7 Things to Know about Mountain Biking at Brown’s Ranch

Brown’s Ranch Mountain Biking at a Glance

  • Four Trailheads
  • More than 165 miles of trails
  • Well-constructed trails
  • Endless Options
  • eBikes are Not Allowed. 
  • Watch for hikers, horses and wildlife

If you want to start a great argument, ask mountain bikers from the Phoenix area to name their favorite trail network. There will be shouts of “South Mountain” and “Hawes” accompanied by cursing.

For me, though, it’s Brown’s Ranch, hands down.

I can already hear everyone warming up to tell me that I’m wrong. That’s fine. The points I’m about to lay out here will tell you why I like the Brown’s Ranch trails so much.

Before we go further … if you’re new here, my only mountain bike is a singlespeed hardtail. I rarely put in less than 25 miles, and I do some fairly long races on it.

Brown’s Ranch = Tons of Trails

According to Trailforks.com, there are 165 miles of trails at Brown’s Ranch. And trust me, there are more going in all the time. There are four types of trails: Purple (unpaved access road), green (easy), blue (intermediate) and black (hard).

The massive number of trails and miles means that you’ll have no problem putting a ride of any length together, no matter which of the four trailheads you start from.

brown's ranch

There are so many trails here that you can actually connect to McDowell Mountain Regional Park or even the Maricopa Trail. If you want to unspool an epic ride, you will have no problems doing it here.

Don’t Believe People Who Say It’s Not Hard Enough

The biggest knock on Brown’s Ranch is that it doesn’t have enough climbing or isn’t hard enough. This is complete bollocks.

It has plenty of climbing. During my 32-mile ride the day before I wrote this, I climbed more than 2,000 feet. Yeah, I had to cover a lot of ground to make that happen. But I also did it on a singlespeed, which is bound to make it more interesting than have a 48-tooth low cog.

As for “hard enough.” There are some fun black trails that have excellent technical challenges. If you’re riding a dual-suspension bike with 150mm of travel and a dropper seatpost, maybe these will still be easy for you. I dunno.

I’d also add that, unless you can clean the switchbacks at the top of Brown’s Mountain, these trails aren’t too easy for you.

Bring Water

Not all of the trailheads at Browns Ranch have potable water. Be sure to show up ready to go. You will find bathrooms at the trailheads, but they currently have sanitizer rather than running water.

The facilities at Pima and Dynamite are still under construction. We’ll see what happens when that’s up and running.

Avoid Any Trails with the Word “Wash” in the Name

There are a few trails out there that make use of washes. They are a sandy mess. Avoid them at all costs.

The best you can hope for is to not get too much sand in your shoes. The Dove Valley Trail has some very sandy bits to the east, and I recommend avoiding them.

Expect Lots of Hikers and the Occasional Horse

Hikers love these trails, for good reason. The views are amazing. There’s plenty of wildlife. There are plenty of places to crawl around on boulders.

brown's ranch

Be kind. Yield the trail. Slow down as you pass. I also use a bell to give hikers a friendly audible signal that I”m approaching.

As for horses, I typically communicate with the riders to see what their horses want me to do. Some pull over to let me ride past. Some riders on skittish horses will ask me to dismount as we pass each other. No problem for me either way.

eBikes Are Not Allowed

Back in the old days, mountain bikers used to share these trails (then known as Pima and Dynamite) with motorcycles, who probably made most of the early trails.

Then Scottsdale got hold of the land (I believe from the State Land Department because it was once State Trust Land). They turned it into a preserve and then bounced all the motorcycles north to their own OHV area.

Now, we’ve got eBikes.

I don’t have a problem with eBikes. They’re useful in their time and place. And Brown’s Ranch is NOT their time and place. There are signs at every trailhead announcing that eBikes are not allowed.

And still, I see eBike riders poaching these trails every single time I’m there.

What to do about it? I remember when the Sedona Five poached trails at the Grand Canyon, the feds confiscated their bikes and helicoptered them out in leg irons.

Expect Some Wildlife at Brown’s Ranch

Brown’s Ranch is the only place I’ve seen a gila monster in the wild. I’ve also seen countless snakes here, along with eagles, vultures, what I think was a deer, and all sorts of smaller creatures.

There are Plenty of Maps and Signs

Trails markings at Brown’s Ranch are plentiful. Many of the signs even have a QR code you can use to download the City of Scottsdale map – if you can get cell coverage. This can get challenging further north.

There are also paper maps and permanent maps at every trailhead.

I tend to use the Trailforks app on my phone, instead.

What are the “Can’t Miss” Trails at Brown’s Ranch?

It’s almost impossible to pick just a few. But I’ll try to share the trails I always look forward to:

Hawknest North to South — A gentle downhill with plenty of turns and dips. High-speed fun. The whole thing is 10 miles, so it’ll keep you entertained for awhile.

