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

Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch

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.

McDowell Mountain Regional Park

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.

Phoenix has no shortage of glorious hiking trails within its city limits. But the problem with those trails is that they make you feel very much that you're in a city. You're constantly reminded of mankind's incursions into nature by the city views you're working so hard to avoid. You have to go a little farther outside city limits to really get that immersive outdoor experience, but thankfully you don't have to travel long. The Superstitions offer one particular hike that has it all: the Peralta Trailhead to Fremont Saddle. The trail is mostly isolated from city views, is only five miles round trip, and has a fantastic reward at the end: panoramic views of the endless layers of rock and saguaro of the Superstition Mountains, one of the most beautiful ranges in Arizona, and a spectacular view of Weaver's Needle, a dominant peak that juts prominently to the northwest.

Readers Choice: Camelback Mountain

South Mountain Park and Preserve

Everyone knows there's nothing quite like an Arizona sunset. However, the view from your backyard is nothing compared to a view from higher up. To really take in the sunset, go to the top of South Mountain. The directions are easy: Drive south on Central Avenue until you're at the top. The view of Phoenix is fantastic — there's a great panorama of downtown Phoenix, and even something like the University of Phoenix Stadium, more than 20 miles away, can easily be seen. Then, when the sun goes down, and the sky's colors start to change, you'll hear the oohs and aahs of everyone there, as if it were a Fourth of July fireworks show. One word of warning: This view of the sunset is not a secret, in any sense. You'll want to get there early to secure a parking spot and a place to watch.

Readers Choice: South Mountain

MacDonald's Ranch

For those not familiar with the equestrian world, there are two styles of riding, Western and English. Though there are several differences between the two styles, the differences in riding boil down to how the rider guides the animal. English riders use reins connected to the horse's mouth and Western riders use their saddles, weight, and reins connected to the horse's necks. As you may have guessed, out here in the Wild West, Western style reigns supreme, for the most part, and the best place to experience it is at MacDonald's Ranch. This family-owned and -operated ranch is a peek back into what life was like in Arizona back when the Richardson family opened the ranch in the 1950s. But it's the stables that caught our attention. MacDonald's breeds its own horses so it can ensure that the animals are docile and well trained. From trail rides and cookouts to touring around in a stagecoach, MacDonald's will give you a true Western experience.

We'll miss Oak Flat Campground and its nearby thousands of bouldering routes when they're gone. Great places to boulder — a term for rock climbing that focuses on short routes where a fall isn't deadly — are not that common in or near the Valley. Oak Flat is a uniquely scenic part of the Sonoran Desert, populated by ancient lava formations frozen and twisted into spectral forms that just happen to contain great hand- and footholds for climbers. Located about 30 miles east of Phoenix, just east of Superior off U.S. 60, Oak Flat is a peaceful land of creek beds, bushy mesquite, and a lifetime's worth of exhilarating bouldering routes concentrated in one convenient place.

And the area will be gone, it appears, unless a political miracle occurs. In December, Arizona's U.S. senators, John McCain and Jeff Flake, shepherded a dead mining bill onto a must-pass defense-spending bill, achieving what Congress could not: the giveaway of Oak Flat and hundreds of surrounding acres near Devil's Canyon — land that some Native Americans claim has been held sacred for centuries — to a foreign mining company. Resolution Copper plans to dig into the rich ore under the land, destroying the surface in the process. Climbers will miss the former home of the world's largest outdoor bouldering contest, so get out there as much as possible in the next few years.

Four miles east of Superior off U.S. 60
602-225-5200
www.fs.usda.gov/tonto

Readers Choice: Camelback Mountain

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