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Thursday, May 25, 2017

Silent Sundays Welcome Reprieve for Park Users

Drive south on Central Avenue and you’ll enter South Mountain Park/Preserve, a desert jewel and one of the world’s largest urban parks at more than 16,000 acres.

If you keep driving past the guard booth eight miles on a winding uphill road, you come to a stunning overlook near the cluster of radio and television towers with expansive views of the Valley below.

But one Sunday each month, orange cones block off the road. Motorized traffic is diverted to the parking lot.

This is the “Silent Sundays” program, a welcome reprieve for anyone wishing to use the road and trails without sharing them with vehicles. It’s usually the fourth Sunday of the month, said South Mountain Park/Preserve supervisor Kim Keith, with exceptions for certain holidays or special events.

“You don’t have to worry about the cars,” said mountain bike rider Brandon McLean of Tempe. “Frequently, we have to cross the road, and when the cars are out, you have to come to a complete stop and make sure a car isn’t coming around the corner. It’s more peaceful and less dangerous.”

And road cyclist John Garcia of Phoenix said, “You can ride better in groups. If it’s a non-Silent Sunday, you have to ride in a single file line.”

Cyclists can go faster and have more fun on the downhill ride, too, Garcia added, saying he can get up to 45 miles per hour if he doesn’t have to worry about cars. Otherwise, he keeps it to about 35 miles per hour.

On the most recent Silent Sunday on January 25, birds were chirping, quail and cottontails were dashing across the road, and bicyclists, skateboarders, inline skaters, dog-walkers, stroller pushers and hikers all enjoyed the park undistracted.

“The air is so fresh,” said Jen Smith of London, Ontario, Canada, walking through the park while visiting the Valley for the first time. “It’s nice that it can stay so preserved like this. You don’t get this back home.”

Some cyclists, such as Karna Herrig of Phoenix, say they wish it was Silent Sunday every Sunday.

“There’s tons of places for mountain bikes without worrying about traffic,” she said, “but there’s not many places for road bikes.”

But the program will remain once a month, Keith said, to allow drivers to enjoy the lookout the rest of the time. Some have complained about Silent Sundays restricting their access to the top, he said.

“Our response is that you have 30 or 29 other days to do it the rest of the month,” he said.

And he said the parks department gets 10 to 15 times more positive comments than negative.

The idea for Silent Sundays began two-and-a-half years ago, Keith said, out of a park ranger academy class that developed it as a special project. It was intended to be one day only, and it included vendor booths and ranger programs such as guided hikes. It attracted about 2,000 people.

Due to the success, the parks department initiated a six-month Silent Sundays trial period. This year, Silent Sundays run every month at South Mountain Park/Preserve and North Mountain Park and May through October at Papago Park (the timing is due to spring training parking). The program will be re-evaluated annually.

It’s difficult to count how many people use the park each day, Keith said, but they know they have about double the number of non-motorized users on Silent Sundays.

Some, like Matt Lisby of Laveen and his wife Petra, weren’t aware when they arrive that the road was closed and were pleasantly surprised. He was doing a three-mile walk with a 48-pound pack as training to test for his position as squad boss with a firefighting unit.

“I didn’t know it was Silent Sundays,” Lisby said,” but I’m glad it is so we can walk in the road without getting run over.”

Silent Sundays

When: Usually the fourth Sunday of the month at South Mountain Park/Preserve and the second Sunday at North Mountain Park year-round, and the third Sunday at Papago Park from May to October.

Details: phoenix.gov/PARKS.

Admission: Free.

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