Best Off-Road Drive 2011 | Table Mesa Road, from Interstate 17 to Seven Springs Road | Sports & Recreation | Phoenix
"I wish I was at the mall," our wife muttered as the Jeep tilted sideways, the doorless passenger's side showing nothing but rocks and earth. The nod to our studly 4x4-ing didn't go unappreciated, and we assured her the vehicle was far from tipping over. This was just one of several times she expressed regret for signing up for this tour, but at least one of us was having a great time. Driving from Interstate 17 to Seven Springs on Table Mesa Road (a.k.a. Forest Road 41) is one of those half-day Arizona adventures that should be experienced at least once by everyone with a high-clearance vehicle and a love for bumps. You could probably get a passenger car down this road, if you don't mind beating it up some. But for the minority of SUV owners willing to drive on dirt, Table Mesa offers an experience that falls neatly between extreme and boring. Exit I-17 just north of New River and head east. The few river crossings are nothing you can't handle (assuming no storms and flash-flooding). Stay on FR 41 until it merges with the southbound Seven Springs Road. You can go east-west, of course, but we found it charming to end the trail with the transition from the beautiful-but-austere Sonoran wilderness to the riparian Seven Springs area, with its sprinkling of cottages and almost Connecticut-like feel, before heading back to town through upscale Scottsdale and right past the mall.
After a hectic day, there are many surefire ways to escape from reality. Some are expensive. Others are illegal. Luckily, viewing the sunset at South Mountain is a free antidote to calm your weary mind without any side effects. Head up to Dobbins Point at dusk and take it slow as you drive up the windy, meandering Summit Road. We recommend raising the volume of your tunes (possibly Alexi Murdoch's "Orange Sky") as you take in the light against the crags and the mountain profiles along the way. Once you reach the top, check out the planes departing and arriving at Sky Harbor to the east as they fade in and out of view, and, to the west, see the lights over the neighborhoods below. Remember to appreciate the contours of the many varieties of cacti on your way back down the road to reality.
We-Ko-Pa's Cholla course is not for your twice-a-year golfer — it's a beast. In other words, if you're not in the fairway, you're screwed — and that's what makes it awesome. By the end of your round, you'll either swear off golf forever or think you're ready for the PGA Tour. The course has become the standard for desert golf and, in 2001, was named by Sports Illustrated as one of the 10 best new public courses in the world. The challenges of playing at one of the most difficult desert courses in the country aside, the place is gorgeous. Snaking its way through a mountainous desert landscape, Cholla provides views of the Valley that are worth the 110 strokes (and roughly 10 golf balls claimed by the desert) it will take your average golfer to complete the 7,225-yard course.
The only good thing about 120-degree heat is that the snowbirds who invade the Valley every winter can't bear the hellish temps and retreat to the comforts of their hometowns. This means Valley golf courses rely on the business of people who actually live here but aren't willing to drop nearly $200 on a round of golf. The Phoenician is no different. On May 23, rates at the posh course dropped to $60 a round — a far cry from the $189 greens fee the course charges in the winter. The course is gorgeous — it's a desert course without the symptoms of a desert course (i.e., acres of unkempt, snake-filled wilderness in which to risk your life in search of your ball). After all this is The Phoenician.
It's hard to improve upon perfection — especially when perfection comes cheap. However, Ken McDonald Golf Course, the 2010 winner of New Times' Best Winter Golf Course, has managed to make the course even better than it was last year — including elongating its 11th hole. The par-72 championship course got brand-new carts last year, is scenic, always in great shape, and, most importantly, still cheap — even in the winter. Winter rates at Ken McDonald fluctuate but rarely go above $32, which is nice when rates at the Valley's premier courses skyrocket with the arrival of the snowbirds to upwards of $200.
We stood on the tee of the par-3 eighth hole, nestled in a box canyon on the base of South Mountain. We saw rocks to the left of a sloping green, a large sand trap guarding the front, and nothing but nastiness to the right. A thing of beauty, in other words. If we turned to look north, the skyline of downtown Phoenix and beyond might inspire us — and Lord knows we needed it. Vistal used to be called South Mountain about a decade ago, but a name change went along with a total layout re-design. The bold new look includes an ungodly number of what quaintly are called "hazards" — including sand traps, water, and undulating greens. We also really appreciate the classic rock music that is piped through the facility and into the practice areas. Unfortunately, our game falls decidedly short of "We Are the Champions" status.
Desert Mountain Golf Club's Cochise Course prides itself on its signature holes: "four of the finest risk/reward par-5s to be found anywhere." The reward could be a shot at par. The risk could be getting mauled by a mountain lion. In March, a couple walking near the course spotted several mountain lions on a 546-yard par 5. Risking your life for the hopes of a birdie aside, the Cochise course consistently ranks in national golf magazines' lists of the top 100 golf courses. But, again — you could get mauled by a mountain lion.
Most outdoor batting cages suffer from the wear and tear of AZ summers, with ratty nets and sun-cracked equipment. And it's more than likely that the machines haven't been calibrated in years, resulting in more junk than strikes down the middle. Kiwanis Park is a rare exception, a batting range tended with loving care, thanks to the city of Tempe. Baseball machines start slow and top out at 75 miles per hour, but there also are slow-pitch softball machines, so you can practice for your office league, and fast-pitch softball machines for those training to be the next Jennie Finch. In addition to the cages, there's a pro shop to upgrade from that beat-up old batting glove and a concession stand to quench your thirst and sate those mid-practice hunger pangs.
Call us softies, but we were kinda sad to see Tucson lose its last two Cactus League teams. With the desertion of the Colorado Rockies and our hometown Arizona Diamondbacks before the 2011 spring training season, that city down south is now totally shut out of the fun. The consolidation of the Cactus League to the Valley seems especially silly since the hapless squads stuck in Florida's shitty-ass Grapefruit League sometimes have to drive four hours between ballparks. And, of course, along the way they risk being eaten by an alligator or mauled by a rabid manatee or getting malaria. Alas, Salt River Fields salves our conscience about thieving Tucson's teams. This gorgeous new stadium was constructed right off Loop 101 on the Salt River-Pima Indian Reservation. It's got top-notch amenities, but the view is what's truly stunning. On opening weekend, we sat on the crisp green lawn sunning ourselves while looking up at the snow-capped McDowell Mountains — one of the best baseball spectating experiences imaginable. So, yeah, we've got all the Cactus League teams now and a fantastic place to put the last two. Maybe Tucson can persuade some of those poor boys in Florida to move? Hey, if you were, say, the New York Yankees, wouldn't you want to be absolutely, positively sure Alex Rodriguez doesn't contract typhoid?
If the Arizona Cardinals ever decide to give up the ghost on hapless quarterback Derek Anderson, they might wanna consider giving local footballer Angel D'Rossi a call. Especially since the Arizona Assassins' captain tosses an average of 197 yards per game and completes passes 54 percent of the time, which are both better than Anderson. Unlike the Cardinals' QB, D'Rossi doesn't crack jokes on the sidelines when her team is losing, and, oh, yeah, she's a girl, to boot. She's one of more than two-dozen fierce females who play full-contact, semi-pro football as a part of the Arizona Assassins, the Valley's entry into the Women's Football League. And in many ways, they're even tougher than their male counterparts on the Cardinals. Unlike Anderson and the Red Birds, who play in air-conditioned comfort in their domed stadium, D'Rossi and company compete in outdoor games at Apollo High School's football field during late spring and summer, when temps start to rise. Try cracking a few jokes about that, Derek.

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