Best Hike Through the Heart of the City 2011 | Christiansen Trail #100 to North Mountain Park | Sports & Recreation | Phoenix
Phoenix's city park system is one of the largest and best in the world, and the Christiansen Trail gives a nice crash course on what it has to offer. This marathon 10.7-mile trail stretches the width of the Phoenix Mountains Preserve, from Tatum Boulevard on the east to Seventh Avenue on the west. You'll traverse much of the city on foot — mostly off the grid, with a few glimpses into posh neighborhoods. It's thrilling, and a little odd, to be in the middle of the sixth-largest city in the country yet totally immersed in the outdoors. Though the trail's long, there is only about 200 feet of elevation gain, so it's also pretty easy. Don't worry about playing Frogger on busy roads, either, as you'll take tunnels under State Route 51, Cave Creek Road, and Seventh Street. We recommend starting early at the tiny eastern trailhead at Tatum and Tomahawk so you begin the day looking up at Camelback before making your way west, slipping around Piestewa Peak and over toward North Mountain. The scenery gets less impressive as you head west. Arrange a ride from the other side after you've ended in a developed city park with restrooms and full cell coverage.
Imagine surfing, but picture doing it downhill on a hard, smooth surface at speeds up to 55 miles per hour. In the dark. With a bunch of other people flying down the hill around you. In a nutshell, that's downhill longboarding in the Valley, where rides and timed races take place every month during the full moon at McDowell Mountain Ranch.Longboarding was developed on the West Coast in the 1950s and requires the use of a wheeled board that is generally up to 59 inches long. The downhill aspect, in which riders fly downhill as fast as they can while trying to maintain control of the board, has a large following in Phoenix but has stayed pretty quiet while growing over the past two years. Anywhere from a dozen to 25 people participate in the full-moon rides, as well as at downhill longboarding events at South Mountain, but the events are so under wraps that they're almost impossible to catch. (In fact, they eluded the Best Of team all summer!) The full-moon rides at McDowell Mountain Ranch are organized by former NAU student Ryan Chopko, who announces monthly events only to members of a longboarding group on Facebook. He says the moonlit rides are "pretty intense.""It's dark. There's not much light, except the light from the full moon. And we move down the hill really, really fast," Chopko says. Generally, boarders meet at a location near McDowell Mountain Ranch around 9:30 p.m. Riders are shuttled to the top of a hill and dropped off. Speeds are clocked by timekeepers at the top and bottom of the hill, and if everybody's pitched in some money, winners can get prizes. (Chopko generally asks for a $5 buy-in per boarder.)You can only keep a good secret for so long. What started as an underground event is quickly moving into the mainstream. "Our full moon event is . . . becoming so well known it almost doesn't require advertisement," Chopko says. "Which is so crazy to me, because two years ago, it was something so small and private. No one knew what the heck it was."
Until a couple of years ago, online trip reports about the two main trails cutting through the 34,400-acre Table Top Mountain Wilderness area detailed nothing but the pleasures of hiking in the rugged, cactus-filled terrain located 20 miles or so south of Maricopa. These days, it's more common to hear warnings about the federal preserve. "I'd be very careful," a ranger with the Bureau of Land Management's field office tells us (you can call them at the number listed above) when we inquire about a planned trip to wilderness within the now-infamous Vekol Valley, south of Interstate 8. Not only do signs warn outdoors enthusiasts that they're entering an area rife with human- and drug-smuggling activity, but earlier this year, the BLM completed work on a 1.3-mile "Normandy-style" vehicle barrier between the Table Top Wilderness and the northern edge of the Tohono O'odham reservation. Many illegal immigrants and their guides filter through the BLM land every year, often using the distinct Table Top Mountain as a navigational guide. Gun battles are not uncommon. No hikers have been messed with — yet. We're holding off on the summit trail hike until we find a small herd of fellow risk-takers willing to accompany us.

