Best Tough-Ass Hike 2021 | Superstition Ridgeline | 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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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.

Of all the roads we love to cruise, few offer as much date-night potential as a drive down Central Avenue, specifically between Northern Avenue and the downtown area. It's the perfect road for a carefree jaunt if you have few actual plans and the time to watch the city transform from quaint, mostly suburban vibes to a modern urban oasis. When plans change, Central offers plenty to do, from dinner and drinks to cultural sites, music venues, art museums and galleries, shopping, and more. It's just as much about accessibility as entertainment, and this drive condenses everything that is quintessentially Phoenix into an efficient, 11-mile ride. Central is where our many neighborhoods and interests and values all come together. This drive is about defining what makes this city so wonderful and unique — and part of that is how we've collectively built up this wonderful thing to stand the test of time. If that's not romantic, then what is?

Not a lot of competition for this category. After bottoming out in 2019, the Suns completely turned things around this year, reaching the NBA playoffs for the first time since 2010 and the NBA Finals for the first time since 1993. There was so much to love about this team — Chris Paul's fadeaways, Jae Crowder's rugged defense, Devin Booker's general offensive brilliance — but arguably our favorite thing about the Suns this year was the effect the team had on the city. We loved seeing a vendor beneath a tent on a busy Indian School Road intersection hawking cheap Suns merch. We loved the hustle and bustle outside the arena downtown (even if we couldn't afford a ticket inside). We loved making Suns chit-chat while we waited in line at the cleaners, or with the Uber driver. Winning, it seems, makes everything better. Including Phoenix.

We gave this award to Book last year, too. Back then, inside the NBA bubble (remember that?), the Suns shooting guard's superstar status was still incubating. His performance in the 2020-21 season was on a whole other level, though — it would feel wrong to call anybody else the Best Male Athlete, given the majestic basketball Booker played on the way to leading the Suns to their first NBA Finals in 28 years. Yes, the addition of Chris Paul was essential to the Suns' playoff run, and players like Deandre Ayton, Jae Crowder, and Mikal Bridges made huge contributions. But Booker was who you came to watch night after night after night. He put up 47 points in the game that knocked the Lakers out of the playoffs. He dropped 34 to complete the sweep of the Nuggets. In Game Four against the Bucks, he scored 42 points, including 18 in the third quarter alone. (He didn't miss a single shot from the floor during that quarter, either.) Unfortunately, it wasn't enough to win that game, or the series. But Booker's only 24 years old, and his contract has him in Phoenix a few more years. He'll be back, and we can't wait.

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