Best Hiking Area 2021 | McDowell Sonoran Preserve | Fun & Games | Phoenix

Admiring the View on Galvin Parkway

It’s sort of silly, but you sometimes like to get on your bike and play a game you call Desert Tour Guide. In your favorite pretend scenario, you’re the director of a guided excursion through Papago Park and its amenities.

“Don’t forget to admire the Hayden Flour Mill,” you shout over your shoulder to your imaginary clients as you point your Schwinn Hybrid onto Mill Avenue Bridge, headed toward Phoenix. “But first, check out Tempe Town Lake! Woo hoo!”

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The McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale is more than 30 times the size of New York's Central Park. It's the largest urban preserve in the United States, and it certainly feels that way when hiking — whether you approach from Frank Lloyd Wright Boulevard, the Fountain Hills side, or from the far north. Within its roughly 120 miles of trails, there are so many unforgettable sights and experiences: the wind rushing and whistling at Windgate Pass, the dramatic stony face of Tom's Thumb, the way the rocks can abruptly change from slate-blue to Martian-red. Sometimes, you even see people on horseback. Always, it's a much-needed escape from the right angles and digital screens of life in the city.

This 2.5-mile out-and-back trail is perfect for anyone looking to fit in a short, but not exactly easy, day hike in South Mountain Park. You gain over 1,000 feet in elevation over the course of the hike and traverse a pretty diverse range of terrain while on the trail, including switchback sections, sandy washes, and minor rock scrambling. There's also a decent amount of shade along the trail for breaks and rocky outcrops to take in views of the Valley on your way up or down. At the trailhead, you'll find ample parking and public restrooms. You're rewarded at the top with abundant saguaros and more great views. The hike might leave you a bit fatigued afterward, but with the exertion comes the satisfaction of knowing you challenged yourself a bit on one of Phoenix's iconic mountains.

You probably don't want to take your relatives from Alberta or Connecticut on one of the Valley's double-black-diamond trails where they could risk their lives. Go easy on the old softies and take them to Spur Cross Ranch Conservation Area, which has several easy trails cutting through some of the most beautiful and lush Sonoran scenery in the state. We'd swear that a few hundred acres of Tucson's Saguaro National Monument must have been transferred here — there are so many of the desert's green giants at Spur Cross. Flat trails like Fairy Duster and Mariposa Hill are great for hikers of all ages. More intrepid non-Arizonans could try several intermediate trails that ascend low hills. Be sure to take lots of water, even for a short hike. Yes, there's even a double-diamond trail that goes up near the summit of the area's prominent Elephant Head formation, as long as you promise to keep your out-of-towners out of the news.

Is this the Valley's toughest hike? Get out there and try it! What's the worst that can happen? Quite a lot, actually. The Superstition Ridgeline is for advanced hikers only, and a mountain rescue or worse awaits anyone who doesn't take it very seriously. For starters, it's about 12 miles one way, with virtually no escape in between should things take a turn. You'll need a car or bicycle shuttle between trailheads. But let's focus on the fun: Prepare for full immersion in the Superstition Wilderness, with strenuous uphill sections, precarious boulder scrambling, navigation by cairns, world-class rock formations, Sonoran flora (albeit much of it torched from the 2020 Superstition Fire), and killer views of the southeast Valley. You'll climb and top out on several summits as you go, including the Superstitions' highest point. Take lots of water. It starts and ends at either Carney Springs trailhead near Peralta Trail or Siphon Draw Gully trailhead in Lost Dutchman Park — you decide which way to go. Either way, you've got a workout ahead of you.

If you're ready for lead-climbing, rock on. But it's not called the "sharp end" for nothing. With no rope fixed above to catch you in a fall, you take the rope up with you, tied to your harness, and clip into bolts or removable gear you place on the rock. If you fall, you fall twice as far as you are above your last piece of gear. So it's best to start on something with less catastrophic consequences if you screw up. Sassy is the one for you. Once you nail it, there are plenty of other climbs to tackle in the scenic Sonoran Conservancy. Sassy is technically easy, running up a low-angle slab about 70 feet to a tree, with a good crack on your left that takes all sorts of the above-mentioned protective gear. The low angle means you can stand for a while on the rocky slope at various phases of the climb, figuring out which piece of gear to use. Assuming you got some of the gear in right, a fall would mean lots of rock-rash, not death. That's a feature any climber new to the sport should appreciate.

