Best Hiking Trail 2012 | National Trail, South Mountain | Sports & Recreation | Phoenix

You'll get your bellyfull of dusty paths, rocks, and cactus on this 15-mile trail in prime Sonoran Desert real estate. Hiking all of National Trail — from one end of the 16,000-acre South Mountain Park to the other — is a Valley adventure not to be underestimated. Don't under-hydrate or hesitate to snack. And bring two cars unless you really want to walk 30 miles. Shuttle it between Pima Canyon on the east end and San Juan Road on the west (we recommend Pima because San Juan Road is sometimes open only for bicycles or pedestrians). Following the trail's a cinch, thanks to the frequent signs. You'll top out at Buena Vista Lookout, at about 2,700 feet, before dropping back down to the foothills. When you can't see the city below, you won't believe you're in one. You can take your mountain bike, but going on foot offers both a workout and a fuller sense of the desert's beauty. Sometimes, all you can hear is the muted crush of your own footsteps – and the yipping of a coyote over the next hill.

Picacho Peak re-opened to the public on September 15, having been closed for the second time in two years for what state officials call the "summer season." Besides the decent camping facilities and yearly Civil War battle re-enactment at the site, Picacho's premier attraction is the spectacular Hunter Trail, which goes up to the precipitous summit. It's a four-mile-round-trip butt-kicker, harkening to the likes of Camelback Mountain and Piestewa Peak. Steel cables and planks help nervous hikers overcome the steepest parts, and the 360-degree view at the top of the surrounding desert and nearby mountains is well worth the effort. Problem is, only the buzzards saw that view during the closure, which ran from May 25 to September 14. Remember all that talk about state parks possibly closing due to the state's money problems? Almost all those other parks got to stay open all year. But the state is apparently hell-bent on doing these seasonal closures at Picacho Peak every year from now on, even though statistics show that thousands of people had been visiting the park during the May-September season. (Only one other park, Oracle State Park near Tucson, is also having part-time closures.) Picacho Peak is an easy, one-hour drive down Interstate 10 — better do it while you can.

It's not just the exercise our friends enjoy on our summer evening slogs up Piestewa Peak; it's the "camaraderie in pain." Indeed, we always suffer going up this one, at least a little. And that's the point. The long, rocky staircase leading to the 2,608-foot summit offers a phenomenal workout because of its stiff grade, ascending about 1,200 feet in 1.2 miles. Indeed, our heart's pounding from the very first steps at the trail head. Get to the top and you can scratch "exercise" from your daily goal list. Do it two or three times a week and you'll be ready for some serious adventure in the mountains — or at least have more energy for pushing a stroller through the mall.

Built in 2009, the trail from the Gateway Access trailhead to the base of Tom's Thumb in the McDowell Mountains in Scottsdale is truly upscale. We're not just talking about the multimillion-dollar trailhead facility off Thompson Peak Parkway, a resort-worthy piece of architecture with shaded breezeways and a neat, rusted-steel low bridge that leads to several trails. "Up" is the essence of this long, steep hike. You'll have gone about six miles and gained about 2,100 feet of elevation if you take the "Rock Climbing Access Route" to the base of the Thumb, a 150-foot-tall, somewhat cylinder-shaped granite prominence. We didn't dawdle, but the trip still took about four hours. You can also turn around at the top of the Tom's Thumb trail, making it a nine-mile round trip. Either, way, make sure you bring enough water and a snack to sustain you. One bonus in the summer: The steep slopes of the mountain's west side enjoy shade well after dawn, making at least half the hike pleasant even when the afternoon is slated for 115 degrees.

Usually, we're with those Echo Canyon snobs who sneer at the wimps coming up the easier Cholla side. But this year, we've rediscovered the pleasures of Cholla Trail on Camelback Mountain — especially the killer scramble up the last fifth of the 1.75-mile hike to the summit. If you enjoy a hands-on hike like we do, this trail will make you smile in between grunts of effort. On Camelback, both the main trails offer terrific vistas, good people-watching, and a heart-pounding workout with a climb of more than 1,000 feet. Most of the Cholla Trail has lesser grades than the Echo Canyon Trail, but that changes near the top. Suddenly, the options for rock-crawling open up, allowing hikers to spread out and choose their own paths. Spray-painted blue dots on the boulders help guide the way, but you don't have to follow them. When a bottleneck of hikers slows your momentum, look for another semi-vertical surface to jump on. A committed scrambler can find numerous, alternate paths up that require the use of handholds, yet aren't exposed enough to necessitate breaking out a climbing rope. Since the mountain is centrally located, you'll still have plenty of day left after all that monkeying around.

