Best Of :: Fun & Games
by Robrt L. Pela
Dan Bickley isn’t sure he wants to share his favorite dining spot and watering hole. “It’s the best-kept secret in Valley,” says the renowned local sportswriter of Dick’s Hideaway, “so I’m tempted to keep this one to myself.” The vibe there is perfect, he says. “The mimosas are stunning, the staff is awesome, and the chefs work magic.”
When he’s not tucked away eating, the co-host of 98.7 FM’s weekday Bickley and Marotta program likes to gobble up the great outdoors. “Camelback Mountain is the crown jewel of hiking trails,” he says. “The Cardinals once trained on this mountain, because the final ascent duplicates the challenges of getting through the final quarter of a NFL game.”
- I don’t wait for First Friday to visit Roosevelt Row (Roosevelt Street between Seventh Street and Central Avenue). Likewise Angel’s Trumpet Ale House (810 North Second Street, 602-252-2630, angelstrumpetalehouse.com), right around the corner from all these great galleries and shops.
- There’s no marquee outside Dick’s Hideaway (6008 North 16th Street, 602-241-1881, richardsonsnm.com/dicks-hideaway), and no name on the front door, so you won’t find the place unless you’re looking for it. But there’s a sign inside that reads, “No Kardashians Allowed.” Perfect.
- There’s no shortage of great vistas in Arizona, but none compare to the satisfaction and euphoria of standing on the summit of Camelback Mountain.
- RoadHouse Cinemas (9090 Talking Stick Way, Scottsdale, 480-750-7295, roadhousecinemas.com/movie-theater/scottsdale): A movie theater that delivers beer on command, sells reserved seats online, and puts you in a giant leather chair that fully reclines? Yeah. Heaven.
- The 16th hole at the Waste Management Phoenix Open (held at the Tournament Players Club, 17020 North Hayden Road, 480-585-4334, tpc.com/scottsdale) is a place where golfers are subjected to the same heckling and madness bestowed on professional athletes. It’s also the best stadium venue in Arizona.
When a city puts up a sign like "Use Caution, Active Bees in Area," the bee-sensitive among us (as in most people) tend to go on yellow alert. These signs, which you can find at at Camelback Mountain, shouldn't be taken lightly. Killer bees live up to their name in metro Phoenix, where they've nailed several young hikers in local mountain parks. As recently as 2016, a 23-year-old man hiking Maricopa County's Usery Park was stung to death. But as usual, Camelback Mountain, the popular and over-used landmark in east Phoenix, wins out for the craziest tragedies. In 2004, and again in 2012, young men climbing the cliffs in Echo Canyon slipped and fell in the panicky minutes after a swarming attack began. Another climber in 2009 received 120 stings. Hikers on the main trails aren't usually the victims. But they could be. We've got bees on the brain because this year we heard bees while hiking Echo Canyon. No bees were in sight, but their frightful sound came suddenly, airplane-loud. A swarm was on the move. Hike or climb to Camelback's less-visited spots, and you just might find it.
Sure, you might get more altitude at another of the Valley's mountains, but there's no better bang for your buck than a sunrise hike starting at the 32nd Street Trailhead. Located where 32nd Street dead ends at Lincoln Drive, this short but well-traveled trail is uber-popular with locals and possibly one of the best-kept hiking secrets in town. A short 1-mile jaunt with an easy 421-foot elevation gain lands you at the Quartz Ridge saddle, where you'll take in a sweeping vista of central Phoenix. Turn around to take in the view, and you'll see Piestewa Peak towering to your left with Camelback Mountain rising to the east. We've been known to soak up the rising sun from the stone bench at the top while hummingbirds dart past and friendly coyotes wrap up their morning hunts.
