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The Boyce Thompson Arboretum State Park is the largest and oldest botanical garden in Arizona.EXPAND
The Boyce Thompson Arboretum State Park is the largest and oldest botanical garden in Arizona.
Lauren Cusimano

Best of Phoenix 2018: Things to Do and See Outdoors

It may not always feel like it when you're in the city, but the sheer amount of wild spaces in and around Phoenix is nothing short of impressive. And now that the weather's pretty much perfect, it's high time to explore our great outdoors. Here are our favorite things to do and see outdoors.

Best Place to Watch The Sunrise: 32nd Street Trailhead
6511 East Sierra Vista Drive
Sure, you might get more altitude at another of the Valley's mountains, but there's no better bang for your buck than a sunrise hike starting at the 32nd Street Trailhead. Located where 32nd Street dead ends at Lincoln Drive, this short but well-traveled trail is uber-popular with locals and possibly one of the best-kept hiking secrets in town. A short 1-mile jaunt with an easy 421-foot elevation gain lands you at the Quartz Ridge saddle, where you'll take in a sweeping vista of central Phoenix. Turn around to take in the view, and you'll see Piestewa Peak towering to your left with Camelback Mountain rising to the east. We've been known to soak up the rising sun from the stone bench at the top while hummingbirds dart past and friendly coyotes wrap up their morning hunts.

Best Bird-Watching: Boyce Thompson Arboretum State Park
37615 Highway 60, Superior
The 320-acre Boyce Thompson Arboretum is a birding haven. A number of rare species have been spotted there, including elusive warblers. The arboretum is near the town of Superior, so Phoenix residents will have to make an hourlong drive. Still, for die-hard birders, it's a small price to pay in order to add a few rare species to the life list. Founded by copper mining magnate William Boyce Thompson in the 1920s, the botanical garden is the oldest of its kind in Arizona, with miles of trails amid cactuses and craggy rock formations. Take advantage of a guided bird walk to learn why the arboretum has acquired a reputation as a hotbed for an array of birds, including warblers, hummingbirds, woodpeckers, and thrashers.

Best Bat-Watching: Phoenix Bat Cave
Yes, we said bats. Metro Phoenix actually has a pretty sizable bat population in the summer; estimates are in the thousands. Many of these little guys hang out during the day in a Maricopa County flood control ditch colloquially known as the Bat Cave. Here's what you do: Before sunset, park near 40th Street and Camelback Road. Walk northwest on the Arizona Canal Trail (it's flat, but not paved) for about a half-mile until you get to the large ditch with a metal fence around it, then position yourself to watch the opening. Next, stay very quiet and wait for sunset, when the bats pour out of the cave in search of their nightly meal. We have to say, it's pretty darn cool.

Best Desert Drive: Stanfield and Arizona City
Driving on boring, old Interstate 10 east to Tucson, you've probably seen the signs for Arizona City and Sunland Gin Road. Someday, when you've got gas to burn and nothing better to do, take that road and give yourself a tour of old-school Arizona farming and desert wasteland. What's going on in Arizona City? Absolutely nothing, which is its charm. If you have four-wheel drive, you can try some of the washes and mountain foothills. Coming back, take Interstate 8 west to Stanfield Road, and complete your tour by going through Stanfield, then north on State Route 347 to Maricopa before finding your way home from there. The desert you'll see on this drive is not always pretty, like it is farther south in Saguaro National Park. But it's real.

Best Motorcycle Ride: Metro Phoenix to Saguaro Lake
Whether you live in central to east Phoenix, Scottsdale, or anywhere in the east Valley, the route to Saguaro Lake is the most convenient, most scenic, and most enjoyable short ride you can take on your iron horse. Take the 202 Red Mountain Freeway east to Power Road, which becomes Bush Highway as you go north and connects up with the Beeline Highway. Within minutes, most civilization ends and you'll enter the riparian Sonoran Desert landscape of the Tonto National Forest. Down nearer the lake, there are sweet turns and jaw-dropping scenery. The ride to Saguaro Lake lets you break out of Phoenix's boring grid system, commune with nature, gawk at the reservoir set against the cliffs, and feel the wind at your knees.

Sitting at 140 feet tall, Tom's Thumb is an awe-inspiring sight to see.
Sitting at 140 feet tall, Tom's Thumb is an awe-inspiring sight to see.

Best Mountain Bike Ride: Gateway Trailhead to Tom’s Thumb
18333 N. Thompson Peak Parkway, Scottsdale

Tough, meet tougher. In our quest for challenges that make our lungs want to explode, this ride presents itself as a badass, uphill-on-gravel test piece. Start at the fancy Gateway Trail, where some uber-fit hikers may actually outrun you on some of the steeper portions. Don't be too impressed. You'll work as hard or harder as a hiker on this one, even using your best granny gear. It's a solid six miles to the base of Tom's Thumb from here, and a grueling slog the whole way. Throw in a Sonoran Desert setting that would impress any out-of-towner, and you've got the makings of a killer day, metaphorically speaking. Take lots of water.

