Best Desert Retreat 2015 | Silent Sundays at South Mountain | Fun & Games | Phoenix

The desert has always been said to have healing powers. Maybe it's the fact that plants, animals, and people are able to thrive in this harsh climate, or maybe there actually is something different about this arid place. If you're going to try to tap into these mysterious environmental powers, South Mountain Park, the world's largest municipal park, is the place to do it and the fourth Sunday of each month is the time. Dubbed Silent Sundays, these specific days are meant for cyclists, skateboarders, wheelchair users, and strollers to take over the roads when the main access points are closed to motor vehicles. Appreciate the park peacefully, and let us know if you find any of those fabled powers.

It may be hard to believe when it's the middle of summer and temperatures barely dip below triple digits (even after the sun goes down), but the desert produces varied and beautiful wildflowers when the weather permits in the spring, and Boyce Thompson Arboretum State Park has an incredible showing. Take yourself on a walking tour along the main trail, which is 1.5 miles long, and feast your eyes on the colors and varieties of flowers desert plants can produce. To see the most plants in bloom, visit the park in March and April. Be sure to take plenty of photos to remind yourself of the beauty of the desert through the harsh summer months.

Riding from the south on Scotts-dale Road, the route to Bartlett Lake takes you through North Scottsdale and finally into Carefree, a modern Mayberry in the desert. Coming from the west on Carefree Highway to Cave Creek Road, you'll rumble through the less posh but equally scenic Cave Creek and its biker bars. Either way, you'll be having fun even before you take the final leg east to the lake. Once clear of civilization, the ride turns into pure heaven for motorcyclists. Though not as full of twists as the road to Tortilla Flat, plenty of curves and dips unfold on the last few miles. The asphalt on Bartlett Dam Road is smooth, but watch for sand drifts around the bends.

For a round-trip ride that takes only two or three hours from most points in the Valley, you get the feeling that you've gone somewhere much more remote. Arriving at the lake doesn't mean you have to grab a burger and beer at the marina. Take off your boots and cool your heels in the water on one of the beaches, or keep riding on the smaller, fun park roads that surround the lake. It's definitely better in the cooler months, but Bartlett satisfies the jones for something other than the Valley's straight-edge grid system.

20808 East Bartlett Dam Road, Rio Verde

Most Phoenicians know to stay indoors during the hottest summer months, but sometimes you just have to break out your hiking boots and hit the trails even when it feels like the inside of an oven outdoors. Whether it's the fact that you drive 40 miles out of the city or it actually is a bit cooler, Lost Dutchman State Park makes the summer heat tolerable. With an abundance of fauna and flora year round and the legend of the Lost Dutchman to keep you entertained and on your toes, there's no better place to explore the desert landscape in the most brutal time of year than this destination in Apache Junction.

Minutes from nearly anywhere in the Valley, a wonderful and relatively safe outdoor adventure can be had by nearly any decent bike rider, on nearly any bike that has gears and fat tires. Start from South Mountain Park's Pima Canyon entrance near 48th Street and Elliot Road. Once on the trail of rolling hills, the ordinary world vanishes. The single-track trail guides riders and hikers through miles of up-and-down and across much of the 16,000-acre, surprisingly lush Sonoran Desert park. Endorphins will flood your brain as you strain to conquer the uphill portions, followed by tsunamis of adrenaline on the twisty paths down. A few technical sections may cause you to push your bike uphill for a few feet — practicing these parts and nailing them is very satisfying. It's great to go out and back a few miles, like a dusty luge run. But if you keep going, the goodness continues for a total of roughly nine miles each way. Doing the entire 18 miles can be a mini-epic sort of experience, yet one that even novice riders can handle (as long as they bring plenty of water).

Readers Choice: South Mountain

For those of us who enjoy driving off the pavement, a trip on the famous Apache Trail is an experiment in misery. Unless you're out there at the crack of dawn, you'll undoubtedly be stuck behind people driving 10 mph who have no interest in letting faster traffic pass. Luckily, there's a much better alternative in the Four Peaks Trail. The starting point, off State Route 87 north of Fountain Hills, is fairly far from the start of the Apache Trail, but they both end up at Roosevelt Lake. The trail is quite a bit rougher than the Apache Trail, but that only means it's more fun, and you can take it on even with the puniest of SUVs. All the drivers we've encountered on this trail are willing to concede their position to faster traffic, leaving your pace up to you — which is probably the most important part of enjoying an off-road drive.

Readers Choice: Sedona

This oasis in the middle of Gilbert is ever-changing, with an abundance of desert flora and fauna. But our favorite activity while exploring the 110 acres of the preserve will always be seeing how many different kinds of birds we can spot. During the cooler months of the year, October through March, the Riparian Preserve and the Desert Rivers Audobon Society offers family bird walks free of charge on every third Saturday — possibly the best way to catch the almost 200 birds that call the preserve home.

The rangers at McDowell Mountain Regional Park — a 20,000-acre county park in the northeast corner of the Valley — offer sunset hikes, reptile-feeding expeditions, and the particulars regarding the state's most majestic cactus, the Saguaro. For $6 (unless you have a park pass) and an hour of your time, you'll take an easy half-mile walk and learn everything from how long the Saguaro lives to whether you can get water from it, and more.

Readers Choice: Desert Botanical Garden

For the slightly more advanced sport climber, Lookout Mountain is like an outdoor gym. The climbing area, conveniently located in a north-central part of town at Greenway Road and 16th Street, consists of a single crag with about a dozen bolted routes ranging from 30 to 50 feet high. From the parking lot, take the trail up and right to the sheer climbing area. Some sections of loose rock are on the crag, meaning rock fall is a potential danger — so exercise caution. Most of the basalt is fairly solid. Novices will find nothing too easy here, and most of the climbs have to be led from the ground up. If you can lead 5.10 or 5.11, though, you can spend the better part of an afternoon here blowing out your forearms. Since the tragic closure of Lower East Wall in Scottsdale years ago due to a housing development, Lookout Mountain is the only spot in the Valley we know that has a single wall with multiple quality routes. Their proximity means you can quickly set up and climb several routes in a row, providing a workout experience superior to the plastic holds of indoor gyms. The best part: no entry fee.

Readers Choice: AZ on the Rocks

Channel your inner cowboy or cowgirl and hop in the saddles at Ponderosa Stables, which has been offering the best trail riding in Phoenix for about 40 years. Not only will you have the opportunity to explore South Mountain from the comfort of a horse's back, but you'll be led by a trained and knowledgeable guide who will offer interesting facts about the environment and the way cowboys lived back in the day. Take your pick from a daytime ride, breakfast ride, or steak dinner ride, which ends after sunset at T-Bone Steakhouse. Rides start at $55 per person and can vary in length of time.

Best Of Phoenix®

Best Of