Prime Time for Another Doomed Theme Park?

A Facebook conversation with my old friend, Stacy (whose excellent blog you should check out), dredged up some memories of the old-timey version of Phoenix. And by old-timey, I mean the 1980s.

One of those memories was of Legend City, Arizona’s very own amusement park. It closed in 1983. I’m not even 100 percent-certain I made it there before it closed … my family showed up here in 1980. Apparently, some people died on rides. Lawsuits from those incidents killed Legend City; today, thousands of people drive by the site unaware that it ever existed. You can read about it and see photos at a very cool tribute Web site to Legend City.

Now, what makes this a bit more timely is that some people might not be ready to let go of the notion that Arizona should have a major theme park. No, Rawhide does not count.

This new vision started floating to the surface a few years ago. Here’s the concept: A rock ‘n’ roll-themed, $850 million, 144-acre theme park built somewhere in the dusty fields between Phoenix and Tucson. It would be in a place called Eloy, which pretty much makes Casa Grande look like Sydney, Australia.

I hadn’t thought about Decades much until Legend City came up. That conversation made me think “Hey, what ever happened to that debacle-in-the-making?”

Well, over the past year, not much. The Decades Web site (which is amateurish, at best) hasn’t seen a news item update  in nearly a year. This leads me to think that (despite then-Governor Janet Napolitano’s backing and the passage of a bill to create a tax district that would allow the theme park to collect more sales tax) it’s dead. I’m still a little concerned about the silence: I’d prefer to see the garlic, holy water and wooden stakes come out to make sure this doesn’t happen. Also, the park’s chief creative officer, Marty West, has apparently talked to the band Rush about a Rush-themed concert hall. The Coaster Buzz blog, though, thinks the project is buried.

Here’s why I think Decades is a bad idea (some of this comes from a post in a different blog I used to write):

1. Summer Heat – This is pretty obvious. Sure, Florida is hot and sticky in the summer. But it also has a lot more shade, and the sunlight is far less intense because of the humidity. This place will be brutal in the summer.

2. The Competition – People go to theme parks ’cause their kiddies want to. This is Walt Disney Co.’s strength. It ain’t just a theme park – it’s well-known characters that span generations, new-fangled movie heroes like Buzz Lightyear and rides that get turned into movies of their own.

3. The Theme is Silly – Look, theme parks are about kids. Kids don’t care about Chuck Berry. And really, what does rock ‘n’ roll have to do with Arizona? Did we hold Woodstock here? Is this where the members of Led Zeppelin were born? Oh, wait … Eloy is where Abbey Road Studios were built before they got moved to England in a reverse London Bridge-style swap! No? Nothing about the theme makes a lick of sense.

4. Natural Resources – Rumor has it that, to combat the heat, most of the rides will be water-based. Where do the backers plan to get that water?

5. We’ve Heard it All Before – Really, I’ve heard variations on the phrase “most amazing projects Arizona has ever seen!” too many times to count. It seems these phrases are most often tied to short-lived debacles like the Scottsdale Galleria or Biosphere 2. We see where those wound up.

6. Put it in a Real City – Eloy is far too remote. A theme park needs infrastructure, especially hotels. It can also use a major airport within 50 miles and some post-theme park activities. That favors a location much closer to Phoenix, and one that doesn’t require travel on the often-problematic I-10.

Also, as a former news reporter, I roll my eyes whenever I see that PR shyster Jason Rose is a project’s hired huckster. I can’t recall him doing anything that was in the public’s interest. He is exactly the sort of drone who would propose turning Arlington Cemetery into a Wal-Mart plaza and try to convince you that a few thousand low-paying jobs are better than any musty ol’ history.