The 320-acre Boyce Thompson Arboretum is a birding haven. A number of rare species have been spotted there, including elusive warblers. The arboretum is near the town of Superior, so Phoenix residents will have to make an hourlong drive. Still, for die-hard birders, it's a small price to pay in order to add a few rare species to the life list. Founded by copper mining magnate William Boyce Thompson in the 1920s, the botanical garden is the oldest of its kind in Arizona, with miles of trails amid cactuses and craggy rock formations. Take advantage of a guided bird walk to learn why the arboretum has acquired a reputation as a hotbed for an array of birds, including warblers, hummingbirds, woodpeckers, and thrashers.
Yes, we said bats. Metro Phoenix actually has a pretty sizable bat population in the summer; estimates are in the thousands. Many of these little guys hang out during the day in a Maricopa County flood control ditch colloquially known as the Bat Cave. Here's what you do: Before sunset, park near 40th Street and Camelback Road. Walk northwest on the Arizona Canal Trail (it's flat, but not paved) for about a half-mile until you get to the large ditch with a metal fence around it, then position yourself to watch the opening. Next, stay very quiet and wait for sunset, when the bats pour out of the cave in search of their nightly meal. We have to say, it's pretty darn cool.
Driving on boring, old Interstate 10 east to Tucson, you've probably seen the signs for Arizona City and Sunland Gin Road. Someday, when you've got gas to burn and nothing better to do, take that road and give yourself a tour of old-school Arizona farming and desert wasteland. What's going on in Arizona City? Absolutely nothing, which is its charm. Don't bother driving into its cookie-cutter-home sections — most of those are likely empty, anyway, when the average monthly temperature is higher than 80. Do drive through it and explore the farmland and desert around it. If you have four-wheel drive, you can try some of the washes and mountain foothills. Coming back, take Interstate 8 west to Stanfield Road, and complete your tour by going through Stanfield, then north on State Route 347 to Maricopa before finding your way home from there. The desert you'll see on this drive is not always pretty, like it is farther south in Saguaro National Monument. But it's real. In the agricultural areas, you'll see people working the land as they have for generations, minus the corporations and solar panels.
Whether you live in central to east Phoenix, Scottsdale, or anywhere in the east Valley, the route to Saguaro Lake is the most convenient, most scenic, and most enjoyable short ride you can take on your iron horse. Take the 202 Red Mountain Freeway east to Power Road, which becomes Bush Highway as you go north and connects up with the Beeline Highway. Within minutes, most civilization ends and you'll enter the riparian Sonoran Desert landscape of the Tonto National Forest. Yes, this is near where you went tubing that time. Real wild horses run free in these parts. You want to be aware here, but there's time to relax, too. It's a nice stretch of two-lane rural road, with only a few good passing options. Down nearer the lake, there are sweet turns and jaw-dropping scenery. (But don't park and leave your bike without one of those doggone Tonto passes.) It's such a quick ride out that we usually turn around after a short tour of the lake and head back. The ride to Saguaro Lake lets you break out of Phoenix's boring grid system, commune with nature, gawk at the reservoir set against the cliffs, and feel the wind at your knees — all in what amounts to a long lunch hour.
Tough, meet tougher. In our quest for challenges that make our lungs want to explode, this ride presents itself as a badass, uphill-on-gravel test piece. Start at the fancy Gateway Trail, where some uber-fit hikers may actually outrun you on some of the steeper portions. Don't be too impressed. You'll work as hard or harder as a hiker on this one, even using your best granny gear. It's a solid six miles to the base of Tom's Thumb from here, and a grueling slog the whole way. Which is how we like it. Throw in a Sonoran Desert setting that would impress any out-of-towner, and you've got the makings of a killer day, metaphorically speaking. Take lots of water. When done, zoom back down the way you came like a bobsled. For us, it's a crazy memory. But maybe it'll be your new morning routine.