For the avid climber or the beginner, and the old and young, PRG is a welcoming place. It's the kind of rock gym that makes both visitors and hardcore members feel good just for being there. Okay, sometimes it's that lung-bursting, forearm-burning, take-the-pain kind of good feeling, but you're not here just for the atmosphere of camaraderie or the Karabin Climbing Museum. You're here to test your skills, hopefully among friends, on challenging routes put up by people who know what they're doing. With climbing gyms, it's not just about the walls, but how the plastic holds on them are arranged, and this is where PRG excels, due to the enthusiasm its employees and owner Paul Diefenderfer have for climbing. The ratings are realistic, not soft. If you can climb a 5.12 or V5 at PRG, you can probably climb one at any gym. Spend some time at the PRG and you'll find friends — and muscles — you never knew you had.

One of the most underrated, and often underused, bike paths in town is the Rio Salado Pathway — which is why it's the best. A paved path along the Salt River shore, the 19-mile stretch runs from just south of downtown Phoenix to Mesa, nearish the Bass Pro Shops. What the path cuts through is pure urban Arizona. It runs parallel to Tempe Town Lake and Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, and courses through fields studded with creosote bushes, areas packed with wildlife and birds, and plenty of places to rest. While you're stopped, you may observe planes taking off and landing at Sky Harbor or watch ducks flapping around in a quarry down below, people popping around at Tempe Beach Park, or just wildflowers in general — during spring, of course. But the trek also dips through underpasses strewn with abandoned shopping carts (think of it like an obstacle course) and heads by Tempe Marketplace in case you need to stop by Target for a quick errand.

Phoenix is a hostile place to be a cyclist. Bike infrastructure is largely nonexistent, motorists act like they own the roads, and death by distracted driving (or road rage, who knows?) always seems to lurk around the corner. But, if you know where to go, there are some roads that are actually somewhat pleasant to ride on. North Third Street in central Phoenix is one of them. The traffic on the road is minimal, so you can ride in the street without being afraid of getting hit. The sidewalks are in decent shape, too. Now if only the city of Phoenix would build a damn bike lane along it.

Your ride starts from where you are, and the destination is Fountain Hills. In other words, your experience may vary. But however you get there, it's likely you'll want to repeat the trip. East-siders can get a 40- to 60-mile ride starting from most locations in Tempe, east Phoenix, south Scottsdale, or Mesa, and bike paths (especially along Indian Bend Wash) or lanes are available for much of it. Naturally, there will be hills. You can add more miles and vertical feet if you go into the town, and if you're hungry, you can hit one of the many restaurants there. But the main goal is to end up at Shea Boulevard and the Beeline Highway (AZ-87), taking one of the two roads there, and the other back home. Hardcore riders can easily double the mileage by continuing up the Beeline, then south on Bush Highway to Saguaro Lake.

When you live in a place as picturesque as the Valley, many drives are often scenic ones, each with their own respective views of various natural splendors: Jagged mountains stretching into the sky. Lush riparian areas teeming with flora and fauna. And wide-open stretches of scenery that become even more epic at sunset. A trip down Bartlett Dam Road, though, offers glimpses of all of this and more in a single drive. Navigate the twists, turns, and gentle dips along this 14-mile paved road running east from Cave Creek Road through the high desert wilderness of Tonto National Forest and prepare to be awed. Bare-rock bluffs and rolling hills surround you. Sonoran plant life like saguaro cacti, ocotillo, and teddy bear cholla dot a landscape alive with such creatures as javelinas, bald eagles, and the occasional bighorn sheep. Go in the early spring for wildflowers in bloom, after a monsoon storm for fantastic smells, or in the early evening when everything's enhanced by the deep colors of dusk. Just keep your head on a swivel and eyes open for more than nature's spectacle, as bikers, cyclists, and boaters going to and from Bartlett Lake also frequent the road.

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