Best Activity for Out-of-Town Guests 2010 | Dolly Steamboat Tours | Sports & Recreation | Phoenix
Just when you think you've exhausted every "touristy" event in Phoenix to take your visiting Aunt Sally, something new pops up on the horizon. In this case, it pops up in a canyon. After finding this little gem of a tour, we're shocked at how few people know about it. The Dolly Steamboat winds its way through the breathtaking waterways of Canyon Lake, where secluded, pristine vistas justify the nickname "The Junior Grand Canyon." Wildlife sightings are commonplace along these nature cruises; once, we saw an entire family of bighorn sheep climbing up steep, enormous rock walls. The air is much cleaner 50 miles east of Phoenix, so everything along this spectacular ride just seems more colorful. Dolly's captain is entertaining and knowledgeable about not only the boat but all kinds of history related to the Apache Trail and its parts, as well as the flora and fauna of the area. The tours range from the simple — but spectacular — nature cruise to dinner cruises and even a once-a-month astronomy cruise, and Dolly is also available for private events. Even the drive out to Canyon Lake is magnificent. Make sure you pack your camera and binoculars, but leave the alcohol at home. (There's a bar and snack bar on board, though.) Prices for tours range from $20 to $79, with discounts for seniors and kids.
Camping doesn't get much better than sitting on a secluded, sandy beach at Apache Lake, listening to the water lap at your boat and falling asleep under the stars. We try to get out there once every couple of years or so, motoring far away from the shoreline-picnickers. Numerous dry arroyos run into the lake from the surrounding desert, and we've found a few good ones with plentiful, coarse sand that make the perfect platform for an air mattress or two. Apache Lake doesn't have an endless supply of sandy beaches — you may have to share your spot — but it's usually much better for camping than other lakes in the Phoenix area. Canyon Lake is too canyon-y and Saguaro Lake's sparse beaches are a long boat drive down a no-wake zone. You'd think Roosevelt Lake, being the biggest of the Roosevelt Dam reservoirs, would have the best beaches, but it just ain't so — particularly after our wet winter, which flooded beaches and cluttered the shorelines with debris. Apache Lake, however, still has some great camping sites on its shores. When sleeping without a tent next to a lake in the desert, our only worry is whether a ringtail cat will snag the Cheerios out of our backpack (again).
We had a terrible scare last year when The Water Wheel fire broke out north of Payson. The fire ate up nearly 800 acres of precious pine and forced the evacuation of two subdivisions. It did not, however, destroy the beautiful swimming hole that gave the disaster its name. The trees along Houston Mesa Road are scorched black, but the deep, cool pool of the East Verde River where Valley swimmers escape the blazing Phoenix heat with a long plunge off the steep walls leading to one of Rim Country's most pleasing waterfalls is still mostly intact. The parking area near where the blaze started has been closed (hopefully just temporarily, but possibly not) and was guarded by a cop when we stopped by earlier this summer, but you can still get there by walking in and along the East Verde from the lot downstream. It's well worth the jaunt. As anyone who's been there will tell you, the Water Wheel swimming hole is one of the state's true gems. It's not over-the-top gorgeous like similar spots near Sedona or at Havasupai, but it's wonderful in its own understated way, close and calming, which is just how we like our swimming holes.
Arizona is blessed with a wide array of lakes, creeks, and rivers perfect for kayaking. The only problem is that if you want to see them, you have to devote a large chunk of your day to getting there. Tempe Town Lake is the solution to this problem. Unless you'd rather take a spin down a disgusting irrigation canal, Tempe Town Lake's the ideal spot for a quick afternoon workout for the urban 'yaker lucky enough to live close by. (Pending a refill, of course, which is scheduled to occur in November.)
Phoenix is known to have a few sweet places to cool down. When the Pointe South Mountain became the Arizona Grand Resort, the hotel and its pool got a facelift. What was once a glorified watering hole has become a seven-acre fun park. If you're up for a rush, take Slide Canyon Tower and choose among three slides, with 51- and 31-foot drops from the tower's fourth level. If the fast and furious water slide thing isn't your scene, grab a (free!) inner tube and jump in the lazy river or head to the wave pool — if not to surf some waves, then to check out the beach bodies catching the rip curl. The downsides: The pool's open only to guests and only until 4 p.m., which just means you'll have to make it a weekend and relax in the 25-person hot tub after a hard day's work on the slide.
