San Tan Mountain Regional Park

Despite the word "Mountain" in its name, this park is located in the eastern molehills of the San Tans, with the 3,054-foot namesake peak looming far off in the westerly distance.

Translation: It's flat and it's fast.

There are some mild ups available, but most of the park's trail system, and especially the centerpiece San Tan Trail, cuts through hard-pan lower Sonoran Desert. Hikers accustomed to the topographical arrhythmia of South Mountain, Camelback, and the Phoenix Mountains Preserve, or even other regional parks such as Estrella and Usery, will be amazed at the dirt-churning pace of the place. We conquered the 5.7-mile San Tan loop in just under two hours, without sacrificing any views or even breaking a sweat.

There aren't a lot of cities in this country where you can throw off your business-casual garb after your workday, zip onto a freeway, and be knee-deep in miles of wild desert. If you're into hiking, Phoenix totally rocks. And when you can really take your time with an all-day hike, we recommend you ditch your weekday trail and head to the outskirts for some of the most breathtaking beauty you can imagine. The Black Mesa Loop in the Superstition Mountains is an absolute must. Be sure to do it in the cool month of February. That is your best chance to catch the trail when it's at its most stunning, with rushing, rocky streams and a healthy green desert. The trail features awesome views of Four Peaks, Weaver's Needle rock formation, a cholla forest, Boulder Canyon, and dramatic rock cliffs. So fill that CamelBak bladder on your day off and get going, because you'll need the entire day.

For a hiker, it seems counterintuitive that going up should be easier than getting down. Down is good. Down is always better.

Well, not at the Big Buttes, humongous sandcastles of petrified mud that must look tame, even comic, to someone from Indiana who's in town for Cactus League.

Here's how the scenario invariably unfolds: Dad and two kids — it's always a dad and two kids — toodle by the Buttes in their rental and decide to have a spontaneous encounter with the Wild West. Dad rings mom at the resort. Hi, honey. We're gonna climb one of these cute rocky things. Should be back in 20. Twenty minutes later, you've got a dad and two kids from Muncie frantically clinging to a badass butte.

In defense of tenderfeet, these mountainous molehills can be deceiving, even deadly, with their slick-rock downs. Ups are a breeze, even for people in shopping-mall sneakers — and especially for kids, who bound up the rock faces like fresh-fed goats. Inevitably, Dad's forced to bound to their rescue, and the trap is sprung. You can almost hear the buttes chortling: Wah-ha-ha-ha-ha.

To date, we've herded two clans of chastened climbers down these building-size boulders — and no thanks required. Just do us a favor. If one of you Indy types sees a poor stranger gazing fretfully at a map of Muncie, show some compassion. We desert dwellers are nothing without our mountains to guide us.

Desert Botanical Garden

There's something magical about the desert at night. Everything looks, sounds, and smells different. And in the hot summer months, it's a great time to go and experience what desert plants and critters are up to after the sun sets. But if the idea of a nighttime desert exploration has you feeling a bit uneasy (ever seen the 1972 made-for-TV movie Gargoyles? — we're terrified just thinking about it), then the Desert Botanical Garden is the perfect place to discover all the alien-free wonders the desert has to offer, like night-blooming cereus and owls in action. The garden is open late year-round, with extended hours for their summertime flashlight tours (June through August), perfect for the whole family.

Los Dos Molinos
Lauren Saria

As with so many things, proximity's often a key for hikers looking to arrange a post-trek meet-up. For most, a redneck bar or a convenience store'll do the trick if it's the nearest place to score a frosty brew.

So while it doesn't hurt that this historic New Mexican-style restaurant is the closest dining-and-drinking establishment to the South Mountain Park exit, we'd slog through several miles more of hell and jumping cholla cactus to score one of the restaurant's "[email protected]" Margaritas and a plate of green chili enchiladas.

In fact, hiking, shmiking. Let's get right to those maggies.

The Vig

We have a love/hate relationship with Camelback Mountain. There's no better view of home than from the top, and no greater sense of accomplishment than getting there. Yet we loathe the getting-there part — the Camelneck, the Backbone, the etiquette-challenged hikers. Ugh.

