Q&AZ: Is South Mountain Park The Country's Largest?

By Mariana Dale
Published: Tuesday, September 11, 2018 - 5:47pm
Updated: Wednesday, June 10, 2020 - 12:01pm

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South Mountain Park
Jackie Hai/KJZZ
South Mountain Park and Preserve in Phoenix.

KJZZ listener Chris McCormack was curious to know more about Phoenix’s South Mountain Preserve and asked us to investigate through our reporting project Q&AZ.

First: size.

“In 1962 my aunt (my father's sister) was living here and was trying to convince my father to move all of us out from New Jersey,” McCormack wrote us in an email. “She was very enthusiastic about Phoenix (as she was about most everything!) and presented all the highlights to my dad one of which was that Phoenix had the biggest city park in the country.”

The short answer: South Mountain Preserve might have been the largest park at the time, but it’s not anymore.

The longer answer: the park was born when President Calvin Coolidge sold Phoenix 13,000 acres for $17,000 in 1924.

The city acquired more land over time and today the park is more than 16,000 acres— that’s the size of about 19 New York City Central Parks combined.  

Many of the trails and much of the infrastructure in the park was built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps.

The CCC was created in response to the Great Depression as a way to put Americans back to work. The federal government paid them to build roads, trails, and plant trees across the country.

As of today, Scottsdale’s McDowell Sonoran Preserve is the largest city park at 30,500 acres. The city created the preserve in 1994 with the dedication of the first few thousand acres.

Who says so? The Trust for Public Land, a nonprofit, that surveyed the 100 largest U.S. cities and their parks.

One might also make the case that Alaska’s Chugach State Park is the largest. While it’s managed by the state, 464,318 of the park’s approximately 495,000 acres are in the city of Anchorage.

Chris also wanted to know how many people visit South Mountain Park.

Phoenix spokesman Gregg Bach explained counters on nine trails and the road keep track of who visits.

“About 750,000 people use the trails within the park every year and then about another 250,000 vehicles that come through,” Bach said. “Nearly a million people every year that are coming in and out of the park.”

The counters project an invisible beam, and when it’s broken a person is counted. Some of the trails are loops. Bach said special formulas factor in the possibility someone is counted twice and help the city make an accurate count.

“It’s certainly more than just people that go in there hiking,” Bach said. “We see people that do trail biking, there’s a lot of equestrian uses, cyclists that just take the summit road to the top, people come in with motorcycles, we see people that use the longboard skateboards.”

Another popular destination, Camelback Mountain, counts about 450,000 visitors on two trails every year.