Best Hike in the Heat 2016 | Echo Canyon Trail, Camelback Mountain | Fun & Games | Phoenix

What could make metro Phoenix's toughest short trail even tougher? Braving it in the area's legendary heat, of course. Echo Canyon Trail ascends about 1,200 vertical feet in 1.5 miles, and is known to reduce even tough Arizona Cardinals players to whimpers. When springtime coolness disappears, the fire department comes out more often to Camelback Mountain as unprepared or unfit hikers suffer. Be warned: Even experienced hikers can succumb to extreme heat. Several hikers, including some on Camelback, have died from heatstroke in the last couple of years. Yet when the mercury was expected to reach a record-setting (for the day) 119 degrees on a Saturday in June, our most-avid Camelback-hiking friend put the call out on Facebook: "Who's going with me?" About five other guys showed up, he told us later. On the hottest days, the reddish surface of Camelback is so appropriate it's ridiculous — this feels and looks like Hell. Trapped in one of several gullies where no breeze stirs, surrounded by super-heated rock on three sides, temperatures may soar to more than 130 degrees. Why do they do it? "I like the exercise factor, and I like to sweat my ass off," says our friend. We mention that it's also nice when the usually-packed parking lot is empty. "Oh, yeah," he says with enthusiasm. "Put down that the parking lot's empty." On June 30, following a string of heat-related tragedies in Arizona, the Phoenix Parks and Recreation Board considered a motion to close its mountain-park trails when the temperatures rose over 100 degrees. More than a dozen people showed up to protest the action, and only two people argued for the closures. The board voted down the measure. Sweat on!

Pima Canyon is an ideal place to introduce kids to real hiking, or at least the general concept of it. Tykes don't always tolerate heading down a single-track trail in one boring direction; they'd rather scamper, scramble, and explore. Here, you'll find an awesome mix of trails within a relatively small area, and the little ones can do what they want. Once parked along the park road west of 48th Street, you and the fam can jump on one of the trails that descends into a broad arroyo full of sand, palo verde trees, and boulders. Watching out for mountain bikers, check out the hills just south toward the Arizona Grand Resort and Spa (formerly the Pointe), then circle west again, back toward the road and the end of the paved parking area. An easy walk on the start of Desert Classic Trail takes you to the barred inscription from 1537 by Spanish explorer Marcos de Niza (you don't have to tell the kids it's likely a 1920s forgery). Toddlers or little kids ready to cover some distance can tackle the wide, dirt road open only to pedestrians that extends about a mile to the start of the long and brutal National Trail. Even a short walk down this road and back will give a kid a sense of what desert hiking is all about, but the car isn't far away in case of a mental meltdown or tired legs. On nice days, you'll see many other hikers, including lots of families with kids or pets. Go around sunset for a good chance at hearing the yips and yaps of the coyotes who live in the 16,000-acre South Mountain Park/Preserve.

The parking lot of the Tom's Thumb trailhead in Scottsdale's McDowell Sonoran Preserve is less than an hour's drive from central Phoenix, but it feels like another planet. The main sign of urbanity is the parking lot — which, though large, fills up with vehicles on good-weather days like there's a Black Friday sale going on. This hill of granite and cactus has a lot to offer for rock climbers, especially at the tallest formation in the area, Gardener's Wall. Our favorite climb there is Hanging Gardens, a moderate route that will get you noticeably nearer to the clouds. It's rated a 5.5 for technical difficulty — sounds easy, but with outdoor climbing, everything's more intense. There will be fear. It begins on a wonderful, gray-granite knife-edge that turns into a vertical crack system. Halfway up is a tiny belay ledge — this is no place for acrophobes. The leader brings the second climber up to that point before proceeding up a perfect hand-crack. Beginning outdoor climbers will gain new confidence on Hanging Gardens and learn the pleasures of multi-pitch climbing. It's best to bring two ropes for the long rappel back to the ground.

Before the Phoenix Rock Gym opened in 1992, the only "rock gyms" in these parts were the boulders and crags strewn about the desert. Rock climbing was done mostly by hardcores who didn't mind the heat, rattlesnakes, and cholla barbs sticking in shins from unplanned night descents down a mountain. Thanks to the PRG, rock climbing in metro Phoenix became something everyone could try. Suddenly, climbing wasn't just about risky thrills and blowing out forearms, but also about pizza parties and little kids having fun — which turned out to be fantastic for the future of climbing.

Kids exposed to the sport on the PRG's 30-foot-high climbing walls grew up to conquer Yosemite's El Capitan, and then they began taking their own kids to the gym. Other rock gyms opened as climbing took off as a mainstream sport nationwide, and the PRG kept competitive by opening a second bouldering area, adding a lead-climbing room and making its existing walls more challenging and fresh-looking.

