Best Of :: Sports & Recreation
Even looking at Tempe Beach Park's Splash Playground in the off-season, when it's dry and quiet, we get a pang of emotion. Over many summer days when the kids were toddlers, they'd laugh and tread the shallow canals of the park, swim diapers swollen with water. Then they'd cry that they were cold when a slight breeze hit them, even when it was 110, and we'd give them a towel-wrapped hug. As the summers rolled on, they got too big to ride the backs of the water-spouting blue whales. They lost their fear of the thunderclaps and "lightning" on the rainstorm stage — but enjoyed it more. They'd have wars with other kids on the water-shooters, chase each other on the slippery surfaces, and try to act brave if they stubbed a toe. We came less frequently once the kids learned to swim, and only the younger one went to the park last year. But the memories of this simple, magical playground linger long after the end of summer.
Living in the city requires regular intervals of time away from the computer, the car, work and just about everything else. Our favorite place to let our worries fall away and get in touch with our inner center of peace, love, and all that wonderful hippie stuff is on the seemingly endless trails around South Mountain Park/Preserve.South Mountain encompasses more than 16,000 acres and is the largest municipal park in the country, so it's easy to avoid the crowds of screaming kids, hipster hikers, and scenesters. There are 51 miles of trails around the mountain, which open at 5 a.m. and stay open until 11 p.m. On one Sunday each month the park has a "Silent Sunday" when motorized traffic is restricted. It's our favorite time to really get our zen on.
Fans of Jim Thompson or Raymond Chandler will appreciate a drive down Grand Avenue at sunset. This isn't the pretty, well-manicured part of Phoenix. Dive bars line the street next to cheap, weekly rate motels. To the west, graffitied rail cars sit waiting to get hauled on to their next stop, and if you keep driving, you'll eventually run into I-10. From there you can just keep driving and eventually end up in L.A.But our favorite thing about a sunset drive is the feeling of leaving something behind and moving toward an unknown adventure, if only temporarily. Grand Avenue has an odd ability to accomplish both these feats. It transports you out of the mirage of Phoenix without requiring you to fill up the gas tank.
Signs warn of smuggling activity on this road, and it's possible you may run into some undocumented immigrants. But as development closes around the Valley, consider the smugglers your competition for the bumps and slides of Vekol Valley Road and its spurs, located southwest of Maricopa. The road is accessed off Interstate 8, about 13 miles west of the intersection of Maricopa Road and State Route 84. Taking the Vekol Valley Road exit (Exit 144), the network of dirt roads and washes takes you deep into the southern quadrant of the federal Sonoran Desert National Monument, a vast preserve of near-pristine wilderness. We drove the 15 miles from I-8 to the trailhead of Tabletop Mountain on a cool Saturday morning and saw no other vehicles or people until the afternoon, when we spotted a family on the trail and a pickup truck (possibly a smuggler) driving through an arroyo. On this road, the Wild West is still just a bit wild. From the adventurer's point of view, that's a good thing.
Phoenix is bound by history, be it the scattered ruins left by the Hohokam or the Old West cowboy and mining heritages created by pioneers pushing west. But some of the true greatness of Arizona's history is embedded in its geology — how the land was formed, baked, eroded, and mined, exposing all sorts of natural treasures to experience and elusive mineral treasures to seek. It is this adventure for natural and mineral bounty that makes the eastward run to the old (and still active) mining towns of Miami and Globe such a rich experience.
Start out of the Valley heading east on the Superstition Freeway, bending around the base of the Superstition Mountains. Stop by Arizona's oldest botanical garden (Boyce Thompson Arboretum in nearby Superior) and roll down Miami's main drag, Sullivan Street, before getting into Globe. Founded in the 1870s, Globe became the Pinal County seat, as well as one of the richest copper-mining areas in the country. Today, its oddities include the Elks Lodge Building (the "World's Tallest Three-Story Building," according to Ripley's Believe It or Not), one of the last remaining copper smelters in the United States, and the massive Besh-ba-Gowah pueblo, as well as a multitude of old mining town streets lined with shanties and old homes from the turn of the 20th century.
For the return trip home, continue to head back through time along the Apache Trail. The first section runs up along the west bank of Lake Roosevelt, passing by the Tonto National Monument cliff dwellings and the Theodore Roosevelt Dam. Just beyond the dam, the remainder of the Apache Trail is dirt, making for a very slow but incredibly beautiful drive through the heart of the Superstition wilderness, along the Salt River, and past Apache and Canyon lakes. The late-afternoon, early-evening hours turn the desert to hues of gold, red, orange, and magenta as the trail runs alongside high cliffs. Beware of some killer sunset glare as the road drives westward. The dirt will begin to feel endless, but it kicks out at Tortilla Flat as the paved road twists through Apache Junction and back to the Superstition Freeway.
When the mercury levels in Phoenix skyrocket into the triple digits, it's time to start planning an escape route. When we're looking to get out of town for a quick visit to cooler temps, we like to jump on the Beeline and book it up to Strawberry for a dose of pine trees, fresh air, and maybe a cheese-making class and a little quality time with a goat or two. Just an hour and half outside of Phoenix, the Fossil Creek Ranch in the heart of the Tonto National Forest offers everything from hiking with llamas to fudge-tasting from their very own fudge factory and cheese-making classes using the milk from the ranch's very own goats. Bring the kiddos up for the day to play with the baby goats, meet the pretty llamas, and take a tour of the creamery. The ranch is open every day except for Christmas Day and admission is just $3 per person or $10 per carload.