Best Place for Info on Arizona Caves and Caving

Arizona Cave Survey

There are more than 1,600 documented caves in Arizona, and much of that documentation has come from Arizona Cave Survey, a group of caving enthusiasts who've built up an impressive library and database on the subject. The library consists of books, maps, photos, and even a cave location GIS system, making it an incredible resource for cave researchers. From Lava River Cave in northern Arizona to Colossal Cave in Tucson, ACS has all the information a researcher needs. But novices beware: ACS is also concerned with the preservation of our state caves and will not give out cave locations to the general public, referring inexperienced cavers to local chapters of the National Speleological Caving Clubs for some background and education first. But seasoned cavers who contact them might get some assistance (after their references are checked), and provided they're not looking to explore a "sensitive" cave — i.e., a cave that may be hazardous or is easily damaged, for which ACS divulges no information.
Despite the hellacious name of this wilderness area just north of Lake Pleasant, the Spring Valley Trail is a kid-friendly hike, according to some Internet guides. We found it well defined and maintained, but it's not all that cushy, thanks to the climbs into and out of the many arroyos, or desert washes. From Lake Pleasant Drive or Highway 74, take Castle Hot Springs Road north a short way to the trailhead parking lot. Most people end their hike in one of the washes about 2.5 miles from the start, though would-be explorers can bushwhack down the wash or elsewhere. Even if you go in only a mile or so, you'll have a quintessential desert experience that pulls you into a pristine wonderland of healthy-looking saguaros, cholla, palo verdes, wildflowers (in February), and other desert flora. The place was a regular Serengeti on our outing: We encountered several wild burros, range cattle, and — best of all — a fully grown desert tortoise nestled in a shady cubbyhole of dried mud. We left him alone, as you should do if you find him or his siblings. No doubt, other Sonoran creatures — like rattlesnakes — can be found in this still-wild spot, so keep your finger on the shutter button. And get ready to run like hell.
No visible tattoos, ironic Western shirts, or chunky-framed nerd glasses here. The three men sitting around Pete's living room are into bikes, but they're not fixie hipsters. Pete and Ed ran rivers long ago. Pete and Jordan met on Craigslist. The three form the nucleus of a loose, off-the-retail-grid network of cycling aficionados in metro Phoenix who buy, sell, and trade with each other. It's a web of enthusiasts who love to build classic bikes and often need classic parts that aren't made anymore.

In 1985, Pete participated in a ride from the Grand Canyon to Mexico. In what would become a defining moment, a guy on an orange 1972 Schwinn Paramount rolled by.

"I was on a shiny new Trek. I caught up to him, and I wanted to talk to him about his bike." Pete pauses before sheepishly offering a truth: "I hated my bike.

"Pete immediately started looking for a Schwinn Paramount, bought a frame and built it, then he found an Italian bike, then an English Raleigh Professional. Now he's acquired or built about 60 bikes, although he hasn't purchased a brand-new bike since 1985.

Jordan rides 12 miles each way to and from work each day. He grew up riding top-of-the-line mountain bikes in Oregon. One day, he spotted a pearl white Peugeot in an impound lot, paid $25 for it, then took it out on a canal in Eugene, where he had more fun than he'd ever had riding. "I was so happy with that bike, I bought three others that week."

The bikes they love are lugged-construction, steel-frame, and vintage bikes, and no garage sale or alley is beneath them. Craigslist functions as their virtual hangout. Friday nights mean combing listings, and when they convene, the first question thrown out is, "Did you see [awesome find]!?

"What's out there enables Pete, Jordan, and Ed to operate as a super-secret bike gang. Pete built a bike for a friend who heading off to college in August. He thought he'd found the perfect frame — a vintage, purple-pink '70s Japanese model, but the size was off. Then he stumbled upon a frame that really was perfect. Jordan ended up donating the stem and handlebars.

"It's part recycling ethic," adds Ed. "We salvage or rebuild. Bikes mean something to us.

"The same word of mouth that enables so much of their treasure-finding brings people into their underground world, too. "I'm known in this small neighborhood as a person who can fix your bike. A neighborhood should be a place where people do things for other people. We're a little bit of a socialist neighborhood," Pete says with a laugh.

