Best Kick-Yer-Butt Mountain Bike Ride 2010 | Pass Trail, Usery Mountain Regional Park | Sports & Recreation | Phoenix
This 7.1-mile ride worked us to the bone. A sign near the trailhead states that mountain bikes are not recommended, but that's just to scare off the wimps. True, we had to carry our bike up several tough, rocky sections, which wasn't fun. But most of the trail is passable on a bike, and you'll be rewarded for the extra effort. After sweating the steep stuff to the top, we had several heart-stopping moments coming down sweet single track that clings to the edge of cliffs in places. And we have to mention the incredible view from the top of hundreds of acres of pristine Sonoran Desert in the Tonto National Forest. Though the trail is only seven miles, the challenging terrain takes longer to negotiate — be sure to take more water than you'll think you need, if the weather is warm.
Granite crags like Pinnacle Peak and the McDowell Mountains make the Valley a rock-climbing mecca, but the area's finest collection of sport-climbing routes is found farther east, near Queen Creek Canyon. Not to be confused with the two-horse town near Higley, the climbers' Queen Creek is the general area four miles north of Superior that includes the Oak Flat Campground, the site of past rock-climbing competitions. You'll need to consult a guidebook to figure out which of the 1,000-plus routes you want to do at places like Euro Dog Valley, Lower Devils Canyon, and the Road Area (which has some of the taller offerings). Favorite spots like the Mine Area are also fun for non-climbers and children, who love to rock-hop and explore the lunar-like terrain. The volcanic rock can be painful on the fingertips, but the sheer number of short climbing routes means there's a lot to love about Queen Creek.
If you've never walked down a vertical rock face, Rappel Gully is the place to learn. The 75-foot climbing route on the Headwall in Camelback Mountain's Echo Canyon is steep, especially at the top, yet isn't too high to intimidate most beginners. Best of all, the anchor for the rappel is what climbers call "bomb-proof." When you set up ropes for a rappel, it's considered poor form to have the whole setup — and its climber — come spilling down the mountain because of a poor anchor. The anchor at the top of Rappel Gully is a massive eyebolt set deep into the rock and secured with concrete. It's not going anywhere. And it's hard to mess up the rope work here — you simply feed one end of the rope through the circle of metal and you're ready to go. That first step off the edge is always the most unnerving for beginners, who often aren't sure if they're going to survive. Another great perk: The west-facing Rappel Gully is in the shade all morning.
"Now that's extreme!" a young Camelback Mountain hiker shouted to his buddies as he watched us free-solo climb up a cliff. Now, we don't free-solo — which means rock-climbing without the aid of ropes or a partner — to hear such accolades. But it made us feel damned cool, even though the cliff we were on wasn't really extreme, by the standards of experienced rock climbers. We're not experts (never climbed El Capitan or spent the night on a "porta-ledge"), but we've attained a skill level that allows us to free-solo comfortably on some climbing routes. The cliff at Camelback that psyched the onlooker is one such route. It's the north-facing corner near the top of the first saddle on the Echo Canyon trail. The cliff is just one way to the top of the Headwall climbing area, which includes the popular Rappel Gully route (see "Best Place to Learn Rappeling") a few yards south. While many climbers rope up for this section, we've seen just as many "free" it, as we typically do. Needless to say, this kind of activity can be dangerous — even death-defying. But it's also liberating and focuses your mind like nothing else. Just watch out for loose rock and remember the number-one rule of free-soloing: It's all up to you.
Why have we belonged to the Phoenix Rock Gym for the past 18 years, you ask? It's not just the walls, which are about 30 feet high and covered in fun, gripable, plastic climbing holds. We don't go just for the world-class bouldering rooms and respectable lead-climbing room, either. Nor for the awesome employees, personable customers (most, anyway), and Cheers-like (sans alcohol) ambiance. Of course, it's for all those reasons. The PRG — which was the first climbing gym to open in the Valley — also plays host to a couple of climbing competitions each year. Usually, we leave those to wiry young folks who don't even remember that the Great Outdoors was the only way to climb in the Valley before 1992.
Housed inside a modern facility that includes a full-service fitness center and a small high school (Jess Schwartz Jewish Community High School) are two regulation hardwood courts that get as much use as any others in the Valley. An open-door policy allows hoop junkies to get out of the blistering sun and off the hard-on-the-knees concrete into an air-conditioned, well-lit gym where the ball can be (but isn't always) fierce and the level really high. Even the various adult teams in organized leagues that take over a few nights a week usually will find a place for a wayward player looking for a place to show his or her game (and there are a handful of hers on hand who can handle the rock with the best of them). Our prediction: You may never want to play in a city park again.
It's Saturday morning and the weather is finally cooling down. Swimsuit season may be waning, but a weekly game of pickup basketball may let that six-pack stick around for a few more weeks. Chaparral Park is on 100 acres, has a 10-acre lake and a free-form public swimming pool. The well-lit basketball courts near the community center are open from 5:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. The courts are sometimes multi-use, but we're sure if you toss in a couple lines from Love & Basketball, the other players will know it's your turf.
Summer in the Valley of the Sun — to put it mildly — sucks to high hell. Almost all outdoor activities must be done at night if you want to avoid being miserable, and tennis is no exception. Luckily, the courts at Kiwanis Park in Tempe have lights, which stay on until 10 p.m. Of course, even summer nights here are hot, so you'll probably still work up a sweat. That's no problem if you're playing at Kiwanis, because the tennis courts are located right next to a community pool.
We give extra props to this outdoor facility because of everything around it — tennis and volleyball courts and shaded picnic areas. But it's all about taking some hacks, working out the kinks (no small task), and getting some rips in before facing the real deal, whether it's a guy throwing gas in a baseball or fast-pitch game, or someone lofting a yellow ball toward the plate in a slow-pitch game. We prefer the quick stuff: the ball getting on you in a jiffy and that good old hand-eye coordination having to kick in, or else. Good challenge here, as the machines generally throw strikes (a good thing) and the friendly employees are quick to remedy things when they don't. When you're done for the day, you can sit under a tree in the park and mull over how you're going to rake like Ichiro Suzuki as someone tries to throw it by you at the next city league game.
Goodyear's sparkling $108 million ballpark may not have the glitz of the other new-in-2008 Cactus League ballpark, Glendale's Camelback Ranch, but it's really grown on us. While the Glendale stadium, which has similarly modern brushed-steel styling, hosts two of the Cactus League's most prominent teams, the Los Angeles Dodgers and Chicago White Sox, Goodyear's park pairs smaller-market teams with a more natural affiliation: the two Ohio franchises, the Cleveland Indians and Cincinnati Reds. The spirit of cross-state cooperation, along with tons of family-friendly amenities, including a Wiffleball field, to entertain the children, give Goodyear's park a more homey, lived-in feel than other increasingly sterile stadiums. Buckeye State natives no doubt get off on hearing the state's official rock song, "Hang On Sloopy," played between innings and playfully teasing each other about their equally woeful NFL franchises, but there's a little something for everybody at this park. Even for West Valley folks, it's a haul to get there, but the folksy atmosphere is well worth it. Dare we say it's a throwback to the Cactus League's fondly remembered good old days?

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