At the end of a dirt road in South Mountain's Pima Canyon Entrance, tucked away in a quiet desert arroyo full of mesquite and cactus, you'll find a collection of boulders with names. These are the gems of South Mountain bouldering, a type of low-vertical climbing activity that usually involves rock shoes and a chalk bag but no rope. On nice days, you're likely to find climbers scampering around the Entrance, Africa and World boulders, or the "Amphitheater."

The routes here are mostly "clean," which in climber-speak means that the hand- and footholds aren't too likely to break off. South Mountain rock is notorious for coming apart, though, so be forewarned. This isn't Hueco Tanks or Red Rocks. But this area, reportedly developed by locals in the mid-1990s, does offer dozens of established routes, ranging from easy (VO) to ridiculously tough (V7). Basic route descriptions can be found in a popular pamphlet published by local climber Marty Karabin. When not crumbling, the rock here has a smooth yet textured feel that doesn't rip apart the skin as easily as the razor-rock of the popular Queen Creek bouldering area two hours east of Phoenix. Plus, the wash inhabited by the boulders can be a wonderfully peaceful and beautiful hangout — if you don't mind sharing it with the occasional rattlesnake.

Without a state land permit, you may get harassed and ticketed by The Man on this crag. (If you want to keep it legit, call 602-542-2119 for permit info.) Either way, you'll enjoy some of the Valley's finest climbing if you head out to Little Granite Mountain in Scottsdale.

Called "little" to distinguish it from a much more impressive rock pile in Prescott, this granite mountain nonetheless has some walls that are higher than a 10-story building. That would include the moderately rated "Young Monkeys," a 120-foot slab with a couple of long blank sections a climber would not want to slip on. Another awesome moderate, "Sweet Surprise," offers a perfect hand-crack that thins to a finger-crack over 100 feet of climbing. Beginning and experienced lead climbers will find dozens of challenging, sometimes adventurous routes in the area, which includes several distinct crags used by climbers. The drive in is best done with a high-clearance and/or four-wheel-drive vehicle. From Dynamite Road, drive north on 136th Street on the dirt road to Powerline, go through a gate, then drive a little more until you find a place to park. Once you're on the trail system that wends its way through the various climbing areas (go online or find a guidebook, such as Phoenix Rock 2, for details) it should be easy going. As long as you brought that permit.

Rock climbing is a perishable skill. Thankfully, each time we find ourselves in too pathetic a state, we have the Phoenix Rock Gym to help with the necessary repairs. The two bouldering areas, including an upstairs room with sharply overhanging walls, are perfect for muscle-building and fingertip-hardening. Once we get back in shape, we usually can then find a partner who'll be willing to belay us on the 30-foot faces of the gym's main walls. Despite its friendly ambiance, the Valley's oldest rock gym has a hard side — we've ripped skin there, tweaked a limb on the lead wall, and worked our forearms until our hands could barely close. But it's all good. For inspiration, we look to the teens and tweens of Team Thrashers, the competitive climbing outfit that trains at the PRG under the tutelage of coach Jeremy Cox. Nothing motivates us to work out harder than watching a kid do 30 pull-ups without breaking a sweat.

There are plenty of spots around the Valley that can fulfill the urge to hit a few baseballs. There are only a few places where you can feed your inner big-leaguer at an indoor facility and face curveballs, 85 mph fastballs, a delivery that simulates a human arm angle, or get instruction from former pros. You can get even more serious with a membership, allotting yourself time every day to perfect your swing. From Little League-age on up, The Cages is where players go to hit. Or you can keep hacking at the crap that comes out of the antique pitching machines that litter the outdoor batting cages around the Valley. There are a couple of extra alleys inside The Cages, so pitchers are welcome too.

Old Hohokam Stadium, Phoenix Municipal Stadium, and Scottsdale Stadium stand as the last of the original Cactus League stadiums. The spring homes to 15 of the major leagues' teams have turned into sprawling multi-field complexes for a couple of teams to share. Character and warmth of the intimate training fields have been stripped so that fans can sit in pristine, generic stadiums at ticket prices nearing those sold during those teams' regular season. Yet one intimate fan experience still beckons, in the West Valley.

The Goodyear Ballpark, built in 2009, hosts the Cleveland Indians and Cincinnati Reds for their preseason practice and home games and has two very cool and unique features. The first and best is a mini-diamond, located beyond the right field foul line, for kids and families to play on during games. This space epitomizes a spring game experience, allowing kids and parents to watch the big leaguers for a few innings and then go and enjoy the beautiful game in their own way, right next to where the pros are doing it. The second is a large sculpture in front of the stadium called The Ziz by Donald Lipski. It looks like a giant baseball that has gone through some shape-shift warp. It's one of the few artistic touches at any spring training facility across the Valley. Bonus: There are some quality knothole views of the field from the fence behind the left field wall.

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