Best Overlooked Area for Outdoors Enthusiasts 2008 | San Juan | Arts & Entertainment | Phoenix

Best Overlooked Area for Outdoors Enthusiasts

San Juan

San who?

Exactly. Even we die-hard outdoorsfolk spent many a wasted year in ignorance of this under-utilized section of South Mountain Park before a wrong turn turned out right. Our happy misadventure started at that big fork in the road where nobody turns west 'cause everyone's headed east to the top of the range. And who can blame them? The top of this range, the centerpiece of the largest municipal park in the world, is a pretty special place.

But so is San Juan, South Mountain's fetching ground floor. You'll know you're on the right path when you see the snaggle-toothed spires of the Estrella Mountains looming dead ahead in the windshield. On either side of the road are wild tracts of lowland Sonoran Desert that slowly give rise to the park's curvaceous promontories. There's excellent hiking here in the rolling foothills — all of it fairly easy, unless you decide to go vertical — and we've yet to find a better place to ogle desert wildflowers in the spring.

A little farther down the road, there's a parking lot that provides access to a riparian area. Dry most of the year, the riverine system offers a desert experience that's rare, especially in the central core. You can walk for hours through boulder-chocked mini-canyons carved by monsoon storms and flash floods.

At the end of the road lies San Juan Lookout, which offers a prime view of the city plus a picnic area and the terminus of the 20-plus-mile National Trail.


One recent Saturday morning, we drove past the Camelback Mountain trailhead at Echo Canyon, and our hearts went out to the scores of hikers making the one-mile trudge from the overflow parking lot on 44th Street to the Camelhead. Mind you, we didn't feel for the poor wretches because they had to pound a little pavement. We pitied them because they didn't know any better.

That kind of ignorance is bliss for those of us who frequent Papago Park, a little-utilized, 1,200-acre recreational bonanza and one of the few significant parcels of lowland Sonoran Desert remaining in the urban Valley.

In the time it takes you to find a place to park at Camelback, death-trudge to the trailhead, scale the nasty piece of rock, and limp back to your car, we've already checked off two, three, maybe even four of the activities Papago has to offer. These include, but are not limited to, hiking and bouldering, mountain-biking, orienteering, urban fishing, picnicking, golf, archery, the Phoenix Zoo, the Desert Botanical Garden, and . . . you get the picture.

Wish you were here. But not really.

Sakura, the Japanese word for "cherry blossom," holds an extremely important cultural significance in Japanese culture. Each spring, the sakura trees begin blooming in the southwest reaches of Japan and steadily move toward the northeast. During this time, it's popular for natives and tourists alike to buy a bottle of sake and partake in viewing the blooms before they vanish for another year.

If you're yearning for a similar Zen experience, look no further than the Japanese Friendship Garden. A symbol of friendship between Phoenix and her sister city Himeji in Japan, this garden is built on 3.5 acres on which 50 architects from Japan built the park over 60 trips since 1987. Although there aren't cherry trees here, purple leaf plums, Japanese maples, and evergreen pears are just a few of the desert-friendly trees that create shady spaces to relax. You won't find a more authentic Japanese experience anywhere else this side of the Pacific.

Feed your inner butterfly. Even the toughest of men can appreciate the quasi-supernatural experience of walking among thousands of butterflies of all shapes, colors, and sizes. Okay, even if the men don't like it, their kids will.

For eight years now, the Desert Botanical Garden has hosted butterfly exhibits in a greenhouse pavilion — generally, twice a year (spring and fall; check the Web site for details) — with thousands of butterflies in 30 varieties in attendance.

Tickets cost as little as $2 and are available at the door. For that price, butterfly lovers of all ages can walk into a universe of tame, colorful, flying life. We think butterflies are the dogs and dolphins of the insect world: friendly, beautiful, and responsive to humans. If you disagree, go to this exhibit. Then we'll talk.

Think of a Hula-Hoop times 50 and you got a whole lotta shakin' going on. Every spring, the world-class Heard Museum hosts the world championships for Native American hoop dancing. It's like a slam-dunk contest for dancers, except that these folks must don traditional dress before they shimmy, contort, and gyrate for cash prizes and the glory of being the best at what they do. Alongside the adults, teenagers and little ones also vie for the big prizes. The event is held on the Heard grounds in downtown Phoenix, and the $10 fee for adults also covers admission to the museum. Children under the age of 4 get in free.

Since the '90s, this west-side collective of b-boys, hip-hoppers, and mind-blowing breakdancers has preached, in its words, true "H.I.P. H.O.P." (Higher Inner Peace Helping Other People). Every Wednesday beginning at 10 p.m., you can see what they mean when they open up their practice space to the public. The group's professional dancers, DJs, models, and musicians basically throw a big family-friendly party, which, in the past, has featured former Phoenix Sun and current radio personality Cedric Ceballos spinning records.

Former UFC and WWE star Ken Shamrock has been training fighters in mixed martial arts for years at his Lion's Den dojo in Reno, Nevada. This year, Shamrock opened a location in Scottsdale, boasting 8,000 square feet of training space, including a boxing ring, a fighting cage, and a fully equipped weight room. Shamrock handpicked the instructors for the Scottsdale location, who include Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt Carlos Farias, UFC fighter Edwin Dewees, kick-boxing world champion Rick Roufus, and Shamrock himself.

Members of the Lion's Den can receive instruction in a variety of martial arts, from Muay Thai kick-boxing and grappling to boxing and jiu-jitsu. Members can participate in classes or pay for special one-on-one instruction. Kids are welcome, too, as the dojo offers martial arts programs for "Cubs" (ages 4-8) and "Juniors" (ages 9-14).

We lost our rodeo virginity this past year during the 44th annual Lost Dutchman Days and we can't imagine a more perfect place to lose it. The Grand Canyon Pro Rodeo Association, based in Winslow, programs rodeos throughout the Southwest, including this three-day shindig, which headlines the Old West carnival out in AJ each President's Day weekend. The biggie events of professional rodeo are all here, such as calf roping, steer wrestling, saddle bronc, and bareback riding. The majority of the cowboys and cowgirls live in Arizona (Phoenix area included) so plop your rodeo-watching behind on the new bleachers, listen to a rodeo clown tell jokes inspired by Jeff Foxworthy, drink canned domestic beer, and watch our local cowpokes giddyup.

This ain't no podunk rodeo, uhear? Never has been (the "Singing Cowboy" Gene Autry participated in 1938) and probably never will be, as long as the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA) continues to bring this nationally sanctioned spectacular to town. The Buckeye Chamber started Helzapoppin' Days back in nineteen of thirty-five (that's 1935 for those of you who aren't country), and it's a celebration that continues annually every March. The all-things-Western party features a parade, car show, demolition derby, and (yee-haw!) the signature event culminating in the crowning of the Miss Helzapoppin' PRCA Rodeo Queen.

We have friends "back east" who truly believe that we saddle up our horses every morning, jump on from the back, and giddy-up our way to work down the stagecoach trail, which we quaintly call the interstate. Truth is, a lot of people "out here" do love their horses. And we haven't found a better place than this refuge from city life near the Desert Ridge Marketplace. On any given day at this delightfully rustic, family-friendly locale, kids of all ages ride their ponies in the four equestrian arenas, trails, and just about anywhere on-site. Classes include horsemanship, roping, and barrel riding, and family events such as hayrides, trail rides and kid rodeos make for a great time, even for the most urban of parks.

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