Best Mountain Bike Trail 2009 | Desert Classic | Arts & Entertainment | Phoenix

What goes up must come down — at least, that's what mountain bikers count on. The South Mountain Desert Classic Trail is not the most grueling trail in our neck of the desert, but it's close, it's scenic — and full of ups and downs. Phoenix South Mountain Park is over 16,000 acres of desert landscape overlooking downtown Phoenix to the north and urban sprawl to the south. The trail is about 18 miles long and runs along the southern face of the mountain. If you don't have a mountain bike, get one.

Don't just take our word for it — recent research suggests that spending time in nature will improve cognitive function. Scientists say the human brain has two types of attention: directed attention (which we use when we work, drive, Facebook) and involuntary attention (like that triggered by the call of a bird or the shape of rock formation). The problem is most of us are using our directed attentions past the point of fatigue. One way to restore the circuits is by taking a walk. That's why we're damn lucky to live in a city with thousands of acres of nature trails.

The best place to get away and give your brain a reboot is the 304 Loop Trail at Piestewa Peak. Just drive right on past those over-achievers at the summit trail and head all the way back to the final parking area. The walk is an easy-to-moderate loop, takes about 45 minutes, and is located right in the middle of the city. Go ahead and contemplate the cuddly appeal of Teddy Bear chollas, the migratory patterns of birds, and the new limbs growing on an octogenarian saguaro.

There are two things you need to know about this hike, and they're both supercool: 1) the Alta Trail is situated on the front range at South Mountain Park, and we're betting that many of you didn't even know there was a front range; 2) the "Alt" section of this trail is not maintained and does not appear on any of the park's maps. Translation: It's not choked with other hikers and it's completely badass.

If you want to hike the "official" Alta Trail, drive about two miles down the San Juan Road and park in a gravel lot at mile marker 2.5 and the Bajada Trailhead, where you connect with a well-maintained trail to the top. That's fine, but you'll miss most of the eastern section of the range and a helluva lot of stellar trekking if you choose that route. Better to do it our way.

After you pass through the headquarters section on the park's main road, turn right at the sign that says Big Ramada and Little Ramada picnic areas. Drive as far as the road will take you and then park. Aim for the nearest rise to the west, and follow the dirt tracks that lead inexorably to the summit of the range. After a brief but leg-frying up, you'll find yourself atop a panorama-saturated, dragon-back ridge that follows the crest of the range all the way to its terminus at San Juan Lookout, about four miles away.

When you get to San Juan, turn around and do it in reverse.

You'll regret it — but you won't.

The Sierra Estrellas are the most maddening mountains in our midst. The southwest Valley chain is within shouting distance of civilization, and its craggy spires scream to be summited, but the formidable range gets more redoubtable the closer you get to it. So much so that there's only one legal point of access to its long crest and six striking peaks (Hayes, Montezuma, Montezuma Sleeping, Montezuma Head, Butterfly, and Quartz).

The Quartz Peak Trail — such as it is — is it.

Finding the trailhead on the far side of the Earth in Rainbow Valley is a challenge in itself, but tracking the footpath to the summit can be even more cryptic. Then there's the actual hiking of the thing, which has caused many a veteran hiker to swear like Blackbeard, thanks to the iffy footing and 2,500-foot elevation gain (about two trips up Camelback Mountain on an even nastier path).

Worth it? Absolutely. Summiting the Estrella is a badge of honor for hiking hardcores, and the views of desolate basin-and-range western Arizona and the bustling Valley to the east make it all worthwhile.

Like some of the exceptional backcountry hikes at the Phoenix Mountains Preserve that are eclipsed by the gravitational pull of Piestewa Peak, this phenomenal hike is often lost in the glare of Usery's popular Wind Cave Trail. But you don't always have to go up to get to the top; sometimes, as with Pass Mountain, you can go around.

The 7.4-mile loop offers a circumnavigation of its namesake peak — the one with the distinctive scar that's visible from almost anywhere in the Valley — as well as lush Sonoran flora, dazzling views of Four Peaks and the Superstitions, and a saddle link-up with the Goldfield Mountains. If you're up to it, you can freelance into the Goldfields before closing the loop on Pass Mountain.

True hikers view guided hikes as literate Parisians view ushered tours of the Louvre: dimly.

This excellent seven-miler is the exception. A relatively difficult trek over primitive trails, the ranger-led hybrid hike takes participants into the park's achingly beautiful backcountry for sublime views and solid interpretation. The ranger du jour will fill you in on the newest, and most unusual, entry in the Maricopa County Regional Park system, which is set in a high-desert riparian area dotted with numerous archaeological sites.

The hike is scheduled regularly. See the Web site for more info.

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.

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.

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