The 1.5-mile hike through the 323-acre Boyce Thompson Arboretum, the state's oldest and largest botanical garden, is gorgeous any time of the year. But only in fall, as you walk down through the steep-walled Queen Creek Canyon, do you pass through hundreds of different tree species from ecosystems around the world changing colors together. It's a natural palette seen in few places on Earth. Surprisingly, most visitors trek through the arboretum in spring, leaving the paths fairly quiet during this autumnal spectacular show.

One drawback for this fall, though. As it has with much of Arizona's vegetation, this year's drought has taken its toll on the plant life in the arboretum. This autumn likely will be a replay of last year, when severe heat and dry conditions played havoc with the usual spectacular colors. Think of it as a muted palette.

Squaw Peak's backside may be its best side. After a wet winter, the trail is lined with globe mallow and California poppies along the first pitch; a mile farther up and over the saddle, the vegetation has not been trampled by the aggressive procession of treadmill gym rats humping and huffing up and down the main trail. Think about it: There are far fewer wild critters and saguaros than there used to be in the more traveled areas of the mountain preserves.

This stretch of Trail 100 recalls the old days. It winds in and out of washes, down through a valley, all the way to Tatum Boulevard, three or four miles away, as the cactus wren flies. Or you can wander off on any number of side trails, north into the flats of the Phoenix Mountains Preserve near 40th Street, uphill and south toward 36th Street, or even work your way around to Squaw Peak Recreation Area to jeer at the hiking lemmings.

Readers' Choice for Best City Hiking Trail: Squaw Peak

Lost Dutchman State Park
This is one of those trails that's like a video arcade game -- it keeps getting tougher and tougher until it finally beats you.

It's only 2.5 miles from the trailhead to Flatiron, one of those cruelly majestic sentinels of the Superstition Mountains.

The problem is, the last .9 mile climbs 1,700 feet through rock and cactuses from an area called The Basin, which is a meniscus-buster hike in itself.

This final accent has the withering grade of a climb from a front-range high lake to the Continental Divide. Here, though, the rocks are more jagged, the snakes more venomous and the vegetation more potentially flesh-ripping. Now factor in the broiling Valley sun and, well, this ain't no stroll through the park.

That said, it's a spectacular hike, both as you climb into the towering cragginess and as you descend (oh so carefully) with a panoramic view of the East Valley.

Park rangers advise that only experienced hikers who are in good condition attempt the five-hour Flatiron hike. If you're going to try it, make sure you bring two liters of water, be careful where you place your hands, and -- most important -- watch your step.

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

Gold Canyon Golf Resort
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

Franciscan Renewal Center
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.

Best Of Phoenix®

Best Of