Best Of :: Sports & Recreation
"Now that's extreme!" a young Camelback Mountain hiker shouted to his buddies as he watched us free-solo climb up a cliff. Now, we don't free-solo — which means rock-climbing without the aid of ropes or a partner — to hear such accolades. But it made us feel damned cool, even though the cliff we were on wasn't really extreme, by the standards of experienced rock climbers. We're not experts (never climbed El Capitan or spent the night on a "porta-ledge"), but we've attained a skill level that allows us to free-solo comfortably on some climbing routes. The cliff at Camelback that psyched the onlooker is one such route. It's the north-facing corner near the top of the first saddle on the Echo Canyon trail. The cliff is just one way to the top of the Headwall climbing area, which includes the popular Rappel Gully route (see "Best Place to Learn Rappeling") a few yards south. While many climbers rope up for this section, we've seen just as many "free" it, as we typically do. Needless to say, this kind of activity can be dangerous — even death-defying. But it's also liberating and focuses your mind like nothing else. Just watch out for loose rock and remember the number-one rule of free-soloing: It's all up to you.
The Valley's a real valley, in case you never noticed, and it's surrounded by numerous, picturesque desert mountains. Most are contained within governmental recreation areas, making them easy to park near and hike up. But not Red Mountain, located on the eastern side of the Salt River Pima- Maricopa Indian Community. The eye-pleasing reddish hue and steep, weather-worn cliffs make Red Mountain (a.k.a. Mount McDowell, FireRock, and Gunsight Butte) one of the area's most beautiful crags. At 2,830 feet in elevation, it stands higher than either Camelback Mountain or Piestewa Peak. Since the early 1980s, though, the mountain has been off-limits for hikers, climbers, and photographers who want something more than a shot from the Beeline Highway. Tribal officials tell us that local law prohibits even Salt River residents from walking the summit trail, thanks to punks who descrecated some of the mountain's centuries-old petrogylphs. No permits for hiking are issued, and those caught sneaking in for an illicit adventure should expect to be prosecuted if caught. Like it or not, some things are sacred.
Hiking to the top of Brown's Peak, the tallest summit of Four Peaks, can be a challenge for people in the best conditions. Brown's Trail, the typical summit route, is about four miles round-trip and steep in places. Hands-on scrambling is required near the top of the gully close to the summit. After a wet year, like this one, the upper flanks of Four Peaks can be covered with ice and snow. And that changes things for hikers — for the better, if you like adventure. When we hiked Four Peaks with a friend in mid-April, the gully was a long, glacier-like ice chute. The only group of hikers we saw summiting that day, besides us, had used harnesses and a climbing rope to belay each other up. Somewhat unintelligently, we forged our way up the chute using sticks like half-assed ice axes. Wearing crampons, those spikes you can attach to your shoes, would have been preferable for the hike. While crossing the chute seemed to invite a potential death fall, the sketchiest moment of the hike came when hikers above us kicked down a head-size boulder. The boulder rolled down the snowfield straight for us and banged into the stick we were holding. We descended a different way, spidering over the snowless summit blocks, ending up in thigh-high snow before finding the main trail. In other words, this spring outing felt like a day in the Himalayas. We're going back the next time it snows — and we'll be taking better gear.
At 7 p.m., the gate closes off the park road leading into Pima Canyon, near the northeast tip of Phoenix's extraordinary South Mountain Park/Preserve. Cars can't get back in there — but you can. A ranger told us recently that night hikers or bikers are good to go, even after hours. (He added that if police catch you out there past 11 p.m., they may tell you to get out but won't ticket you). We can't tell you where to park for a night adventure in South Mountain — the Pointe neighborhood surrounding the park entrance is private property. However, once there, it's a beautiful, peaceful walk by moonlight — or starlight — that anyone can do. Unlike a desert single-track trail, this hike is easy at night because it begins on a mile-long asphalt road (usually filled with parked cars in the daytime) and continues with another mile or so of pleasant dirt road winding through low hills. At night, we typically stop at the benches near the National Trail trailhead before turning around. True, the place can be spooky after the sun goes down — akin to a stroll down a long, dark alley. It's probably best to take a friend or two. But if you're the type who scoffs at such risk, hiking Pima Canyon at night offers a tantalizing trade of perfect safety for an hour or two of wilderness-inspired bliss. Did we mention it's cooler at night?
We've hiked the Grand Canyon to the Colorado River and back up in a day many times, and only once did the climb out nearly do us in. On that fateful trip, somewhere between Indian Gardens and the three-mile rest stop on the Bright Angel trail, as our quads seemed ready to pull off the bone, we vowed never again to forgo our traditional Grand Canyon training hike. Our friend came up with this one: You hike to the top of Piestewa Peak via the main summit trail, but instead of going all the way back down, you set off on the four-mile Circumference Trail. That will plug you back to the lower slopes of Piestewa and the main summit trail — which you then climb to the top. Although our buddy claims the second time up is easier, because you're warmed up, we've never found that to be the case — it always seems much tougher. But adding this hike to your training regimen will allow you to enjoy the Grand Canyon ambiance instead of worrying whether you'll need a mule to drag you out.
This may be our all-time favorite hike in the Valley. If you want to see the Sonoran Desert in its entire splendor, head to Usery and rock the Pass Mountain Loop hike. Just make sure it's between February and May when our unique vegetation actually looks fertile (for once). Yes, the saguaros will be tipped with white blossoms; the ocotillo will be covered in lush leaves and orange blooms; and the barrel cacti will glow with their hot pink, orange, and yellow flowers. And don't forget the Brittle Bush, and, ahem, Blue Dick that sprout from the dirt. We say, with such a rare opportunity to see some life in our desert, make the most of it with this eight-mile loop. You'll certainly get an eyeful as you wrap around the mountain's base, slowly climbing to make a steep descent on the other side.