Flagstaff: Perfect Mountain Biking in Summer

mountain biking in summer
Finding the fun with some other riders at Schultz Creek.

Mountain biking in summer heat takes a lot out of people who live in Phoenix. A nice 20-mile ride in Flagstaff did wonders to get me back in a mountain bike sort of mood.

It was a bit of logistical challenge. Sarah wanted to go for a ride on her tri bike while I hit the trails. We had to find a place that allowed access to the best riding spots for us. I parked the car at the New Frontiers grocery store on Milton. That made it easy for her to get to Lake Mary Road, while I had a short road jaunt to Buffalo Park. From there, I had easy access to all sorts of trails.

I picked a nice grind up the Rocky Ridge Trail, which is part of the Arizona Trail stretching north to south throughout the entire state. From there, I connected to the Schultz Creek Trail.

mountain biking in summer
A handy GPS track to help you find the fun.

Last year, I didn’t even make it Flagstaff to go mountain biking in summer. So I didn’t see how the trail had fared since a fire closed the trail – I want to say that was in 2011. I don’t know how bad the damage was -- and my untrained eye could detect few signs of fire damage. Add that to a long time since my last ride, and I couldn’t spot huge differences. If you’re a local or just have a better memory than me, feel free to set me straight.

Regardless, Schultz Creek was once again a big beer stein full of fun. And not just on the way down. It’s an entertaining climb that lets you settle into a nice groove. It was even better for me when I latched onto a group to turn a trio into a quartet – I had a good chat with fellow Phoenicians Ian, Paul and Christian during the climb. I wish I could’ve gone further on my first jaunt mountain biking in summer without blistering heat.

As usual, there was intermittent cloudiness and even thunder. Par for the course when I go mountain biking in summer up in the pines. And a nice change from feeling beat down when I ride in Phoenix!

And it’s not exactly off-road riding, but I appreciate the Flagstaff urban trail system. It’s one big element in making Flagstaff a bike-friendly off-road Amsterdam. You can get to quite a few places on your bike without encountering cars for long stretches.

Where to Drink Craft Beer in Chicago

craft beer in chicago
From taps to t-shirts, Revolution Brewing sports an agitprop look.

During my last visit, I had a hard time finding a good place to drink craft beer in Chicago. Well, two years brought a lot of change.

Last time, I interrogated a transplant from Colorado working at a Rock Bottom just north of the Loop. He directed me to Haymarket Pub & Brewery, which was a winner. I was determined to find something new when I dropped in during muggy mid-July.

I did well enough to give you my list of where to drink craft beer in Chicago. This list is by no means complete: I didn’t have a car, relying only on my feet augmented by some travel on the El. There’s more out there, but this is what you can find in range of Chicago Loop. Be warned: I am an enthusiastic, durable and fast walker. And I’ll admit that I cheat on the last selection – we took a commuter train to Geneva (about one hour) to meet my brother.

craft beer in chicago
Two years made a huge difference in the Chicago craft beer scene.

The Pour House
I headed north from my spot on the The Loop, just south of the river. My first mission was coffee (a dire failure that continues to a problem in Chicago – but that’s for another time). I skirted east of Goose Island and wandered some of the low-rise areas. That’s where I found Old Town. It struck me as a slice of Portland – a lot of the cool factor, but without the undying love for the local MLS team.

There, I passed the Pour House and its 30-foot-long row of taps. The atmosphere is a bit aloof and white-linen for my taste. But the beer menu impressed me. I also like the option to get 6-ounce tasting portions. That allowed me to try Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Ale (Alltech Lexington, Kentucky), Daisy Cutter IPA (Half Acre Brewing, Chicago) and Two Brothers Outlaw IPA (Warrenville, Ill). The Old Town Pour House menu breaks the selections down by type, which helps you find your favorites. Visitors like me just might enjoy a section that lists selections by geography – at least for the local/regional selections.

The Outlaw was the best of the bunch, yet Daisy Cutter was the standout. That’s because it’s the best example I’ve seen of a new variety gaining momentum – the session IPA. It’s only 5.2 percent, very low for an IPA. But the hops punch hard without overwhelming the malt. That’s no small trick for such a low percentage.

The Pour House’s standoffish vibe aside, it’s a great place to drink craft beer in Chicago. The tasting sizes and selection make it a winner.

