Best Of :: Sports & Recreation
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
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.