BONUS: According to Richard Ruelas, one of the better writers over at the Arizona Republic, Decades isn’t the first proposed boondoggle for Eloy. Feast your eyes on these (directly from a sidebar in an a Republic story):

  • 1989, the Wooz, a $2.7 million maze-style theme park in Eloy.
  •  1990, Sunplex, a theme park, ice rink and football stadium park in Eloy. It was to be home of the world’s largest sundial. The developers admitted it was a fraud.

48 Hours in Flagstaff

Downtown Flagstaff with San Francisco Peaks in Background - Photographer unknown
Downtown Flagstaff with San Francisco Peaks in Background - Photographer unknown

Flagstaff has saved the sanity of many people from central Arizona. We know that, even on the hottest, most brain-baking weekends, respite is just two hours away up the I-17. That means you can squeeze relief from triple-digit temperatures into just one weekend.

Here are some tips for desert dwellers looking to get the most out of 48 hours. Out-of-state visitors can also use this to get their plans started.

Where to Stay:

Flagstaff has a little something for everyone when it comes to accommodations. Even the cheap hotels are pricier than they should be, but we’ll just have to grin and bear that. There are enough decent hotels that you shouldn’t have trouble finding a place. In fact, I’m not even going to name any specific hotels.

Here’s what I’ll do instead: I’ll tell you to mind the railroad tracks. The closer you are to them, the more you will hear train whistles and the roar of enormous diesel locomotives. Let the tracks be your guide. Unfortunately, some of the more fun places are walking distance from the tracks, too.

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Pass Mountain Trail at Usery Park

pass mountain trail
The view north about two miles from the Pass Mountain Trailhead.

Pass Mountain and many other county trails get overlooked often. And unless you live in the Phoenix area, the only time you’ve probably heard the phrase “Maricopa County” is in relation to its relentlessly self-promoting sheriff, Joe Arpaio. I’m not going to dive into that can of worms except to say that he doesn’t exactly do much to foster warm, fuzzy feelings for the county government.

That’s a shame for the Maricopa County Parks crew. This system of more than 10 parks isn’t perfect – but it is outstanding. I am constantly thankful for the county parks department, and all it has done to provide a lot of quality outdoor recreation for residents and visitors alike. I feel like it’s a bargain to hand over my $6 whenever I go into a county park (See a complete list of fees). Huge props to the county parks staff, especially for McDowell Mountain Regional Park. That one’s my favorite by a long shot.

Today, I’m focusing on Usery Mountain Regional Park in Mesa (we’ll get to McDowell in a future post) and the Pass Mountain Trail. This is getting you close to the famous Superstition Mountains, and within very nice sight of the Four Peaks Wilderness Area.

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Creatures and Caves – Hiking Canyon Vista and Walnut Canyon

An old jeep track leads into a dark, wooded area near Canyon Vista Campground.
An old jeep track leads into a dark, wooded area near Canyon Vista Campground.

In July, I was off to Flagstaff for more a bit of fun. For my wife, it was hard work – she was competing in the Mountain Man Half-Ironman Triathlon around Upper Lake Mary.

I woke up at 4:30 a.m. right along with her after a fairly fitful night of sleep at the Travelodge on Butler Street (thanks, trains, for blaring those horns!). The Travelodge isn’t too bad if you can manage to get a room on the side of the hotel that doesn’t face the tracks.

Anyway, my plan was to get her on her way, cruise out somewhere for a hike, then return by the time she was switching from the bike portion to the running. I grabbed a ranger at Lake Mary, who told me to head to Canyon Vista Campground. I did as he said, including following the path to the back where there was parking for a trailhead. There was also a map, but it actually didn’t seem very up-to-date.

I stepped into my La Sportiva Trango Trek boots (just in case it was a rocky trail), fired up the GPS, double-checked my water and headed off. For those who wonder about such things, I was also carrying my Pentax K100D-Super, an assortment of lenses, some energy bars, a Leatherman and a sturdy knife. My mistake was not packing my headlamp. More on that later.

A biker pedals past the canyon walls.
A biker pedals past the canyon walls.