Ed nods in recognition. He's the same guy in his neighborhood. Later, out in Pete's workshop, Pete runs his fingers lovingly over the lugged construction on several of the frames in his collection, pointing out the meticulous filing and metalwork. "Oh, here's that Schwinn Paramount," he rests his hand on its leather saddle, transported to some past ride. Jordan and Pete ride right along with him.

To see a slideshow of the bike-part collective,visit

Petroglyph hikes are always about the payoff of seeing some great rock art. This spot has not only an entire wall of fantastic, accessible glyphs, but allows you to boulder over ancient Hohokam grain-grinding stones and up to an old cave shelter. Hieroglyphic Trail is a moderately easy 1.5-mile hike up (i.e, three miles round-trip) into the mouth of a slot canyon on the south wall of the Superstitions on the outskirts of Gold Canyon. The trail starts at the edge of typical suburban sprawl but quickly takes hikers away into the wilderness, ending at the petroglyph site, where a small stream flows six months of the year. Be sure to pack a lunch and a camera, as you'll want to explore for a while.
Considering the Valley's largest body of water is the man-made Lake Pleasant, scuba diving in Phoenix sounds sorta stupid. But just because there's nowhere in our great desert metropolis that even vaguely resembles Galapagos, that doesn't mean Phoenicians can't band together, learn how to dive, and then get their scuba on anywhere in the world. And Phoenix Scuba makes it happen. In addition to retail shops that carry all kinds of scuba gear, Phoenix Scuba offers classes with experienced diving instructors (most often conducted in a swimming pool), and certifications in scuba diving after an excursion into the deep waters of the aforementioned Lake Pleasant. And once you've got your gear and bearings, Phoenix Scuba offers package-deal diving trips to places like Fiji, Mexico, and Honduras. Sounds pretty smart to us.
Heat exhaustion is never too far away during summer hikes in the Sonoran Desert, but we're not the type to sit at home for five months out of the year. On most local hikes, the only relief from the oven we call the outdoors comes in a bottle (we're talking ice water, not dehydrating booze). But the trek we're here to tell you about features not only a lake perfect for a post-hike dip, but a Shangri-La-esque waterfall to stand under. The one thing it doesn't have is an actual cave, though (Brown's Cave is just an overhang). There are two ways to get there: Go to Apache Lake, launch a boat, and find the mouth of Alder Creek, on the north shore near the west end of the lake. (Depending on the lake water level, this area also provides a fantastic sandy beach for camping or hanging out.) Hike up the rugged canyon about a half-mile to the waterfall; the overhang is a bit farther. The second option requires knowledge of dirt roads that spur off the Four Peaks turnoff from Highway 87 north of Mesa, which is Forest Road 143. Check the Internet or a hiking guide to find the six-mile-long 4 x 4 road that goes to the Cane Spring Trailhead and Alder Trail. The latter takes you to the "cave," waterfall, and Apache Lake. Splashdown.
Like hiking Camelback Mountain? You're going to love the Siphon Draw trail up Superstition Mountain. This trail is like Camelback on steroids and offers a spectacular view from the Flatiron — the high, flat area at its western face. The steep, boulder-strewn trail departing from Lost Dutchman State Park in Apache Junction is a toughie. Though well traveled, this trail is technically "unofficial" and marked only by friendly hikers using cairns and blazes of white spray paint. The trail rises 3,000 feet in 3.2 miles, double the length and height of the Camelback summit trails, so if you can't make it to the top of Camelback in less than an hour on a cool day, you'd probably be better off sitting this one out. If you can do it, you should. It's a pretty trip, offering lots of red rock, big trees, and slick rock gulleys you'd half-expect to see someone skateboarding across. By the end, you'll be literally climbing this mountain, but the payoff is so worth it: a vista across the East Valley, with Phoenix's twin-cluster skyline and the comparatively short city peaks in the distance. Four Peaks looms to the north; the rest of the Supes range is to the east. Linger a while and enjoy the view — the trip down will be rough, too.

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