BEST FALL DAY TRIP FOR THE FAMILY 2006 | Slide Rock State Park | Arts & Entertainment | Phoenix
Tired of being stuck in town for the fall? It's bone dry, daytime temperatures are still scorching, and kids are relegated to crowded water parks or picnics on dead park grass. Pack up the family station wagon and head to Sedona's Slide Rock State Park, a scenic red rock canyon nestled in a 43-acre apple orchard. It's a setting straight out of Little House on the Prairie, complete with a farmers' market, nature trails, and swimming holes like the natural rock slide for which the park is named. The water quality is tested daily, and visitors are free to enjoy delicious apples from the native trees. No, really, we swear. And you can make it there and back in a day, easy.
This sprawling nature preserve, a little more than an hour's drive east of Phoenix on U.S. 60, doesn't have the polish of the Desert Botanical Garden. But it more than makes up for that with its slightly tatty, quirky charm, and no can deny that its collection of plant life is just as impressive. Its trails gently loop through 320 acres of cacti, trees, canyons and even a eucalyptus forest. No matter what direction you go, the walk never gets particularly strenuous, which makes it perfect for nature enthusiasts of all ages.
Named after the late Native American war hero Lori Piestewa who died in Iraq, the former Squaw Peak provides a sweet desert experience for beleaguered urbanites who've had their fill of concrete and glass. Myriad hiking paths rated from easy to difficult provide a choice for those looking for a cardio crunch or just a gentle outing with family and friends. It's not unusual for three generations of family members to stride as one up and down the well-used dirt paths, or for large groups to picnic in the Dreamy Draw Recreation Area, accessible from Northern Avenue east of 16th Street. On the downside (yes, we must), why must fitness freaks insist on jogging up and down the mountain, sometimes with their poor, tongues-hanging-to-the-ground dogs in tow? Go find your own damned mountain.
If you've ever daydreamed about lying naked 'neath a clear, blue sky, this hike's for you. While the strenuous jaunt is not an "official" Bureau of Land Management/Tonto National Forest route, it's the best trek we've come across in our many years of meandering through the Valley and surrounding areas. One of the main reasons is the solitude. Unlike the more heavily trampled trails in the Supes Peralta, Hieroglyphic, Black Mesa, Dutchman's the 12-mile round trip to Black Top Mesa is for loners. No one ever goes there. Beautiful. The trip starts at the First Water trailhead, which is located on the north side of the preserve, off the Apache Trail east of Apache Junction. From there, you'll encounter a multitude of micro-environments, from the humid, almost jungle-like environs of the Weeping Rock region to a rubble-filled riparian area to the hardpan flats of the low desert and then up to the flat-top summit of Black Top itself an otherworldly domain of craggy volcanic boulders, oddball vegetation, and absolute seclusion. Go ahead, whip 'em off; who'll know?
While not particularly challenging in a technical sense, the National Trail is one bad mutha if tackled from beginning to end and back. The round trip is approximately 20 miles, the equivalent of walking from 48th Street to 51st Avenue and then turning around and doing it in reverse. The best approach is from the east end, at the Pima Canyon trailhead off 48th Street in Ahwatukee. From there, the National gains about 500 feet in elevation, placing you on the main line atop the mountain. On your journey, you'll pass some of the trail's major landmarks The Tunnel, Fat Man's Pass before hitting another ascent, this one a moderately difficult 500- to 750-footer that takes you to the very top of the range near the Antenna Array. After you stop to catch your breath, head toward the Rock Shelter on the next peak over. Once there, it's clear and mostly level sailing along the South Mountain spine, a section of the trail that offers dazzling Valley panoramas amid a pristine Sonoran Desert landscape. The National's west-end terminus is at the San Juan Lookout, which offers an up-close-and-personal view of the snaggletoothed Estrella Mountains.