Revolution Brewing
After my visit to Revolution Brewing, I found out how much people seems to love this brewery. For good reason – this is where you should drink craft beer in chicago. It has a great pub, excellent service, super beer (with plenty of creative spins) and a killer agitprop design aesthetic.

It can get crowded on weekends, especially since most of the first floor is only for those ordering food. But I prefer upstairs, anyway. It’s a little quieter and more laid-back.

Let’s get to the brews. I had an Anti-Hero IPA and a Black Power oatmeal stout. OK, so I’ll just have to say these beers rank right up there with the best of their genres. Anti-Hero can stand toe to toe with Oskar Blues Gubna, though I’d say it’s a hair less sweet and a bit more piney. Black Power doesn’t quite have the silky texture of a nitro-charged stout. It’s thick and moderately sweet, but far from cloying. It’s more roasty than chocolatey.

Sarah had some sort of Belgian ale. I gave it a taste, but not enough to form a big impression. I was working my way through Black Power at the time.

So back to Chicago’s apparent love for Revolution: We got soaked in a sudden cloudburst when we walked from the El to Revolution. We bought Revolution t-shirts and changed into them immediately. And wore them the next day. As we walked Chicago, random people stopped us to say how much they love Revolution – from the barista at Intelligentsia to a guy at the train station. Revolution, you are doing something right!

Geneva Ale House
Our final stop takes us to The ‘Burbs, leafy green and tranquil. And another rainstorm! This time, we get indoors at the Geneva Ale House just in time.

And there’s a Revolution brew I can’t resist: Gravedigger Billy, a barrel-aged Scottish heavy. Apparently, Revolution hooks local pubs up with some rarities … the beer geek’s version of the video game nerd’s Easter Egg. It averages a 4.3 Untappd rating. That’s way too damn low. It’s lightly carbonated, heavy as hell and saturated in whiskey overtones. It’s pretty much my perfect malty beer.

I followed that up with a Two Brothers Hop Centric. Its hops are more floral than piney (I prefer the pine) – and it hits a nice balance of malty and hoppy. It’s a very good example of a double IPA with not a note out of place. But nothing about it burned into my taste buds like some IPAs I’ve had. It won’t disappoint, but it won’t turn your beer world upside down.

As for the Geneva Ale House, we caught it during a quiet time. It was a relaxing place to hang out and catch up with my brother and sister-in-law (who loved Grave Digger Billy as much as I did). The service was attentive but not obtrusive. I wouldn’t mind trying the food during my next visit. It’s probably too far away to be considered a place to drink craft beer in Chicago … but I just can’t omit it.

One for the Future
Ahhh, Twitter, my friend! This is where I stumbled on SlapShot Brewing the week after I returned to Arizona. I didn’t have to feel bad about missing something cool – Slapshot hasn’t opened yet. And maybe it’s because I love the movie so much … but my gut tells me good things are gonna go down at SlapShot, and it will takes its place as a great place to drink craft beer in Chicago.

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Boost Your Mountain Bike Cred – 6 Easy Steps

mountain bike cred (Photo credit: Malingering)
This guy’s beard would get him major mountain bike cred. (Photo credit: Malingering)

Mountain biking can make you look cool. You don’t even have to be fast or even good at it. Just learn which style buttons to push. Follow this advice and trick everyone into thinking you’re a mountain bike Bodhisattva.

Ride an unsuspended single-speed 29er – Who needs fancy gadgets to soften the ride? Just roll over everything with your big wheels. And gears? Forget ‘em. They’re noisy, heavy, finicky. The older and more battered your ride, the better. I promise not to tell anyone that your usual ride only goes as far as Starbucks. Your secret is safe with me.

Grow a great big bushy beard – Nothing enhances mountain bike cred like rampant facial hair. It confers wisdom … and the requisite lack of personal hygiene. You’re no wage slave – but a man of the mountains. Bonus points for adding dreadlocks to the equation.

Live in your vehicle … which should be cheaper than your bike – A ratty old VW Minibus is the gold standard, naturally. But if you can shoehorn your bike and other worldly possessions into into an AMC Gremlin, so much the better.

mountain bike cred
1974 AMC Gremlin – a fly hoopty to build your mountain bike cred. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Speak in silly mountain biker lingo – "Wicked" must be your standard adjective. Pair it with words like "gnar-gnar" and "shred." Hell, make up your own words. If other mountain bikers can’t understand what you say, they’ll think you’re that much more plugged in. Instant mountain bike cred bonus!