Renegade — This 2-mile trail on the north side is stupidly entertaining in any direction.

Axle Grease — About four miles of south-to-north warmup to take you away from the trailhead. To get even further north, grab Stagecoach or the West Express. Easy riding, but twisty enough to be fun.

Diablo North and South — One of the newer technical areas. You’ll have to shimmy between some obstacles or hit the occasional drop-off. Riding a cross-county bike makes these more challenging.

Dare-A-Sarah — Rippin’ good fun. There are two steep sections that combine with rocks and turns that will keep you on your toes. All the other challenges are mostly squeezing through tight areas.

Scorpion — There’s some hard stuff here … like “exactly where is the trail here?” kind of hard. But it’s all well-designed, not neglected and stupid like some of what I’ve seen at Estrella Mountain Regional Park.

A Few Final Thoughts

It’s impossible to not have fun here. I’d love it if riders were able to get water from the trailheads, and I’d love to enjoy some race action here (there have been races here before). This would be a perfect place for an epic night race. I can’t imagine how beautiful it would be to ride here during a night event.


Abandoned Movie Theaters of Scottsdale

South Scottsdale is nothing like the palm trees-and-golf courses luxury destination you expect it to be. My neighborhood is full of abandoned and disused property. It’s almost like there’s a systematic plan to make the area look crappy so everyone is OK with tearing everything down and replacing it all with “luxury condos.”

I think about this every time I drive around my neighborhood – and I thought it might be fun to preserve some of those memories. So let’s remember some of the abandoned movie theaters of Scottsdale from the days of olde … by which I mean the 1980s.

Camelback Theater

Back in the 80s, there were two separate malls in what is now Scottsdale Fashion Square. There was Scottsdale Fashion Square and another to the west called Camelview Plaza. If memory services, that’s where the Camelback Theater was.

I definitely remember that Camelview Plaza had a crepe place called The Magic Pan. I’m not sure if I actually saw any movies at the Camelback Theater, but I definitely knocked back a crepe or 50!

Camelview Theater

If you’re new to Scottsdale, you might wonder why I’m mentioning this when there’s actually a Camelview Theater. Well, that’s not the original one.

abandoned movie theaters
ModernPhoenix.net has more great photos of the Camelview Theater.

Before the fancy version that you know today, there was a much more modest version a few blocks west. It had distinct architecture that I’m not schooled enough to describe. The interior paid homage to Old Hollywood. I loved the place.

One of my favorite memories of the original Camelview was going there with my brother Erich to see Star Trek III: The Search for Spock. In more recent years, the Camelview gave us a place to watch non-blockbuster artsy stuff – which was very welcome.

Cineplex Odeon

This more than an abandoned movie theater in Scottsdale – it’s an abandoned concept of the mall of the future. It was called the Galleria, and it was meant to start a new generation of anchorless malls. There’s already reams of copy online about what a silly idea this was.

I can’t recall setting foot inside the Cineplex Odeon, and I’m not even sure what it is today. Unlike most of the others, this one probably still exists within the shell of the Galleria, so

El Camino Theater

Today, I live just blocks from the El Camino, a free-standing theater with just one screen. I know it’s been some sort of weird auction house. Right now, it’s just a fenced off abandoned movie theater with a broken front window. There are signs it will soon be torn down.

I also don’t remember ever going to a movie here.

abandoned movie theaters
El Camino Theater looks like it’s going to get razed soon.

Fashion Square 7

As part of Scottsdale Fashion Square, this is barely worth mentioning. It’s been repurposed into some art space that’s overpriced. Par for the course.

IMAX Theater

Like the Cineplex Odeon, the IMAX was part of the Galleria. One of the things I actually liked about the Galleria is that it’s connected to my favorite restaurant – The Famous Pacific Seafood Company. Twelve-Year-Old Me loved eating their shark cooked over wood-fired grills. Dead serious.

I remember going with a date to see a filmed Rolling Stones concert, even though I wasn’t a Stones fan. I also interviewed the first Spanish woman to climb Mount Everest there; she was featured in a movie that showed at the Galleria.

Kachina Theatre

The property that would become the Galleria sure had a lot of theaters nearby, and this is another one of my favorite demolished and/or abandoned movie theaters of Scottsdale.

abandoned movie theaters
Photo found at cinematreatures.org.

And it’s the home of a huge movie memory for me: The Empire Strikes Back. Can you imagine what would’ve happened if they had social media when this came out? I can practically hear the outrage at Darth Vader’s claim to be Luke Skywalker’s father.

I also saw ET here, but I was never a huge fan of that movie.

