By Jim Walsh

One of the favorite activities of Gilbert residents is a hike up South Mountain, which looms over a sprawling quilt of red-tile roofed suburban neighborhoods.

South Mountain Park plays a major role in the quality of life of residents who use it regularly and the region as a whole, attracting an estimated 3 million visitors a year.

“People don’t move out here for the cul-de-sacs. They move out here for the beauty,’’ said Laurel Arndt, an avid bicyclist and hiker who has lived in the area for more than 30 years.

After many years of little change, the park is now on the verge of a substantial update as it heads toward its 100th anniversary in 2024. A $23-million project will bring more parking at trailheads, better restrooms and improved ramadas during a five-year period starting this spring.

Another phase of improvements is expected to stem from the South Mountain Trail and Preserve Master Plan.

“It’s the biggest change we’ve ever had in South Mountain Park,’’ said Phoenix City Council member Sal DiCiccio, a strong advocate for open space. “It’s going to be an amazing change for hikers and bikers.’’

DiCiccio’s district includes not only South Mountain Park, but also Papago Park and the Echo Canyon Trail at Camelback Mountain. He said the city is investing in the preserve system—one of its most important assets.

“You look at our quality of life, it’s fundamental to our community,’’ he said.

The plan’s purpose is to serve as guide to improving a 51-mile maze of popular, but sometimes confusing trails. It seems likely that some unrecognized “spider’’ trails created by wayward hikers and bikers will be recognized and upgraded to create a more cohesive system. Other spider trails will be closed and restored.

“These huge plans will merge nicely together,’’ said Inger Erickson, director of the Parks and Recreation Department. “At the same time that we are improving access, they are getting better signage, better sustainable paths.’’

“Obviously, you have to have a starting point. You have to have amenities to direct people to a place,’’ she said. “We are trying to get people on the path and get rid of those spider trails.’’

The most heavily used trailhead is Pima Canyon, near 48th Street and The Arizona Grand Resort. Erickson described that trailhead as “over-loved.’’

A plan to expand parking and to make other trailhead improvements is already generating controversy among neighbors concerned about more noise, pollution and destruction of the desert.

The new trail marking system will improve safety, making it less likely that people get lost and more likely that they will be found in the event of emergencies, Erickson said.

Emergencies and mountain rescues occur less often at South Mountain Park than other parts of the Phoenix Mountain Preserve system, such as Echo Canyon in Camelback Mountain or Piestewa Peak in north Phoenix, Erickson said.

But that doesn’t mean tragedies don’t occur occasionally.

Although most injuries are broken ankles and twisted knees, two people died in the park within the past year, including a woman who got lost near Telegraph Pass, Erickson said.

The marking system envisioned by Erickson goes well beyond simple metal poles with trail names stenciled on them.

It will combine conventional signs and maps with Quick Response codes, commonly known as QR codes. Visitors will be able to take pictures of the code with their smartphones, which will deliver text on a website.

The system will give Phoenix parks another way to deliver safety tips, such as warning people about the dangers of heat stroke or telling them to stay on the trails. Visitors would obtain directions and other information to help them decide on their route.

The Phoenix Parks and Preserve Initiative, last approved by voters in 2008 and in effect for 30 years, will pay for the improvements. The initiative sets aside one cent of sales taxes for every $10 of purchases, with 40 percent of those funds dedicated to land acquisition and development of the preserves, including trails, trailheads and signage.

Arndt, a land use planner with the Sonoran Institute, has been attending the hearings on the trail master plan. She said the improvements are overdue, with some trails and facilities in poor condition, and vital to the area’s quality of life. She wonders whether the city can pull off all the changes in the massive, 16,000-acre park with a limited staff.

Better signage will help the park serve its preservation mission by discouraging use of destructive spider trails and restoring them to a more natural state, she said.

“It’s the 80-20 rule,’’ she said, with 80 percent of hikers and bikers following the trail and the inevitable 20 percent looking for destructive shortcuts.

“The good news is that they have gotten the message loud and clear that they need to do some trail management,’’ Arndt said.

Rather than new trails, “what we need is better definement and management of the trails we have now,’’ she said.

Brad Anders, also an avid bicyclis, praised any effort to create a coherent trail system and to reduce confusion among park visitors. He realizes the system is mainly intended to help occasional visitors, rather than regulars like himself, who sometimes end up assisting rangers.

“Not everything was planned. A lot of it happened over time,’’ he said. “They are trying to get back to a coherent plan.’’

He said the trail system’s problems were apparent when he encountered some German tourists who were lost.

“They were trying to figure out where to go and we were trying to help them know where to go,’’ Anders said.

Mark Schmisseur, an avid bicyclist and hiker, said he tries to help lost hikers all the time. He said signage is usually available at trailheads but is very scarce at some interior locations. The problem is aggravated further by criss-crossing trails.

Schmisseur said he appreciates the city considering feedback from park users before installing the new facilities.

“I am excited about it. We use it extensively. We welcome the improvements,’’ Schmisseur said.