Best Hiking Trail: Pima Canyon-Marcos de Niza Trail
4800 East Pima Canyon Road

Once you've gotten lucky enough to find a parking spot at Pima Canyon and taken the asphalt road to the end, this trail sends you soaring without delay. Let the multitudes take their strollers and leashed dogs along the dirt road that leads to the start of National Trail — we prefer to get our legs and heart moving right away, and Marcos de Niza Trail is the one to do it. From the main parking area, walk to the south end to start the trail, and wind around the hill on a single-track path. Continue up the hill — that's the main idea for a while, and you gain the ridge proper. From here, the trail is a glorious, slow roller-coaster on the ridge for a mile or so. Be prepared to go up if you're going down, and vice-versa. And we don't mean to nag, but take lots of water.

Best Outdoor Rock Climbing for Beginners: Quaker Oats, McDowell Mountains
23015 North 128th Street, Scottsdale

Did you ever wonder what it would be like to take a spacewalk? A good face climb is like that, and Quaker Oats is the best introduction in metro Phoenix you can get to the concept. The route's located on a minor rock hill in the McDowell Mountains called Sven Slab — signs will point to the Slab at the Tom's Thumb trailhead. You may or may not find the route without the help of a guidebook (and you might not survive if you're not well-versed in rock-climbing basics). Assuming you've got your requisite gear, belay partner, and have made it to the base of this 100-foot-high route, then it's time to leave the capsule, if you dare. Start making your way up the nearly sheer wall on its often-painful, tiny granite holds. As you rise higher, with vast spaces of vertical rock wall in all directions, all you'll think about is how you don't want to fall. But somewhere along the route, your inner face climber will be born.

Best Place to Watch the Sunset: Tempe Beach Park
80 West Rio Salado Parkway, Tempe

This may be an obvious note, but sometimes sunsets look best on the water. Aside from the many manmade meres in local neighborhoods, the only sizable body of water in the Valley is Tempe Town Lake. Thanks to the many grassy areas, benches, lakeside ledges, and one stunning pedestrian bridge, there are plenty of places to watch the brilliant orange and pink desert sunset from this bustling city park. Caveats include having to share the scenery with maybe a boot-camp exercise class, a rowdy group of cyclists, a couple of family picnics, and about a million people out for a jog. However, you can always rent or take out your own kayak or pedal boat to get a little privacy on the lake as you watch the day end.

Signs, signs, everywhere are signs — at Camelback Mountain. This one at the ranger's guard shack at Echo Canyon warns hikers about the killer bees that call the park home.
Signs, signs, everywhere are signs — at Camelback Mountain. This one at the ranger's guard shack at Echo Canyon warns hikers about the killer bees that call the park home.
Ray Stern

Best Places to See Killer Bees: Camelback Mountain
When a city puts up a sign like "Use Caution, Active Bees in Area," the bee-sensitive among us tend to go on yellow alert. These signs, which you can find at at Camelback Mountain, shouldn't be taken lightly. Killer bees live up to their name in metro Phoenix, where they've nailed several young hikers in local mountain parks. As recently as 2016, a 23-year-old man hiking Maricopa County's Usery Park was stung to death. But as usual, Camelback Mountain, the popular and over-used landmark in east Phoenix, wins out for the craziest tragedies. In 2004, and again in 2012, young men climbing the cliffs in Echo Canyon slipped and fell in the panicky minutes after a swarming attack began. Hikers on the main trails aren't usually the victims. But they could be.

Best Place to Shoot Guns in the Wild: Sugarloaf Road
This is a terrible place to hike or ride a mountain bike, unless you're training for war. Because that's what it sounds like out here — a war. While dangerous as hell to go walking around the hills, Sugarloaf Road, a.k.a. Forest Road 402, a.k.a. Sugarloaf, is the perfect place to fire off an AK-47 or .357 Magnum, and no stuffy rangemasters to tell you to stop the horseplay, or not to shoot if someone's downrange. It's one of the most popular places to shoot outside of a shooting range in the east Valley. Be sensitive to cactus and pick up your shells, but don't worry too much about the environment here. As you'll see, nearly everything's been blasted to bits already, except the scrub brush and larger boulders and hillocks that make such good backstops for bullets.

Best Bouldering: Lookout Mountain
15600 North 16th Street

Though the city of Phoenix calls this a "smaller cousin" to nearby North Mountain, Lookout is a fine hill in its own right and deserves your time as a climber. Besides the main climbing wall, Lookout has half a lifetime's worth of boulder problems up to about 15 feet high to try, and though the basalt rock can be crumbly at times, many of the holds are sweet. Don't mind the broken glass and graffiti: Lookout's been the site of impromptu partying for decades, but it doesn't affect the rock climbing. Once on the mountain, you'll find mazes of boulders that make you forget your worldly troubles. 

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