A lot of uppity Valley golf resorts call themselves desert courses, but the reality of it is this: At those places, the whole point is to stay out of the desert.

Well, good luck with that at Snake Hole, which isn't so much a golf course as it is an undeveloped quarter section of gravel and scrub by U.S. 60. Indeed, it's just a chunk of desert that the Countryside RV Resort across the street decided to call a golf course. Where there isn't scrub is fairway, and the desert in the general vicinity of each cup is the green.

Like St. Andrews, this is a "bump-and-run" course. You bump the ball, which scratches the club, and the ball runs through the desert, scratching the ball. Balls rolling in the fairway tend to divert into the scrub, balls hit toward the scrub tend to divert toward the fairway. It's Midwestern Pasture Golf brought to the desert -- absolutely unpretentious, silly, hot, ugly fun. Viva la Apache Junction!

There's one caveat: You'll need to play with somebody who has his or her fifth wheel parked over at Countryside. (There are about 200 members of the course. Yearly dues are $5.) Snake Hole is a nine-hole, par-29 course, but it's safe to say nobody here cares about his score.

Readers' Choice for Best Golf Course: Troon North

You know your game is going to suffer when you find yourself discussing light and composition rather than club selection. Perhaps that's what makes the Dinosaur Course so difficult: It keeps you blathering on about Asher Durandesque panoramas as you thoughtlessly plunk drive after drive into the saguaros.

The immaculately tailored course wraps in around a little desert nub called Dinosaur Mountain. The aesthetic power, though, comes from how the foreground of twisting lime green fairways and desert prospects frame the Superstition Mountains just to the north. The color and gentle forms of a championship golf course play against the brutal majesty of the Superstitions. Such contrast dazzles the eye and . . . ARGHH! There went another two strokes!

If you want to score, keep your head down.

If you're not filthy rich, you can play the Dinosaur Course on off-season weekdays for $39. Even in August, the heat is bearable, thanks to winds whipping down from the mountains.

In season, though, greens fees will run you around $150, same as many of the Phoenix area's best courses.

So don't forget your camera -- and a couple dozen balls.

If your kids' idea of history is watching '70s-coifed Michael Landon preside over Little House on the Prairie, perhaps it's time to take them to the Big House in the Desert -- better known as Casa Grande Ruins National Monument.

Built around 1350, the four-story Big House sits at the center of a small Hohokam farming community that was part of a much larger network of Hohokam villages. The building may have been part observatory, part trade center, part food-storage bin -- archaeologists are still trying to understand its full significance to the community.

According to the comprehensive information center, the Big House was just a small part of a sophisticated culture that used an expansive canal system to prosper in a hostile environment. Sound familiar? They built the original Phoenix that then rose from the ashes.

By overcoming testicular cancer and trouncing the competition to win the Tour de France -- arguably the most grueling sporting event in the world -- Lance Armstrong taught us that nearly anything is possible. So, whether you want to live the Armstrong dream of winning the Tour or just to make it to the top of South Mountain, the best place to start your journey is at this Tempe cyclery.

Everything required for the pro cycling buff to shimmer and glisten in the peleton, to glide over mountain passes, to hammer in team time trials, to round dicey corners in criteriums, to take that first roll on the road to the Olympics, is available here, from team apparel and triathlon training diaries to Greg LeMond bikes and Eddy Merckx books. Domenic's Cycling staff makes vélo its mojo and offers custom bike building, ace advice and gracious service.

Readers' Choice for Best Bike Shop: Tempe Bicycle

As a rule, we snicker at anything resembling a religious experience -- particularly one that's being used as the center of a friend's birthday celebration. But when another guest insisted, "Oh, be a good sport," we rolled our eyes and went to the unusual fete -- at a labyrinth located behind the Franciscan Renewal Center.

It wasn't so bad. Peaceful, actually. Not that walking a labyrinth will change your life -- at least not in our book. Still, we did find it invigorating, in spite of our cynical selves. The act of walking a labyrinth is an ancient one, practiced by people for centuries. It is not a maze; there is no way to get lost. The journey of twists and turns through the labyrinth is thought to represent the journey through life. Some people say they find their god; others believe the act can heal.

This particular labyrinth, located in a quiet patch of desert at the foot of Mummy Mountain, is constructed of river rocks; it is roughly the size of a small residential swimming pool. Each of the nine guests in our party took turns slowly walking between the rocks, winding around and around and ending up in the middle, where folks have left trinkets and notes scrawled on scraps of paper and business cards, à la Jerusalem's Wailing Wall. Then back again.

Maybe it was the beautiful, almost-spring day, maybe the company, maybe the labyrinth itself, but we felt happy and peaceful upon completing our short journey, which lasted no more than five minutes, round-trip. We didn't snicker once.

Around the outside of the labyrinth, people have used rocks to leave their own messages: "Love" -- "Peace" -- "Why not?"

Why not, indeed.

Even if you're not impressed by gunshot saguaros and sweeping desert vistas, surely you have to be impressed by a 7,000-pound sport utility vehicle, right?

Jesse Wade hopes so. Wade has been giving off-road tours of Tonto National Forest for 10 years and finds that Grand Canyon-eschewing tourists are mighty impressed with his Hummer-handling ability. His four-hour tours cost $90 per person and include Wade's sometimes manic yet highly educational narration on desert plants, desert animals and the Valley's ongoing environmental crisis.

We completely understand why our dog loves to ride in the car with his head out the window. Ears a-flappin', tongue a-lollin', nose a-sniffin'.

While the helmet law keeps our ears from flapping, nothing lets us experience all the sounds, textures and smells of our Sonoran landscape better than a motorcycle ride along a desert road.

And nothing brings the earth closer to us than a ride that takes us north on Pima Road, where we head east on Cave Creek Road and then out to Bartlett Dam. Sometimes we see mule deer, bald eagles, javelinas and coyotes. We also see a splendid array of indigenous desert plants -- majestic saguaro, mesquite trees and blooming ocotillo. At the lake, we preside over more than 2,815 acres of sparkling blue water. And if we time it just right, we head back west just as the sun soaks into the mountains of Cave Creek, capping our adventure with shimmering watercolors.

A pool and your money are soon parted at this luxury resort, where non-paying guests will sigh contentedly as your stress and cash quietly drain away under the swaying palms. Spy tanning celebrities, cut in front of children waiting for the 92-foot water slide, or swim up to the bar for an $8 piña colada -- the choice is yours.

Oh, did we mention you must rent a $105 to $150-per-day pool cabana for admission? "¡Ay, Cabana!" is right. But you can also bring along four friends and play in your private lounge area, and surely those Billmore (or is it Bilkmore?) fogies don't keep track of every towel.

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