Just to the east of Tempe Town Lake, beyond a small rubber dam, a spectacular wetland is sprouting willows, cottonwoods and sycamores -- the mainstay of Southwest riparian areas. Effluent from Mesa's wastewater treatment plant flowing into the arid Salt River bed is being impounded by the Town Lake's east dam and fueling the fabulous resurgence of streamside life.

Drivers and passengers can catch glimpses of the emerging habitat from the sweeping ramps at the interchange of highways 101 and 202. The swath of greenery fuels the imagination of "what if" we restored the Salt River to even a fraction of its glorious past.

Among the birds assembling in the area are Great Egrets, which 100 years ago were close to extinction. Now the emblem of the National Audubon Society, the return of the graceful bird is a positive sign that, given a little money, water and time left alone, nature will provide all that is needed for wildlife to return to the Salt River Valley.

Tempe Bicycle
Just the location warrants major bike-shop cachet. Three blocks from Mill Avenue and ASU, Tempe Bicycle sits in the midst of the Valley's only bike-friendly and bike-conscious neighborhood.

Add to that owners Bud and Yvonne Morrison's 27 years in the bike business, and their longtime commitment to providing the widest selection of killer bikes and accessories, and you have what is easily the Valley's top bike store.

Beyond mere stuff, Tempe Bicycle also provides that perfect bike-shop atmosphere. It's dark, it smells of grease and just about every employee has some very bizarre, very cool tic in their personality. This is an organic cool, smart, eccentric, grassroots, which means this is a place to hang out if you love biking.

Readers' Choice: Tempe Bicycle

According to legend, in the 1870s, Jacob Waltz ("the Dutchman") was said to have located a lost gold mine, then stashed his booty of gold somewhere in what's now the park. Waltz died in 1891, and since then, many people have tried to find the Lost Dutchman's Mine. Many disappeared, met with foul play, or were found dead, contributing to the legend of the mountains.

Located in the Sonoran Desert at an elevation of 2,000 feet, the park is still hot in the day, but it cools off at night to blanket weather. A variety of hiking trails, campsites and picnic facilities are available, depending on how close you want to get to nature. We recommend the Siphon Draw Trail if you're into scenic hiking, or the less strenuous Discovery Trail, which features a wildlife pond.

The area is also pocketed with ancient cliff dwellings and caves. In case you want to go looking for the Dutchman's gold, most stories place the gold in the vicinity of Weaver's Needle. Happy prospecting.

Franciscan Renewal Center
The growing city we live in always seems to be in a state of building. With that comes a lot of noise and debris. And the traffic seems to be getting worse, too. Finding a quiet spot to sit and collect your thoughts seems like an impossible dream. Except that we have the Franciscan Renewal Center. The former tourist resort has been a place to retreat to for solace since the '50s. The lush and spacious gardens are the desert's version of Eden within our urban sprawl. Fountains trickle sweet melodies and the breeze whispers through the trees. Come sit, smell the flowers and remember that there is more to life than work, bills and responsibility. Relax and clear your mind in an oasis amidst the concrete jungle.

"We train hard for war. We pray harder for peace." The sign in the office reflects what the owners -- all former/active military personnel -- feel about warfare. Swat City offers the perfect family outing that incorporates teamwork, exercise and good sportsmanship. Teach your children valuable leadership skills while having fun. There are 10 fields of play to choose from, with five open for night play. Whether it be the Area 51 field, the ghost town, the pirates' ship or the castle, there is bound to be fun aplenty.

The owners are a rare breed of businessmen. They proudly donate 25 percent of the profits to aid the families of fallen men and women in the U.S. armed services.

If this place is good enough for the search and rescue team of the fire department, some SWAT teams and the anti-terrorist unit of the military, it's great for your kid.

Lobby Bar at Hyatt Regency Scottsdale Resort & Spa
Not that we would ever condone making use of the facilities of a hotel when not a guest, because we would never do that, but should you happen to have the opportunity to take in the backyards of the more chi-chi resorts in this little resort town of ours, you'll soon find out what we did: Gainey Ranch has the best pool facilities we've ever seen.

Sitting on just under three acres, with several divided pools, a "beach" surrounded by tiki torches, a whirlpool spa, and a three-story water slide, the "water playground" is like a water park with a full bar. Sections of the pool are adults only, so you can drop off the kids in the water-slide area and sneak off to one of the many swim-up or walk-up bars. The setting is beautiful, and guests can enjoy the full-service spa. Lie back on one of the upholstered poolside couches, swim around the waterfalls, or snooze on the Arizona fake beach -- it's the perfect mini vacation without leaving the city.

You try to concentrate on work, but the e-mail you just received keeps haunting you. You could play Johnson Ranch for $10? Gold Canyon for $15? Eagle Mountain for $23? Why the hell are you still sitting at this desk? At those prices, it seems immoral not to knock off and go golf.

The e-mails come daily from Cypress Golf Solutions, the creators of www.golf602.com, a Web site that serves as a clearinghouse for hundreds of daily tee-time discounts in the Valley.

You just go to the Web site and answer several questions about where you want to play, what times you like to play and how much you're willing to pay. Then, every day, you are sent an e-mail listing the tee times and discounted prices that fit your criteria.

Once you're signed up, you get an e-mail listing of an average of 20 to 30 open tee times at numerous Valley golf courses at savings typically ranging from 50 to 70 percent.

Sundance and Bear Creek for $10. The Arizona Biltmore for $25. Phantom Horse for $15. The discounts make Phoenix-area golf once again affordable for Phoenix-area residents.

El Dorado Hot Springs is owned by Camilla Van Sickle and Bill Pennington. It's a 1,200-gallon-per-minute subterranean hot spring of odorless, tasteless mineral water, with no nasty chemicals. Just a hot tub the way nature intended it. The water has a natural pH of 8.2 and contains sodium, calcium, potassium, magnesium, chloride, bicarbonate, sulfate, silicates, fluoride, boron, and trace amounts of lithium, which does wonders for the hair and skin.

Soak away your hectic workweek in one of the many pools, some of which have retractable shade or misting systems. You can choose either private soaking areas, or semiprivate, and if you decide you don't want to come back to the grind right away, there is an on-site sleeping cabin called Motel California that has a full bath and linens and comes with various soaking packages. It's a steal at $50 to $65. Therapeutic massage and Tibetan Bowl Resonant Relaxation are available by appointment.

The Peak trailhead isn't the easiest to get to, involving lots of curves through north Scottsdale's exclusive Troon area. But that's one of the reasons we love to hike here -- we escape the sweaty masses clambering up Camelback Mountain and Squaw Peak. At 3.5 miles, it's not too time-consuming, just long enough to get us breathing, and elevated enough to allow for spectacular views of the Valley below. And the beauty before us is breathtaking, with floods of dramatic cactuses and artistic-shaped boulders lining the path. Now and again, we'll bring our horse, though it's difficult for him to navigate the periodically steep and slippery rock-strewn paths. We always take our dog, who leaps and bounds and pauses only to drink large amounts of the water we always pack for him (and us). We also like to bring a little picnic of nuts, fruits, juices, vegetables and Scooby snacks, leaving it in a cooler in our car. When we're through hiking, we rest at picnic tables in the ramada between the parking lot and trailhead, refill our water bottles from the fountain, and take a break in the rest room. It's definitely a day well spent.

Readers' Choice for Best City Hiking Trail: Squaw Peak

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