To get to the park from the Superstition Freeway, take Ellsworth Road way south to Hunt Highway, turn left, then right on Thompson Road, then another right on Phillips Road. It's a long trip even for those of us in the heart of the metro area, but it's worth it for the raw beauty of this 10,000-acre park.
We had fun looping around on eight miles of single-track, old jeep trails and sandy washes. A couple of the downhills may be challenging for the newest riders, but otherwise San Tan consists of tame, but fun, stuff.
Plenty of other visitors were here on the day we visited in midspring, despite the remote location. But the desert has its way of swallowing us, and the eye-pleasing vistas sear in our memory for recall during those long hours in the office. The landscape out here is unburnt, classic Sonoran desert full of fuzzy cholla cactus and distant high bluffs. We won a first-place trophy for our soul.
Mountain bike manufacturers go here when they want to test their equipment to the max. Only experts or fools take the trail all the way from Pima Canyon near the Pointe South Mountain to San Juan Lookout, 15 miles distant, but moderate riders should push themselves to at least sample the first couple of miles. After grinding up the steep gravel switchbacks, which are punctuated by rock steps higher than sidewalk curbs, the easy trails you'll ride will seem a lot easier.
National Trail is a gift to the Phoenix area, and it's as free as the desert breeze, thanks to city taxpayers. We try to be courteous to other park users even as we're careening down the hills.
Allow us to start at the beginning: Our fancy mountain bike is what we call a nervous shifter. She's as nimble and fast as a thoroughbred, but after the first few months she lost her groove, derailleur-wise. The chain kept jumping the gear rings at unexpected times, usually right in the middle of a tough grind up a steep hill. The bike needed an expert's touch, and it didn't find it even after five that's right, five visits to a popular bike shop that will remain unnamed.
A friend told us to try the Landis shop on Warner Road. Less than 25 minutes after we wheeled her in, the wizards at Landis had our finicky steed tuned up perfectly. We were skeptical at first, considering the time we'd put in at the other store. But out on the trail the adjustment held. We can only assume the staff at Landis' three other stores are as good, but we've stuck with the Warner location out of sheer loyalty. We think our bike is in love.
That's why we love the Cowtown store in Tempe it gets back to the idea that a skate shop should be the center of a community. Sure, you can buy the Volcom hoodies and the rest of that trendy crap, but beyond that, there's a sense that the people here actually know a little about the scene they're working in. Scattered throughout the store is a tiny homage to the history of skateboarding an ancient Life magazine featuring a cover story on "the grace and menace of skateboarding" and a book from the '80s called Skateboarding Is For Me are tucked into shelves around the merch. And then there's the store's awesome display of vintage cameras, including a Polaroid Swinger and a Keystone Everflash.
Skateboarding is a sport as much about visuals as it is about performance, and it's cool to see a subtle nod to that in the displays. But the absolute best thing about the shop is its art gallery, MVMNT, which features work by local artists and skateboarders like CR3, who paints on broken decks, and DDGP Design Concepts, the brand name for Dan Diaz's furniture fashioned out of highly stylized skateboards. It's a cool place to wander around and we'd rather spend our money here any day than give it to some tool working the register at the mall.
But it ain't quite that easy. When the ground beneath our polyurethane gets too bumpy or there are too many other people on the path, those little wheels are like a voodoo curse on our feet, souring the whole experience.
ASU's fields of concrete are marred only by a few easily avoided sections of rough ground. And the scenery is gorgeous the eye-catching flowerbeds, the fountains and canals near the Business School, the youngsters in summer attire. This is the outdoor skating rink of our dreams, a wonderful setting for a more adventurous date or just a pleasant workout. The daily parking crunch eases after normal school hours, making it a snap to get on-campus for an after-dinner spin.
A few years ago, inline skating at ASU was forbidden, technically, despite the fact that hundreds of students rode their skates to and from classes. However, ASU police say those rules have been "relaxed" and that skaters won't be bothered as long as they aren't a nuisance.
We like to wander through the wide malls to University Drive, then roll up Palm Walk to the student recreation center, back west to Myrtle Avenue, then north again to University.
We even have a name for it: ASU, The Grand Tour.
A local skateboarder told us he likes it because "there's a little bit of anything and because I don't have to call anyone but at least a couple of my friends will be there when I go." Online skate mag Concrete Disciples agrees, rating the park a 9 out of 10. No surprise considering Tempe's own Site Design Group the folks responsible for internationally recognized parks like the world's largest concrete park (in the Grand Cayman Islands) and the first urban street plaza, located in Ohio was behind the construction.
Cowtown also offers special packages during the week for corporate team-building exercises. We're not so sure shooting the people from accounting is the best method of building trust, but it sure sounds like a good way to get out some of that pent-up office aggression. And the park's slogan, "Safest way to play," is comforting enough to get even the worst shots among us on the field.
There are other gyms in the Valley, but none is as centrally located or has significantly better amenities. A wall might be slightly higher here, a bathroom nicer there, but the PRG puts everything you need in one convenient converted warehouse. Challenging bouldering wall? Check. Exciting lead wall? Got it. Big inverted wall? Yup.
It's getting even better. A small climbing-equipment store opened up there last year, and another bouldering room has been added atop the first one.
The best part is the friendly and helpful staff, who are happy to help a first-time climber learn how to tie a double figure-8 knot or shoot the breeze with a regular about local politics.
There should be a hundred places like this in town.
This Scottsdale gym allows us to get high about 30 feet all by our lonesome by using mechanical auto-lockers mounted at the top of select climbing walls. It's almost like free-soloing, which is climber-speak for scaling vertical cliffs without a rope for protection, except that nagging risk of imminent death is eliminated.
The gym has plenty of regular roped climbs on which you'll need a belay partner. But with the auto-locker, once you climb to the top of the wall, you just leap into space. As long as you clipped the rope to your harness properly, the machine catches you after a couple of feet, slowing paying out the line until you're back on Earth. We got a serious little thrill the first few times we tried it kind of reminded us of jumping off the roof into the pool when we were kids and our parents were busy inside the house.
The bouldering area is outstanding, too, with long overhanging sections and soft rectangular pads to place under each problem we're working.
The best part about climbing alone: We never have to worry some crazy climbing buddy will cut our rope, like in Touching the Void.