Perched on top of a mountain in the South Mountain Park and Preserve is a lookout point with views of the Valley of the Sun that is one of the best in Phoenix. It’s high up, taking a good 30 minutes just to drive from the entrance gate to the lookout point, mainly due to the curvy road and 35mph speed limit. The lookout sits a whopping 2,330 feet above sea level, making it the ideal place to view any part of the greater Phoenix area, with views from Buckeye to the Superstition Mountains. For those unfamiliar with the area, these two locations are about 80 miles and 1.5 hours apart, yet both can be clearly seen atop Dobbins Lookout. You also get an excellent view of Phoenix’s twin skylines.
It’s popular not only because of its great views of the valley, but also for its accessibility (you can drive all the way to the lookout). It is quite a popular location. We arrived around 7pm on a Wednesday, right in time to view the sunset. This is a very popular time for Dobbins Lookout, as many come just to view the sunset (like us). Since you do not have to hike to the lookout point, it’s an incredibly popular place for families with children (and just people in general).
At the top is a mediocrely sized parking lot, which magically had enough parking spaces that we didn’t have to battle for one. I say magically because we were in a long line of cars slowly snaking our way up the mountain, and my friend and I were positive that it was going to be a packed madhouse. While there was, indeed, an overflow of people, the parking situation was fine. As we went in the middle of the week, I’m not sure what the situation is like on Fri/Sat/Sun.
Dobbins Lookout is not the only draw to the preserve, as there are a multitude of trails one can enjoy. In total, there are 9 trailheads to choose from, with the names and addresses easily available via the Phoenix government website: https://www.phoenix.gov/parks/trails/locations/south-mountain. We have not hiked any of the trails, as this was our first and only trip to the preserve, but it’s something I fully plan on doing in the future!
Not only are there many trails, but there are also multiple abandoned buildings to explore – if you can hike your way to them. None sit right on the road, and all of the roadside turnouts have been effectively closed with large boulders which act as roadblocks. So, you must park in one of the few designated parking lots along the road and hike to whichever abandoned building you’d like to explore. There are huge parking lots at the base of the preserve, two small side lots on the way up the mountain, and the mediocre-sized one near the lookout. I’m sure there’s more somewhere, but those are the ones I saw.
The abandoned, dilapidated buildings sprinkled throughout the South Mountain Preserve have a fascinating history. They were birthed from the Great Depression, under the leadership of the U.S.’s 32nd president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, aka FDR. His goal was to help Americans get back to work, so he launched a series of emergency programs, one of which would become known as the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC).
According to the Phoenix government official website, CCC “[e]nrollment was open to young men who were unemployed, unmarried, and between the ages of 18 and 23 years of age. Conditions required performing intense physical labor, but the enrollees did not mind, they were eating three hearty meals each day, learning valuable trade skills, and earning money. The men would enroll for a six-month term, with the option of re-enrolling for additional six-months, up to two years. Enrollees would receive a monthly salary of $30, of which $25 must be sent home to desperate family members.”
Basically, it was a work camp that many young men jumped at the chance to attend, because it was one of the few ways to earn much-needed money. While living at these work camps, these men helped build 125,000 miles of roadway, strung 89,000 miles of telephone line, built 13,100 miles of foot trails, developed 800 state parks and 52,000 aces of public campground, built 97,000 miles of fire roads and 3,470 fire towers, and planted 3 billion trees.
While the accomplishments of the CCC is mind-blowing (and excellent for the state of Arizona’s development), it was built on the backs of men who were essentially treated like they were in the military. Each camp had around 150 to 250 men who were under the command of military personnel. Their day would begin around 6am after being awakened by a bugle. They lived in barracks, which were inspected just like they would be in the military. The enrollees would then march to breakfast and morning roll call. They were then released under direct supervision of the agency that they were assigned to.
Once out in the world working, they would get a bagged lunch and short break, continuing their work until 4pm. It was then back to camp either by foot or work trucks. Once back at camp, they’d have to go to “retreat” formation at 5pm to watch the lowering of the flag, then onto dinner. After dinner would finally be some free time, usually to attend educational classes and lectures, play games or sports like pool or baseball, or just have time to themselves to write letters, listen to the radio, or talk. The lights would flash on and off around 9:45pm, signaling to the enrollees that bedtime was approaching. It was lights out at 10pm. The men slept in cots in barracks, and would typically work an 8-hour day.
These men also helped build what we know as the South Mountain Park and Preserve. According to the government website, “Between 1933 and 1940, four thousand (4000) men worked out of two camps at South Mountain Park. During this time the men constructed over 40 miles of hiking and equestrian trails, 18 buildings, 15 ramadas, 134 fire pits, 30 water faucets, water dams, and other features within the park.”
If driving your way to Dobbins Lookout is not your cup of tea, you can also hike to it via Hobert Trail. It’s rated “moderately difficult” (I love that someone rated it as such, as I’m not a fan of the term “moderate”), and it winds up the north face of the Guadalupe Mountain Range, which is one of the three elongated ridges that make up what is South Mountain (the other two are the Gila and Ma Ha Tauk ranges). This trail also offers educational aspects, as you can see things like pre-Cambrian stone that’s centuries old and visible symbols sketched on the rocks by the ancient Hohokam people, nicknamed “petroglyph alley”.
Overall, Dobbins Lookout was a great little quick trip to watch the sunset. We were there for probably only 45 minutes, but one could easily spend all day in the South Mountain Preserve (if they can manage to beat the heat). You could spend all day exploring the trails, abandoned buildings, and then come watch the magnificent sunset spread light throughout the greater Phoenix area. If you do decide to hike in the summer, make sure to bring lots of water, a hat, protective clothing, and sunscreen. Make sure you’re with someone or someone knows where you are going. Take lots of breaks, as well! The Phoenix heat is nooo joke, people! No matter what time of year you go, don’t miss seeing some interesting remnants of history, as well as the best view of the Valley of the Sun you’ll ever see. Promise.