under, and climbing over the fencing was out of the question. Also, I was not certain if I was near the actual highest point, or if a more pointed summit off to the west was the actual highpoint. I didn't want to waste my time inside the fencing only to find the true top was somewhere else. So I decided to not bother, and kept myself on the legal side of the fence the entire time.

Later, I learned the summit is near where I had been standing, so yes, all one would need to do to claim the top would be a quick fence-breach, run to the top, tag the benchmark, then a fast exit. Since I didn't do this, I can't yet lay claim to a successful ascent of Suappoa Peak. I did get as high as about 2,680 feet (the summit being about 2,700-2,710 feet). Some day I'll get up there to tag it, but it's not a priority, so it may be awhile. Check back regularly.

The down hike went well, and I was back to my truck after three and a half hours on the trail. I was surprised to discover I had climbed over 1,300 feet in elevation, since it felt like half that. Given all the extra exploration I did, my total mileage came closer to nine miles. The day was warm but lovely, and I had a great hike overall.

(c) 2012, 2016 Scott Surgent. For entertainment purposes only. This report is not meant to replace maps, compass, gps and other common sense hiking/navigation items. Neither I nor the webhost can be held responsible for unfortunate situations that may arise based on these trip reports. Conditions (physical and legal) change over time! Some of these hikes are major mountaineering or backpacking endeavors that require skill, proper gear, proper fitness and general experience.