Cycle: Phoenix Time Travel Along the Highline Canal Path

Even in American terms, Phoenix is a new metropolis. Much of what was truly historic has been scraped from the ground in favor of new tract home or retail developments.

One of the things that makes moving around Phoenix by bike so great is coming across the moments where the old and new collide. And one of the best spots to catch it in person is in South Phoenix along the Highline Canal that traces the contour of the base of South Mountain.

In March, 2010 the City of Phoenix improved a four-mile stretch of the canal trail with oasis-like rest areas and unique art elements. The route, now with access points into older ranch-based neighborhoods and new-home spreads makes for an enjoyable and easy spin as well as a car-free way between Central Avenue and Tempe/Guadalupe/Ahwatukee for those looking to attack the mountain.

The Highline Canal, built in 1912, was the primary water source for both ranchers and farmers who set their interests against the rocky backdrop of South Mountain. The area became famous for beautiful Japanese garden farms run by families released from internment camps after World War II.

The improved canal trail, named The Zanjero's Line after the Mexican laborers who were master controllers of the waterways, begins at the southwest corner of Baseline Road and 40th Street, marked with a stone arch of recycled cement and granite.

The first two miles wind along the base of the mountain, passing some newer McMansions and mid 70s to 80s ranch-style homes built into the slopes. New developments line the north side of the canal, occasionally broken by still-vacant lots where flowers and citrus used to thrive. A bizarre palm farm appears just west of 32nd Street.

It is just on this side of 32nd that the old world of the area really begins to appear. Newer homes continue on the north, but older, small homes strangely situated on massive lots fill the south side of the trail. Not quite a half-mile in, look for the back of the St. Francis Chapel, a small, white building with a bell tower reminiscent of the San Xavier del Bac Mission outside of Tucson.  This small house of worship was supposedly built in the 1940s by Mexican immigrants who worked the area ostrich farms owned by the Heard family.

One of the first noticeable oasis spots (there is one earlier tucked in the shade of some palo verdes, but is easily missed) comes as the trails passes Puerto Park. Two elements are consistent in each of the art pieces and rest spots throughout the entire stretch: the use of buckets and the placement of faucets on the north side of each bridge's handrails, both reflecting the use and importance of water to the area.

As the trail approaches 24th Street, large open fields of dirt command the north side until they meet new retail strips along Baseline Road. Queen Palms still rise from some of these spaces, and if you squint enough you can see rose blossoms of old popping up in the fields. On the other side of 24th, more old ranch plots buffer the canal from the mountain, some still with dilapidated stable houses marking the backside of the properties.

New developments take over both sides of the canal, bringing with it newer, nicer landscaping alongside the trail until the route essentially ends at Circle K Park (yes, that's really the name) and the predominance of landscape and public art for The Zanjero's Line. The trail continues west past Central Avenue, but it deteriorates drastically beyond 7th Street and not worth following unless you need to get to Central.

For a last historic detour before heading back, take 7th Street about one mile up to the base of the mountain and check out the Mystery Castle, the 1929 house built of recycled materials and filled with secret doors and chambers.

There are two words of warning about the Highline Canal Trail. First, this trail can be covered by dirt and debris from time to time because of monsoons or other storms. Second, there are gnats and mosquitoes aplenty along this path some try not to ride with mouth open or without sunglasses. Otherwise, enjoy the ride!

Trip Distance: 9 miles
Trip Duration: 1 hour
Difficulty: Easy, easy, easy
Route Map: http://www.mapmyride.com/routes/view/64723218

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