Los Arcos Mall Cinema – My Best Abandoned Movie Theater in Scottsdale Story

Los Arcos Mall is a topic that fired up the southern half of the city. A developer called the Ellman Companies bought the mall with plans to tear it down and build a hockey arena – but it wound up being some weird work-live-eat amalgamation of stuff affiliated with ASU. Its signature funny-looking spaceport thing is still polarizing (I love it).

The old mall had a movie theater in the bottom. I don’t remember ever seeing a movie there.

But here’s a memory I DO have of the old mall:

When I was a news reporter, the local papers were looking for every possible angle to write about the mall’s upcoming demolition. At one point, a bunch of psychics approached me and spun all sorts of tales about hauntings and visitations. Things like apparitions of javelina running around, and specters walking the halls bisected by the floor.

I concocted the idea of spending a night in the old mall with a photographer and whichever of the psychics was game for it. I had to get the PR stooge for the developers onboard with it. He stalled me long enough for demolition to begin, that worthless worm!

I am also disappointed to this day that we never used my photo cutline of the demolition: “Mr. Elman, Tear Down This Mall!”

UA Movies 5/Scottsdale Dollar Cinema

This building still lives on as the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art, which is nice among this list of torn down or abandoned movie theaters. I saw many a movie here back in its heyday as the United Artists 5.

abandoned movie theaters
The old UA7 gets some upgrades as the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Arts.

The most memorable?

I’ve only walked out of one movie ever. I was probably 7 years old.

The movie was Without Warning, which was about some alien that threw little pissed-off starfish that sucked people’s brains out or something.

At some point, I’d had enough. Erich took one for the team and walked me to the next theater, where they were showing Middle Age Crazy starring Chevy Chase. Though it may also have been Modern Problems.

You might also wonder why a 7-year-old was watching Without Warning. This actual quote from my mother may explain things: “This one’s rated R – it must be good!”

Looking Nearby For Abandoned Movie Theaters

Cine Capri

The Cine Capri was just about five miles away from South Scottsdale on the southwest corner of Camelback and 24 Street. It was an impressive screen, and I’m pretty sure it was the biggest around.

It also had the very hip Cafe Casino nearby. My tween self loved that place for reasons I can’t quite remember. Nevertheless, both it and the Cine Capri are gone.

I remember seeing Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home there – with Erich, you guessed it!

An Outdoor Abandoned Movie Theater

There was also apparently a drive-in movie theater somewhere east of Scottsdale Road on McDowell. That must’ve been before my time.

There was also a drive-in theater in North Tempe, right on the southeast corner of Mckellips and McClintock.

NOTE: I used this cool website to refresh my memory about the names of these theaters.

Papago Plaza is “Dilapidated.” And That Was the Plan.

Papago Plaza in Scottsdale is all but abandoned these days. And don’t think for a second that’s not by design.

The exodus of businesses from this once-cool throwback plaza pretty much started with the closing of Papago Brewing. It was the major anchor, a role never fulfilled by a huge nightclub space that constantly changed names and had a bad reputation.

And now, we’re getting news headlines like "’Dilapidated’ Scottsdale Papago Plaza Set For Major Redevelopment."

papago plaza

Right. As if Papago Plaza is getting redeveloped because it’s dilapidated. It’s dilapidated because its owners wanted to make it such as eyesore that residents and the city would be completely OK with whatever they wanted to do.

Of course, that is likely to be a generic bloc of anonymous buildings. A hotel. A "high-end" cluster of apartments because why not?

What Should Happen to Papago Plaza

Well, the owners let it fall into disrepair. At this point, there’s probably no way to save it.

And Papago Plaza’s looks have always polarized people. I love it. It has sense of place and character, unlike most of the shopping plazas sprouting up. If they’re going to redevelop it, why not design it with some nods to the original?

papago plaza

Also, I’m concerned about the rush to slap the "high end" label on everything. Is it not possible to make it fit in with the South Scottsdale character? That means a little less sizzle, a lot more steak. This neighborhood is relatively affordable, with some families that have lived in the area since the 1950s. North Scottsdale has its glitz. Why not keep things here more affordable and accessible?

Who wants condos that will sell for $500,000? We already have those up the road at 68th Street and McDowell.

Bring Back Some of the Papago Plaza Past

Just about five years ago, Papago Plaza was home to one of the state’s pioneering craft beer hangouts. It would be great to have it back. It had a hot yoga studio, a small gym, a Korean restaurant, a tailor. In short, some rather nice stuff. These all seem like they would fit into a future development.

papago plaza

I simply doubt developers care enough about maintaining the local character or doing right by residents. It’s all about what they can build now. What happens 20 years from now when we’re stuck with a generic-yet-dated plaza? I mean, Papago Plaza has a dated look to it -- but its late 1960s Arizona vibe is at least distinct.

And the development attorney quoted in the article had this to say about why he thinks the redevelopment needs housing: "If this is too much retail, and we’ve seen vacancy time and time again in this shopping center, what can we do to breathe new life into this corner, and yet make some retail appropriate and successful?”