Little-known fact: You do not have to drive all the way out to Apache Junction to have a great hiking experience. In fact, Trail 8, which wends its way through the Piestewa Peak/Dreamy Draw area of the Phoenix Mountains Preserve, can be just as breathtaking as anything in the Superstitions, with amazing summits and a plethora of cactus. Enter at the end of 40th Street south of Shea Boulevard, at the mountains preserve. Weirdly enough, despite its convenient location, even on a sunny Saturday, it can also be less crowded. Our apologies if we've given up your secret hiking spot.
While the Superstition Mountains provide by far the most dramatic scenery of any Valley-accessible day hikes, the Superstition hikes likely demand too much of a visitor's time. And, well, you read the newspapers. The Superstitions also are much more likely to disappear people. So, if the in-laws have overstayed their welcome, perhaps a hike in the Superstitions is exactly what the psychiatrist ordered. If you like the in-laws, though, the best bet likely is an easy and quickly accessible jaunt up South Mountain. We suggest hiking the Ahwatukee side simply because you get less city, more petroglyphs, and a grade that most people can hope to climb and descend without much pain. The view from the top from Dobbin's Lookout is simply spectacular, beautiful, grand, and, to be honest, frightening, as it gives one of the best perspectives on the vastness of our city's sprawl into the Sonoran Desert. Trailhead is at the intersection of Desert Foothills Parkway and Sixth Street on the Ahwatukee side of South Mountain.
You bought that mountain bike with dreams of tackling South Mountain or the Phoenix Mountains Preserve, but then you discovered something mountain biking can be a lot harder than pushing the old steed down a sidewalk. Perhaps you'll be in shape someday to grind up gravel-ridden slopes and rocket down luge-run trails like the big boys and girls. In the meantime, there's Papago Park. Go ahead, pump up the tires and clean the cobwebs out of the spokes. Papago Park is centrally located and won't cost you a cent to enjoy. Most of the trails are gentle up-and-downs that will only trouble the klutziest of children or adults. If you can ride a bike, you can probably mountain bike at Papago. Yet for all its friendliness to novices, it offers many of the same pleasures as any other mountain bike ride gorgeous views of rising crags, quietude, and the occasional glimpse of wildlife, mostly coyotes, lizards or rabbits. The best place to access Papago for bike riding is off Galvin Parkway. Instead of going east to the Phoenix Zoo, take the entrance road just opposite into a parking area. Trails from there run all over the park, and it's not easy to get lost. Better hurry out there, though civic leaders have grand designs to develop the park in the future, and the long series of interconnected trails that are great for biking someday could be blocked by a hotel or retail shops. For now, your path to biking fun awaits.
The Valley has more kick-ass mountain bike trails than you can throw a broken chain at, but nothing beats Pemberton for continuous one-way rough-riding pleasure. In fact, since the few equestrians at McDowell Mountain Park are well spread out, and hikers rare, this trail transforms a land area the size of Fountain Hills into your own personal mountain bike heaven. On many days, especially if it's the slightest bit warm out, we've had the entire loop, and seemingly every hill, rock, cholla cactus and collared lizard within it, to our smug little selves. The park also has two wonderful, mountain-bike-only competitive tracks. But even without as much of the coveted single-track trail per mile, Pemberton is every bit as fun as the comp tracks and there's 15 miles of it. Bike clockwise for a breezy, long descent on the back part of the loop; counterclockwise if you want a shorter, rockier downhill ride. Either way, it's a blast for beginners to experts, and the ever-changing scenery just rolls on and on. Pemberton will probably take you a couple of hours even if you're pretty fast. So be sure to take water with you, even in cooler temps. It's a big 'un.
Every Wednesday over at the quaint and centrally located Desert Storm Park polo grounds, bicycle maniacs test their mettle during lightning-paced warfare on two wheels. Similar to the traditional yuppified fare, sans the prohibitive price tag, bicycle polo is actually an old sport that's been revitalized in recent years. Its birthplace is believed to be India about a hundred years ago when British troops used bicycles to hone their equestrian polo skills. The urbanized non-equine variety features two teams of coed-friendly riders slugging it out on a 100-by-60-yard grass field with the simple objective of outscoring the opponent. Admission is free, and mallets are provided. All you need is a bike and a healthy pair of lungs. A helmet is a good idea, too.

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