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Best Of :: Sports & Recreation

Best Way to Spend a Summer Day Outdoors Without Breaking a Sweat

For a relaxing way to cool off on a hot summer afternoon, float down the Salt River with hundreds of your closest friends and Pantera fans.

White-water rafting this isn't. Instead, it's a relatively smooth ride (But watch out for those rapids!) to the relaxing tune of '80s hair metal.

Open May through September, the Salt River Recreation Center charges 10 bucks for an inner tube, bus ride to and from the Salt River and, as an added bonus, a rich sociological look at how John Q. Six-pack spends his leisure hours.

Just don't forget to buy an extra tube for your Styrofoam cooler of Natural Lite -- cans only, no bottles.

Best Place to Go Camping Without Leaving the Valley

It's just eight miles north of U.S. 60 on Ellsworth Road, but this county park lets those short on time or thin on camping experience get away from it all. Usery Pass has 73 desert campsites, clean restrooms and showers and hiking trails for every experience level. (We recommend the Merkl Memorial Trail for a quick, easy walk, and the popular Wind Cave Trail for the heartier souls.)

Lesser known than the Lost Dutchman State Campground just to the east, Usery Pass is usually less populated. It offers advantages that come with being close to civilization, but all the amenities you enjoy while camping out: starry skies, scenic vistas, the smell of campfires and the howling of coyotes at night.

Best Place for a Private Hike

Squaw Peak is beautiful all the way up. Camelback Mountain gives us a workout, and if we can hang in, we're treated to truly mesmerizing views of the Valley below. But these trails are so darn crowded. It's just not a relaxing hike when we're staring at a stranger's churning buttocks inches above our faces.

Black Mountain is where we go to escape the throngs. This landmark straddling Carefree/Cave Creek gives us the best of all worlds. The terrain's breathtakingly beautiful, scattered with black slate and lush with natural greenery. It's a workout, too, since it's 3,396 feet to the summit. When we finally make it to the top, we're treated to some of the prettiest views of Arizona we can imagine.

But Black Mountain also is deserted most of the time. In fact, it's rare to see more than two fellow hikers during an hourlong hike. Must be the independent spirit Cave Creek has fiercely guarded since being settled in the 1870s by miners, ranchers and others looking to get away from it all; the base of Black Mountain was their camp of solitude.

Now, it's ours.

Best Day Hike to Help You Forget Phoenix

One minute you're staring at the willy-nilly sprawl of Apache Junction, the next you're so isolated and lost in time you feel in danger from Apache warriors. From Peralta Trailhead, you can either head to the right on the Dutchman Trail or left up through the steep-walled Peralta Canyon to the Fremont Saddle. It's about four hours up and back, which gives you plenty of time to forget the city. The trailhead sees fairly heavy traffic on the weekends from October to April, but is often deserted throughout the summer months.

The trailhead is so isolated, though, that casual hikers should bring a hiking buddy. And wear your heavier-soled boots. The sharp rocks will quickly bruise your feet in weak shoes. And, of course, bring plenty of water.

An even quicker alternative may be to start from the First Water Trailhead six miles east of Apache Junction on Highway 88. The dirt road from Highway 88 to the trailhead is only two miles long and the scenery is also spectacular, with a great view of Weaver's Needle. You can take either the Second Water Trail or the much longer Dutchman Trail, which connects on the other side of the Superstitions with the Peralta Trailhead.

(Directions: Take U.S. 60 east to Gold Canyon and continue east until you see the brown National Forest sign for Peralta. From the highway, it's seven miles on a sometimes-washboarded dirt road. Four-wheel drive is recommended but not necessary.)

Best Fall Day Trip for the Family

The 1.5-mile hike through the 323-acre Boyce Thompson Arboretum, the state's oldest and largest botanical garden, is gorgeous any time of the year. But only in fall, as you walk down through the steep-walled Queen Creek Canyon, do you pass through hundreds of different tree species from ecosystems around the world changing colors together. It's a natural palette seen in few places on Earth. Surprisingly, most visitors trek through the arboretum in spring, leaving the paths fairly quiet during this autumnal spectacular show.