Claim orphan status – You’ll be far less cool if people know mom and dad still have you hooked up to the cash tap. Claim you never knew your parents (which might be true, from a certain point of view). Deny your country club, gated-community roots or prepare to be forever shackled with the "Trustafarian" label.

Wear a roadie-style cycling cap everywhere – Under your helmet, over your dreads, in the shower, to bed at night. You’ll get bonus points if it’s from a defunct team from the last days of some breakaway ex-Soviet republic.

I originally wrote this for the Trailsedge.com blog. Since that blog is now kaput, I figured it would be a travesty if I failed to give newer readers a look at this fun content.

  • Have we reached peak beard?
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787 Dreamliner: Regular Guy’s Review

787 Dreamliner
A United Dreamliner preps for a flight from Houston to Phoenix.

(UPDATE: I now have a more thorough 787 Dreamliner review for a nice, long US-to-Japan flight.) By now, just about every elite blogger has scored a free ride on the 787 Dreamliner. But what’s the Boeing wunderflugzeug like for a regular guy who pays for a cheap seat? Find out!

How I Caught a Flight
I needed to be in Chicago, and I was on my own for the flight. I could’ve caught a direct flight on any number of airlines, but I picked United Airlines since it flies a 787 Dreamliner from Houston to Chicago O’Hare. I paid marginally more for the flight than I would have for a direct flight. But hey -- I had to find out what’s up with the 787 Dreamliner. (If you want to fly the Dreamliner, check this list of airlines and routes using the 787.)

Step 1 involved a flight on an Embraer regional jet from Phoenix next to a couple of guys who sounded exactly like Boomhauer from King of the Hill. The flight had a particularly good flight attendant. This is just a small thing: She saw that I emptied the tiny cup of water from the beverage service into my 24-ounce sports bottle – and she offered to give me a second cup. I thanked her, but said I didn’t want to hog all the water. She promised to return if she had some left over. She stopped by awhile later and topped me off. Again, it’s just a small thing. But it was a nice thing to do.

787 Dreamliner
An unstaged look inside a working Dreamliner cabin. Notice the windows?

Boarding the Future of Aviation?
The 787 Dreamliner will catch your eye if you have any interest in design at all. Its nose is sleek. The wingtips rake up, but are not quite as dramatic in person. The engines are huge. The total package just looks modern and built to fly.

When I boarded, there was a "new plane" smell along with a very J.J. Abrams-era Star Trek flavor to the interior – clean white bulkheads, soft-colored lighting, smooth lines everywhere, a touch-screen on-demand entertainment system. I had to pass through first class on my way back. I got a bit envious, but I think the main cabin is the real test of any airplane or airline.

I noticed the on-demand system had a USB port – I presume you could charge gadgets from it. A label on the seatback said there was another outlet between the seats. I couldn’t find it, but I didn’t look very hard (a more thorough search may have seemed creepy to my neighbor).

787 Dreamliner
A look at the upswept wing and cool raked wingtips.

Oh, and how ‘bout those big windows? The 787 Dreamliner windows are notably bigger than any airliner window. It makes it easy to gaze out the window – especially for tall guys. The dimmer function is cool, too: Rather than a window shade to pull down, there’s a button to control the window’s opacity. Nice!

What about comfort? Well, my 34-inch inseam legs had a good bit of distance from the seat next to me. The adjustable head rest was also a nice touch. I managed to fall asleep for awhile and woke up refreshed.

Getting in the Air
The calm, automated voice for routine announcements adds to the Star Trek flavor of the 787 Dreamliner.

Then there’s the engine start and its high-pitched, electronic-sounding whine. It’s noticeable – but even sitting in the first row forward of the wing’s trailing edge, I could hear every word my two neighbors said to each other (Every.Single.One.Of.Them.).

787 Dreamliner
A look at the sleekest nose flying.

Boeing has a lot to say about one aspect of the 787 Dreamliner: its carbon fuselage allows it to have more humidity, plus the air pressure feels more like 6,000 feet rather than the 8,000 feet of most other airplanes. As much as I like flying, my head often feels fuzzy after flying. I had none of that feeling when I landed – I’d love to see if this holds up on a longer flight.

