Best Of :: Fun & Games
by Robrt L. Pela
"Some of the things you see flying around in the sky are questionable," says Jeff Willes. "It could be a Mylar balloon, or a military aircraft. I try to weed that stuff out."
Willes has made a career of sorts out of weeding that stuff out. As a UFO hunter — Arizona's first and original, he insists — he's spent decades eyeing the skies in and around Phoenix. His vigilance has paid off with hundreds of hours of footage that show off strange things hovering in our heavens. Most of his discoveries are logged in video clips on a website, ufosoverphoenix.com, and on a YouTube channel jammed with images of shiny objects dancing around in the sky.
Bats have never been a particularly popular member of the animal kingdom, and in the age of COVID, their approval rating has dropped dramatically. But bats are actually really cool, and helpful, and there's a place in Phoenix where you can watch them head out for their nightly feeding. The Phoenix Bat Cave is a flood-control tunnel off the canal path near Camelback Road and 40th Street. Each May through October, a colony of Mexican free-tailed bats (estimates put the population of the colony somewhere between 5,000 and 20,000) leaves the cave around sunset in search of food. Stand quietly at the fence, and you'll see the bats emerge from the tunnel and fly off into the darkening skies. It's a tiny, magical moment that offers a closer brush with nature than we usually get in our concrete-covered metropolis. As you walk back to your vehicle along the canal, you'll get a second look at the bats; many of them hover near the water to snack on bugs.
If the walls are closing in, and you have enough coin to put gas in the car, make a plan to hit Seven Springs. The drive is long, winding, dusty, and scenic, and ends pleasantly at a splashdown in a tree-shaded creek. Okay, that's the halfway point — you still have to get back. But that'll take less time than many desert escapes do, because Seven Springs is basically the far, far north Valley. Getting there is easy — just hop on Cave Creek Road and drive north. The prominent Phoenix thoroughfare eventually turns into the rural Seven Springs Road, which is nicely signed the whole way. Take picnic or camping supplies, including plenty of water for the full ride. (Go to the district office listed above to pay camping fees.) Another option is to take the abbreviated trip to the Sears Kay Hohokam ruins, found a few miles up Seven Springs Road. Don't forget your Tonto Pass. And remember to tread lightly, pack out your trash, and leave all treasures, manmade or natural, in good shape for the next people to check out.
When Governor Doug Ducey closed down all the gyms in the state due to COVID, health nuts were unable to do cardio in the friendly, freon-filled fitness centers they love. And the timing of the pandemic couldn't have been worse, weather-wise. Even in the early hours of a Valley summer day, it feels as if the devil himself is burping hot air in your face (insert your favorite Terminator 2: Judgment Day meme here). But 5 miles north of downtown Phoenix, Murphy's Bridle Path provides the much-needed shade (along with glimpses of the well-manicured exteriors of some beautiful uptown homes) striders need to keep up the pace at a time when they would typically retreat to a treadmill. There's only one problem: Everyone and their mother knows about it, so the tree-lined 2.6-mile trail is filled with strollers, senior citizens, and folks with their AirPods cranked so loud they can't hear anyone coming up behind them. For those who want to get in a workout while practicing safe social distancing, you might want to hit the path at off-peak times, lest you be exposed to a minefield of germs that would make a janitor at Mountainside Fitness cringe.
This shallow but enormous, cave-like pocket of Superstition Mountain stone is an old favorite for many Arizonans, but it's gained fame in the last few years thanks to social media. You, too, can take a photo there of you or your favorite amigos in silhouette against the bright zap of primo Sonoran Desert landscape, all framed by the cave's claw-like shape. As good as the destination may be, the journey is also worth the trip. It's a beautiful, 3.5-mile out-and-back hike through gorgeous desert (thankfully unburned by June's devastating, 25,000-acre Sawtooth Fire just east of the area). Take the U.S. 60 to Peralta Road and head north; be sure to follow the Carney Springs Road turnoff to the left. Like many people who park at the trailhead, you probably won't get the required state Recreational Permit. Don't be that person: It's just $15, and we put the link above. It just might save you from a fine.
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 MountainProject.com, 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.