Again, the vacancies were by design. Ask anyone who was a tenant at Papago Plaza in the last 15 years what it was like getting the owners to upgrade and repair. That’s the sort of landlord that chases tenants out. And their intent was clearly to sell it for redevelopment.

A Few People are Upset About Scottsdale Bike Share Services

Something new happened in Scottsdale, and already a snobby sliver of the population is complaining. The "something new" I’m talking about is the rise of Scottsdale bike share services. In the last few months, brightly colored bikes for rent via a smartphone app have sprung up around the city like mushrooms after a good rain.

People are using the hell out of Scottsdale bike share services – according to a KJZZ article, 3,600 LimeBike users had ridden more than 7,100 miles as of mid-December 2017 (you can also rent a yellow bike from Grid Bike Share, but that company uses traditional docking stations).

Why do People use Scottsdale Bike Shares?

I imagine most users run errands. Some do quick commutes. Maybe a few would rather hit the bars via bike than by car. Some probably just ride for the pure fun of it because bikes are fun and make people have it. Just the other day, a trio of tweens cruising the bike lanes on LimeBikes cheered at me when I zipped passed them on my old Lemond Zurich. Every time I leave my house, I see people using and enjoying the various flavors of Scottsdale bike shares.

But wait! Not this guy. He HATES them, he does. Here are a few of his reasons:
scottsdale bike shares

The LimeBikes don’t have to be returned to a specific place (Of course, the writer didn’t sweat the details of figuring out which bikes are dockless and which aren’t). They sometimes get left on sidewalks or -gasp!- your property!

I’m glad he’s calling this out. It’s a known fact that unattended bicycles emit the radioactive isotope strontium-90, which has caused neighborhoods across the country to become uninhabitable wastelands. Oh, wait -- that’s actually not true. I made it up.

Bike Share: More Good Than Bad

But the truth is that your neighbors and their kids probably leave all sorts of stuff on your sidewalks and maybe even in your yard. People park their cars with their tires protruding inches into the sidewalk. In short, this was already happening before Scottsdale bike share companies -- just with stuff that isn’t a garishly colored bike that someone is making money from.

That actually seems to be the crux of the original writer’s problem. I can see a smidgen of a point there, but I’d spend my time going after for-profit prisons instead. Now THAT’S a huge public-private moneymaking misadventure, and it doesn’t take any cars off the streets.

Do Bike Shares Damage Lawns?

How, exactly? Will they make lawns stop growing? Hey, park a bunch on my lawn so I can talk my wife into xeriscaping! And provide some evidence – saying something is happening doesn’t make it true. And something happening doesn’t make it a problem until you can put numbers to it.

scottsdale bike shares
Objections to the Scottsdale bike share are straight out of the movie Hot Fuzz. If you haven’t seen it, go immediately to Netflix. You’ll thank me.

"And, if we didn’t design our landscaping to go with green, yellow or orange; that’s clearly lack of foresight."

That’s an actual quote. They don’t match the landscaping! Seriously, I don’t think The Onion could conjure a quote this funny. This is the very essence of toxic NIMBYism. This guy is actually worried that the color of the bikes clash with the landscaping. This is why people invent words like "Snottsdale." This. Is. Exactly. It.

Scottsdale Bike Shares Don’t Bother Me

Maybe I just don’t care about this stuff because I live in a south Scottsdale neighborhood where people park on my street to go to their kickball leagues and whatnot -- and here, we don’t mind interacting with people we don’t know and dealing with what things that are, at their absolute worst, minor inconveniences that are far outweighed by the benefits.

In the case of bike shares, they’re a great, affordable way to reduce the use of cars. So get down with your bad self and leave it in front of my house if you need to. I promise someone else on the block will give it a spin at some point.

My advice: Calm down and quit being one of the worst things about Scottsdale. Worry about the big stuff. Ride a bike once in awhile. And go after bigger problems than a Scottsdale bike share.


Lightning Over Scottsdale

I don’t usually do photo-only posts. But I snapped a nice shot from the nighttime storm that rolled into Phoenix. I’m not sure if this is actually a monsoon storm or not … but hey, call it what you will. It’s something besides hot, dry and sunny. This shot of lightning over Scottsdale is probably my best storm shot so far.

Lightning Scottsdale Arizona (Photo by Justin Schmid. Commercial use without permission is not allowed.)

And look! Here’s some slow-motion video of the lightning over Scottsdale to go along with the still. The photo came from my Pentax K-50. The video is from my GoPro … the original Hero, not any of the fancy new ones!

Maverick Coffee in Scottsdale – A Quick Review

maverick coffee
A look at the barista work area and menu.

