Best Of :: Sports & Recreation
When the summer heat starts to cook every single body in Phoenix, an inborn signal goes off, much like the internal clock in geese that tells them to fly south to avoid the cold of winter. The easiest place to run away for the day is Flagstaff, but for a true break from the heat, your final destination shouldn't be the city proper. Head a little farther northwest into the Coconino National Forest to find Lava River Cave, a unique natural formation created when a volcano erupted some 700,000 years ago. As you head underground, be prepared for the overwhelming desire to bundle up underneath a cozy sweatshirt. The temperature in the caves is about 40 degrees Fahrenheit year-round, making them the perfect place to escape from the oppressive Sonoran Desert heat. This mile-long tubular cave is surrounded on all sides by hardened lava flows, so the surface is slick, bumpy, and totally unlike anything else you've ever set foot on. Wear comfy shoes, bring a jacket, and make sure to have a bright flashlight — better yet, one headlamp per person.
There are few places in downtown Phoenix where you can run unimpeded by traffic. One of those places is the Grand Canal. If you're looking for a nice three-mile jog, start at 15th Avenue and head east. Run by Brophy and Central, past the Brophy baseball field to Seventh Street. Turn around and jog back to 15th Avenue. Boom — you got your three miles in, and you had to cross only two main streets. While you're running, you might also catch a glimpse of the humongous fish that call the canal home. So, the next time you see someone fishing along the bank of the canal, you'll know with a certainty that they aren't crazy — there really are fish in there.
While the point of many hikes is the scenery on the journey, that's not always the case. Sometimes, the hike itself isn't incredibly spectacular (once the beauty of the Arizona desert has sunk in), but there's a reward at the mid-point that feels so gratifying. One such hike is to the Taliesin Overlook, which is reached from the Lost Dog Wash Trailhead, at the end of 124th Street, north of Via Linda, in Scottsdale. There are a few trails up here, but this moderate hike alongside the McDowell Mountains leads to exactly what it sounds like — a view of Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin West. Just as a note, the overlook isn't exactly in Taliesin's backyard, and you'll see a lot of housing built into the desert. That said, if you're a nature purist whose hike is going to be ruined by seeing housing, lighten up. It's a cool view.
There are quite a few accessible hikes for all ages and levels within the big city, including a handful at South Mountain, but for beginners to experience the best that a day hike has to offer (without feeling so much strain that it brings on feelings of loathing for the outdoors), a trip to McDowell Mountain Preserve is in order. It takes about an hour to drive to this sprawling park way out east in Scottsdale, but it's well worth the time to traverse the 40 miles of hiking, mountain biking, and horseback-riding trails. Aptly named, the Scenic Trail takes hikers through a 3.5-mile meandering path that begins in easy washes and then gently slopes up and through the Lousley Hills. As you follow the loop, you'll stumble on incredible sights like the silhouette of Four Peaks in the distance, the lush land surrounding the nearby Verde River, and classic Sonoran Desert features like fallen saguaro. After a couple hours of hiking, sprawl out for a picnic in the ramadas near the trailhead, or swing through Fountain Hills to quickly get back to civilization and stop for brunch.
There's much more to Sedona than red rocks, New Age-y retreats, and resorts for out-of-towners. Heading north from Phoenix? Drive through the tourist-crowded city center and into Oak Creek Canyon. Although a ton of great trails surround Sedona, the ultimate must-visit is West Fork. The first portion of the trail — great for families and casual hikers — has plenty of great views of tall, colorful cliff faces, and high desert forest. And it doesn't take long to get to the popular swimming area with sloping rocks to slide down. The creek runs across the trail multiple times, so be prepared to cross over it using fallen logs and slippery stones. But, boy, does it feel good to stop and dip your toes in the cool, fresh water. The views only get better as you hike farther in, and things get pretty quiet after the first couple of miles. Spring and fall are the best seasons to hike West Fork, but summer is wonderful, too. Temperatures most likely will be in the 90s, and the trail is mostly shaded by trees.
A hike of six miles, Trail 53 into Siphon Draw and onward to Flatiron is a perfect representation of the vibrant desert of the Superstitions — and the harsh reality of hiking them. Starting as a gently elevating walk through the wildflower-speckled foothills, the trail veers upward through the smooth and massive draw (which can present the hiker with occasional waterfalls) and through a scrambling, shaded canyon to the top of Flatiron. Along the trail, the scenery morphs constantly, starting from rolling hills to smooth rock surfaces, then a boulder-filled canyon, and eventually the plateau of Flatiron covered in shrubs near the fantastic rock formations at the true summit. In the winter especially, the transition is vivid; coming from the warm and dry desert at the bottom, the summit is a cold and windy place and can even have a bit of snow to offer respite and amusement after a long, tough hike. This difficult hike is a beautiful challenge for those willing to witness the dynamic qualities of the desert along the climb, most visible and most enjoyed without the summer heat weighing you down.