The beverage service was pretty efficient. The cabin crew was nice enough – nothing to stand out either way.

I didn’t get up to wander the cabin, so there’s one crucial bit of long-haul knowledge I didn’t acquire: Does the 787 Dreamliner have a place to refill water bottles like the Qantas 747 and the Asiana Airlines 777? I love being able to refill on my own during intercontinental flights.

What About Those Problems?
The 787 Dreamliner has had some niggles. But think about this: What if the 747 or DC-10 launched during an age when the news cycle never ends and every disgruntled customer could use social media as a cudgel against any perceived wrong? Yeah – it would be a lot like what the Dreamliner is going through.

The 787 Dreamliner and its technology will change the way we fly in some small but important ways. More fuel efficiency is good for the airlines. Lower carbon emissions benefit us all. And more comfort in the cabin is great for the passengers.

I’d happily sign up for a Dreamliner flight again knowing everything it’s gone through, whether it’s headed to Albuquerque or Auckland.

And here’s something else: If I have a choice between a 787 Dreamliner or any other plane, I’ll pick the 787 first.

Prescott Mountain Bike Trails – A Mixed Bag

prescott mountain bike trails
My day on the Prescott Circle Trail was pretty muddy.

It’s been years since I last sampled the Prescott mountain bike trails. I’d been a camp counselor there one summer, but that seems like eons ago. A few things I noticed recently made me want to visit again: A news article that said "Prescott is powering its way onto the national mountain-biking map," and news of a trail circling the entire city that will be 50 miles long when it’s finished.

I dropped into Prescott in mid-July to sample the Prescott Circle Trail System. It was a perfect Sunday for mountain biking – clouds and intermittent drizzle! Balm for a sun-baked Phoenician’s soul. In a nutshell, the notion that Prescott is even remotely, tangentially close to being a national mountain bike destination is a combination of homerism and public relations spin from mountain bike event organizers. Prescott has stepped up its game, yes. Good. But it has a lot of work to do before it’s even playing the same sport as Flagstaff, much less in the same league.

prescott mountain bike trails
The Turley Trail is part of the Prescott Circle Trail.

Let’s break my ride down to show you what I mean. Be sure to watch the video at the end!

Find the Hidden Trailhead
I found a handy map on the City of Prescott website. I found a Prescott Great Circle Trail System trailhead and named it my starting point. I figured out how I could snake around the trails and wind up somewhere on the west side of the city before using streets and urban trails to return to my car.

Well, finding the trailhead was a bitch. The city considers this Prescott mountain bike trail a real asset, I suppose – but it’s not easy to find. Contrast that to Fountain Hills, where you start getting guidance to the trailhead four miles away. I found the Turley Trail buried in a neighborhood down a gated one-lane road. But hey, at least I found it.

Turning the Wheels

prescott mountain bike trails
The Turley Trail is here somewhere …

The first half-mile or so went pretty well. The Turley Trail dips, dives and weaves around with some short, steep power climbs. Not bad. Then, things got ugly.

What do I mean? Well, I lost track of all the fallen trees I carried my bike over. Portions of the Turley Trail have terrible drainage, while others have large chunks of rock protruding from the ground. It seems great for hiking – but for four miles, it’s utter, abject crap for mountain biking. If this is supposed to be part of a signature Prescott mountain bike trail network, it has to be better.

At one point, a mess of downed trees obliterates the trail. I backtracked a few times searching for the Turley Trail (watch for an area that looks like someone gave the forest a Brazilian wax job, and you’ll know navigational challenges are afoot).

prescott mountain bike trails
A cool spot along Trail 396 (I think)

I eventually connected to Forest Road 9854, which swoops downhill if you turn right. The rainfall made the trail a big slick, and coated my tires in mud. The tires passed the mud along to me and my bike. Kind of novel, really! Speaking of tires, skinny slick racing tires might not be your best bet. Consider a meatier tread when you hit these steeper, rockier Prescott mountain bike trails.

The forest road eventually meets up with the Senator Highway. And just across the two lanes of pavement -- you’ll find Trail 396.