When I was in Australia and New Zealand, I discovered flat whites and the joy of savory snacks along with coffee. Here in the U.S., flat whites are a rarity. And most of your coffeehouse snacks lean on the sweet side; the antipodean cafes, though, recognize the value of a spinach-mushroom-feta muffin.

If you live near the southeast corner of Shea Boulevard and Scottsdale Road, though, Maverick Coffee has you covered. You’ll get just-about-Australian coffee experience thanks to owners who are Australian. There are a few tweaks versus what I experienced (most notably, the cream and sugar are out for customers to use, where it seemed like all the Australian coffeehouses added them upon request).

maverick coffee
A look at some Maverick Coffee drinks.

Maverick Coffee serves flat whites, and also a super-nice drink called a piccolo. I guess a lot of shops would call it a cortado … but a lot of the different names are about splitting hairs, and there are fewer absolutes than anyone wants to admit. If you’re less into espresso drinks, Maverick Coffee also makes a terrific Chemex.

Now, about those Aussie meat pies on the menu – they’re delicious. The brownie is sludgy and moist, just the way I like a brownie. And even if you’re a coffee fan, trying the iced white tea sometime. Maverick Coffee also sells little bags of nuts called … Nut Sacks!

maverick coffee
“That’s right, Star … bucks. I AM dangerous.”

And parents, you’ll like this: There’s a room toward the back with a sliding wooden door. You’ll find games and books for them to enjoy (and there are books for regular ol’ grown-ups, too). This is a nice family-friendly feature.

The seating in the main part of Maverick Coffee is also comfortable, with couches, low tables and high tables, plus plenty of power outlets. The lighting is comfortably dim (and the fixtures are super cool and retro-industrial). I also like that the music isn’t overwhelmingly loud.

Mwpid-img_20150710_150850974.jpgaverick Coffee also keeps and icy jug of water for customers to chase the coffee – which is also very Australian. I didn’t see any restaurants in Australia or New Zealand that didn’t have a “serve yourself” water setup; I like that a lot better than A) waiting for a server to refill my water or B) servers filling my water when the level is down a half-inch.

Scottsdale, count yourself lucky to have Maverick Coffee.

The Latest Scottsdale Craft Beer Hangouts

Scottsdale craft beer
There’s plenty of Scottsdale craft beer destinations to serve you something tasty.

There’s a new craft beer place popping up every few minutes in Scottsdale. Or it at least seems that way. Right now, I can think of five in south Scottsdale alone, and another in central Scottsdale. So, let me tell you a few of my observations about them -- and pitch in with your own thoughts or suggestions for Scottsdale craft beer bars I may have missed. (I’m leaving the super-delicious Fate out of this because they’re not exactly new anymore -- but damn, they had a mint-grapefruit IPA that I loved.)

Craft 64
The minds behind Craft 64 know what they’re doing. They have wood-fired pizza, big salads, charcuterie and legit desserts (I’ve hounded the staff at Papago Brewing for years about dessert, to no avail). So you can have a full meal, a light snack or a dessert to go along with your craft beer. The beer menu is focused mostly Arizona beers, which is great for out-of-town visitors who might not get a chance to sample so many in one sitting; Craft 64 doesn’t brew its own, but that may come in the future. The staff has also been very friendly on all three of our visits.

Oh, and there’s no live music or overly loud noise to get in the way of a nice conversation. This could be the Scottsdale craft beer house that gets most of our business.

Scottsdale craft beer
It makes me so happy that the former Famous Pacific Fish Company has been revitalized as a microbrewery.

Two Brothers
Like so many others who found their way to Arizona, Two Brothers Tap House and Brewery originated in Illinois. It set up shop inside the former Famous Pacific Seafood Company, an open, two-story brick building with a great ambiance. The Outlaw IPA is terrific, and the Night Cat is the most surprising-in-a-good-way wheat beer I’ve ever tasted.

On our first visit, the server was knowledgeable, fast and friendly. The second time around, the entire staff seemed thoroughly disinterested. It took forever to get a beer, and they were out of many of the selections we wanted to try. And the kitchen was already closed, so no dessert to go along with the stout. Blah. I’ll give it another shot, of course, because another viable Scottsdale craft beer house is always welcome.

Union Barrelhouse
I’m really not sure how to feel about Union Barrelhouse. It has a huge craft beer selection, good food and at least one super-tasty dessert (one of the better takes on a half-baked mound of cookie dough). But the service can be really slow and indifferent. I haven’t recognized a single staff member during my multiple visits. That’s not a great sign.

Union Barrelhouse does have some good beers on tap, but avoid the Oil Can Porter. It had a really unfortunate blue cheese flavor that just doesn’t belong in any beer on this planet.

