Best Of :: Sports & Recreation
When the summer heat starts to cook every single body in Phoenix, an inborn signal goes off, much like the internal clock in geese that tells them to fly south to avoid the cold of winter. The easiest place to run away for the day is Flagstaff, but for a true break from the heat, your final destination shouldn't be the city proper. Head a little farther northwest into the Coconino National Forest to find Lava River Cave, a unique natural formation created when a volcano erupted some 700,000 years ago. As you head underground, be prepared for the overwhelming desire to bundle up underneath a cozy sweatshirt. The temperature in the caves is about 40 degrees Fahrenheit year-round, making them the perfect place to escape from the oppressive Sonoran Desert heat. This mile-long tubular cave is surrounded on all sides by hardened lava flows, so the surface is slick, bumpy, and totally unlike anything else you've ever set foot on. Wear comfy shoes, bring a jacket, and make sure to have a bright flashlight — better yet, one headlamp per person.
There are few places in downtown Phoenix where you can run unimpeded by traffic. One of those places is the Grand Canal. If you're looking for a nice three-mile jog, start at 15th Avenue and head east. Run by Brophy and Central, past the Brophy baseball field to Seventh Street. Turn around and jog back to 15th Avenue. Boom — you got your three miles in, and you had to cross only two main streets. While you're running, you might also catch a glimpse of the humongous fish that call the canal home. So, the next time you see someone fishing along the bank of the canal, you'll know with a certainty that they aren't crazy — there really are fish in there.
While the point of many hikes is the scenery on the journey, that's not always the case. Sometimes, the hike itself isn't incredibly spectacular (once the beauty of the Arizona desert has sunk in), but there's a reward at the mid-point that feels so gratifying. One such hike is to the Taliesin Overlook, which is reached from the Lost Dog Wash Trailhead, at the end of 124th Street, north of Via Linda, in Scottsdale. There are a few trails up here, but this moderate hike alongside the McDowell Mountains leads to exactly what it sounds like — a view of Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin West. Just as a note, the overlook isn't exactly in Taliesin's backyard, and you'll see a lot of housing built into the desert. That said, if you're a nature purist whose hike is going to be ruined by seeing housing, lighten up. It's a cool view.
There are quite a few accessible hikes for all ages and levels within the big city, including a handful at South Mountain, but for beginners to experience the best that a day hike has to offer (without feeling so much strain that it brings on feelings of loathing for the outdoors), a trip to McDowell Mountain Preserve is in order. It takes about an hour to drive to this sprawling park way out east in Scottsdale, but it's well worth the time to traverse the 40 miles of hiking, mountain biking, and horseback-riding trails. Aptly named, the Scenic Trail takes hikers through a 3.5-mile meandering path that begins in easy washes and then gently slopes up and through the Lousley Hills. As you follow the loop, you'll stumble on incredible sights like the silhouette of Four Peaks in the distance, the lush land surrounding the nearby Verde River, and classic Sonoran Desert features like fallen saguaro. After a couple hours of hiking, sprawl out for a picnic in the ramadas near the trailhead, or swing through Fountain Hills to quickly get back to civilization and stop for brunch.
There's much more to Sedona than red rocks, New Age-y retreats, and resorts for out-of-towners. Heading north from Phoenix? Drive through the tourist-crowded city center and into Oak Creek Canyon. Although a ton of great trails surround Sedona, the ultimate must-visit is West Fork. The first portion of the trail — great for families and casual hikers — has plenty of great views of tall, colorful cliff faces, and high desert forest. And it doesn't take long to get to the popular swimming area with sloping rocks to slide down. The creek runs across the trail multiple times, so be prepared to cross over it using fallen logs and slippery stones. But, boy, does it feel good to stop and dip your toes in the cool, fresh water. The views only get better as you hike farther in, and things get pretty quiet after the first couple of miles. Spring and fall are the best seasons to hike West Fork, but summer is wonderful, too. Temperatures most likely will be in the 90s, and the trail is mostly shaded by trees.
A hike of six miles, Trail 53 into Siphon Draw and onward to Flatiron is a perfect representation of the vibrant desert of the Superstitions — and the harsh reality of hiking them. Starting as a gently elevating walk through the wildflower-speckled foothills, the trail veers upward through the smooth and massive draw (which can present the hiker with occasional waterfalls) and through a scrambling, shaded canyon to the top of Flatiron. Along the trail, the scenery morphs constantly, starting from rolling hills to smooth rock surfaces, then a boulder-filled canyon, and eventually the plateau of Flatiron covered in shrubs near the fantastic rock formations at the true summit. In the winter especially, the transition is vivid; coming from the warm and dry desert at the bottom, the summit is a cold and windy place and can even have a bit of snow to offer respite and amusement after a long, tough hike. This difficult hike is a beautiful challenge for those willing to witness the dynamic qualities of the desert along the climb, most visible and most enjoyed without the summer heat weighing you down.