If you bear left, the path first goes past a cool rubble field (you can also veer right if you want to go rock climbing). I’m not sure what its origins are, but I’d bet on volcanic. From there, I wound through the forest before descending down into the canyon. Up to this point, you’ll get some nice canyon views. The path starts getting rocky on the downhill, which made me happy I’d picked my more rugged set of boots. Yeah, you could get away with light low-top hiking boots or running shows, but why bother?

During this early portion, you can hear traffic from nearby I40. But that soon fades away, especially early in the morning. I went about two miles before seeing another person – a mountain biker right near a rock outcrop with a small cave (see photo). From there, I went into the Walnut Canyon Wilderness Area. Bikes and any sort of motorized contraptions are not allowed in here. It’s incredibly verdant – unfortunately, that also meant a lot of bugs, which I didn’t count on! No repellant for me. Oddly enough, I only wound up with one bug bite.

This is where I found a really cool cave, and where I also regretted not having my trust Petzl Tikka headlamp. That meant I could only go about 100 feet into the cave before losing too much visibility. I’m not sure how this cave formed, but I’m not betting it’s limestone. It seemed like a crack in the surrounding rock. It was very solid and damp, with lots of bugs standing sentinel at the mouth.

Another cool thing about Walnut Canyon is how many creatures you’ll see – huge wasps, hummingbirds, even eagles (I think that’s what they were). Find a nice place, preferably near some bright-colored flowers. Be quiet. Just listen. You won’t believe the awesome racket of all these animals. The hummingbirds are my favorite, especially when they chase each other around.

An industrious hummingbird takes a break.
An industrious hummingbird takes a break.

I knew it was getting time to head back. So I snapped a few more photos and retraced my steps, but with a little extra speed to get me back in time. A few miles later, I started encountering more people on their way out. Obviously, an early start is the way to go. That way, you’ll enjoy the solitude and then be enjoying some espresso from one of Flag’s fly baristas when everyone else is just showing up.

Total trip: 6.5 miles
Check the Maps & More Page for a map!

S.P. Crater – Cool Arizona Destination (With Video)

It’s easy to forget or to never even realize it – but much of northern Arizona’s landscape was shaped by fire. Or by lava, if you prefer a more precise word.

Volcanoes disgorged magma onto the surface, forming everything from towering giants like the San Francisco Peaks to the loaf-like dome of Mount Elden to the mysterious hoodoos of Red Mountain. But trees have covered the landscape, often concealing the area’s volcanic origins.

S.P. Crater
SP Crater cuts quite a figure on the prairie.

 

S.P. Crater – Way Off the Radar

S.P. Crater, however, will resist any attempts to whitewash its furious history. This beautifully shaped cinder cone had the foresight to belch a four-mile long lava flow onto the flat prairie lands. Today, nearly 71,000 years after its birth, S.P. Crater stands out among a multitude of lesser cinder cones in the area, beckoning visitors to peer into the crater that once spewed ash and blobs of lava.

Few hear its call, though – that’s likely because of the nearby Sunset Crater National Monument. The park might be slightly more picturesque, with its pine forest and an equally haunting lava flow.

But for me, S.P. Crater has an effect that its just-slightly Disney-fied neighbor doesn’t: a sense of solitude that practically takes me back in time. I can picture the lava glowing red as it churns across the landscape like so much hell-flavored soft-serve ice cream. I can smell the sulfur in the air as another family of bombs rockets out of the crater, borne aloft by super-hot gases.  I can imagine fumaroles venting steam into the air.

Also, I can climb directly to the top, and even descend into the crater. This is forbidden at Sunset Crater, for concern of erosion. Park officials closed the slopes in the 1970s, propelled by fears that, one day, Sunset Crater would be nothing. I don’t know if there is any hard science to back that notion – if there is, I’d like to see it.

 

S.P. Crater
Walking the lava flow.

