Castles -n- Coasters

Some people dream of traveling the world, buying a sports car or a mansion, or diving into a swimming pool filled to the brim with Cristal should they ever win the lottery. And sure enough, that last option sounds pretty tasty, but we'd still prefer one thing over all these options: a world-class miniature golf course in our backyard, with all the old-school putt-putt features, including a Dutch windmill and a medieval castle and the open mouth of a dragon to chip a shot into. Until then, we'll stick with Castles N' Coasters, which at least has the medieval castle as a course feature and is pretty cool to go to on a non-summer weekday when all the screaming kids are in school and you have all four courses to yourself. Who needs mega-millions and mini-golf in the backyard, or even a backyard, as long as Castles N' Coasters is open for business?

It's time to shoot down some stereotypes: Geeks and nerds of the world long have been encumbered with the reputation of being nothing but a bunch of socially inept and physically unattractive loners who shirk the outside world in favor of hiding in Fortresses of Solitude to revel in their fandom obsessions (see: Cooper, Sheldon, from The Big Bang Theory). And though a certain segment of the population fits this description, it ain't necessarily true for everyone. For proof, look no further than the members of N.E.R.D.S. (short for "Niche Enthusiasts Really Doing Stuff"). The people involved with this local Meetup group help it live up to its acronym by routinely attending geek-friendly events across the Valley. The 600-odd members of the group include representatives from practically every faction in fandom, be they Whovians, Trekkers, Twihards, Browncoats, Gateheads, or Warsies. They flock to any and all events with a niche following, whether it's a gaming tournament, midnight movie premieres, or the annual Renaissance Festival. Unlike the bullies who likely laid into them during their school years, the nerds of N.E.R.D.S. accept everyone. Even if they haven't been outside for years.

Imperial Outpost

We witnessed a melee taking place in the West Valley the other day, and it wasn't pretty. A horde of ferocious, green-skinned Orks carved through a phalanx of soldiers from the Imperial Guard in vicious fashion, waylaying bodies with their gnarly-looking chainswords and leaving few survivors by the end of the skirmish. Thankfully, such slaughter happened within the confines of one of the many combat-filled sessions of tabletop role-playing game Warhammer 40K that frequently take place at Imperial Outpost, and nary a drop of real blood was spilled. Geek-on-geek combat is the norm at this Glendale store, which regularly holds tournaments for many favorite RPGs and collectible card games, ranging from miniature-based titles like Flames of War and BattleTech to Magic: The Gathering and Yu-Gi-Oh! Imperial Outpost is also an absolute gaming paradise that offers more than 200 different titles for sale, each providing various dice-tossing, card-turning, and strategy-plotting antics. Owner Darren Johnson expanded the place within the last year, and it now offers twice as much space for the large green table where battles are held, as well as stocks of supplies for customizing units and figures (such as paint and precision tools), a wealth of accessories and singles, and a seperate in-house card shop called MannaWerx. Feeling game? Then head for the Outpost.

Let It Roll Bowl

When did bowling — of all things — become trendy?! We like our bowling old-school, thank you very much. We don't need designer couches and mood lighting (unless it's the glow-in-the-dark variety for cosmic bowling). Just give us loud music, cold beer, and clean lanes. You'll find all that and more at Let It Roll. In fact, this bowling alley combines the best of both worlds. It's vintage, right down to the crazy little murals on the wall, but this Sunnyslope stronghold — closed for years when bowling bottomed out — re-emerged as a rehabbed, spit-polished version of its former self. Best of all: Prices are lower here than at Let It Roll's super-trendy counterparts. We can definitely get hip to that.

Octane Raceway

We haven't broken out the measuring tape, so we'll have to take Octane Raceway's word that it's the largest indoor kart-racing facility in the United States. It certainly looks large. Even the check-in area is big. Two race tracks can hold 50 drivers at a time. Still, time does seem to slow down between races, while we're waiting for our next race time to come up. We have to be patient because we know we'll get our 12 minutes on the track, same as everyone else. Twelve minutes of sheer bliss, screeching around corners and accelerating to ludicrous speed on the straightaways. We can always have a beer in the lounge to ease the wait for the next race. The anticipation is still stressful, though, because the races are competitive. A printout after each match shows your time and where you placed against other drivers. Someday, when we've got some money to blow, we plan to invest it some of it in securing a number-one position at Octane Raceway.

As much as we love the Valley, we wish its founding fathers had seen fit to plant more curves in the roads. To find that long and winding road, it's best to leave town, of course — go to Bartlett Lake or Tortilla Flat. Takes hours to do that, though. We often need something to enjoy just for an hour or so after a slice of pepperoni. And that's where this ride comes in. From Tempe Marketplace we head west on Rio Salado Parkway, a twisty, divided road that's lit well at night. We take that to the Mill Avenue bridge — always an extra pleasure at sunset. From there, up the hill north on Galvin Parkway, which has nice curves, desert views and a perky roundabout. Keeping on 64th Street to Indian School Road we head west to find the only non-linear section on that road between there and Litchfield Park. Our short ride turns north again on 44th Street, with a right on McDonald Drive, which is straight but has roller-coaster dips that sweeten the view of Camelback Mountain. Leave your helmet on in case of photo-radar trucks on this section. When you get to Scottsdale Road, it's back to Straightsville.

With the exception of the two to three hottest months of the summer, Phoenix is a great city for outdoor activity. You can hike Camelback, South Mountain, the Mountain Preserve, or any number of other local trails. But for you runners out there, Phoenix can pose some problems. First, you have to contend with traffic, and then there's the distinct lack of hills to run on. If you're a runner in need of some hills, our favorite place to get away from the monotony of the flat, zero-grade streets is Paradise Valley.

A handful of other runners, and particularly bikers, usually find a place to park in one of the isolated residential areas near Paradise Valley Country Club (try somewhere near 54th Street), then hit the pavement. It's best to head up around Desert Vista and eventually down to Desert Fairways Drive, which will lead you to Camelback Resort and Spa, where you can get a drink of water and use the bathroom if you want.

Pima Canyon Trailhead at South Mountain Park and Preserve

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 State Park

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.

Piestewa Peak Park

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.

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