But when it comes to The Vig, we're feeling only the love. This chic tavern on the fringe of Arcadia is absolutely perfect for a post-Camelback repast. Prime location, great ambiance, crankin' sound system, bocce ball on an awesome patio, and terrific appetizers (try the Hot Vings, five-spice edamame, or sweet potato fries).

After a snack like that — and a cocktail or two — you'll be planning your next hike to burn it all off.

Aunt Chilada's Restaurant & Hideaway
Diana Martinez

The Dreamy Draw is a lovely place, but it's not named for its oasis-like beauty. It earned the designation back in Phoenix's Territorial days, when workers from the Rio Mercury Mine near Squaw Peak would wander the area in a daze, high on mercury fumes, after their shifts.

You'll see that same thousand-yard stare on dust-covered folks who wander into this storied restaurant/watering hole on the Draw, but today's victims are just a little pooped out from hiking the Peak, which is now, of course, called Piestewa.

And there's nothing like two or three original hand-tossed margaritas and some fresh fish tacos on the foliage-choked patio at Aunt Chilada's (which sits on the original site of the general store that served the Rio Mine) to snap a poor hiker back to reality.

Those who trek on weekend mornings can look forward to the special brunch menu, which includes a gurgling chocolate fountain. Yum.

Best Competitive Sport Played with a Keg on the Field

Kickball

The concept of adult kickball got its start in our nation's capital, where over-educated and underpaid young professionals used the semi-ironic playing of a children's sport to take out their aggression, hide their shameful post-college binge drinking, and find suitable hookups. Perhaps it's the gorgeous weather, or maybe it's the party atmosphere created by that boozed-up college in Tempe, but Phoenix is now one of the top kickball-playing towns in the country.

For better or worse, there are up to a dozen different leagues running around the Valley at any time, all of them offering some variation of the drink/kick/catch/cheer/drink formula that's slowly making the sport of softball obsolete. A squishy ball and lackadaisical pace make kickball safer than most recreational sports, and the gently sloping learning curve is novice-friendly, which is why your gym teacher had you play it as a kid. As we said, you have tons of choices — the city of Scottsdale even runs an odd league where you can drink beer on the field under the watchful eye of city-paid employees — but we prefer the original, WAKA, which offers less playing time than some leagues but is a lot more fun.

Arizona Grand Resort

When it comes to surviving summers here, Phoenicians are ready to pull out all the stops, from breaking out the water hose to sneaking into someone's pool. A whole genre of swim-and-drink nights at local hotels have even blossomed over the past few years to keep us cool. Other options around town, though, leave us, um, cold. Many local waterparks have roving bands of adolescents set on remaking Lord of the Flies, while floating the Salt River has too much of a low-budget Girls Gone Wild vibe going on. That's why The Oasis waterpark at the Arizona Grand Resort appeals so much to us. In addition to their eight-story water slide, their huge wave pool, and their 25-person hot tub, they've been spotlighted by The Travel Channel as one of the top 10 waterparks in the country.

McDowell Mountain Ranch Aquatic Center

We're not sure what we like more about this place: the pools, the views, or the architecture (considering we spent more time admiring Phil Weddle's rusted steel and glass aquatic center building than we spent actually swimming). Not only does this place feature myriad aquatic options — including an eight-lane lap pool, a diving well with four diving boards, a really big (and kinda scary) tube water slide, a zero-depth-entry play pool, a splash pad, and a 600-foot lazy river — it's got views of the McDowell Mountains and a captivating public art piece titled Cactus Mirage by Nori Sato (only in Scottsdale will you find nationally recognized public art at a swimming pool). But this awesomeness comes at a price. Be prepared to pay $30 for a family of four if you're not a Scottsdale resident. To be honest, we felt a bit like the caddies crashing the country club pool in Caddyshack, which is funny because there was a Caddyshack-esque "incident" that particular day — and it cleared the kiddy pool for half an hour. Despite all that, it's a beautiful facility, loads of fun, and totally worth the trip.

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