Not as Touristy as Sunset Crater

On a Memorial Day weekend exploration, I encountered not a single hiker. A few pickup trucks passed within a few miles, but our only company was the cattle (S.P. Crater is on land belonging to the Babbitt family, and I applaud them for granting access to those who want to visit the craters). When the wind died down, we could hear them lowing even from nearly 900 feet above them.

Engine noise from the highway is nonexistent, and you can catch glimpses of the brilliant colors from the Painted Desert; it looks just a few miles away, but is closer to 100 miles distant. You can watch small cloudbursts roll in, drop rain and disappear. Be careful, though, because some will contain lightning. Use your head.

If you’re in northern Arizona, I’d recommend visiting both of these iconic volcanoes. Each will give you a distinct experience that will be hard to forget.

How to Get to S.P. Crater

Just head north from Flagstaff on Highway 89. Go past the turnoff to Sunset Crater. SP Crater will soon be in view.

Look for a dirt road headed west. If you see Easy Joe’s Saloon, turn around and head back. The dirt road will branch off more than a few times. I’ve found my way to S.P. Crater more than a few different ways. Don’t worry about getting lost. It’s easy to get back to 89 one way or another.

Make Time for the Lava Flow

The lava flow north of the crater is worth checking out up close. It’s about 5 miles long and extremely rough – you’re not going to be able to see all of it. But who knows what’s waiting to be found in it? Lava flows are always a good place to find a lava tube.

 

 

8 Ways to Live Through Summer Exercise

Arizona is bizarro world. Most places in the country hibernate and cower from the elements during the winter, but we do it in the late spring and summer – and heck, a little bit of autumn, too. You wouldn’t believe the number of people in this desert city who never learn to deal with the elements, preferring instead to scurry like suited-or-skirted rats from one air-conditioned space to another.

Its dry out here - bring some water!
It's dry out here - bring some water!

Those of us who choose to embrace the desert do it differently, especially when it comes to outdoor exercise in the heat. You really can survive summertime exercise and adventures in 100-degree-plus heat – you just have to be smart. Ask any member of the local fire department about all the nasty ways heat can hurt you – they’ve rescued enough ill-prepared people to know.

Here are some of my favorite tips to ensure YOU won’t need to be rescued. Feel free to suggest any I’ve overlooked!

1. Bring enough water. It would astound you how many people prepare badly for a foray into the hot sun. My rule of thumb is 30 ounces per hour. You can use a hydration pack, or one of these new-fangled water belts favored by runners.

2. Electrolytes – they’re what YOU crave. Sweating a lot burns off your electrolytes. Get too low on

I dont always use sports drinks ... but when I do, I prefer Cytomax.
I don't always use sports drinks ... but when I do, I prefer Cytomax.

sodium and potassium and you’re headed for cramp city – or worse. You’ll also feel horrible the rest of the day, with headaches a frequent symptom. If you’re out longer than an hour, use a good-quality sports drink. Gatorade isn’t terrible, but I prefer Cytomax.

3. Get started early. Leaving at high noon for a 10-mile run is gonna hurt. If you get started at 6 a.m., you can get done before the temperatures get really brutal.

4. Hydrate days before. Staying hydrated is a never-ending task. What you drank the day before is important.

He should've had one - and so should you.
He should've had one - and so should you.

5. Recover! Replace your electrolytes and calories. After a hot-weather run, a cold glass of V-8 really helps replace all the salt you sweated out. Chase that by more water and maybe even a sugary beverage to replace your calories.

6. Freeze your water bottles. The night before your exercise, pop your bottles in the freezer. It will help them stay cold at least a bit longer.

7. Bring a snack. This is essential if you’re spending an extended period outdoor.

8. Wear sunscreen. It definitely helps you feel cooler.

For more reading on the fun-filled world of heat-related illnesses and the good times of dehydration, check out these links:

Gorp.com on heat stroke, dehydration and prevention

How to assess the stages of heat illness

So now you’re dehydrated … here’s how to deal with it

Going to Flagstaff? Don’t Miss Sunset Crater & Wupatki

A few years ago, Sarah and I were riding in the Taylor House Century bike ride in the 60-mile group. I didn’t know much about the route, but it took us through Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument, which has a road that also goes to the Wupatki Ruins.

