Best Public Pool 2012 | Encanto Park | Sports & Recreation | Phoenix

If you're one of the few people in Maricopa County without a swimming pool in your backyard and you don't feel like hitting up one of the dozens of weekly (and ridiculously trendy) hotel pool parties, then you might want to check out Encanto Park's public pool. It may not be the largest or the swankiest pool around, but the price is right, and it sits right in the middle or the Encanto Palmcroft historic neighborhood.

The pool is open from 1 to 7 p.m. Saturday through Thursday (sorry, it's closed on Friday). All swimmers 17 and under swim free, ages 18 to 49 pay $3, and 50 and over pay $1. The pool has swim lessons in the morning, which is why the public swim hours don't start until 1 p.m.

Within Encanto Park's sprawling 222 acres, there also are lighted softball fields, grills for cooking out, a fishing lagoon, and Enchanted Island Amusement Park, with rides for children ages 2 to 10 years old.Dive in!

Even looking at Tempe Beach Park's Splash Playground in the off-season, when it's dry and quiet, we get a pang of emotion. Over many summer days when the kids were toddlers, they'd laugh and tread the shallow canals of the park, swim diapers swollen with water. Then they'd cry that they were cold when a slight breeze hit them, even when it was 110, and we'd give them a towel-wrapped hug. As the summers rolled on, they got too big to ride the backs of the water-spouting blue whales. They lost their fear of the thunderclaps and "lightning" on the rainstorm stage — but enjoyed it more. They'd have wars with other kids on the water-shooters, chase each other on the slippery surfaces, and try to act brave if they stubbed a toe. We came less frequently once the kids learned to swim, and only the younger one went to the park last year. But the memories of this simple, magical playground linger long after the end of summer.

Big Surf is a Valley gift that keeps on giving. The two-million-gallon wave pool — the nation's first when it opened in 1969 — is just part of the fun here. The place sports two play areas for little kids stocked with floating islands and mini-slides. At least one of the big-kid slides is steep enough to give us a thrill every single time we take the plunge. Spending half a day at Big Surf can be a real adventure. That is to say that by the end of the day — after we've survived the heat, the crowds and the thrill of the water attractions — we know we had fun but aren't sure it was an entirely pleasant experience. But the kids love it, so off we go.

Some helpful tips to keep the frustration factor low: It's well worth standing in line for 30 minutes before the park opens so you're there early enough to set up lounge chairs in the shade under an umbrella. During a wave, your kid's raft might overturn and float away — watch carefully and you might be able to identify the teen who steals it. Practice your smuggling skills and sneak in snacks and drinks, which are officially prohibited except for those purchased at Big Surf's concession stands. Remember to use sunblock and drink plenty of water. Now you're ready to hang loose. And whatever you do, don't forget the sunscreen.

We can take it. It's true — some parents fear Makutu's: the swarming, screaming chaos of kids running and climbing and gaming for hours. And hours. Adults always want to leave first. But the kids could stay all day — because Makutu's provides the most fun Valley kids can have when it's hot, outside of the swimming pool. Because we're just taller children, we have fun, too — for a while. We'll follow the kids up the dark climbing tower to the overhanging, tunnel-bridges made of webbing that bend our adult feet in painful ways. We help catch them on the zip line. We're behind them on the Banana Slide, which always seems just a little too fast. We give the undersea-themed tunnel feature, which has some truly claustrophobic squeezes for anyone over 5 feet tall, at least one pass-through. Then we let the kids go do everything again and again while we relax by throwing mini-basketballs in the game room. True, we still want to leave before the kids — but only when they're almost as tired as we are.

If you and your furry friend are willing to venture out to the hinterlands of Gilbert, you'll find a pot of doggy gold at the end of the earth-toned rainbow of houses you pass along the way. Cosmo Dog Park is great for both pooch and master alike, with plenty of walking trails, running and playing areas for both big dogs and "timid" dogs, and even a pond and beach area, where the furry beast can romp around or take a flying leap into the water. There are four acres of fenced-in play areas, which provide plenty of room for dogs and humans to roam. The park is named after Gilbert's first police dog, so if your best friend is looking for inspiration, he or she can aspire to no less than a local legend. A plaque near the entrance to the park memorializes Cosmo. As an added bonus, if your quadruped is anything like ours, it'll enjoy a ride home in the car after meeting some new friends.

