Best Place to Access the Superstition Mountains If Lost Dutchman Park Closes (Or Even If It Doesn't)

First Water Trailhead

Lovers of the outdoors pooled their money this year to keep Lost Dutchman State Park open after severe budget cuts by the Legislature. After $26,000 was raised from private sources, officials announced the park — a major gateway to the East Valley's Superstition Mountains — would remain open. But there's no assurance the state will fix its financial problems next year. Whether open or closed, however, if you want to hike in the Supes, you can skip the park altogether and drive to the nearby First Water Trailhead. The access road, FS78, is just 0.3 miles past the turnoff for Lost Dutchman off State Route 88; the trailhead is about two miles down the dirt road. From there, you'll find a wide variety of trails to hike — including those that are accessible from Lost Dutchman, like the popular Siphon Draw trail. Best of all, the parking is free, while Lost Dutchman costs $7 per vehicle. Some websites state that a $6 Tonto Pass or other fees are required to park at First Water. The Forest Service assures us that's not the case for day hikers. The catch: Get there early before those free spots fill up.
Goldfield Ghost Town
For years, when hiking on the west flanks of the Superstition Mountains, we wondered where the hell that train-whistle noise was coming from. This year, we found out — it's the whistle above the mine at the Goldfield Ghost Town. And we're happy to know, because the mine turns out to be a slice of Arizona we should have experienced years ago. A grizzled-looking prospector type gave the tour into the mine for our small group of adults and kids. Though we were impressed right away by the authentic mine elevator, which went down 30 or 40 feet (as far as we could tell), the ambiance of the tour was set when the prospector/guide had to jump up and down to make the elevator descend the final two feet. Inside the dim mine shaft, where the ceiling is held up by rickety-looking wooden and metal support beams, we were treated to a history of the place and interesting anecdotes — like how the 19th-century pneumatic jackhammers were called "Widowmakers" because the dust they kicked up had miners dropping like flies. After the relieved feeling of seeing sunlight when you get out, stop by the saloon and Wild West town for a Tombstone-like shoot-out. Don't wait for your Chicago relatives to visit before making a pilgrimage to this historic spot.
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.
Apache Lake Marina & Resort
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.
Tempe Town Lake
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.)
Arizona Grand Resort
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.
Goodyear Skate Park
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 www.azskateparks.com: "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."

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