Scottsdale Beer Company
This new addition slid into the same plaza that once had some national chain brewery that went under and got turned into yet another Culver’s. I want to say it was a Rock Bottom. But anyway, onto Scottsdale Beer Company. Nothing I had set my world on fire – we did a sampler flight of all the higher-strength hard-hitters. Even the more allegedly hoppy ones of the bunch had more of a grainy taste. If I had been taste-testing without knowing what they were, I would have rated none of them above a pale ale.

The food was good, though, and that counts for something. They also had some fine guest beers, and the server knew her stuff. Scottsdale Beer Company has potential, but it’s not there yet.

Sip Coffee & Beer House
This new Scottsdale craft beer hangout is close to greatness. It serves coffees and teas in addition to the brews, which is very nice. And the selection generally has some winners – this is where I discovered the wonder of the Ballast Point Grapefruit Sculpin IPA.

But Sip Coffee & Beer House needs to stay open later, and it must, must, must get some dessert. Dry muffins don’t count. I also like the people here. I’m willing to keep coming back, but I’d love to see its few shortcomings get a little attention.

Goldwater Brewing Company
Just a few steps between Sip and Union Barrel House, a new Scottsdale craft beer brewery is set to open. I’m not sure what to expect from Goldwater Brewing Co., but the place looks great. There’s always room for more, and I for one look forward to meeting these new craft beer overlords.

I left Bad Water Brewing out because I haven’t been there, and I’m not likely to go. Their beers (listed under the “Products” heading of their website, which is incredibly bad word choice) sound too bland … saisons, lagers, a 5.5-percent IPA? What’s up with that? That’s a pale ale, folks.

Coming in a future episode, I’ll break down what’s what with craft beer on the west side of the Valley – it’s really picking up out there!

The Worst Things About Living in Scottsdale

A recent tweet by Arizona Central, the online home of The Arizona Republic, got me thinking about the worst things about living in Scottsdale.

The tweet linked to a study about Scottsdale’s neighbor, Tempe, ranking 43rd in a list of the best small cities to live in.

That’s one small tweet, on giant tweet for encapsulating what’s wrong with Scottsdale. Let’s break it down.

worst things about living in Scottsdale
Valley Metro light rail – not allowed in Scottsdale. (Steven Vance)

Still Putting the Brakes on Light Rail
The same tired Scottsdale mouthpieces have managed to keep light rail out of Scottsdale. Everything they say flies in the face of the increasing ridership on the current light rail line. Nobody with any electricity firing between their brain synapses can figure out how light rail will increase traffic congestion and pollution. If anything, Scottsdale should break its back to figure out a way to do light rail better than the current street-grade system. The cost will be worth it in the long run. In the meantime, enjoy the not-at-all convenient trolleys and buses.

worst things about living in Scottsdale
The Poisoned Pen – One of Scottsdale’s all-too-few bookstores. (Wikipedia)

Can I Get a Bookstore?
South Scottsdale has one bookstore – the highly specialized Poisoned Pen. I love the store, but its mystery niche is very narrow. Scottsdale Fashion Square, we have to infer, serves illiterates since there’s not a single bookstore in its cavernous interior. Even the Scottsdale Pavilions, just across the border in the Pima-Maricopa community just east of Pima Road, doesn’t have one anywhere in its footprint. Aside from the Poisoned Pen, all we have is a Barnes & Noble at the 101 and Shea and yet another B&N at Kierland Commons (and no, antique/religious/New Age bookstores don’t count).

Lagging Left Just the Tip
Traffic is one of the worst things about living in Scottsdale. It’s a long, narrow city -- and it seems city officials time the traffic lights to obstruct by any means necessary. It’s rare to catch a break on the lights while doing anything close to the speed limit. And that lagging left turn – Scottsdale clings to it like a helicopter mom clutches a college student. Oh, sure, it can produce all sorts of studies to tell you how great it is. But the proof is in the commute – just take a drive around the city and see if you can maintain your sanity. I dare you – I double-dare you!

worst things about living in Scottsdale
Scottsdale is still bent on preserving its “Most Western Town” persona. (Photo credit: ed 37 ~~)

Fear of a Tall Planet
Scottsdale hates density and loves sprawl. Just let someone propose a tall building, and NIMBYs will crawl out of the woodwork to howl about their mountain views and property values. I’m still dismayed that two tall buildings stand just south of Fashion Square Mall. The only things wrong with those condo towers is they’re ridiculously opulent and expensive -- and there’s not nearly enough of them. They could become great residential/transportation hubs. I admit Tempe fumbled initially in its attempts to get developers to build upward. But it’s recovered, and Scottsdale can learn from its lessons.

