Fat Man’s Pass, A Hike on South Mountain

Downtown Phoenix
A hazy view of downtown Phoenix from the National Trail near the Buena Vista Scenic Overlook.

Phoenix, Arizona. 

My wife, Lynn, and I joined Dana and Mike on this week’s hike. On an earlier hike, Dana suggested that we would enjoy the hike through Hidden Valley to Fat Man’s Pass. The day was beautiful, and the warm sun brought out some wildlife. Wildflowers were just starting to appear in the meadows. When we started down the trail, we didn’t know we would have Lynn and my first encounter with a rattlesnake along the trail.

The trail we hiked, the National Trail, meanders along the upper ridges of South Mountain. The park, part of the Phoenix Parks System, is the largest municipal park in the country, at over 16,000 acres. There are over 50 miles of trail wandering through the desert preserve. We would be hiking a short section of the trail eastward from the Buena Vista Scenic Overlook, eventually taking a small loop that would send us back to the overlook and our car.

Rock Bridge
Lynn and I pose in front of a rock bridge.

Dana was right about us enjoying the view, the trail winds its way through rocky terrain. Boulders balancing on other boulders, natural tunnels, rock outcroppings and granite polished by rushing water during centuries of monsoon seasons provide amazing scenery. Our hike took us to a point where a sign beckoned us toward Hidden Valley. We left the National Trail to descend into the valley.

After only a short hike, we came to Fat Man’s Pass, a junction of three boulders. The trail ventures between two boulders, narrowing to approximately twelve inches, chest high, at one point. The length of the trail through the boulders is only maybe 10 feet or so. Those who don’t feel inclined to stay on the trail can easily find their way to the other side of the pass by going around the boulders. But there was no challenge in that!

Mike and Dana, both much more slender and fit than I, made it through the pass nicely. It was my turn next. Camera in the backpack, backpack in my hand, I slipped into the pass sideways. Sidestepping along, I was almost to the other side when I hit the narrowest part. My forward progress stopped as my upper chest wedged into the rock. I contemplated sliding back a bit and forcing my way into the wedge. I thought about the possible consequences. It would not be fun to be stuck here. The granite was smooth so I wasn’t worried about being jabbed or poked by rock, so I slid back toward the entry point just slightly and with a little more momentum, drove my body into the wedge. I slid through the narrow point rather easily with only the backpack, hanging from my trailing arm snagging a bit on the rock. Lowering my arm a bit, the backpack slid through where the gap was slightly wider.

Fat Man's Pass
The trail leads through the junction of two boulders, 12 inches apart at their narrowest point.

Knowing that Lynn is shorter than I am, I was confident she would make it through the pass more easily than me. The narrowest area that was chest-high for me would be higher on her. After relieving her of the hiking poles and water belt pack she was carrying, she slid through the gap easily.

Moving along the trail with Dana in the lead, I was enjoying the beauty of the valley when Dana stopped dead in front of me. She had heard the sound of a rattle. Next to the trail, within striking distance of those walking close to the trail’s right edge, lay a young rattlesnake, sunning himself on a rock. He was slightly hidden by some overbrush, but his warning rattle told us he was in no mood for visitors.

Dana, an experienced hiker, and trained in fire and rescue skills in her day job, decided to move the snake from the edge of the trail and encourage it to move to a safer place for itself and other hikers who might come along. I will not describe or provide photos of the method she used to convince the rattlesnake to move elsewhere. I don’t want to encourage those with no skills in an attempt to do something similar. Suffice it to say, we got an up close and personal view of Mr. Rattler, and then Dana encouraged him to head safely away from the trail.

After Dana’s encouragement, Mr. Rattler headed for a warm rock further off the trail.

With the snake safely out of our way, I asked Dana what should Lynn and I have done had we been hiking alone and encountered the snake. In this case, a wide berth to the left side of the trail would have been sufficient. If the snake were in the middle of the trail, stopping and waiting for the snake to move might be an option. If the snake is comfortable, though, leaving the trail to go around is the best option. In that case, extreme caution should be exercised, lest you disturb another snake. A sharp ear is helpful, but you cannot depend upon it. The rattle isn’t as loud as I imagined it might be, and if startled, a snake may strike without a warning rattle.

Shortly after that adventure, we came to a stone tunnel. The photo I included is one example of what photographers need to watch out for, especially when shooting toward the  sun. Lens flare isn’t always visible while taking the shot, so you don’t always see the problem until after you are nowhere near the location. In this example, you can see the flare in the rock at the roof of the tunnel.

The best way to avoid the flare is to shield the lens. If you don’t have a lens shield, hold your hand just slightly above and in front of the lens so that the front of the lens itself is in the shade. The hard part is keeping your hand out of the frame.

Stone Tunnel
Lens flare can happen anytime you attempt shooting in the direction of the sun.

The feature I wanted my viewers to see was the shiny rock surface. The rock has been polished by centuries of water cascading through the tunnel in the Arizona rainy season. Concentrating on the rock surface, subject in the shade, I did not notice the sun directly above the line of the tunnel.

Continuing on our hike, we eventually rejoined the National Trail. We could have continued east along the National Trail, but instead headed west, back to the overlook where we parked the car. Though some of the trails we’ve hiked this spring were resplendent in wildflowers, this area, not so much. I suspect with the higher altitude on the mountain, it hadn’t warmed up enough to trigger budding yet. In the next week or so, I’m sure the flowers will appear.

Orange Mallow
Near the overlook, an Orange Mallow plant displayed a single blossom.

Flowers are one of my favorite subjects, their natural beauty and color make a striking image possible. To get the best results, use the macro setting on your camera. Most consumer cameras use the symbol of a flower on the setting wheel. This setting allows you to move more closely to the subject and maintain focus. If your camera has a setting that allows Aperature Priority (usually A on the setting adjustment), use that setting and open the lens aperature as large as possible. This will give your image two advantages. First, it will blur the background, causing your subject to stand out much more vividly, and it will ensure a fast shutter speed, mitigating any possible motion blur from the wind moving the plant, or a less-than-steady hand when pushing the shutter button.

After  4.2 miles, and a leisurely 3-hour pace, we arrived back at the overlook. South Mountain is one of the nicest parks we’ve visited in the Phoenix area. Even if you aren’t into hiking, the scenic roads through the park present beautiful vistas. You could even spend some time on horseback. Equestrian rentals and guides are available in the park.

Rock Bridge
The other half of our hiking foursome on this trip, Mike and Dana.

John Steiner


  1. […] The third most popular post, also from 2013 features a story about a hike on South Mountain in Phoenix, Arizona. When the weather is clear, which that day, it wasn’t, there are some spectacular views of the city along the National Trail. The trail, along with the detour via Fat Man Pass is one of my favorite hikes, and one Lynn and I have completed on several occasions. You can read the post and view the gallery of images here. […]

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