The Real-Deal Prescott Mountain Bike Trails

Trail 396 and its offshoots are more-than-legit Prescott mountain bike trails.
Swooping turns, nice scenery, good trail markings. You’ll get that Luke Skywalker flying through Beggar’s Canyon feeling. The 396 will give you more than a few options. Stick with it, and watch for the turn to Trail 395. I took the 374 to the 373 – they dumped me off on White Spar Road with no sign of more trail. Had I picked the 395, I would’ve crossed White Spar Road and found the Prescott Circle Trail continue on the 941S.

prescott mountain bike trails
Finally, more “wheee!” and less woe on the Prescott Circle Trail.

That error cheated me out of a few more miles of singletrack. A sign saying "this way to the Prescott Circle Trail" would’ve been really nice, Prescott. And you know, it’s exactly the sort of thing a destination "on the national mountain-biking map" would have.

Slinking Back to Town
Alright, I didn’t find the 941S, and it was getting late. So I took White Spar Road back to town hoping to maybe catch another glimpse of trail. White Spar has no bike lane, by the way. Another strike against Prescott’s talk of being on the national mountain-biking map. I didn’t find any Prescott mountain bike trails as I headed back toward Whiskey Row.

prescott mountain bike trails
Who gave this part of the Turley Trail a Brazilian?

I recalled that Ironclad Bicycles was on White Spar. I stopped there hoping for directions to some easily accessible Prescott mountain bike trails. But its Sunday hours are 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. – to late to drop in before your ride starts, to early to drop in after. So, kind of useless business hours for visiting mountain bikers.

I found a short urban trail system and a pump track. The urban trails are short, but the pump track was a bit of fun.

Eventually, I headed up Gurley to pedal back up to my car. On the roads.

Off the Bike
I made my inaugural stop at Granite Mountain Brewery, where I had a pretty good milk stout and a panini. As a homebrewer, I love small breweries. And the three-barrel setup here qualifies as small. But the staff wasn’t up for much beer small talk – or much talk of any sort (UPDATE: I made a visit in January 2014, and the food was better and the staff far more friendly. Don’t miss this place!). Still, it’s not as spastic as Prescott Brewing Company, though I’ll give props for its Chocopalypse porter.

Prescott Circle Trail
The Wild Iris coffeehouse is THE place to end a ride. Or start one …

My final stop was the Wild Iris coffeehouse, where I had a very nice shot of espresso and a cookie. The staff has a friendly attitude in addition to making good espresso – and it’s a soothing place to hang out. Some places just have that indefinable vibe -- and Wild Iris is one of them. It’s exactly the sort of place I want to hang out after a day on the Prescott mountain bike trails.

Prescott Mountain Bike Trails Bottom Line

Prescott has a lot of potential to be a better mountain bike destination. It’s definitely better than it used to be, and that is exactly its greatest enemy: comparing it to itself. The Prescott mountain bike trails are a mixed bag from stupid to sublime, even on the Prescott Circle Trail network. Prescott needs to connect the pieces, commit to consistent trail design and provide far-better signage. And it absolutely must resist the temptation of boastful hometown braggadocio that leads to undeserved hype.

I look forward to coming back and checking out more of the Prescott Circle Trail. When it’s complete, it should offer a lot of opportunity … but again, some sections need work.

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Thoughts on Asiana Airlines Crash

Asiana Airlines crash
Fresh off an Asiana Airlines 777 in Incheon.

News of the Asiana Airlines crash landing at San Francisco International Airport surprised me. I flew two flights on an Asiana Airlines Boeing 777 like the one that crashed, along with a 767 and various smaller Asiana aircraft.

During the flights, the professionalism of Asiana Airlines employees impressed me. Given my experience on the airlines, here are a few thoughts I had about the Asiana Airlines crash.

The Cabin Crew is a Real Story
So far, only three people have died as a result of the Asiana Airlines crash. But I haven’t seen a good luck at how the flight attendants of Flight 214 played a role. They had to manage at least three large passenger groups, all of whom spoke different first languages (Korean, Chinese and English). It seems the flight attendants dealt with this challenge with calm professionalism that likely saved lives – yet we’re not hearing about it. I’m all for figuring out what went wrong on this flight. It’s a great way to learn. But it’s also important to recognize what worked, even under the worst of circumstances. There’s something the industry can learn.

