Best Tough Hike 2022 | Camelback Mountain | Fun & Games | Phoenix

It's hard to believe that the most visited place to hike in the Valley is smack-dab in the middle of the city — barely 10 miles from downtown Phoenix. But just because it's popular doesn't mean it's easy. You've got two trail options to climb Camelback: Cholla, which is longer but a bit easier, and Echo Canyon, which is shorter but steeper and more challenging. Whichever you choose, strap on hiking boots and bring plenty of water no matter what time of year you go, because you'll quite literally be climbing, or clambering, your way up. But your determination will pay off when you reach the top, as the views of metro Phoenix are spectacular in all directions. And if you try but don't quite make the summit? Don't beat yourself up. Neither trail is a walk in the park, and you're much better off making it down the mountain safe and sound. When you're ready to try again, Camelback will be waiting for you.

Maybe you're a little out of shape. Maybe you've got some out-of-town visitors who want to see some local natural beauty without a lot of exertion. Maybe you just feel like taking a gentle stroll through the desert without making a big thing out of it. Whatever the motivation, Lost Dog Wash in north Scottsdale is an excellent choice for a low-impact hike. Located in the McDowell Sonoran Conservancy, the trail has nice restroom facilities at the entrance and good signage throughout. Though you may need to keep an eye on your footing (loose gravel can be found in several places on the trail), you won't encounter much more than some short, gentle inclines (you can barely call them hills). In fact, the most treacherous elements of Lost Dog Wash are the piles of horse poop that often dot the trail. The out-and-back trail is about 2.2 miles each way, which means you can turn back whenever you feel like it, but if you stick it out, you'll be rewarded with some nice views of the area, including Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin West. And if you feel a little more adventurous the next time, the same trailhead leads to more challenging hikes such as the Old Jeep Trail and the Sunrise Trail.

Many Arizonans take advantage of the opportunities to target shoot on public lands. In the hustling and bustling urban core of Phoenix, that may sound like the makings of a day trip that begs plenty of planning. But just 20 miles northeast of Phoenix, tucked away in a pristine pocket of untouched desert brush off the Beeline Highway just past Fountain Hills, is the Desert Shooting Area at Fort McDowell. It's located on an swath of unruffled land surrounded by picturesque mountain views at the edge of the undeveloped Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community with heart-stirring views of the sprawling Sonoran Desert. Unlike other recreational shooting sports sites maintained by the Bureau of Land Management's Phoenix District, this hidden gem all but guarantees a serene, solitary shooting experience.

The 21st-century craving for a constant stream of new experiences and excitement has brought us to this: We now go throw axes for fun. The two Valley LumberjAxes locations blend safety and fun in equal measure (lucky for us — we have terrible aim). You can book a one- or two-hour reservation for four to 12 people, or just walk in, ready to start hurling (after a short session of safety talk and axe-throwing tips, of course). But even though we're not actually very good at throwing axes, the fun with friends always hits the bullseye. The Tempe location sells beer and wine, but if you head to the Westgate outpost, you'll find a full bar ready to serve you.

We love the feeling of flying through the air. The wind in our hair, soaring above the ground — we can't get enough. So the Superstition Zipline is just our speed. Located at the ultra-cheesy but fun Goldfield Ghost Town tourist attraction way the hell out there in Apache Junction, the zipline works a little different than others you may have experienced. For starters, you and a friend sit together in a chair rather than being hooked into a line. The mechanism pulls you up and back to the high starting point, then whoosh: You're flying back down to earth. As you ride, you're afforded spectacular views of the Superstition Mountains and the Goldfield Ghost Town complex. The zipline is $12 for your first ride, but the price drops by half from then on, so you may as well buckle in for several trips through the sky.

Throw up a climbing wall and we're all over it, especially after a day filled with deadlines and stress. Who wouldn't want to trade a mountain of paperwork for the colorful rocks that seem to jut out from black mountains inside this gym where everyone is friendly, helpful, and too focused on their progress to point out the shortcomings of others. Sometimes we're in the mood to scale the walls (the ratings on the routes cater to everyone from first-timers to experienced climbers); other times, we want to roll in yoga or fitness training mode. Here, we can do it all, including taking group classes or private lessons. If we're into solitude, we can climb on our own. But we can mix it up when that's more our style with events like the ladies-only climb on the first Friday of every month. The TapHouse Kitchen down the street from the gym gives us a place to relax after we climb, and maybe tell a few tall tales with other climbers before we jump back into mountains of work.

Sahuaro Ranch Park feels like two parks in one. On the west side, you've got everything you'd want in a public outdoor space: playing fields for softball, soccer, and volleyball; a playground for the kiddos and a dog park for the doggos; and some of the most beautiful picnic ramadas in town. But the east side of the park feels more like a museum, and with good reason. It houses the Sahuaro Ranch, a 17-acre property that dates back to 1886 and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The house is currently not open for tours, but keep checking the website — it's worth a look inside. Even though the house is closed at the moment, the historic side of the park has plenty to see, including peacocks roaming the grounds and a beautiful rose garden.

This popular doggie destination just east of Old Town Scottsdale features three parks. One is designated for active dogs, and the second is for pooches with a bit more chill. Fortunately, both are well-maintained spaces, with nice grass, dog water fountains, plenty of room to run and play, and a regular collection of nice, chatty people. The third park is closed for maintenance and reseeding; the spaces rotate, so the park will never close down, leaving dogs and their owners stir-crazy for months. Since the dog park is part of the larger Chaparral Park, you've got plenty of space to walk around outside the designated dog area. We recommend putting your pup on a leash and heading to the Scottsdale Xeriscape Garden for some zen via a fountain and lots of native flora.

Pelicans in the desert? Yeah, we're not kidding. The Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch, a 100-acre park tucked away in Gilbert, is a bona fide desert oasis — and a haven for birdwatchers. The town stores some of its water in several basins across the park, and birds flock from miles away to congregate in the shady pools. It's a particularly good place to see water birds; white pelicans, cinnamon teals, black-necked stilts, and roseate spoonbills are all easily found here, foraging and bathing in the water. But birds of all kinds abound, from hummingbirds to raptors to quail. The park is partly forested, and paths are accompanied by cheerful signage about the wildlife, making for a nice stroll. You're sure to encounter many veteran birders here, armed with their scopes and binoculars, but fear not, newbies — there are so many birds at the Riparian Preserve that you need no skill to see them. Simply take a walk, and enjoy the momentary respite from the desert.

One of the upsides of living in Phoenix is the way that nature and urban areas often rest literally right atop one another. For instance, you could drive 20 minutes from almost anywhere and be atop Camelback Mountain or Piestewa Peak for scenic hiking. Or, just head into Arcadia proper for a truly dazzling destination: the Phoenix Bat Cave. Every summer between May and October, as they migrate south toward Mexico, a colony of some 20,000 Mexican free-tailed bats make a flood control tunnel their temporary nesting spot. That means that as they emerge every day around sunset, the most unlikely of places becomes a majestic little nature observatory. To get there, just head to the northernmost end of the Arizona Canal Trail — near 40th Street and Camelback Road — where there's actual "Batcave Parking" available. (If you're savvy enough, the actual coordinates are 33.5147, -112.0012.) If it seems odd to have bats right around a delightful spot like Chelsea's Kitchen, that's sort of the point. Phoenix is a weird and wonderful place, and something beautiful can often be found where it's least expected.

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