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Best Of 2014

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Best Of :: Sports & Recreation

Best Rock Climbing

The McDowell Mountains have been discovered, much to the dismay of longtime Valley climbers. We can't complain — we love the trails built over the past few years in the McDowell Sonoran Conservancy. Now, everyone can enjoy this rugged, beautiful wilderness. And in what seems like a miracle, the city preserved access to several top-quality climbing areas, including Gardener's Wall. The wall is a like a giant hand of granite stuck in the earth, about 150 feet at its highest point. Mesquite, brush, and a rock obstacle course make the base a hideaway, which you'll rise far above as you tackle classic local routes like Hanging Gardens and Renaissance Direct. The rock quality here is mostly good — that is, it usually doesn't crumble in your hands. All the best routes should be well-cleaned. In spite of encroaching housing developments and the opening of more McDowell trails, Gardener's Wall is still the paradise you remember — 99 percent sweetness and fun and 1 percent sheer terror.

128th St. N. of Via Linda, Scottsdale, 85259
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Best Path

Whether you're out for a friendly stroll or training for a half-marathon, this in-town trail is the perfect place to get off the pavement for a change. You'll find families riding bikes, friends out for a power walk, cheerful joggers, and athletes prepping for the next big race. Right in the middle of Phoenix, this great-for-all-ages path accommodates bikers and hikers alike, and what's more, shade from olive and mesquite trees makes this stretch about 10 degrees cooler than the rest of town, even on the hottest day. Running from just south of Dunlap Road to well past Bethany Home Road, this popular city trail backs onto cozy residential neighborhoods and often intersects with the canal. Cool!

Best Comeback Trail
Echo Canyon, Camelback Mountain

After a year of waiting, Camelback lovers returned in force on January 15 to the renovated Echo Canyon Trail. The short, conveniently located adventure hike, accessed near Tatum Boulevard and McDonald Drive, is one of the most visited attractions in Phoenix and a weekly, or even daily, routine for many locals. Now it's more popular than ever. Although the number of parking spaces has doubled to 135 as part of the $4.5 million project, the spaces still fill quickly each day as jubilant hikers flock to see what the city has done. Except for the parking situation, which eased as the seasonal heat arrived, the renovation generally has been seen as a success. Porta-potties were replaced by real toilets. The summit-bound trail grew slightly to 1.5 miles, with the first section receiving the most redevelopment. The path winds through scenic Echo Canyon before connecting with the old trail, most of which was untouched. Better-protected from erosion, the new trail's ready for years of monsoons and millions of footsteps — some of which could be yours.

5950 N. Echo Canyon Parkway, Paradise Valley, 85253
MAP
602-261-8318
Best Hiking Trail

If you've ever wanted to visit the moon, the landscape of the McDowell Mountains near the rock-skyscraper Tom's Thumb formation might just satisfy the craving — rolling, sparsely vegetated hills, boulders large and small. But first you have to get up there. We usually take Dynamite Boulevard, turn right on 128th Street, and head south until reaching the parking lot. Don't be fooled by the posh, resort-style entranceway at the trailhead — this is Scottsdale, yes, but it's not all easy living on the Tom's Thumb Trail. You'll ascend nearly the height of the Empire State Building over more than two miles of steep trail with switchbacks. Opened just two years ago, the new trail is smooth and mostly free of ankle-twisting rocks. It's tough, but you'll see people of all ages taking it on. Take more water than you think you'll need if the air temperature is anything close to warm, and be sure to save some energy to explore the otherworldly summit ridge for a while.

104th St. S. of McDowell Mountain Ranch Rd., Scottsdale, 85259
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5950 N. Echo Canyon Parkway, Paradise Valley, 85253
MAP
602-261-8318
Best Hiking Guide

First published more than a decade ago, this hiking and biking guide will inspire even the least-outdoorsy among us to hit the trail. Expert and frequently updated trail descriptions are categorized by difficulty, length, and popularity among hikers, and the book's topographical maps make this book a must-have for any hiker. Step-by-step directions and some really great photography help both the novice and the seasoned hiker choose which trail to take. The "History and Legends" essays, published as part of each hike description, really sets this book apart from other guides covering the National Forest Wilderness of Arizona.

Best Bouldering
South Mountain Park/Preserve

Bouldering in the Pima Canyon wash, near the east end of Phoenix's vast South Mountain Park/Preserve, requires extreme skill, not just because of the difficult routes, which are rated V0 (equivalent to about 5.10 at local rock-climbing gyms — not a beginner rating) to an insane V7, but also because of the scary landings. Bouldering typically involves rock climbing with rock shoes but no rope on routes low enough to fall off without serious injury. In this "developed" climbing area (the short climbing routes are detailed in a pamphlet published by local climber Marty Karabin and found in area outdoors shops), the routes go too high, and have wicked-angled boulders to fall on if you miss a handhold.

So why do we love it? Fact is, we've enjoyed the place many times without finishing a route — that is, we climb up only a few feet, and leave the top-outs for stronger, nuttier athletes. No shame in that — it's bouldering. The idea is to get a good pump. And that we do. The rock quality here is passable, considered "granitic" but not granite. Its boulders often have a veneer of desert varnish, which feels great to grip. Good cracks rise up high enough to practice fist jams and foot placement.

You've got to watch for the inevitable crumbly hand- and footholds. But the expansive, fun-to-explore area of dry waterfalls, varnished boulders, and arroyo sand is worth several hours of your life on a nice day. Often, you'll see some of the local hardmen and women who spend hours a day — every day — on the rock and maybe some of the overconfident klutzes who'll make you want to get your phone ready to call 911. If you spot someone staying safe and low but still having fun, that might be us.

