Outdoors

Valley of the Sun perfect spring training destination for hikers too

The Valley of the Sun isn’t exactly the happiest vacation destination for Northwest sports fans right now.

So far this year, fans have traveled to the greater Phoenix metropolitan area only to see the Washington Huskies lose to Oklahoma State in the Cactus Bowl and the Seahawks lose in shocking fashion to New England in Super Bowl 49.

But, ever resilient, fans are coming back to a place where hope rises from the ashes like a, well, you know. This time they’re here for spring training. On Wednesday afternoon in Peoria, Arizona, the Mariners start a month of practice games in preparation for their April 6 season opener.

Nearly all of the Mariners games are in the afternoon, leaving mornings and evenings — the cooler parts of the day — open to take advantage of the one thing about Phoenix that almost never disappoints: the hiking.

“There are so many great trails close to town,” said Charles Kurre of the Arizona Hiking Shack. “This is a beautiful place to hike.”

But be warned, your hotel concierge probably isn’t a hiking expert and that’s not likely to stop him from making a recommendation. And that recommendation will probably be Camelback Mountain near Scottsdale, Kurre said.

It’s actually solid advice. The scramble over red rock to the 360-degree panorama at 2,706 feet above sea level is a classic for a reason. It’s beautiful, it’s statistically unintimidating (only about 2.5 miles round trip) and, for many, getting to the top is a point of pride.

Even pop music star Katy Perry, who lived in Phoenix as a child, mentioned she’d climbed Camelback in several interviews during the week leading up to her performance during the Super Bowl 49 halftime show.

But here’s what sometimes gets glossed over in discussions about hiking Camelback: It’s not easy (for most) and it’s crowded (most of the time). So crowded, in fact, you’ll likely have to wait just to score one of the 135 trailhead parking spots.

And the trail — so steep in some areas handrails have been installed — is often packed from parking lot to peak with people ranging from ultra fit to those who quickly realize they’ve made a mistake.

Don’t fret if crowded and steep isn’t your style. “There are other great hikes just as close to town,” said Jon Mincks of the Arizona Hiking Shack.

“It’s easy to get around Phoenix,” said Marjorie Magnussen of the Arizona Department of Tourism. “It’s like a really large small town.”

Here are some trails (and trail systems) worth exploring:

CAMELBACK MOUNTAIN

Yes it’s steep and crowded, but if you spend any time in Phoenix you have to do it at least once.

The sweeping view of the metro area is worth the work it takes to get to the top. Sturdy footwear is a must.

While some dash to the top in less than 20 minutes, most take closer to an hour or even longer. Most make it the top if they take their time, Kurre said. The Cholla Trailhead on the east side of the mountain offers a route that’s a little longer but not quite as steep.

SOUTH MOUNTAIN

South Mountain doesn’t draw nearly the crowds as the city’s most popular trails, but the views still are impressive.

The hike to the Gila Valley Lookout via a combination of trails and roads climbs about 1,300 feet and is about 7 miles round-trip.

The South Mountain Park/Preserve covers more than 16,000 acres and has 51 miles of trails. The park also is home to thousands of petroglyphs left behind mainly by the prehistoric Hohokam culture. Examples of the rock art can be found along trails including Judith Tunnel Trail (accessible), Telegraph Pass Trail, Kiwanis Trail, Mormon Loop Trail, Desert Classic, Mormon Trail and Holbert Trail.

DREAMY DRAW

Piestewa Peak is the third highest peak (2,610 feet) in Phoenix, behind Camelback and South. Part of the Phoenix Mountains Park and Recreation area, it is nearly as popular as Camelback.

Getting up and down the peak requires climbing nearly 1,200 feet on a 2.4 mile hike. Mincks usually recommends the Dreamy Draw Recreation Area at the base of the peak.

“If (the route up Piestewa is) busy, you can just take a different trail and get away from the crowds,” he said. “You can’t really do that at Camelback.”

PAPAGO PARK

Papago Park is a good choice for those looking for easier hiking options. The park is home to the Phoenix Zoo, a golf course and considerably flatter hiking trails ranging from less than a mile to about 4 miles. This is a good option for families with younger children looking to stretch their legs a bit.

One of the park’s most popular attractions is Hole-in-the-Rock, a sandstone hill with a naturally formed chamber. You will gain about 200 feet of elevation on this 0.1 mile trek.

SONORAN PRESERVE

Just a 17-mile drive from the Mariners’ Peoria spring training facility, the Sonoran Preserve is packed with almost 55 miles of hiking trails.

Some are short and mostly flat like the 1-mile (one way) Bobcat Trail. And some are steep, like the short scramble up the Dixie Summit Trail to a view from 2,203 feet that includes Phoenix’s tallest peaks. Hikers climb 346 feet in just 0.22 miles to reach the summit. Rated easy to moderate, the Great Horned Owl loop trail covers 3.1 miles, cresting a saddle of the Union Hills along the way.

GET OUT OF TOWN

Let’s face it, you’ll probably remember a mediocre hike longer than even the best spring training baseball game. So why not skip a game and get out of town?

“If you have even just an hour (each way) to drive, then you have to go to the Superstitions,” Mincks said.

The Superstition Mountains are in a nearly 160,000-acre designated wilderness area in Tonto National Forest. There are about 180 miles of trails in the barren wilderness that looks like the setting for a Hollywood Western. And you’re likely to find plenty of solitude as long as you don’t pick the Peralta or First Water trails. The U.S. Forest Service says these two trails receive about 80 percent of the visitors to the wilderness area. Miner’s Needle is another popular hiking destination.

Have time to drive a little farther? Two hours will get you to Sedona, and 3 1/2 hours will get you to Grand Canyon National Park.

“There’s so much to see,” Mincks said. “There’s varying elevation, deserts, conifers. There’s just about everything you’d want.”

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