Best of Phoenix®

Best Of 2011

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  • + Surprise
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Best Of :: Sports & Recreation

Best Male Pro Athlete

We predicted that wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald wouldn't have the big numbers he had during the Kurt Warner era of Arizona Cardinals football, and we were correct. Without a good quarterback, a wide-out doesn't get many quality touches. That is, last year's pathetic crop of Cards QBs couldn't throw the pigskin into Town Lake. Nevertheless. Fitzgerald still is the best wide receiver in professional football, and we'll make another prediction: He will return to form with new QB Kevin Kolb, whom the Cardinals got in a trade with the Philadelphia Eagles this summer. Nobody could make last year's signal-callers look good, but we think Fitzgerald will make Kolb glad he's moved from the Rust Belt to the desert. Because Fitz has got it all: size, hands, speed, leaping ability, wingspan. He plucks impossible balls out of the air. We're not exaggerating to call him the Captain America of Valley athletes (his physique rivals that of actor Chris Evans in the movie). Consider Fitz's most important accolade: In the Cardinals' run to the Super Bowl 2008, he smashed the league's post-season receiving record with seven touchdown catches and 30 overall receptions for 544 yards. The former Minnesota Vikings ball boy is a perennial Pro Bowl selection. If he and Kolb mesh as he and Warner did, the Cardinals could make it to another Super Bowl, or at least win the NFC West title again.

Best Secret Garden

Residents of the 40-plus houses in the square formed at Weldon Avenue and Fairmount between 11th and 12th streets in Phoenix are hiding a secret. The subdivision, which opened in 1928, includes a three-acre private park in the square of land concealed by properties. The park originally housed a golf course, artisan well, tennis court, fireplaces, and a swimming pool made from native stone. The pool may be all that's left of the original plan, but the fact that most of Phoenix remains unaware of this hidden gem proves that the garden is still a safe, quiet, and secret place to play.

Best Hidden Spot to Touch History
South Mountain Park

Sitting in a Valley watering hole sipping a few cold ones, it's hard to imagine that human beings not so different from us were here, doing things, hoping for things, dreaming of things long before we were ever around. Occasionally, we must stare history in the face to recognize how far we've come and, perhaps, realize how far we have to go. There's no better place to do this than the Holbert Trail at South Mountain Park. Here, petroglyphs inscribed in the living rock by Hohokam People centuries ago. See abstract depictions of animals and hunters. Many have attested to the petroglyphs' spiritual significance. We don't like to bring religion into things, but it's hard not to feel something (spiritual or otherwise) when one bears witness to evidence of those who came before us.

10919 S. Central Ave., Phoenix, 85042
MAP
602-262-7393
Best Not-So-Secret Garden

Long before urban scavenger hunts and geo-caching became popular, ASU had a built-in mystery search that was a rite of passage for coeds. In its early years, the location of the college's secret garden often remained a mystery until a student accidentally stumbled upon it while looking for a quiet place to study. But with the rumor-mill- slash-verbal-diarrhea-inducer that is the Internet, the secret garden started getting outed and, eventually, arrows indicating its location were spray-painted on sidewalks around the quad at Dixie Gammage Hall and West Hall. (Sorry, secret garden activists, but the jig is already up.) The mystery may be solved, but the grassy area, with its banana trees and passion fruit vines, is still beautiful, despite the now heavily trod lawn. And there still are secrets to be discovered within the garden's confines — for example, the white sapote trees have leaves that smell like fresh popcorn when scratched.

Best Little Mountain

Whether you call it Hayden Butte, Tempe Butte, or "A" Mountain — all valid names, as far as we could tell from our research — this rock pile is sweet for the feet. If you live in Tempe or south Scottsdale, this is the closest you can to an experience that's in the same ballpark as Camelback Mountain or Piestewa Peak, the two most popular Valley mountains for hiking. But beyond the great workout and momentary escape to something akin to nature, hike this one for the scenic view — especially at night. Looking northeast, the bathtub-like Town Lake and vehicle lights on Loop 202 resemble a moving diorama of some futuristic dome-town, like a scene from the 1970s sci-fi movie Logan's Run. Later this year, the antenna and communications equipment at the top will be moved to the soon-to-be-finished West Sixth towers, formerly known as the Centerpoint Towers, which will give the peak a more natural feel. The big "A" will still be there — and still will change color every now and then. This year, not only did University of Arizona students paint the "A" red and blue again, but some folks excited about the death of Osama bin Laden turned the letter a patriotic red, white, and blue.

Best Place to Dig Dinosaurs
Arizona Museum of Natural History

This place is not the American Museum of Natural History — let's get that out of the way up front. Night at the Museum Part Whatever ain't gonna be filmed anywhere in Mesa. But for locals craving a quick trip to the Cretaceous and other dino-filled periods, the Arizona MNH simply roars. In "Dinosaur Hall," the skulls of triceratops' relatives and various skeletons do wonders for our sense of wonder — it's easy to forget these magnificent, strange creatures once lived on this planet. Each time we're there, we take at least half an hour to wander past "Dinosaur Mountain," the three-story dino-rama with a cool waterfall and large, animatronic T.rex, stegosaurus, and other lizard-like creatures, large and small. The kids think this exhibit is even better now that they're older and not scared of it. They still aren't too old for the Paleo Dig Pit, though, a nifty spot in which tykes sift through rocks to "discover" dino eggs and bones. If you want a close encounter with dinosaurs, the Mesa museum delivers everything but the bite marks.