10919 S. Central Ave., Phoenix, 85042
MAP
602-262-7393
Best Rock Climbing Gym

Unlike most climbing gyms we've been in, Focus mainly is about bouldering. Housed in an industrial building in Mesa just east of the Tempe border on Broadway Road, it has several walls with ropes for belaying climbers and a few auto-belayers that allow a solo climber to ascend the 30-foot routes. But once you pass through the lobby after signing in (and paying $22 for a day pass and rental of harness and rock shoes), the first thing you'll notice in the main room is the impressive, 120-foot-long-by-18-foot-high inverted bouldering wall. The wall imparts on climbers a steady buzz of fear because they aren't roped in.

On our first time, we had to be trained on how to fall properly on the special ultra-cushiony floor surface. They made us hop backward off the wall and land on the mat with our butt, back, and head, arms folded over our chest. It all seemed reasonable until we were actually climbing on the inverted wall, all our weight hanging on our fingertips. Our first fall didn't look as pretty as in practice. But we didn't get hurt, either — the bouncy mat really works. Like other gyms, colored tape is used to designate specific routes up the wall, so you can judge when you're improving. Fortunately, the gym gives discounts for monthly and yearly memberships. With this sport, practice makes badass.

2150 W. Broadway Rd., Mesa, 85202
MAP
480-718-5258
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16447 N. 91st St., Scottsdale, 85260
MAP
480-502-9777
Best Mountain Bike Ride

A decade ago, some mountain bikers decided to create a single-track paradise for themselves on private Estrella Mountain Ranch land slated for development. They called it Fantasy Island North Singletrack, in honor of Tucson's Fantasy Island biking area. Friends started coming. Unlike skateboarders taking over a strip mall, they didn't get kicked out. Instead, signs were posted for each of the many trails, maps were printed, the secret got out, and the public got turned on to what now resembles a mountain-biking theme park. No purchase is required; just drive west on I-10 to Estrella Parkway, go south 10 miles to Weststar, turn right, park at the school, and bike another half-mile down Weststar to the trails.

Nothing there is too extreme, but some of the trails have sections that are difficult and potentially dangerous. Make sure your brakes are in working order. Someday, the whole area probably will be tamped down under a layer of single-family homes, so load up the bike and get out there while you still can.

Best Group Bike Ride

Nothing gets you in the summer spirit quite like getting on your bicycle wearing next to nothing and pool-hopping around Tempe. Luckily for folks in the Valley, Tempe Bicycle Action Group has been making a regular event out of it for the past five years with its Summer Solstice Swimsuit ride. The ride is a casual cruising event made for all skill levels to enjoy. Usually, the group will ride from Tempe Beach Park, stopping at private pools, apartment complex pools, fountains, and even a Slip 'N Slide, all in the pursuit of keeping cool and staying on the bike as temperatures rise. The last ride saw cyclists donning skin-tight Speedos with an Arizona flag design. So should you ride next year, you can at least expect a decent view on the way.

Best Road Bike Ride

Downtown Phoenix isn't the most bicycle-friendly region of the Valley, but for those living in the area, there's a shred of hope for safe travels on Third and Fifth avenues. If you're looking to go northbound from downtown, take Third Avenue. If you're looking to go southbound to downtown, take Fifth Avenue. That's pretty much law for downtown riders. With a continuous and reasonably sized (for Phoenix) bike lane on both streets, it's an artery that pumps cyclists from uptown to downtown without too much trouble. Sure it isn't the most scenic of rides in the metro area (many favor the Greenbelt in Scottsdale or even the Carefree Highway for more serious riders), but for sheer utility in commuting, we have to give some love to our little avenidas.

Best Motorcycle Ride

There are two kinds of Valley motorcyclists: Those who have been to Tortilla Flat and those who will go to Tortilla Flat. No other local ride puts riders on twisting roads so quickly, yet this convenience requires no sacrifice in quality. The scenery on this ride is truly stunning, featuring breathtaking desert vistas, sharply rising mountain cliffs and a shimmering, blue-green lake. Take U.S. 60 east to the Idaho Road exit, then head northeast on State Route 88, also known as the Apache Trail. Minutes later, you've left civilization (or what passes for it in Apache Junction) and have escaped into the freedom of the hills of Tonto National Forest. About 10 miles after passing Lost Dutchman Park (a great place to begin a Superstition Mountain-area hike), the two-lane highway curves in ways that will test the skills of new riders and put a smile on the face of even the codgiest old biker. Weekend mornings and weekdays are the best times to go, when the Apache Trail isn't likely to be choked with traffic and you can ride at a speed that suits you. At the end of the twisties and after passing over a neat one-lane bridge near Canyon Lake, you arrive at Tortilla Flat, an Arizona ghost town and tourist attraction with a saloon and ice cream store. In peak season, the dirt parking lot outside the shops is hazy with dust and vibrating with the rumble of dozens of motorcycles. Sooner or later, you'll join the crowd.

Best Drive

You take an interstate to get out of Phoenix? What are you, new? Take a drive on State Route 87, which is ideal for anything from a relaxing day drive to a full-blown adventure. Once you catch the road in the East Valley (as Arizona Avenue in Chandler or Country Club Drive in Mesa), it's only minutes before you're on the open road of the Beeline Highway and heading northeast from the Valley. Just a few miles past Fountain Hills, you're in the Tonto National Forest, passing Four Peaks, heading through Payson, and going through some tight turns amid the Mazatzal Mountains. You'll head through the end of the forest and through Winslow, eventually reaching the northern end of the highway in a little town on the Hopi Reservation called Second Mesa. It's at that point you might realize that your scenic drive has left you more than four hours from Phoenix — but it'll be worth it.

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Best Rock Climbing: Gardener's Wall at McDowell Sonoran Conservancy

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