What’s Good About Being Western?
Scottsdale loves to call itself the "West’s Most Western Town." I honestly just don’t care about living in a Western town. Why Scottsdale sees this as any sort of virtue in 2013 boggles my mind. Want to set a good goal? Maybe try being the "Southwest’s Most Northwest-Pacific Town." That might imply good public transit, a creative- and tech-heavy economy, a cosmopolitan flavor -- Bottom line, Scottsdale’s Old Guard might care about this slogan, and it’s not even accurate. Look, I know the city’s Botox-and-boob jobs reputation is a slight exaggeration. But it contains elements of truth that don’t square with being the West’s Most Western Town. I’m also embarrassed that Scottsdale and the nearby town of Cave Creek might have a slap-fight in court about this slogan (My take: Scottsdale can’t out-Western Cave Creek on the most-Western day of its existence even if it had an electrified Westernizing machine). This slogan is one worst things about living in Scottsdale. Let Cave Creek have it.


Over the past few years, more and more businesses (usually bars) have started using golf carts to ferry people around. It’s good to keep people from behind the wheel if they’ve been drinking too much.

But those golf carts are annoying: loud, smelly, slow. Sometimes, they get into the bike lane, which annoys me as a cyclist. I’d like to see the city take a harder stance on this.

I’m also annoyed by people carping about the scooter and bike shares. They’re not perfect, usually because people who use them are pretty clueless (I’ve seen some epic wipeouts). The biggest complaint about them is that they’re unsightly when not un use — talk about a First World Problem!

But they get cars off the streets. I’m all for that.

What would you add to this list?

I know I’ve really gone off on the worst things about living in Scottsdale. There are actually some things I like, too. In a future post, I’ll tell you all about them. Stand by!

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Scottsdale’s New Mountain Biking Trails – First Impression

This pretty spot is, unfortunately, a dead end in the trails "redesigned" by the City of Scottsdale.
This pretty spot is, unfortunately, a dead end in the trails “redesigned” by the City of Scottsdale.

I’m not used to being confused while mountain biking near the Pima & Dynamite trails in Scottsdale. But today? Flumoxed, mixed up, mystified. Like “watching Vanilla Sky” puzzled.

I mean, these are the Pima & Dynamite trails, but not as local mountain bikers know them. It’s almost like Disney’s Imagineers came out, erased the existing trails … and then slapped up their own vision of what mountain bike trails should be.

But nope, it’s not Disney: It’s the city of Scottsdale. I read about the new trails on a divisive thread on mtbr.com. I kind of forgot about the thread. Then I blunder across an unfamiliar trail and think, “oooooh, yeah …” I see a lot of interesting things on this ride. The biggest impressions, though, are the thoughtless destruction of existing mountain biking trails – and new trails built with no thought for flow or logical direction.

A case study in the wrong way to close a trail. Way to go, Scottsdale!
A case study in the wrong way to close a trail. Way to go, Scottsdale!

There are right ways to close mountain biking trails to be reclaimed into the natural environment. Look at the photo to see what Scottsdale did: Ripping into the earth with heavy equipment, and then peppering the trail alignment with wood, bits of cactus and whatever else happens to be around. One heavy monsoon storm, and guess where this will go? If you guessed “right into the new trail,” congratulations! You’re smarter than the Scottsdale officials who signed off on this travesty. I would bet Scottsdale didn’t get any input from the experts at the International Mountain Bicycling Association, either.

Notice the deep, sandy scree and the bike it caught? Bad trail building.
Notice the deep, sandy scree and the bike it caught? Bad trail building.

Alright, onto the second point: “Flow” is an elusive characteristic. What does it mean? Well, if you build a mountain biking (or multi-user) trail that required riders to be on their brake levers constantly, your trail doesn’t have flow. If you have so much sand that riders expect to see The Hoff sunbathing, your trail doesn’t have any flow. The new trails are wide and usually off-camber i the turns. There’s not a berm to be found. There’s too much loose scree on top that can make for some hairy situations. The only good thing? The trails have a bit more traction in many spots, which should be fairly friendly for singlespeed riders … or at least the strictly-OK singlespeeders (like me). One rider said on MTBR.com “However, I kept thinking of anti depressants when riding them. All the highs and lows are taken out.”

A mystery trail through a bunch of fox tails. Kind of cool.
A mystery trail through a bunch of fox tails. Kind of cool.

Look, building good trails is hard. I don’t have any answers. And clearly, Scottsdale doesn’t, either. The next time city officials want to build some new trails, they should look to the best trails in the region: Talk to Rand Hubbell at McDowell Mountain Regional Park. Get some input from the West Valley Trail Alliance. The city of Phoenix mountain biking trails are also far ahead of Scottsdale. These trails will never be a destination, nor sought after as a venue for mountain bike events.

In other bad news:

  • Riders can’t park along Dynamite Boulevard anymore because of the road-widening project. I parked at a Chase Bank about a mile east of Pima.
  • The trails are unsigned, so it’s hard to know where you’ll wind up.
  • The city is also splashing out on a huge trailhead with parking. Yay, more pavement!
My ride route. New bits are in the northeast. The new trailhead is the dangly bit hanging from the south.
My ride route. New bits are in the northeast. The new trailhead is the dangly bit hanging from the south. Looks like sea horse, doesn’t it?