We’d already had plenty of excitement – I survived someone crashing right in front of me and falling right into my front wheel, but we’ll save that story for another time. Let’s just say I pulled off some sort of move straight out of The Matrix to keep the rubber side down. (Actually, the moment was pretty rife with cinematic parallel, now that I think of it. For instance, the protagonist in Shaolin Soccer would insist that I must’ve studied kung fu all my life. Darth Vader would say that the Force was strong with this one. Commander Data would chalk it up to a rift in the space-time continuum, and Dante from Clerks would tell me I’m not even supposed to be here today.)

About 15 miles after that craziness, Sarah and I were between a bunch of packs of riders. We were pedaling up the road that leads to Sunset Crater, and we still didn’t have a clear view of the crater.

But then we came around a corner and saw a blackened vista of dry lava stretching before us … and it was absolutely amazing. We could barely keep our eyes on the road as we passed the lava field and splatter cones. I was dumbstruck that I’d lived in Arizona since I was six, and had never been here. Don’t be like me: Make this a priority stop.

We loved it so much that we came the next day. We also went further down the road to the Wupatki Ruins, which are awesome. You can check out three different sets of ruins at various points. The largest one has this little blow hole … during some parts of the year, this hole sucks air in; in the summer, it blows cool air out! Perfect for those hot days … Sarah was surprised the ruling class didn’t build their pad right on top of it! In a future post, I’ll give you the lowdown on the Taylor House Century.

This is the crater itself … awesome, eh?                                                                                                                     From crater
Another View             From crater
One of the bigger ruins                              From crater
This is a blow hole!                  From crater
Jagged cooled lava                 From crater
A red splatter cone                       From crater

5 of the Best Places to Mountain Bike in Phoenix, Ariz.

EDITOR’S NOTE (May 1, 2012): This post is really old. I will publish an update soon. Subscribe (it’s free) in the box to the right so you don’t miss it!

EDITOR’S NOTE PART II (May 11, 2012): UPDATED and cooler than ever.

I just recently ran into an old classmate at an ad hoc high school reunion. He’d moved from the area, and mentioned that he was getting more into mountain biking, but isn’t sure where to ride here. Naturally, I promised him some tips … and then I thought, “hey, maybe some other people besides Mitch would dig some advice!”

So here are 5 places in the metro Phoenix area where you can ride. Each will offer something different. These are in no particular order. I’ve linked each to my buddy at MTBikeAZ.com, who has produced some fine maps and profiles!
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McDowell Mountain Regional Park: There is something for everyone here. The Competitive Loops host all sorts of races. You can choose from the Long Loop (about 9 miles), the Sport Loop and the Technical Loop (both about 3 miles). You can string them together for some uberloops. All require some skill to handle steep drops, breaking bumps, rocks and lots of loose nastiness. Speeds can run high. Leave your iPod at home … rattlesnakes love hanging out trailside, and your earbuds will mask their warning signal. And watch the trail closely – that big rock you’re zooming around just might be a desert tortoise! Also, the park offers a 15-mile loop called The Pemberton, aka Trail B. This is technically easier, a varitable mountain bike super highway. By the way, the MTBikeAZ site’s map of this is outdated. Pick up a fresh one when you come into the park. Some snobby riders will label it boring: Not true. It has all sorts of offshoots to explore – and if you’re not up for a 15-mile loop, it has lots of connections back to the trailhead to cut it short, some of which are so fast that you’ll arrive at the bottom before the sound of your tires on the ground does. The park entry fee is $6, and it’s a screaming deal: The race loops feature a beaut of a new bathroom. Trail B’s launching pad has a groovy restroom AND a vending machine!

