Best Hike to See the Sonoran Desert 2011 | Spring Valley Trail, Hells Canyon Wilderness | Sports & Recreation | Phoenix
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.
We all know it is a good idea to get outside for a hike, especially when the weather in Phoenix is nice. But if you are not a hiker in the rough and rugged sense, then there is a special place for you, too. Feel as though you are hiking in the Sonoran Desert as you stroll through the blooming flowers along the Desert Botanical Garden's wildflower trail. This place is a treasure in our own backyard, and there is no reason to save it for your out-of-town guests. Get out there and soak up some desert for yourself, without all the equipment and stuff.
Okay, so the bottom floor of this longtime videogame palace is, technically, more like a sunken living room than an actual underground arcade. But for generations of gamers, it's also a time machine dressed up in a cheesy castle coating. Sure, there's a sprinkling of high-tech driving and first-person-shooter games, but the reason this place blows Dave & Buster's out of the water is the world-class collection of vintage arcade games. We're talking all-time classics like Pac-Man, Donkey Kong, and the original Star Wars, as well as forgotten gems such as Joust, Moon Patrol, 1942, and Ivan "Ironman" Stewart's Super Off Road. Not to mention more than two dozen classic and contemporary pinball machines and all the old-school air hockey action you can handle. Feathered hair and acid-washed jeans are suggested but not required.
Every year, hundreds of thousands of people hike the summit trail of Piestewa Peak in Phoenix — but stop short of the real summit. The vast majority who complete the steep, 1.2-mile Summit Trail turn around after reaching a lesser prominence, located about 30 feet lower. We consider this poor style. What if Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay had stopped 30 feet short of the summit of Mount Everest in 1953 and said, "Screw it — we're close enough!" Besides, scrambling up to the actual summit is easy and fun. No climbing rope is needed, but you'll have to use your hands. Instead of bearing left to the mound of pointy rocks with most of the hikers, follow the short chute right and straight up. We also enjoy taking a second route, which involves picking your way up and over the boulders leading from the hikers' summit. At the tippy-top, you'll see the U.S. Geological Survey medallion embedded in the rock that marks the true 2,608-foot summit, plus you'll find a nugget of solitude.
For now, a tentative plan is on hold that would turn the legendary Oak Flats area just east of Superior into a $60 billion mining pit the size of Meteor Crater. What does that mean for you? If the weather is anything resembling cool, throw some day-camping gear in the cruiser and get ready to enjoy a rock-climbing picnic. Just exploring the maze-like canyons strewn with giant rocks is fun, but climbers find the place a paradise of bouldering problems waiting to be solved. No rope is needed — just your rock shoes and chalk bag. Hundreds of short routes featuring overhangs, pocket-lined fines, and ultra-crimpers abound; the climbing area developed, in large part, from years of hosting the now-defunct Phoenix Bouldering Contest. If you're too tired to drive the two hours back to the Valley after a full day of blowing out your forearms amid the tree-and-cactus-filled wonderland, you can spend the night — for free — at the adjacent Oak Flats Campground. Wait too long to visit, and the whole place might be rubble.

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