53 N. Macdonald St., Mesa, 85201
MAP
480-644-2230
Best Summer Jog
Parking garage southwest of Sun Angel Stadium

When the gates are open and there are no athletic events, we're among the members of the public who enjoy the free use of the Joe Selleh Track and bleachers of Sun Angel Stadium for a high-intensity workout. When that summer sun is high enough to fry the back of our neck, though, we also occasionally move part of that workout to the nearby four-story parking garage. A recent trip to the garage on a particularly oven-like July day found it completely devoid of vehicles — except for two Arizona State University Campus Police cruisers parked on the top level. As we jogged around the empty levels and up and down the wide ramps, the cops did nothing but glance at us — which we took as passive approval of our heat retreat. We never have been hassled in this garage before, either, but we recommend jogging there only when it's empty — both for the sake of being courteous to ASU and to avoid being run over by a motorist looking for a parking spot. Yeah, the temperature in the shade still soared over 100 during our recent run, even at 9 in the morning, but it was way more tolerable without those blistering waves of thermal radiation. And days like those, when we sleep through the early morning and can't put off the jog 'til evening, you'll find us in the garage.

401 S. Packard Dr., Tempe, 85287
MAP
480-965-9011
Best Easy Trail Running
Pima Canyon, South Mountain

Our knees just aren't what they used to be, but we still love the freedom and beauty of running on a surface that wasn't created by a steamroller. When we're not in the mood for the demanding ups and downs of some of the local single-track trails in desert parks, the dirt road leading west from the parking lot of Pima Canyon proves more than satisfying. A metal gate stops all motorized traffic from entering, but you may have to dodge a few fast-moving mountain bikes coming down the slope. And about that slope: It's gentle but relentless. It's just over a mile from the parking lot to the trailhead of National Trail, though the incline and uneven terrain makes it seem longer. Enough rocks and divots exist to force us to pay attention to the trail — this isn't a sidewalk but that means it's working our muscles better than an ordinary jog would. Coming back, the grade isn't steep enough to punish our joints — much. We've used this two-mile-plus workout, done frequently over a multi-week period, to prime ourselves for the Grand Canyon, Humphreys Peak, and other hearty Arizona challenges.

9904 S. 48th St., Ahwatukee, 85044
MAP
Best Mine Tour
Goldfield

We'll admit — Goldfield isn't for everyone. But if you are the type of person who loves a little kitsch, then you might find a place in your heart for the campy town of Goldfield. According to our tour guide, the tourist trap was once a booming mining town — until one of the most productive mines in the West was flooded. (Unless you had some high-tech scuba equipment, there was no way you were pulling gold outta there.) Learn all about the workings of the mines and the demise of the town after you travel, via a bumpy elevator ride, into the cool mine shaft below. Once underground, your gritty prospector will take you on a journey through the cavernous tunnel, where you will learn all about life in a mine. Be sure to watch the little kids' faces as the "widowmaker" and the "honeybucket" are explained. Those priceless looks alone are worth every penny of the $5 tour. Don't forget to tip the prospector — without him you would just be wandering around a boring hole in ground.

4650 N. Mammoth Mine Rd., Apache Junction, 85219
MAP
480-983-0333
Best Ruins
Willow Spring Trail

There's something exciting about coming across the remnants of a human settlement while on a long hike through an otherwise barren landscape. Who lived here? Why this spot? Where'd they go? How the hell did they get up all that stuff up here? In the case of the abandoned ranch just off the Willow Springs Trail through the White Tank Mountains on the Valley's western edge, at least one of these questions is easy to answer. The men who settled here — from the looks of it, cattle ranchers — picked the shadiest spot around, near a deep spring. The White Tanks are named for the granite pools that collect water on their face, reserves that have drawn human inhabitants for thousands of years, as demonstrated by the petroglyphs that line these peaks like graffiti in a rail yard, left by the seven villages of Hohokam who once settled here. Yet this little riparian spot is still uniquely captivating. Barbed wire, several long rock fences, a rusty water tank, and the ruins of what looks like a house give a glimpse into the hardscrabble lives of the people who settled this town before the advent of air conditioning and 10-lane freeways. Explore for a bit before heading back down into society — or moving on to The Black Rock Trail, which takes you to less-preserved Indian ruins.

13025 N. White Tank Mountain Rd., Waddell, 85355
MAP
623-935-2505
Best Cave

Beginning each spring and continuing until the temperatures really start to climb in the summer, thousands of bats migrate to the so-called "Phoenix Bat Cave" near the Arizona Biltmore. The "cave" is actually a Maricopa County Flood Control ditch, but it has the proper temperatures and protection for these tiny flying creatures. During bat season, visitors to the cave (which is marked by a plaque from the Arizona Department of Game & Fish) can see dozens of bats flying out at dusk, hunting insects. There are two types of bats who make their home here: the western pipistrelle, which is the smaller of the two groups and the first to fly out of the cave in the evenings in fluttery flight patterns, and the Mexican free-tailed bat, which is a female colony that comes to the cave to birth and raise their young (the highest number are believed to be in the cave in July and August). Accessing the cave requires parking near 40th Street and Camelback, then walking along the north side of the Arizona Canal for about half a mile. The entrance to the cave is behind Phoenix Country Day School, north of the canal.

Best Hiking Trail
Camelback Mountain's Cholla Trail

It's easy to see why Camelback Mountain has some of the most popular trails in the Valley, as the top of the red sandstone "hump" provides an unparalleled view of Phoenix. Most people are familiar with the Echo Canyon trail, but we like the slightly easier Cholla Trail. We say slightly easier because while you'll still end up sweating like a whore in church, it's a bit less steep. The last eighth of a mile before the summit does require a bit of rock scrambling — so leave Rover at home if you plan on reaching the top. And whatever you do, bring plenty of water and know your limits. Hiking should be fun, not harrowing. Nobody wants to be the dingbat who gets airlifted off Camelback.

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Best Male Pro Athlete: Larry Fitzgerald, Arizona Cardinals

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