McDowell Sonoran Preserve Mountain Biking

A year has made a big difference for Scottsdale, the McDowell Sonoran Preserve and its mountain bike trails. Back then, I took my first ride on its new trails near Brown’s Ranch Trailhead. And I had some harsh words.

Since then, the trailhead has opened. Most of the trails have some sort of signage. More trails appear to be under construction. And the ones that are open are setting in decently – meaning some of the loose crushed gravel has given way to the roll of fat tires.

What the McDowell Sonoran Preserve now has is a well-marked and growing trail network that is very scaleable. You can start as a complete beginner with short rides, and take on bigger challenges as your skills and fitness grow. And you can get a very satisfying ride without using the State Trust lands just to the west (you’re supposed to have a permit -- but I don’t know anyone who actually holds a permit.)

So far, so good.

McDowell Sonoran Preserve
A year has done a lot of good for trails near the Brown’s Ranch Trailhead on the McDowell Sonoran Preserve. But the text on those signs is way too small.

But here’s the big question: Is the McDowell Sonoran Preserve game to do what it takes to create world-class mountain bike trails within its borders? Will it take on the regional supremacy of McDowell Mountain Regional Park and its — what, 65-plus miles? — of singletrack? Its pump track, its race course, its amenities?

My bet is "no." I sense NIMBYism at work. My two cents: The people in the nearby million-dollar homes would go to pieces at the mere thought of anything like the 24 Hours in the Old Pueblo — and the Mos Eisley Spaceport vibe of its 24-Hour Town — existing within their ZIP code.

That’s a shame. This terrain screams for a few additions that would turn the Brown’s Ranch area into a draw for weekend rides and national-level events. Here’s my wish list for this part of the McDowell Sonoran Preserve:

McDowell Sonoran Preserve
You won’t complain about the McDowell Sonoran Preserve scenery.

1. Add some Fantasy Island-style fun. Both trail networks bearing the Fantasy Island name have an unmatched sense of fun, from wooden ramps to teeter-totters to over-under trail junctions. Scottsdale could also incorporate some splits in the trail. They could accomplish two things: allow faster riders to pass, and also allow a more technical option for advanced riders.

2. Seriously, would a nicely bermed turn now and then be too much to ask? The trail designers either don’t ride, or they are doing everything possible to keep the speeds down. If you’re going to build mountain bike trails in Scottsdale, give them some fun flow!

3. Make the words on the signs bigger, and give it all some contrast. They’re nearly impossible to read without stopping.

4. Provide an online McDowell Sonoran Preserve trail map as good as the printed copy. And knock it off with downloadable PDFs for every little section of the preserve. It’s 2014 – there’s no reason a comprehensive trail map can’t live online.

McDowell Sonoran Preserve
A rattlesnake at the McDowell Sonoran Preserve. Remember, rattlesnakes will only bite you as a last resort. Enjoy them from a distance.

5. The $3.8 million Brown’s Ranch trailhead is needlessly fancy. It’s quite plush. The city could save some money with a more frugal approach. I can assure you that the buildings at McDowell Mountain Regional Park cost a lot less, and get the job done just as well. What Scottsdale did here is -- well, live up to the expectation many people have of Scottsdale — form over function. Spend more on the trail building and design, less on the gateway.

6. Take one of the nearby unimproved McDowell Sonoran Preserve trailheads and set it up as a race venue. I know certain people instrumental in the preserve’s development abhor the idea of people having fun on the trails rather than soaking in all the nature and history. I think city and McDowell Sonoran Preserve officials need to be smarter than that, and to be inclusive. The McDowell Sonoran Preserve trails could raise funds by drawing people for events. They’re just a few improvements away.

  • Teen injured on mountain bike rescued from Scottsdale trail
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Halong Bay: Why You Shouldn’t Go – and Why You Should

halong bay
You can see why Halong Bay is a UNESCO World Heritage site. And why it needs protection.

Halong Bay isn’t quite Lake-Havasu-On-Spring-Break crowded. But it’s not far off.

By nightfall of our first day, we’re anchored among hundreds of other boats holding anywhere from 20 to 100 passengers. Some look fresh from the factory, while others sport worn, weathered wood and a distinctly "seen better days" look. Our Christina Cruise is somewhere between – our stateroom features two oil paintings of Asian women dressed in -- well, barely anything. Still, the shower works (just don’t hog the water).

Halong Bay
And now you get a glimpse of the problem with Halong Bay. This is nowhere near as crowded as it gets.

Boats aren’t the point, though. People come to Halong Bay to see the stuff of National Geographic articles and UNESCO Heritage site beauty. The boats? They’re just the means.

The Big Problem with Halong Bay

And that’s exactly why there’s so many boats – the karst islands popping out of the water are greenery-covered marvels, rare resources that deserve care and respect.

Which is exactly why there needs to be fewer boats.

Halong Bay
Sung Sot is an impressive if over-developed show cave.

I feel like a hypocrite saying this: Because I’m on one of the boats, each one of them spewing fumes from engines and generators. Halong Bay and its tours are big bucks for Vietnam, employing guides and crews -- bringing people to locations they’d not reach otherwise.

I don’t know how to solve this problem. Fewer, bigger boats? Restrictions on how many are allowed to operate versus a Wild West free-for-all? I don’t know. But Vietnam needs to figure out how to preserve and protect Halong Bay. You can see the high volume of traffic has on the islands, from murky water to piles of trash washing up on beaches.

Halong Bay is More than Scenery

Halong Bay
Halong Bay equals jobs for locals.

Here’s the thing about Halong Bay – the karst islands are beautiful. Sung Sot is a very cool experience, even though it’s way overdeveloped for those who prefer real caving to show caves. (One of my suggestions for improvement: Make it easier to get around the outskirts of Cat Ba City so those who are so inclined can do some real caving in the less-developed caves.)

But my favorite part of spending two-and-half days in Halong Bay was spending a day in Cat Ba City. During our November visit, it was low season. Cat Ba City and its many hotels were all but deserted.

Halong Bay Cat Ba Cannon Park
A look at the Cannon Park overlooking Cat Ba City in Halong Bay.

We just wandered the city and its outskirts (be sure to check the hilltop canon fort – it’s well worth the walk). We strolled along some beaches. All that was nice, but what I enjoyed most was getting lost in a neighborhood behind the Cat Ba market. One moment, we’re checking out fresh squid and dried mushrooms – the next, we’re wandering past people’s homes.

As I always do in Asia, I drew a lot of curious glances. But everyone waved and smiled as we passed their homes. The neighborhood was densely packed. Neighbors can smell each other’s cooking, hear each other singing karaoke and toss the occasional errant soccer ball back out of their yard. It seemed like a very "all for one" environment, with people far less closed off from each other than my neighborhood in Arizona.

Ha Long Bay Stateroom
Nothing like oil paintings of barely covered Asian girls in your cabin!

I know, it’s odd that a stroll through a neighborhood is my favorite memory of Halong Bay – better than cruising the island on a battered mountain bike with a bunch of people from Christina Cruise.

Should You Go to Halong Bay?

UNESCO doesn’t name just anything a World Heritage Site. And I have yet to visit one that isn’t worth seeing.

And there’s the conundrum. Going to Halong Bay made me part of the maelstrom of pollution, part of the proliferation of boats clogging the area. I voted with my dollar that the status quo is OK, and I still have mixed feelings about this. I’m an imperfect traveler trying to strike a balance between a desire to experience things and a desire to leave a smaller footprint.

I have no easy answer to this. That’s just the way it is sometimes. All I can hope, at this point, is that Vietnam realizes what it has in Halong Bay. And that it makes the hard choices for us.

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