South Mountain Park manager Dan Gronseth remembers when a dirt road with a few turnouts at the end was the extent of Pima Canyon Trail Head in the 1980s.
Visitors would get out of their cars and trucks to check out the Marcos de Niza Rock – whose inscription refers to a possible visit by the Spanish explorer and priest in 1539 but later was called by an Arizona State University professor an example of fraudulent history.
Those quiet, peaceful days came to an end quickly because of growth in nearby parts of Ahwatukee and the increasing popularity of hiking, trail running, mountain biking and climbing.
Gradually, the easy access to Ahwatukee and several popular trails turned Pima Canyon into South Mountain Park’s busiest trailhead, overwhelming the aging facilities and making parking a challenge during the popular winter hiking season.
Now, Pima Canyon is on the brink of a new era, with construction crews working six days a week on a series of improvements that replace stinky pit toilets with flush toilets, a reconfigured parking lot designed to improve functionality and new ramadas that will give the trailhead a focal point.
The improvements have come at a cost beyond the $2 million in sales tax revenues approved by voters for Phoenix Mountain preserve improvement projects.
Residents such as David Drennon, who bought their homes near the park for the serenity and the view, have been appalled as they watched crews carve about a 25-foot-wide path through the desert to dig a trench needed for sewer pipes leading to the new toilets.
City officials have promised to restore the natural surroundings and have tried to respect the unique habitat as best as possible, said Mike Francis, park supervisor for Phoenix Parks.
They took precautions to protect a large saguaro that stands as a sentinel near the park’s boundary and by creating spaces for coyotes and rabbits to pass through breaks in a temporary construction fence.
“I think the people, when they use these trails, will appreciate it when it’s done,” project manager Aaron Jensen said. “I think the restrooms will be 1,000 times better.’
Jensen said that Phoenix Parks will do everything possible to restore the natural appearance of the path, which was necessary for construction equipment required for the sewer line project. He said his department has extensive experience restoring such areas from other projects.
“You would never know anything was done there. It will take a little time,” he said.
Drennon said the entire project has been devastating to him and he still wishes the city would have run the sewer line past the nearby Arizona Grand Golf Course instead.
“I will always feel that way. I will be reminded of it everything I go hiking. There will be manhole covers in the middle of the desert,’’ Drennon said.
Drennon praised the city, however, for protecting the saguaro and the wildlife and for installing fencing and signs to keep trespassers from cutting through yard on the way to the closed trailhead. It seemed to help, he said, when the city put up a sign suggesting other access points, such as Beverly Canyon.
“They have been responsive to the residents. They fixed the fence and secured the area,” Drennon said. “At this point, I am anxious to see what it will look like when it’s done.”
He said the re-vegetation project would go a long way toward satisfying neighbors, who don’t want to see a hard-scrabble road running through the desert.
“There’s been a lot torn out for the equipment. I hope its true re-vegetation’’ and not just hard ground covered with seeds, he said.
Francis said Drennon’s plan would have required a much longer sewer line and would have exhausted his entire budget for the project. He said there was no question that the restrooms and ramadas were antiquated and needed replacement.
“It’s improving what was falling apart,’’ Francis said. “I think our entire trail system has experienced the shock of unanticipated use.’’
To address that problem, crews have restored 26 miles of “spider’’ trails created by users taking short cuts and damaging the desert.
Francis said closing Pima Canyon for the construction reduced the number of visitors, making it easier to make progress on the restoration work on the unrecognized trails between Pima Canyon and Beverly Canyon, on the north side of the mountain.
“I think the thought is to take on the trail work at the same time as the trailhead work,’’ Francis said, with the spider trails a target because they contribute to confusion and visitors getting lost.
The trail work is part of the $23 million South Mountain Park Trail Master Plan, which is expected to take five years or so to complete and will add badly needed improved signage while expanding and completing the system of recognized trails, making it easier to comprehend.
While the trailhead work is more specific and concrete, “the trail master plan is more long term,’’ Francis said.
Jensen estimated that the new Pima Canyon Trail Head will open in December. He said the project should move faster, now that the sewer line is installed.
A contractor has desert trees, such as palo verde and mesquite, sitting in boxes and scheduled to be planted in the parking lot soon.
The walls for the new restrooms are taking shape and concrete will be poured soon. A concrete bridge over a wash will be installed near the Desert Cove neighborhood as soon as the sewer line connection is finished.
“Tall pots,’’ some low water-use shrubs, will line the trail leading to the neighborhood as part of revegetation efforts. A mixture of seeds will help re-create the native habitat.
“They are not going to shade anything but a squirrel,’’ Jensen said. “As they grow up, we will have a tree-lined pathway.’’
Laurel Arndt, an Ahwatukee resident, environmental planner and an avid climber and bicyclist, praised the city for working with neighbors.
She said any construction project is bound to upset neighbors and produce growing pains, with Pima Canyon no exception.
She said the primary comment she hears from park users is that they wish the timeline for the improvements could be accelerated. The plan was delayed for at least a couple months by objections from residents that forced changes in the initial plan and red tape Phoenix Parks encountered when getting building permits.
“We could all nitpick. There’s always second guessing that can go on,’’ Arndt said. “I think the city went about the process quite well. I think the process was honorable to the community.’’
But she said residents were correct in objecting to certain features of the initial plan. Their objections were heard when a proposed parking lot closer to their homes was eliminated and lighting was dimmed.
“This is the second largest municipal park in the U.S. and it does need a facelift,’’ Arndt said. “Three years from now, everyone will be thrilled.’’