Lost Dutchman State Park

The Hand is a gorgeous, freestanding pinnacle of prehistoric lava in the Superstition Mountains that almost looks as if it belongs on Easter Island. It more resembles a finger as you hike toward it along Treasure Loop trail, though from the side it does really look like a hand, complete with a short thumb.

One of the reasons we love this climb is the belay perch on the space between that great thumb and the rest of the hand. It's like sitting in the saddle of a giant horse, our legs dangling over the steep cliffs on each side. Steel chains bolted into the rock provide a good anchor here, but there's certainly a high danger factor — let's just say that if you have no experience with rock-climbing techniques and equipment, the pretty view from this ledge just might be the last one you ever see.

Razor's Edge sports a moderate technical rating, but indoor-only climbers be warned — this one requires the lead climber to pack more than a medium amount of chutzpah. The two pitches of climbing have many sections with no protection for the lead climber. And, as on many climbs in the Supes, we found some loose rock that is just waiting for a careless climber to pull on.

In general, though, the pointy dacite outcroppings make good holds for hands and feet. The fun climbing and airy, heart-pounding exposure of Razor's Edge even received notice by Climbing Magazine. (www.climbing.com/exclusive/classicclimbs/razorsedge).

Also worth mentioning is the thrilling, 150-foot rappel, which is how you get down from this thing. The first climber that goes down should be ready with his or her camera to get shots of the others as they descend on the rope. A day at the Hand, especially properly photographed, will be a day to remember.

Phoenix Rock Gym

When the rocks outside get too hot to touch, climbers have two choices: Head north or head indoors. For the latter option, you can't do better than the Phoenix Rock Gym (which is actually located in Tempe, near Arizona State University). The place has a good mix of walls for beginners and advanced climbers, and a good mix of people, too. On the same afternoon you can see young couples introducing their 5-year-old to climbing and hear muscle-packed experts chat about drop-knee technique. The top-rope walls become crowded on Tuesday and Wednesday evenings, but that's the price of success. Thrill-seekers can always move into the lead wall area, where climbers practice life on the "sharp end" and sometimes fall up to 10 to 15 feet on a rope before being caught by a belayer. One of the original rock gyms in Phoenix, if not the first, the PRG recently went through a major renovation in which the owners added a second bouldering area upstairs, this one with more heavily inverted walls. If you want to see human spiders climbing upside down, this is the place. The "old" bouldering area (for the uninitiated, bouldering is the art of traversing relatively low walls without being tethered) received a summer makeover this year, and now sports murals of colorful cartoon sea creatures. If they were to add bunks and a vending machine with beer, we'd probably move in.

You may have heard about the hilltop residents who tried to block access to Valle Vista Road at the upper foothills of Camelback Mountain. Ticked-off homeowners said they were tired of speeders, loud noises, break-ins, public sex, and other high jinks sometimes committed by visitors to this scenic road.

But the city chose not to install roadblocks, and the nearby residents, in fact, reportedly never considered blocking access to bicyclists or pedestrians.

That's great news for cyclists, because although the streets are long in the Phoenix metro area, the whole town is fairly flat and not much of a challenge for you hill-climbing types with calves like bricks. Valle Vista Road, on the south side of Camelback Mountain, is a wonderful addition to any bike ride in the area. Getting to it is easy: Just head north on 56th Street or Arcadia Drive, both of which lead to the hill-hugging Valle Vista Road.

We like to link it to our longer, around-the-mountain ride. But it's also a nice ride for more casual riders in the Arcadia or downtown Scottsdale area. The steep grades always get us pumped, and the view is stellar. Despite the complaints by neighbors, we never see much going on up there during our rides. It's usually just a quiet, pretty view. Many times, we'll even feel a wisp of a mountain breeze that we didn't notice in the flatlands below.

If you go up at night, though, watch where you shine your headlamp or you might see something to complain about.

It's inevitable that a few people end up dead or seriously hurt each year in the Valley's semi-wild mountain parks, given the crowds those parks attract when the weather's nice. Fortunately, we have volunteer groups like Superstition Search and Rescue, or its larger cousin, the Central Arizona Mountain Rescue, to keep the body count as low as possible.

Last spring, the Superstition team, affiliated with the Pinal County Sheriff's Office, showed off its skills in a dramatic cliff-side rescue on the face of the Flatiron, a prominent prow of rock on the west side of the Superstition Mountains.

TV and newspaper reports made it difficult to know exactly what went wrong. Somehow, after hiking up the steep Siphon Draw Gully trail, Valley newcomer Emily Decker and her boyfriend, Texas resident John Wilkinson, both in their 20s, had found themselves where they should never have been: perched on a near-vertical face of the Flatiron. Wilkinson had fallen 80 feet and was left balancing on a ledge, bruises and cuts all over his body. He had bashed his face so hard, according to reports, that he lost seven teeth. Decker was stranded on another ledge above him, too terrified to move.

With the help of a helicopter, on loan from the Arizona Department of Public Safety, team members lowered a 600-foot rope and plucked the pair safely from the cliff face in a risky effort that took nearly 12 hours and ended just before midnight.

A quote from Decker, in the East Valley Tribune, reveals the underlying problem that leads to most mountain rescues: "We just had no idea of the danger that we were getting into."

Best Overlooked Area for Outdoors Enthusiasts

San Juan

South Mountain Park and Preserve

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.

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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.

Japanese Friendship Garden of Phoenix/Ro Ho En

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.

Desert Botanical Garden

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.

Heard Museum

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.

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