This monument of a mountain looms over the surrounding desert between Phoenix and Superior, offering up one of the trickiest hikes near the Valley. (Take the unmarked dirt road to the Saddleridge Trail on the left, which ends at the trailhead parking lot.) It is not the length or elevation gain that makes this hike so difficult (though at nearly four miles in length and just under 2,000 feet gained, it is no easy feat); it is the exposure and lack of trail markers that truly challenge the hiker.
Starting easy along a small section of the Arizona Trail, Picketpost veers off toward the mountain to pursue a steep, cairn-marked trail lined with some of the biggest saguaros to witness your seemingly self-guided journey. A trail beginning with steep switchbacks, the hiker confronts it eventually with an even steeper ascent up rock-scramble canyons, slippery ridges, and bare rock cliff walls. But no tough hike would be complete without a rewarding summit, and the plateau top of Picketpost gives the successful climber an old mailbox to log your accomplishment, accompanied by a spectacular view of the East Valley and the backside of the superstitions. A hard hike along a rough trail, Picketpost Mountain is an achievement to be sure, but not for the faint of heart — literally or figuratively.
You'll need thighs of steel (or at least a hell of a granny gear) to complete this ride in one push. With our middling level of fitness and bike gearing set more for speed on the flats, we can't reach the summit without frequent rest stops. Yet we go back again and again. Why? This hill is the toughest — and sweetest — challenge for road biking in Phoenix. Some compare it to a shorter version of the legendary Mount Verdoux (part of the Tour de France), in terms of both scenic beauty and heart-pounding exertion. From the Central Avenue park entrance, you'll climb grades of 5 percent to 8 percent for 5.5 miles to Dobbins Lookout; it's a little farther if you go to the TV towers. The smooth asphalt makes for an E-ticket descent with treacherous drop-offs, so make sure your steed is in good shape. Eleven or 12 miles is short for a road-bike ride; most locals do the summit trail as part of a longer adventure, such as the round-the-mountain ride on Riggs Road that will add at least 40 miles to the trip. We've done that several times but also enjoy biking to the entrance and just cranking the hill. For us, it's always a major workout — and always fun.
Smack in the heart of the Valley, running through one of the country's largest urban preserve lands, Trail 100 takes you past awe-inspiring desert mansions, middle-class to upscale neighborhoods, picnic areas, and, most of all, miles of near-nothingness — just the placid Sonoran Desert. Sixth-largest city? Where? We typically start at the joke of a parking lot at Tomahawk Trail and Tatum Boulevard, which has a grand total of six spaces. Get there early and prepared for a long haul across challenging single-track. Though not as technical for the hardcore among you, we have to get off the bike on one rocky hill twice — once because it's too nuts to descend, and again on the return trip going up because our legs aren't strong enough. That part's west of the Dreamy Draw Recreation Area, which passes under the Piestewa Peak freeway. To make it a full 10 miles or so one way, we ride all the way to Cave Creek and Thunderbird roads before turning around. Hours of free thrills.
We love Let It Roll because someone was smart enough to revamp this old bowling alley (all new lanes and equipment) to make it a delightful place in which to bowl, while retaining a bit of the shabby interior to keep us comfortable. And the prices, though not exactly vintage, are way more reasonable than at those newfangled, fancy bowling alleys. Our favorite features: the vintage murals depicting partying Sunnyslopers and the fact that the bowling alley is adjacent to a better-than-decent Mexican restaurant.
If you've ever ridden a bike around downtown Phoenix, you know the conditions are hostile and bumpy, at best. The city has few bike lanes, and those that do exist sporadically end and restart without warning. Drivers in the city often are unaware of cyclists, which results in a lot of close calls or worse. Not to throw around the title "hero" lightly, but earlier this year, the Phoenix Spokes People proved commitment to the cycling cause, which resulted in a budget increase for cycling infrastructure 30 times the previous years' allotment. Though tireless and dedicated attendance at 19 city budget hearings, the PSP proved that cycling exists in Phoenix and needs to be protected and encouraged to burgeon everything from local business spending to healthy living. Thus, in a heroic show of devotion to bicycles, Phoenix Spokes People, in part, got the City of Phoenix's cycling infrastructure budget raised from $50,000 to $1.5 million. Hats off to the PSP for making Phoenix that much more livable.
At Mitchell, the large leash-free park near Arizona State University, the pet-watching is good and the people-watching even better. The 30-something girl who looks like a hip barista but actually is a post-grad in water science. The amiable drunk who feels compelled to guess the original pedigree of every mutt he meets. Don't get us wrong, though — most folks who go there are friendly and fairly normal. It's just that Mitchell, located just off University Drive, seems to have a wider variety of humanity than, for example, the much larger dog park at the Hardy Sports Complex in south Tempe, which attracts more family types and elderly people. Best of all, the park feels secure and it's kept up nicely by city employees. And those people we mentioned? They're very good about cleaning up after their dogs.