Exactly. Even we die-hard outdoorsfolk spent many a wasted year in ignorance of this under-utilized section of South Mountain Park before a wrong turn turned out right. Our happy misadventure started at that big fork in the road where nobody turns west 'cause everyone's headed east to the top of the range. And who can blame them? The top of this range, the centerpiece of the largest municipal park in the world, is a pretty special place.
But so is San Juan, South Mountain's fetching ground floor. You'll know you're on the right path when you see the snaggle-toothed spires of the Estrella Mountains looming dead ahead in the windshield. On either side of the road are wild tracts of lowland Sonoran Desert that slowly give rise to the park's curvaceous promontories. There's excellent hiking here in the rolling foothills — all of it fairly easy, unless you decide to go vertical — and we've yet to find a better place to ogle desert wildflowers in the spring.
A little farther down the road, there's a parking lot that provides access to a riparian area. Dry most of the year, the riverine system offers a desert experience that's rare, especially in the central core. You can walk for hours through boulder-chocked mini-canyons carved by monsoon storms and flash floods.
At the end of the road lies San Juan Lookout, which offers a prime view of the city plus a picnic area and the terminus of the 20-plus-mile National Trail.