Once you've gotten lucky enough to find a parking spot at Pima Canyon and taken the asphalt road to the end, this trail sends you soaring without delay. Let the multitudes take their strollers and leashed dogs along the dirt road that leads to the start of National Trail — we prefer to get our legs and heart moving right away, and Marcos de Niza Trail is the one to do it. From the main parking area, walk to the south end to start the trail, and wind around the hill on a single-track path. If you haven't seen the inscription scratched into a rock along the trail, now's a good time to check it out. It's set behind iron bars. Don't be fooled, though — it's a forgery from the 1920s, and was not etched in the 1500s by the famous friar, as it claims. Continue up the hill — that's the main idea for a while, and you gain the ridge proper. From here, the trail is a glorious, slow roller-coaster on the ridge for a mile or so. Be prepared to go up if you're going down, and vice-versa. Finally, the trail lets you down entirely (not psychologically) and joins up with other trails. Turn around here, or keep going and make a day of it. And we don't mean to nag, but take lots of water.
Did you ever wonder what it would be like to take a spacewalk? A good face climb is like that, and Quaker Oats is the best introduction in metro Phoenix you can get to the concept. The route's located on a minor rock hill in the McDowell Mountains called Sven Slab — signs will point to the Slab at the Tom's Thumb trailhead. You may or may not find the route without the help of a guidebook (and you might not survive if you're not well-versed in rock-climbing basics). Assuming you've got your requisite gear, belay partner, and have made it to the base of this 100-foot-high route, then it's time to leave the capsule, if you dare. Start making your way up the nearly sheer wall on its often-painful, tiny granite holds. As you rise higher, with vast spaces of vertical rock wall in all directions, all you'll think about is how you don't want to fall. But somewhere along the route, your inner face climber will be born. Fear turns into positive energy that helps keep you from falling. There's no spaceship, no ground, no rush of air like flying an airplane — just the sun, moon, granite face, and you clinging by your fingertips and a smear of rubber from your climbing shoes, mind focused entirely on the next series of holds. When you top out, you've earned your astronaut wings.
Though the city of Phoenix calls this a "smaller cousin" to nearby North Mountain, Lookout is a fine hill in its own right and deserves your time as a climber. Besides the main climbing wall, Lookout has half a lifetime's worth of boulder problems up to about 15 feet high to try, and though the basalt rock can be crumbly at times, many of the holds are sweet. Don't mind the broken glass and graffiti: Lookout's been the site of impromptu partying for decades, but it doesn't affect the rock climbing. Once on the mountain, you'll find mazes of boulders that make you forget your worldly troubles. It's fun to hike, but even better to hike with your rock-climbing shoes and chalk bag, so you can work out your hands and arms on the many short boulder problems. If you need beta, try Lookout Mountain Boulder & Climbing Guide by local climbing guru Marty Karabin. And don't forget the crash pad. Falling here is like trying to land a plane without fuel in Dunkirk — more exciting than you want.
Things look different from 30 feet up. Think about being on a stepladder in your home, getting at something near the ceiling — Phoenix Rock Gym's walls are more than three times as high. This is high-caliber indoor rock climbing. What do you need? Some inversion and upside-down time? Check. Couches and magazines for waiting out the forearm-muscle twitches, and tables for pizza parties? Two killer bouldering rooms, and an exciting lead-climbing area? Check and check. The place has been around for more than 20 years, and the staff know what they're doing in terms of route-setting. Whether you go for a day or buy a quarterly pass, this laid-back gym is perfect for first-timers or children, while also providing a home for people training for their next trip to El Capitan.
"Fun for the whole family" is kind of a cliché, but in the case of west Valley water park Wet 'n' Wild, it just happens to be the truth. Show up at the park some sweltering summer day, and you'll find an avalanche of activities to choose from. Thrill-seekers will gravitate to the corkscrew-like Constrictor ride and the river-rafting experience Mammoth Falls; those up for some hardcore relaxing can head for the Monsoon Bay wave pool or the Crazy Cactus Roaring River. There are places to shop and eat, and private cabanas to rent for a top-of-the-line experience. In short, a day at Wet 'n' Wild is so refreshing, we almost forget we're in the desert.