One drawback for this fall, though. As it has with much of Arizona's vegetation, this year's drought has taken its toll on the plant life in the arboretum. This autumn likely will be a replay of last year, when severe heat and dry conditions played havoc with the usual spectacular colors. Think of it as a muted palette.

Best Urban Hike

Squaw Peak's backside may be its best side. After a wet winter, the trail is lined with globe mallow and California poppies along the first pitch; a mile farther up and over the saddle, the vegetation has not been trampled by the aggressive procession of treadmill gym rats humping and huffing up and down the main trail. Think about it: There are far fewer wild critters and saguaros than there used to be in the more traveled areas of the mountain preserves.

This stretch of Trail 100 recalls the old days. It winds in and out of washes, down through a valley, all the way to Tatum Boulevard, three or four miles away, as the cactus wren flies. Or you can wander off on any number of side trails, north into the flats of the Phoenix Mountains Preserve near 40th Street, uphill and south toward 36th Street, or even work your way around to Squaw Peak Recreation Area to jeer at the hiking lemmings.

Readers' Choice for Best City Hiking Trail: Squaw Peak

Best Hard-Core Day Hike
The Flatiron Trail, <br>Lost Dutchman State Park

This is one of those trails that's like a video arcade game -- it keeps getting tougher and tougher until it finally beats you.

It's only 2.5 miles from the trailhead to Flatiron, one of those cruelly majestic sentinels of the Superstition Mountains.

The problem is, the last .9 mile climbs 1,700 feet through rock and cactuses from an area called The Basin, which is a meniscus-buster hike in itself.

This final accent has the withering grade of a climb from a front-range high lake to the Continental Divide. Here, though, the rocks are more jagged, the snakes more venomous and the vegetation more potentially flesh-ripping. Now factor in the broiling Valley sun and, well, this ain't no stroll through the park.

That said, it's a spectacular hike, both as you climb into the towering cragginess and as you descend (oh so carefully) with a panoramic view of the East Valley.

Park rangers advise that only experienced hikers who are in good condition attempt the five-hour Flatiron hike. If you're going to try it, make sure you bring two liters of water, be careful where you place your hands, and -- most important -- watch your step.

6109 N. Apache Trail, Apache Junction, 85219
MAP
480-982-4485
Best Genuine Desert Golf Course

A lot of uppity Valley golf resorts call themselves desert courses, but the reality of it is this: At those places, the whole point is to stay out of the desert.

Well, good luck with that at Snake Hole, which isn't so much a golf course as it is an undeveloped quarter section of gravel and scrub by U.S. 60. Indeed, it's just a chunk of desert that the Countryside RV Resort across the street decided to call a golf course. Where there isn't scrub is fairway, and the desert in the general vicinity of each cup is the green.

Like St. Andrews, this is a "bump-and-run" course. You bump the ball, which scratches the club, and the ball runs through the desert, scratching the ball. Balls rolling in the fairway tend to divert into the scrub, balls hit toward the scrub tend to divert toward the fairway. It's Midwestern Pasture Golf brought to the desert -- absolutely unpretentious, silly, hot, ugly fun. Viva la Apache Junction!

There's one caveat: You'll need to play with somebody who has his or her fifth wheel parked over at Countryside. (There are about 200 members of the course. Yearly dues are $5.) Snake Hole is a nine-hole, par-29 course, but it's safe to say nobody here cares about his score.

Readers' Choice for Best Golf Course: Troon North

Best Golf Course to Gawk at the Scenery
Gold Canyon Golf Resort's Dinosaur Mountain Course

You know your game is going to suffer when you find yourself discussing light and composition rather than club selection. Perhaps that's what makes the Dinosaur Course so difficult: It keeps you blathering on about Asher Durandesque panoramas as you thoughtlessly plunk drive after drive into the saguaros.

