Best Bouldering 2020 | South Mountain, Pima Canyon | Fun & Games | Phoenix

If you're a hiker or mountain biker who visits South Mountain and you're not into climbing, you may have looked in bewilderment at some point at people walking through the bush with odd-looking backpacks. No, they're not terrorists going to plant IEDs to take out the occasional mountain lion in this 16,000-acre municipal park. They're rock climbers with portable crash pads heading to the Valley's single best concentration of tough boulders for bouldering. Ninety-five routes are listed on, but be sure to pick up the Marty Karabin pamphlet on the place for $5 at your local outdoor store. This is not a site for beginners. If you're sketchy at easy bouldering grades like V0 and V1, you won't love it here, and you might twist an ankle in the rocky landings, but climbers with skills and crash pads will find hours of entertainment and the inevitable bloody flapper on a hand. Get to the address above early, park, and walk the dirt road west. At its end, take the arroyo southwest until you hit the boulders described in the guides. Though Arizona has some terrific climbing areas, good rock is tough to come by in the central Valley. South Mountain bouldering helps make this place livable.

This is the closest Scottsdale gets to Switzerland, but that's not bad for a city that mostly sits only about 1,000 feet above sea level. "The McDowells," as local climbers call them, are best visited when the air is cool, which is about 10 or 11 months out of the year, as long as you like mornings. Hundreds of routes across several distinct sections have been established here over the years. A few spectacular two-pitch routes can be found on Sven Slab, Morrell's Wall, and the 300-foot Gardner's Wall, which has several moderate climbs grouped together for the weekend warriors. Be sure to know what the hell you're doing after leaving the Tom's Thumb parking area and stepping off from the main trail onto the signed, more-technical climbing trails that lead to the cliffs where climbing ropes and harnesses are required. The granite here is a bit crumbly, but the popular routes are solid and fun. Be prepared for a 30- to 45-minute hike, and bring a few water bottles — you'll want to stay awhile.

One reason we mountain bike more than golf these days: We've never had a bad time mountain biking. Taking a trip to this Maricopa County park, with its trails made just for mountain bikes, is like shooting below par all day long. It's a relatively short trip for much of metro Phoenix, too: mostly on freeways and about the same as hitting the Salt River for tubing. Once there, you'll think you must have driven hours to be in a place this remote. Even when it gets crowded, it can feel like your own personal Disneyland. Rocky hills, saguaros, coyotes, tarantulas — this place has it all, desert-wise. You might have to brake for snakes. The mountain-biking trails are smooth, banked, and roller-coaster-like in many places, especially on the "sport" and "long" loops. A third loop, accessible from the mountain-biking parking lot, called the "technical" loop, is for experts or those who don't mind getting off and pushing. The crown jewel is Pemberton, a 15-mile loop for mountain bikers, hikers, or equestrians. Sounds like a lot, but even a beginner could do it in a morning (just be sure to take a lot of water). And take some tools, hot shot. No Disney technician is going to come and help you.

Struck down but not out by repeated closures due to the pandemic, Black Rock remains a local climber's best resource when real rock is unavailable. Laid out in two cavernous rooms with slightly different offerings, the 15-foot walls provide challenges to everyone, whether it's your first time in rock shoes or you're the next Alex Honnold. There are no ropes and no use for a harness here. When you fall, you hit the (padded) ground. Sooner or later, you'll lose your grip on a crimper hold atop one of the color-coordinated boulder problems and down you'll splat. (You have to practice falling to get it right.) We find the ratings here a touch softer than at other gyms — to be specific, we have climbed V4s here, and only here, but those were unforgettable moments, endearing us to the place forever. The vibe is perfect, with a good mix of young monkeys, scruffy veterans, and tattooed daredevils of both sexes with rippling muscles. Social distancing rules apply, and hand-washing is mandatory.

The three blue-turf basketball courts at Encanto Sports Complex aren't fancy, but they are well-maintained and popular, making the park a great place for hoops with friends or to get in on a pickup game already underway. (You can play late, too — till 10 p.m., seven days a week.) Be warned, though: Some fierce ballers lurk on these courts, which have long been lauded as the best place in the Valley to find streetball rivaling that found on the hardened streets of Brooklyn and the Bronx. Don't expect a leisurely game of H-O-R-S-E.

Whatever floats your boat is cool at Tempe Town Lake. Every manner of water-borne recreation happens here: kayaking, pedal-boating, stand-up paddle boarding, rowing, and electric cruise boating. (Swimming is just about the only water sport you can't indulge in at this 2-mile-long lake.) Tempe Town Lake Marina has a boat ramp and a floating dock available for public use, and several boat rental companies on site offer a variety of watercraft, from dragon boats and hydrobikes to canoes and swan-shaped pedal boats (large, powered boats may be reserved in advance). Anglers may fish from 5 a.m. until midnight, and catches may include stocked bass, sunfish, catfish, trout, and Israeli carp. For amphibious athletes, try the lakeside events, like sunrise yoga on the dock.

Bigger is better at Kiwanis Park in Tempe — all 125 acres of it. What do you want to do today? Horseshoes? Picnic in the shade of 15 ramadas? Rent a surrey bike? Rent a paddle boat and hit the 13-acre lake stocked with catfish, trout, bass, sunfish, and white amur? Maybe you're more of a sports person, in which case you'll want to avail yourself of the baseball diamonds, lighted batting cages, indoor basketball courts, wave pool, soccer field, volleyball courts, or the 15 lighted tennis courts, manned by USTA-certified staff. Stuck with the kids? Take them to The Cloud, a 5,000-square-foot splash playground complete with loops, pillars, jelly sticks, and misting sprays. Kiwanis is a recreational wonderland. Dive in.

In the age of blockbuster amusement parks, the McCormick-Stillman Railroad Park stands as a reminder that community parks have their own charms. The spacious 20-acre park has plenty of open green space where families can picnic, children can run off their energy, and couples can enjoy some outdoor time together. Tickets to the railroad rides and carousel are cheap, and the park has several other amenities, including playgrounds and actual railcars that bring train history to life. For a generation used to electric scooters and car sharing, the Scottsdale Railroad Museum presents a fascinating look at how people moved from place to place in generations past. There's even a building filled with train models, which brings out the childlike wonder in visitors of all ages, fueling romantic dreams of riding the rails free of everyday responsibilities.

Since 1969, Big Surf has been the closest thing Valley residents have to a real beach, featuring everything from a wave machine to children crying about hot sand between their toes. The 2.5-million-gallon Waikiki Beach Wave Pool tends to be packed with older kids and adults astride rafts, boogie boards, and surf boards (all available for rental). Other park attractions make a splash with younger tykes, like Captain Cook's Landing (for toddlers), Bora Bora Bay, and smaller Otter Slides for kids under 4 feet tall. Adults can whet their appetite for water slides with seven different attractions, including The Black Hole enclosed slide and winding Tornado Twisters body slides — perfect for racing friends into the plunge pool below. You can even learn to surf here; lessons are available on designated weekends.

When in Phoenix, do like the Phoenicians do — find a good deal on a nice hotel in the summer and plan a family staycation. You can't do better than this resort (despite its politically incorrect name). For $80 to $100 per night, your family will be treated to a nice room that comes with access to the resort's phenomenal pool complex. Put on your sunscreen for a few slow spins around the lazy river, catch the kids as they come down the slides, or just enjoy the cool splatter of a waterfall on your head. We're always sad to leave here, but it's nice to have someone else clean the pool for a change.

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