Don’t Hate on Baggage Grabbers
I’ve noticed more than a few disdainful Internet comments about the Asiana Airlines Flight 214 passengers who grabbed their luggage on the way out. Each comes down to this assumption: "I would’ve done better and followed the rules."

The Travel Class cabin of an Asiana 777
The Travel Class cabin of an Asiana 777

Maybe. Maybe not. I’m not willing to throw stones at anyone about grabbing their luggage during the evacuation. It’s a tense situation that no one ever expects – so I can see how logic failed. I can even picture myself, stretching to latch onto some sense of normality in a surreal situation, would reach for my bag as a way to restore some sense of reality. So unless you’ve been in a crash and acted like a textbook case of "what to do," reserve your judgment. And I hope you never need to find out how you’d fare.

I’d still fly Asiana Airlines Tomorrow
I’m confident in Asiana Airlines. And this crash landing makes me even more confident in the Boeing 777. The aircraft held together far better than any eyewitness expected it to. And it stayed intact and resisted burning long enough for the passengers and crew to escape. Also consider that the Boeing 777 operated for nearly 20 years without a fatality.

I hope that investigators and airlines take some of the hard-earned information from this crash -- and use it to make air travel even safer than it already is.

And sometimes, there is just a chain of errors that brings a plane down. If this were a matter of culture and training as some have suggested, crashes would be confined to certain cultures. But they’re not, and that speaks loud and clear.

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Travel Writing – Can You Trust It?

travel writing
Auckland – much maligned by locals. Don’t believe them.

Kiwis hate Auckland – and I can’t figure out why. It’s scenic, relatively laid-back, full of stuff to do. So why the hate from everyone outside its city limits – and even many residents?

This makes me question my travel writing. Every single day, I think about how much I liked the cities I’ve visited. And I wonder if it’s just because it’s different. Is Reykjavik that cool, or is it just the unfamiliarity? (To be fair, Icelanders seem to love it, too). Is Sydney just another sprawling metropolis of worker bees and cubicle drones, or is it truly a world-class collective of all that’s cool?

It’s easy to fall in the trap of being just so done with your homebase – especially if it’s like Phoenix … a young city trying to establish itself, all while dealing with a good four months of scorching-hot, sap-your-soul, make-you-crazy heat. Of course Wellington will seem like Paradise. Of course I’ll want to move to Monteverde, Costa Rica. And yes, Portland starts looking better and better.

Another perfect example comes from a comment in my Phoenix Espresso News post: “True espresso in [sic] only in Naples.” That’s such closed-minded thinking. I’ll hear similar lofty proclamations from a lot of American travelers, especially college kids who recently wound up backpacking across Europe. Invariably, they’re just sucked into the glamor of drinking espresso in Italy versus, say, Flagstaff. They’re tasting the stamp on the passport, not the espresso.

Travel writers are also highly susceptible – we got lured into the unfamiliar. Some get so roped in that they’ll extol the virtues of even the most unlovable parts of their destinations (I now read the word “vibrant” as “ramshackle, crowded and dirty” thanks to travel writing cliches). And we want to say something that grabs your attention.

So how can anyone avoid the hyperbole? Like this: Figure out the specifics. What did you see that you wish you could bring home with you? What’s an innovation that goes unnoticed and unconsidered back home? Put the details in your writing. Be specific. It’s a lot better than just calling it great, amazing or beautiful and moving on.

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Glacier Hiking – Why You Should do It

glacier hiking
Heading into a crevace.

I’ve written about glacier hiking a few times in the past. I started with some tips about Franz Josef, and added a look at Falljökull in Iceland.

But looking back at the posts, I could’ve done better. I want to take another shot at it. So let me swing back to the glacier hiking on Franz Josef Glacier in New Zealand.

Look, I really want you to go to Franz Josef Glacier. I think you’ll take something incredible from the experience. If you’re fit enough, sign up for an all-day session on the ice (You can’t just go glacier hiking on Franz Josef unguided – I was skeptical of the need for guides at first. But you need them, for real).

glacier hiking
Epic size. It took us 3 hours to get just past the black rocks. Click the photo for a bigger look – and try to find some people for scale.

Part of what amazes me about this is that Franz Josef is one of the few places on the planet where you can go from hiking through a tropical rainforest to glacier hiking in, oh, about 30 minutes. That’s right.

