Phoenix Rock Gym
The PRG is a wonderful community gathering spot that draws people in from every Valley city, so we forgive the intentional inaccuracy of its name. The Tempe gym is a place where we can get a buzz on the climbing, meet friendly people, and hang out for hours, and it's safer than drinking in a bar. It doesn't matter where you're from. It's a place to feel unified. Such a big tent needs a big name, so nothing else but Phoenix would work.

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.

AZ on the Rocks
Sometimes we have no choice but to fly solo. Fortunately, AZ on the Rocks is there for us when the climbing bug bites.

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.

Aside from using an aircraft of some sort, good old-fashioned rock climbing is the only way to get to the top of Pinnacle Peak, that crab-claw-like block of pointy granite near the swanky Four Seasons Resort in Scottsdale.

This ain't no sport climb, with handy hardware pre-installed in the rock for safety. The lead climber will need a set of wire nuts, hexes or cams, so either be ready to use such equipment or climb with someone who is. That said, this is the perfect climb for the beginning leader.

(A strong word of warning, up-front: When we say beginner, we don't mean you, fool. Not 'til you've put some time in at an indoor rock gym, learned the ropes, as it were.)We led this long route in tennis shoes, many years ago, before all the houses came. It sure is a different view from the top now, but you can still see lots of desert thanks to the efforts of McDowell Mountain preservation activists.

Just take the main hiking trail to the climber's trail that leads to the summit blocks. Getting to the base of the summit route involves a non-technical scramble climb that begins in a wide crack. It's not every day we get to advance up a vertical slab by wedging our belly in a fat rock crack. (You may not be into such things, but for us, that's heaven.)

The summit route has plenty of solid placement options for your protective gear, and the climbing moves are sweetness and light even for older gym rats. Easy as it is, the route is about 150 feet long. The small summit is thrilling to perch on, and it takes a long rappel to get back on the ground. You'll feel you've earned your merit badge after this one.

Crying Dinosaur, Supersition Mountains
We've climbed this one four times now. Never a dull moment.

The approach to the base splinters off of Siphon Draw Gully trail, up a steep catclaw-infested slope — you'll want to consult a local guidebook like Phoenix Rock 2 for the full scoop on the hike and climbing route.

We've come back to this allosaurus-like spire over the years because it's relatively easy and safe compared with other climbs in the Superstition Mountain Wilderness Area, which is like the Yosemite of Phoenix metro climbing. The Arizona Mountaineering Club climbs here frequently, and the anchor points are big chains connected to bolts drilled and cemented into the rock. The exciting part for lead climbers comes between those anchors. There are handholds aplenty, but not always much protection to clip the rope into, leaving open the possibility of a serious lead fall.

We rarely feel so focused as on the last pitch of the climb, a moonlike surface of ancient lava full of fractures and crescents and edges. We know we won't fall. But we could fall. And that would be bad.

Crying Dinosaur has surprises, like a shaded, horizontal crevice to crawl through. Or handholds that unexpectedly come loose.

We think the free-hanging, double-rope rappel at the end of the experience alone is worth the price of admission. Nothing like admiring the view while dangling with 100 feet of air below our feet.

Camelback Mountain/Echo Canyon Recreation Area
We've gotten way more out of Camelback Mountain over the years than heart-stopping views and heart-pounding workouts. But be warned: What we're about to describe is not for the faint of heart. In fact, you're best off consulting a professional — or at least a guidebook — before embarking on this adventure, if you're a novice.

The sketchy rock-climbing routes on this centrally located desert mountain are mandatory test pieces for every aspiring local climber. Ridge Route, a climb on the western end of the headwall, is exposed and scary enough to change a climber's opinion forever about the difficulty levels found in climbing guides. But even better than the climb itself, which is quite high but has only a few interesting moves, is the rappel waiting at the top of the route.

At the top of the headwall near the sloping edge of a north-facing cliff are two tiny metal bolts drilled and cemented into the rock. We don't just feel butterflies as we step off that edge — it's like we just swallowed the whole Butterfly Pavilion at the Desert Botanical Garden. As unlikely as it seems, the ancient bolts are fine anchors for our long ropes, and we feel good enough to admire the shiny vehicle rooftops in the Echo Canyon parking lot and the Lilliputian hikers, so safe and unconcerned as we hang in the breeze on narrow cords of Kevlar.

What makes this rappel special is the perspective: At the start, we appear to be at least 300 feet off the ground. That's because the rappel ends on a conical point of rock that's still more than 100 feet off the deck — we have to climb down that part. For even more thrill, try it on a windy day. You'll feel like one of those baby spiders floating away at the end of Charlotte's Web.