Pima and Dynamite: This is great for winter epic rides. You can just go forever and really get away from the red tile roofs. As you head away from the intersection, you’re on a false flat as you roll your way up. The terrain undulates and wiggles beautifully. Lots of hardpacked stuff, but it gets more wild and wooly the further north you go. Bring lots of food, water, sunscreen and tubes! Epic high desert scenery makes it even better. The terrain can be tricky and the speeds can be high. I rode here once with a friend, and we went home bloody, thirsty and late: His wife banned me from their house for one year, saying I brought him home sun-baked, penniless and smelling of cheap perfume. I only participated in two of the three! No bathrooms or facilities of any sort here. A bummer … this is State Trust Land, which means you need a permit. Yes, you really do. It’s pretty cheap, though it requires prior planning.
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Phoenix Mountain Preserve: Trail 100 is the mainstay of this ludicrously awesome urban park. The visionaries who set land aside for this gem deserve medals. There’s a trail at Tatum just south of Doubletree Ranch Road. You can ride this monster clear to 7th Avenue … and don’t forget all the side trails! Bring a GPS for sure so you can log everything you ride. Some terrain can be tricky: Crossing the Dreamy Draw freeway and heading west takes you up a few nasty climbs, and into a hideous, rocky wasteland. That eventually turns into some wild, good-time singletrack. If you’re lucky, you’ll see a snake, a bunny or three or even a ringtail. There are actually water and toilet facilities scattered around, which is nice.
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Papago Park: You experienced riders out there better stop snickering. You were once a newbie, a squid, a beginner. And I’ll bet this is where you cut your teeth. Mountain biking isn’t just about YOUR ride – it’s about what you pass on to create a new generation of riders. And Papago is the place to train your apprentices. And let’s face it: this place is fun. That four-mile loop around the old golf course is fast as hell, with beautiful sweeping turns that’ll help even the stoniest veteran keep them skills up. Parking, bathrooms, vending machines and water fountains are scattered all around. As your skills (or those of your apprentice) improve, head south to some short but steep climbs and a few super-secret drop-offs way south toward the freeway.
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Fantasy Island North Singletrack (FINS): This is a new trail, and I pumped out 900 words or so about it for the awesome Mountain Flyer magazine. It’s a bit controversial, though, as you’ll see from the article. But we won’t worry about that, for now. Let’s focus on this: People who know and love mountain biking built this beast, and did a right bang-up job. They smashed a lot of miles (15 and counting at last check) into a really small footprint. It’s all hardpacked and groomed. These trails are fast, like bowling balls on a greased bobsled track. There are some switchbacked climbs that’ll burn your legs and scald your lungs. Lots of turning, barely any straightaway flying; that’s to keep the speeds reasonable and hone your turning and braking skills. No facilities here, either, so stock up on the water and be willing to pee outside.
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Okay, I know some people’s rides got the shaft. I know there will be weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth. I’ll give some explanations below about why some got left off the list, but here’s the bottom line: If you don’t like my choices, go write in your own blog about your favorite rides!

Onto those that didn’t make it:

South Mountain: The Mormon Loop, the National and the Desert Classic are legendary around here. But you know, they’re just too crowded and eroded to be my favorites.

Hawes Loop: Too much road pedaling to fully access everything.

Estrella Mountain Regional Park: Because it’s the most suck-a-licious, pointless, loose-rocked POS trail I’ve ever turned tires over.

A few quick mountain bike notes about Wandering Justin: Riding since 1992. Ex shop mechanic. Raced in several 12-hour races (including one win in co-ed sport category), several epic singletrack races, one state series. Rides a 2006 Gary Fisher Cake 2 DLX, but likes Santa Cruz and Specialized way better. Has been (falsely) accused many times for gross malfeasance, negligence and nincompoopery leading to riding parties getting lost.