This isn’t a very technical glacier experience. You won’t need training or ropes or anything crazy. At some point, you’ll strap crampons to your feet. A short way into the day, you’ll need ice axes. And you’ll always need to mind your guides to the letter and keep your wits about you.

glacier hiking
High up on Franz Josef glacier.

OK, I have that out of the way. But here’s the really big deal about glacier hiking: It’s a chance to see the Earth -- alive, changing, noisy, real. And to feel something about it.

I am convinced that every person needs this sort of connection to the world. Think about how many of us live among concrete. It’s all so static, so dead. It’s easy to see how a person can forget that we’re on a giant ball of interlinked organisms and matter. It’s easy to see how a person can just shrug and say "screw the environment."

Here’s my promise: If you stand on a glacier, you will change. You’ll hear the water rush under you. You’ll feel the vibration as ice grinds against rock. And you’ll desperately wish that most of the world’s glaciers weren’t disappearing. And just maybe, you’ll think about ways you can help reverse the process.

glacier hiking
Starting from the bottom of Franz Josef Glacier.

If you’re like me, you’ll spend some time feeling like a hypocrite. I drive too much. I fly too much. I wish I rode my bike to work more.

But hey, maybe you’ll do something smaller and less grand -- and it will start to add up.

When I look at my day glacier hiking on Franz Josef, that’s the real takeaway. It’s far important than the beauty – though I promise the views will captivate you.

Now, go. Take a trip to New Zealand. Book your tour. Come back, and tell me what your day at Franz Josef Glacier did for you.

glacier hiking
Looking out from a high point on Franz Josef Glacier.
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Mountain Bike Upgrades – Beginner’s Help

mountain bike upgrades
Budget friendly, trail ready – the Airborne Goblin (Photo: twentynineinches.com).

One thing I notice about new mountain bikers: They can’t wait to make some mountain bike upgrades. They start salivating over new bits, from stems and derailleurs to suspension forks and wheelsets. I’ve seen this in a few online conversations lately.

But question Number One shouldn’t be “what’s the best upgrade to my mountain bike?” It should be “is this bike worth upgrading?” I’m going to use two different bikes as real-world examples to answer this question: The $600 Diamondback Overdrive (because a beginner I spoke to recently has one) and the $1,200 Airborne Goblin (a solid budget off-road racer).

Here are a few questions beginner mountain bikers should ask before splashing cash on mountain bike upgrades:

mountain bike upgrades
Clipless pedals – one of those great mountain bike upgrades you can swap between bikes. (Credit: PavanGPD)

1. Is this frame actually meant for off-road riding?

Some bikes look like mountain bikes. But they’re not really meant for off-road riding. They have the fat tires and stout-looking frames -- but the dimensions of the frame are all wrong. Instead of long top tubes and aggressive angles that allow quick handling and good power transfer, they have a high center of gravity and short wheelbase. I expected the Overdrive to be a faux-mountain bike based on its angles. Surprise! They’re not that different from the Goblin (View a few key specs here).
So, these bikes are close enough in design that either should give you true mountain bike handling characteristics.

mountain bike upgrades
If your suspension fork is your bike’s weak link, the X-Fusion Slide 29 RL2 is the mountain bike upgrade for you.

2. Is this a high-quality frame?

Look, you can do all sorts of cool stuff to a Geo Metro to make it better, faster, cooler. But at the end of it all, you’re still stuck with a Geo Metro. Very few mountain bikes at the lower price points will have super high-quality frames. Both the Diamondback and the Airborne are made from 6000-series aluminum tubing. That’s all we know. I have no clue which frame factory produced these. The Airborne’s claimed frame weight is 4 pounds – decent, but not likely to inspire many epic heavy metal concept albums.

On this question, it’s a wash for either bike. I simply don’t have the information to say either frame is definitely better than the other. All things being equal, both seem worth some mountain bike upgrades. At the end of it all, though, I still don’t think upgrading the Diamondback bit-by-bit is a very cost-effective strategy.