Estrella Mountain Regional Park Rodeo Arena
As veteran hikers of Camelback Mountain and Squaw — ahem — Piestewa Peak, we try to make an occasional hajj to Quartz Peak in the way, way southwest Valley. The trail has a sweet, 1,000-feet-per-mile ratio like the Valley's two most popular mountains, but is more than twice as long. This is the perfect calf-burning grade that feels as much like a workout as a hike, thus providing a good excuse for spending the day traipsing around gorgeous, cactus-covered countryside.

We've seen bighorn sheep and coyotes on the way to the amazing summit, which is a giant block of white quartz. Phoenix is like a gold and green tapestry in the distance.

We just wish it were closer. The exit off Interstate 10 at Jackrabbit Trail is remote enough from just about any other Valley location, but that's just the first step. You still have to drive another 10 miles south, then take a twisting desert road for high-clearance vehicles only to the trailhead.

But Quartz Peak is only sort of remote. Once, when we did this hike in early June, there were literally no human beings around for miles. Yet just over the hill was a buzzing metropolis of more than 3 million people. That's kind of nifty, if you think about it.

Yeah, we don't really like to hike, either. In fact, we're not much for any form of exercise that involves standing up. But we're easily distracted, so we can force ourselves onto the treadmill as long it involves an iPod, television, and plenty of Propel. Oh, and snacks.

But it's hard to take the TV on a hike, and our snack bag gets heavy, which is why were delighted to learn about Maricopa County's hike series, put on at parks including Estrella, Usery Park, and McDowell Mountain.

But this isn't your typical Sierra Club-style hike. There was the Elvis Memorial Hike (prizes to people — and dogs — dressed like the King), the Snake Feeding hike, and even a hike devoted to scat, where a ranger taught participants to identify different kinds of animal feces. (No shit.) That one's definite motivation to leave the iPod at home — you wouldn't want to miss a word of that tour and step in the wrong place!

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Unless you're one of those "green" parents who strap a backpack on their kid when he's 2, hiking is probably an afterthought for you and your busy clan. After all, there are scads of things to do that don't require clambering on rocks and fending off snakes — and most of those other places have bathrooms.

We have the perfect solution for 'tweeners: a day hike at Papago Park. For most Phoenicians, the park is easily reached because of its central location, and it's accessible in other ways, too. Unlike places where existing pathways govern your route, Papago has no formal marked trails, so you can wander where you please for as long (or as short) as you please. There are two regions that are especially amenable for those with younger kids: the area surrounding the landmark named Hole-in-the-Rock (use the turn-in for Phoenix Zoo) and the one located near the picnic ramada on West Park Drive (see the map at the Web site noted above).

The first, in addition to some easy trekking over mild hills, offers access to the Papago lake and all of the many child-captivating creatures who live there. The second is a flat-as-a-pancake washboard plain that provides ooh-aah views of the surrounding buttes and a bounty of wild cottontail bunnies darting in and out of the brush.

Hiking boots are not required, and — oh, did we mention that there are bathrooms?

Makutu's Island
It's a jungle in there. Multistory slides. Mazes of ocean-themed connecting tubes for scampering in. A friendly treehouse. Places to climb and jump and run. Makutu's Island is like an energy-transfer facility for loud, hyper kids. It's an especially good spot to cure the cabin fever that takes hold in the dead of summer, with 20,000 square feet of air-conditioned, indoor play opportunities.

We enjoyed squeezing through the tight bends and narrow chutes of the Pirates Den with our oldest explorer — a far better experience than the sterile plastic crawl-tubes of other kid entertainment destinations. One note of caution: Although adults are allowed just about everywhere the kids can go, we dropped down one of the big slides so fast that we were afraid of crushing whatever — or whomever — was at the bottom.

We try to make it here every third month or so. The $7 per kid and $3 per adult is on par with taking the family out to a movie, except the kids might need a nap when they get home. We know we certainly need one.

In our endless quest to find something for the kids to do that doesn't involve food or a video screen, we stumbled upon Gilbert's lovely little bird park near Greenfield and Guadalupe roads. It's a bit artificial, like all other attempts to make the desert into something it isn't, but the Riparian Preserve elicits more of a feeling of wonder in children than typical lake-based Valley parks. Instead of acres of grass surrounding the lakes, like you'll see elsewhere, we found hiking paths to explore amid dense vegetation. The bushes are only about three feet high, naturally, but the place is a jungle to kids.

The trail-weary tykes spent most of their time in a shaded sandpit, digging for dinosaur bones. (Success guaranteed; there's a permanent stockpile.) The lumpy vertebrae and other skeletal features emerge from the sand with a bit of effort, though they won't come out entirely. We sat on one of the benches surrounding the pit, watching our future paleontologists squeal with delight as they uncovered more bones. A timeless experience.

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