Got a dog with a Napoleon Complex? Then this is the place for you. We like this park for its abundance of shady spots and, most important, separate play areas for big dogs and "little" dogs (with separate entrances), so you don't have to worry about any ankle-biting. There's plenty of room for running and playing, sniffing and leg-lifting too, although the "small dog" side is a bit more cramped than the "big dog" side. Water fountains are available to keep the little yapper hydrated on hot days, and plenty of seating is available under the huge trees in the small dog area. The park's open from 6:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily.

The East Valley has a new factory of elite athletes, sending competitors to this year's games that pit them against the very best in the world. And these athletes are only 11 years old. That's right, Kids That Rip Skatepark in Mesa sent two of its skaters to X-Games 18 in Los Angeles this summer to compete on the ramps. But not every skater out there has the goods to be X Games-worthy. So why not grind bowls, ramps, and rails aplenty on smooth wood surfaces indoors instead of baking in a cement microwave outside? Kids That Rip has over 3,500 square feet of street course bliss inside an air-cooled facility that will make it feel like Dogtown at Venice Beach. There also are the previously mentioned bowls and ramps, and even a tunnel. Skate camps for kids ages 5 to 15 run throughout the summer, starting at $199 per week for park members. The park also features an all-ages open skate at $15 for a three-hour session, with a themed open skate every first Friday.

Yep, there's a skate park in North Scottsdale, and like most things in the area, it's pretty new. At 16,000 square feet, it's not the biggest skating spot out there, but it's got the tables, benches, planters, and ledges to keep you entertained, and a bowl that drops down about 10 feet. It's the second city-owned skate park in existence around here — the other one's at Eldorado Park on the other side of town — and it's a little more upscale than your typical skate park, as it's almost always spotless, with a covered patio and lights. It's connected to the city's recently built aquatic center, which probably is the best summertime perk you could ask for. It may not be the ideal facility for the more advanced skaters, but, hey, it's one of the few free things to do in North Scottsdale.

Known as the the Valley's fastest group ride, the BOS has been pounding the roads of North Scottsdale since 1981. Named for its starting point — the Bicycles of Scottsdale shop that has come and gone a few times at the corner of Scottsdale Road and Shea Boulevard — the weekly group ride pushes out every Saturday at 7:30 a.m. with upwards of 50 to 60 cyclists making up the peloton. The roughly 60-mile route can change slightly from week to week, depending on the moods of group leaders, but by and large, the ride rolls north along Pima Road toward Cave Creek, cutting east for some climbing loops on Happy Valley Road and Legend Trail. The ride continually ascends to the summit point on Cave Creek Road known as "The Tower," a house with a large microwave antenna, just before the turnoff to Bartlett Lake. The return trip is where the fast part comes in, as it is nearly pure downhill all the way back into Scottsdale, and this group moves. If the idea of riding in a bunch is a bit intimidating, the route still is among the Valley's best, cutting along the scenic high Sonoran Desert along iconic landmarks such as Pinnacle Peak and Reata Pass.

South Mountain may be known worldwide as one of the planet's best mountain bike playgrounds, but imagine an alternate mountain bike trail system that combines a bit of everything from that premier park: a good dose of National, add some Desert Classic, a dash of Mormon, a pinch of Javelina, and smidge of Alta. Mash 'em all up and drop the results on the east end of the Valley, and, presto, there lie the Hawes Trail Loops.

It may be a vastly smaller network of single-track than its big brother to the west, but it twists like a rattlesnake ready to strike, with climbs and drops that keep even the most technically capable riders on their toes. Hawes and its accompanying trails take riders up to mine shafts and through a forest of cactus leading to some of the best views in the East Valley. The primary trailhead is on the east side of Power Road (if you start heading downhill to the river valley, you're too far) with a small parking area across Power that holds about 10 cars (otherwise plan on parking at the Walgreen's at Power and Thomas Road, about two miles south). The most ride-able loop is a combination of Hawes, Saddle, Saguaro, and Ridge trails in a counterclockwise direction, for a run of about seven miles. The trails are signed with some old wood-carved placards sitting on posts whenever the tracks intersect. For a sweet payoff, work to the top of Saguaro Trail and discover why that trail is also known as Mine Shaft.

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