3. How much of the original components do I need to replace?

Aside from the frame, the fork and wheels are some of the most important mountain bike upgrades. Let’s start with the Airborne: I’ve ridden for 20 years -- epic singletrack races, 12- and 24-hour races, all that stuff. The only thing I’d change immediately on the Airborne would be the wheelset and the saddle. Otherwise, it’s solid. The Rock Shox Reba fork is excellent, as are the SRAM drivetrain and the Avid Elixir 7 hydraulic disc brakes. The stem, handlebars and other minor bits are house-branded components – nothing fancy, but good enough.

On the other hand, I don’t even know where to start with the Diamondback. The fork, brakes and wheels are pretty bargain-basement. Let’s say I did all these mountain bike upgrades: $350 for an X-Fusion Slide 29 RL2; $250 for Avid Elixir 5 brakes; $250 for a decent but low-budget SRAM/WTB tubeless wheelset; $140 for decent tires for said wheelset; $70 for a Stan’s tubeless kit. That’s $950 in upgrades -- without touching the shifters, derailleurs or crankset. Another $200, and you’re in an entirely new bike.

4. OK, so how can I upgrade my mountain bike sensibly?

Tires, for sure. High-quality tires are lighter and give you a better ride. Also, consider clipless pedals and shoes – you can easily transfer those to your next bike when you’ve ridden your current bike to death. They’ll give more power to your pedal stroke and improve your handling.

At this point, the best upgrades will be off bike -- a quality helmet, good shorts, gloves, hydration gear and a tool kit. Get all that. Ride your current bike like crazy – determine its limitations, hone your skills and save your money for your next bike.

Diamondback Overdrive: $600
20-inch Large
Top-tube length – 24.5 inches
Head-tube angle/Seat-tube angle: 71/73

Airborne Goblin: $1,200
20-inch Large
TT – 24.4
Head-tube angle/Seat-tube angle: 71/74

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Overlooked Arizona Hikes – Red Mountain

I hiked less than a mile before I decided that Red Mountain is one of the most overlooked Arizona hikes.

Never heard of it? I’m not surprised. The sign-in sheet at the trailhead listed fewer than 20 names for the day I hiked the trail – which was a day of stupifying heat in the Arizona desert. Yep, a perfect getaway near Flagstaff from a 119-degree day -- yet few people took advantage of it.

Red Mountain Arizona Hikes
Entering the amphitheater at Red Mountain.

So what brought me here? Well, it’s a geological oddity – a 750,000-year-old cinder cone with its innards exposed. The volcano’s interior is an amphitheater-shaped maze of red-tinted spires and hoodoos. Geologists aren’t sure exactly what forces created the amphitheater that makes Red Mountain so distinct. Hey, a little mystery is good for your hike.

You’ll get something here that you can’t get at any other local hikes -- a look at a volcano’s interior, eroded over nearly a million years. Want to check out a few more photos? I have a slideshow with more shots. And be sure to watch the video at the end.

Red Mountain Arizona Hikes
Among the lava.

Judging from the meager traffic on the trail, that’s not enough. Maybe it’s all the other well-known Arizona hikes nearby -- the San Francisco Peaks, Lava River Cave, Sunset Crater and its lava flows, Walnut Canyon, just to name a few.

I’m not saying you should skip a bunch of other great hikes near Flagstaff. But if you want to find a less-traveled spot that offers something unusual, think about Red Mountain.

It is an easy hike, though. You’ll put on about four miles hiking there and back, plus crawling around in the amphitheatre. On the way there, I hiked past hundreds of buzzing cicadas and managed to scare a few bunnies. The trail eventually turns up a wash, so you’ll have to slog through some sand.

Red Mountain Arizona Hikes
On the way to Red Mountain

One of the cool things is how your perspective will change during the approach. The amphitheater seems fairly flat from a distance – kind of eye-catching, but not that spectacular. As you get closer, though, you start to see the scope of it. It becomes more of a landscape and less of a simple backdrop. My wife said it reminded her of the Valley of Love in Turkey crossed with Sedona.

Red Mountain is definitely on my list of favorites Arizona hikes. Weird geology is one of my favorite reasons to hit the trails, and this is a great example of what you might find in an ancient volcanic field.

To get Red Mountain, head north on Highway 180. The turnoff is about 30 miles from Flagstaff. It’s marked with a sign. You’ll follow a dirt road – nothing your typical passenger car can’t handle. It leads to a parking lot. There’s no fee to use the area.

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