One of dozens of skate parks in Arizona, the Goodyear Skate Park is a favorite for skaters, thanks to a design that works for both amateurs and pro-skaters.For Goodyear's concrete playground, SITE Design Group included a full-pipe capsule, a 280-foot-long snake run with multiple hips and extensions, an 11-foot-deep peanut bowl with traditional pool tile and coping and a large street/flow course with a pyramid, rollers, bank-to-block and hubba ledges.The park is open daily, and here are some things to know: Helmets are required. In-line stakes and RipSticks are permitted. But leave the bikes, shoe skates, street luge boards, and motorized vehicles at home. You almost can't offer a better description of the Goodyear Skatepark than the keepers of "The skateboarding gods dropped an absolute beauty in the desert: Goodyear Skatepark, located just off I-10 and Litchfield Road, will bring a new dimension to the Arizona skate park scene. Site Design Group and California Skateparks pulled out all of the stops on this one."
The Valley used to be one giant off-roading mecca — just look at those old jeep-trail scars running up the sides of South Mountain. Driving has been banned from most of the mountain areas by now, and most of the 4x4 roads in and around Phoenix have been transformed into neighborhoods. But plenty of places remain where you can "tear it up," so to speak, with an ATV, dirt bike, or four-wheel-drive vehicle. (Please, be kind to the remaining desert flora!) There's no better place to romp than at Sycamore Creek, an area north of Fountain Hills that still welcomes off-roading. It's no place for environmentalists: Here you'll see all manner of rock-hoppers plowing through the water and grinding on the creek banks, racing up dusty hills and digging craters with their tires in the sand. It's not politically correct, but it's a hell of a lot of fun. Heading north on the Beeline, look for the turnoff left (west) onto 403. It helps if you bring a friend with another off-roading vehicle and tow straps, just in case.
Though Hells Angels boss Sonny Barger lives in Cave Creek, our favorite Valley motor-powered cyclist is Glen Galatan, president of the Scooter Club of Metro Phoenix. SCMP events have dramatically fewer bonfires, orgies, and fistfights, but we won't hold that against them — it's cool to see events like last year's "Fiesta" in Gilbert, which featured family-friendly contests, a raffle, and barbecue. You may think it's not quite as cool as Sturgis until you see how dapper a lot of these lads dress while spiriting around town on vintage Vespas. They're no creampuffs, either, planning marathon group rides that'll have anyone not sufficiently badass calling for a roadside pickup in a trailer-towing mini-van. Of course they're green and all that jazz, but the real appeal for us is the snazzy European styling and spirit of camaraderie evident amongst the riders. Hey, even Barger would probably dig it, assuming his other club wouldn't pull his colors for fraternizing with a rival "gang."
We bruised our spine the first time we went to F1 — that's how addicting the place is. We overdid it, clearly, and might do so again. Luckily, the raceway wasn't crowded when we showed up at 11:30 on a Sunday morning. Minutes later, we had slipped on a helmet and were strapped into a kart. The burst of adrenaline came seconds later as we slid into the first curve after the straightaway. When the race came to an end 14 screeching laps later, we got right back in line for our second go. When that was done, we plunked down another $30 bucks for two more 14-lap races. Yeah, it's a bit pricey — we paid $50 for the membership and first two races — but worth it. We should probably have done only three races and gulped down a beer at the bar between each one. (Don't fret — the staff checks suspected drunken karters with a breathalyzer.) We'll be back.
Here's how much we love Squaw Peak Lanes: The last time we were there, our cocktail server dumped an entire tray of drinks in our lap. Still, we keep returning because this place is so clean and modern and comfortable that it compares to no other alley in town. The snack bar offers more than just the usual popcorn and nachos routine (try the deluxe hot dog with brown mustard!) and we haven't seen a better beer selection at a bowling alley bar, ever. We feel like part of the Squaw Peak clan, thanks to the Online Bowling League coupons delivered directly to our e-mail box every week, and because the folks up front are so friendly and even remember our shoe size! The computerized scoring and the keen tunes are the best in town.

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