PRG's longevity is partially owed to owner Paul Diefenderfer, who's good at both climbing and running a business, and to the friendly and helpful staff members he's hired. But the real secret is the community of fans and climbers who love the place and keep coming back over the years.

Who would have thought that Chandler would have a world-class gymnastics gym? Well, MyKayla Skinner trains at Desert Lights Gymnastics, and she traveled to Brazil as an alternate for the U.S. team. The 19-year-old finished fourth at the U.S. Olympic Gymnastics Trials, even beating out 2012 medal-winner Gabby Douglas, who finished seventh. Skinner is a Gilbert native, and she won a bronze medal on the vault at the 2014 World Championships, where she helped the U.S. take the team gold. She had to watch from the sidelines as the American team took gold, but hey, she's still a homegrown Olympian who only narrowly missed competing on a global stage. She's now at the University of Utah on a full gymnastic scholarship, so look for her to be a top competitor at future NCAA competitions.

Paul Goldschmidt is the guy that pitchers' nightmares are made of. At 6-foot-3 and 225 pounds of solid muscle, he's got a killer eye for the strike zone and a habit of punishing pitchers who make even minor mistakes when facing him. The Arizona Diamondbacks first baseman is one of the best in the league at drawing walks, so pitchers can't throw outside the zone and hope he'll chase. Nope, the only way to get him out is to throw him strikes, but unfortunately for everyone not on the Diamondbacks, he tends to crush those. He's one of those rare players that both hits for power and a high batting average, and though the Diamondbacks might have whimpered through yet another disappointing season, Goldy is as productive as ever, named as a reserve in the All-Star game.

It's not like Cardinals running back David Johnson came out of nowhere. The Cardinals took him in the third round of the NFL draft, after all. But no one in the league foresaw the monster offensive season Johnson turned in during the 2015 campaign. He established himself as a versatile triple threat, able to confound defenses by running the ball, catching the ball, and returning kicks. His statline reflects his hugely productive season as well — 13 touchdowns and more than 1,600 yards are great numbers for anyone, not just a rookie. He showed his most exciting potential against Philadelphia last year when he gashed the Eagles for 187 rushing yards and three touchdowns. The future of the Cardinals' backfield looks bright.

Few sports are kind to the ravages of age, and professional football is certainly a young man's sport. But beloved Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald has continued to dominate the league into his 30s. Not only is he able to stay competitive at age 33, he was, by any measure, one of the best receivers in the game last year. While it's not unusual to see veteran players continue to contribute well into their 30s, they rarely keep up with the young guns as well as Fitzgerald did last year. The average age of the eight players who finished with more receiving yards than Fitzgerald is 26. Just shows what talent, hard work, and winning the genetic lottery can do for you in the National Football League.

Arizona Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer, at 36, is like a fine red wine. He was the best regular-season QB in the league in 2015, and that season was an exclamation point on a career filled with many more downs than ups. Drafted by the Cincinnati Bengals in 2003 (prior to Palmer's arrival, Cincinnati hadn't enjoyed a winning season since 1990), he suffered numerous injuries and poisonous front-office politics before he requested a trade in 2010. Out of spite, Bengals owner Mike Brown refused to honor the request, effectively sentencing Palmer to football purgatory after the team drafted quarterback Andy Dalton. Brown eventually relented and traded Palmer to the one franchise worse than hell — the Oakland Raiders. He spent two years playing awful Bay Area football before arriving via trade in Arizona. The following seasons have seen Palmer blossom into an elite quarterback. They say success is the best revenge after a toxic breakup, and last year was the gaudy diamond ring on Palmer's joyous middle finger to his old bosses.

When the Arizona Diamondbacks owners demanded Maricopa County pony up almost $200 million for stadium repairs, lest the team bolt for greener pastures, you'd have to forgive the average fan for at least beginning to swallow the bait. After all, there's precedent. When the Arizona Coyotes threatened to leave and demanded the Glendale city government give the team all but the mayor's firstborn daughter and the city council had the gall to balk, Coyotes fans nearly tarred and feathered their elected officials. So there was some precedent that the Diamondbacks could get their way fairly easily. But there's no serious way to look at this in which the Diamondbacks don't come off sounding entitled and whiny. Chase Field is less than 20 years old, and it's already not "state-of-the-art"? Maybe if the team spent some money on more than one talented player (the team's payroll is among the lowest in the league), it wouldn't have to beg taxpayers for repair money equal to almost half of what it cost to build the damn thing in the first place.

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