The immaculately tailored course wraps in around a little desert nub called Dinosaur Mountain. The aesthetic power, though, comes from how the foreground of twisting lime green fairways and desert prospects frame the Superstition Mountains just to the north. The color and gentle forms of a championship golf course play against the brutal majesty of the Superstitions. Such contrast dazzles the eye and . . . ARGHH! There went another two strokes!

If you want to score, keep your head down.

If you're not filthy rich, you can play the Dinosaur Course on off-season weekdays for $39. Even in August, the heat is bearable, thanks to winds whipping down from the mountains.

In season, though, greens fees will run you around $150, same as many of the Phoenix area's best courses.

So don't forget your camera -- and a couple dozen balls.

6100 S. Kings Ranch Rd., Apache Junction, 85218
MAP
480-982-9090
Best Day Trip Into Arizona's Prehistory

If your kids' idea of history is watching '70s-coifed Michael Landon preside over Little House on the Prairie, perhaps it's time to take them to the Big House in the Desert -- better known as Casa Grande Ruins National Monument.

Built around 1350, the four-story Big House sits at the center of a small Hohokam farming community that was part of a much larger network of Hohokam villages. The building may have been part observatory, part trade center, part food-storage bin -- archaeologists are still trying to understand its full significance to the community.

According to the comprehensive information center, the Big House was just a small part of a sophisticated culture that used an expansive canal system to prosper in a hostile environment. Sound familiar? They built the original Phoenix that then rose from the ashes.

Best Professional Bike Shop

By overcoming testicular cancer and trouncing the competition to win the Tour de France -- arguably the most grueling sporting event in the world -- Lance Armstrong taught us that nearly anything is possible. So, whether you want to live the Armstrong dream of winning the Tour or just to make it to the top of South Mountain, the best place to start your journey is at this Tempe cyclery.

Everything required for the pro cycling buff to shimmer and glisten in the peleton, to glide over mountain passes, to hammer in team time trials, to round dicey corners in criteriums, to take that first roll on the road to the Olympics, is available here, from team apparel and triathlon training diaries to Greg LeMond bikes and Eddy Merckx books. Domenic's Cycling staff makes vélo its mojo and offers custom bike building, ace advice and gracious service.

Readers' Choice for Best Bike Shop: Tempe Bicycle

Best Place to Walk Away Your Worries
Franciscan Renewal Center

As a rule, we snicker at anything resembling a religious experience -- particularly one that's being used as the center of a friend's birthday celebration. But when another guest insisted, "Oh, be a good sport," we rolled our eyes and went to the unusual fete -- at a labyrinth located behind the Franciscan Renewal Center.

It wasn't so bad. Peaceful, actually. Not that walking a labyrinth will change your life -- at least not in our book. Still, we did find it invigorating, in spite of our cynical selves. The act of walking a labyrinth is an ancient one, practiced by people for centuries. It is not a maze; there is no way to get lost. The journey of twists and turns through the labyrinth is thought to represent the journey through life. Some people say they find their god; others believe the act can heal.

This particular labyrinth, located in a quiet patch of desert at the foot of Mummy Mountain, is constructed of river rocks; it is roughly the size of a small residential swimming pool. Each of the nine guests in our party took turns slowly walking between the rocks, winding around and around and ending up in the middle, where folks have left trinkets and notes scrawled on scraps of paper and business cards, à la Jerusalem's Wailing Wall. Then back again.

Maybe it was the beautiful, almost-spring day, maybe the company, maybe the labyrinth itself, but we felt happy and peaceful upon completing our short journey, which lasted no more than five minutes, round-trip. We didn't snicker once.

Around the outside of the labyrinth, people have used rocks to leave their own messages: "Love" -- "Peace" -- "Why not?"

Why not, indeed.

5802 E. Lincoln Dr., Paradise Valley, 85253
MAP
480-948-7460
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Best Way to Spend a Summer Day Outdoors Without Breaking a Sweat: Salt River Tubing

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