My bottom line: The people responsible for the changes deserve a good whack upside the head with a stainless-steel soup ladle. But I’ll keep my ladle in the drawer if they at least think about getting some help before they build/modify trails without proper adult supervision.

A spy shot of the new trailhead under construction.
A spy shot of the new trailhead under construction.
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Dead Malls – How to Revive Them

dead malls
Sky Song at sunset looks awfully cool on the former Los Arcos Mall property. Until you see the buildings behind it. (Photo by mike3.14159)

I got wrapped up in a story about dead malls via LinkedIn.com. Why are Malls Getting Mauled? says  mega-shopping centers are endangered.

My city of Scottsdale, Ariz., is a shopping destination for travelers, especially for snowbirds. Within its borders are the remains of dead shopping malls like the Scottsdale Galleria  (which is now full of tech businesses). There was also a years-long tussle about how to deal with the Los Arcos Mall; investors bought it in hopes of bulldozing it and building a hockey arena for the Phoenix Coyotes. And now, it’s Sky Song, a mix of cool and stodgy owned by Arizona State University.

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Hot Yoga in Scottsdale – My Review

English: Bikram Yoga
This is not Hot Yoga University, because taking photos in yoga class is kind of creepy. But you’ll do stuff like this. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’m a terrible yoga dude. First, I absolutely will not call myself a "yogi" (though I’d love to somehow earn the title "swami"). And I have a low tolerance for the baggage that comes along with yoga: If you get all New Agey on me, I will laugh – openly. If you turn yoga classes into Janet Reno’s Dance Party, I will find a new studio. Straight up.

This means I hope Hot Yoga University stays exactly as it is. Does that mean it’s perfect? No – but it’s close enough. Let’s take a look at this much-needed addition to South Scottsdale -- and why I like it so much after five classes.

1. It’s a hot yoga class, as you probably guessed from the name. I like the extra challenge from the heat. You burn more calories, you get a deeper stretch. Local yoga folks will immediately think of Sumits, which offers hot yoga all over the Valley. You’ll see more about how it stacks up to Sumits later.

2. It’s reasonably priced -- especially for a hot yoga classes. I did the new student special -- $20, 20 days unlimited. Drop-in classes are an impressive $10. I defy you to beat that anywhere, hot yoga or not. Four classes in, I’m convinced Hot Yoga University is not just cheap yoga – it’s good yoga.

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Fighter Pilot for a Day – Top Gun in Scottsdale?

Extra 300L aircraft D-EXFF 2009 03
Upside down is fun – but not really easy on the belly.
[Sept. 15 Update: An alert Twitter user (Yes, I still refuse to say “Tweep”) pointed out an article on Aero-News.net claiming that Top Gun Fighter Combat Adventures is a scam. In short, it sells Groupon offers, but doesn’t have a plane or facility to its name. I will follow up with more info as I dig it up. But since the rest of this post is about the coolness of air-combat maneuvers, I’ll leave it up.]

Groupon often lets me down. I don’t want weekly colon hydrotherapy or enough body waxing offers to be completely hairless for the rest of my life.

But sometimes, Groupon tips me off to something interesting. The latest example: Air combat at Top Gun Fighter Combat Adventures. The chance to be a fighter pilot for a day.

Top Gun at Scottsdale Municipal Airpark gives anyone – even those without previous flying experience – the chance to experience air combat in a real airplane. This isn’t the only place in Arizona where you can do this. I wrote about Fighter Combat International last year on Yahoo! Voices. I think Top Gun’s location is better - on the cusp of north Scottsdale and its wealthy residents. It’s also closer to the upscale resorts and golf courses – vacation is a great time to play fighter pilot.

And a Groupon deal starting at $399 (for 40 minutes of flight time) opens the proverbial canopy to more people.

I’ve never gotten to dogfight. But I’ve flown in the back seat of a World War II-era fighter-trainer and learned first-hand what air combat maneuvering feels like for a fighter pilot. (Be sure to read the link – the story has a twist.)

Even 30 minutes – so short a time on the ground! – will seem like an eternity. If you think a regional jet is small … even if you’ve flown in a Cessna 172 … nothing is like watching the horizon spin. And keep in mind – you’ll be in a propeller-driven airplane flying just a few hundred miles per hour. Imagine being a fighter pilot in the cockpit of a jet that can fly twice the speed of sound. After just a half-hour of rolls, loops and high-g turns, you will emerge from the cockpit sweaty, wrung out and unsteady. You won’t be able to think about eating. I promise, though, that you’ll look back on it as one of the most sensational half-hour slices of your life.

Best of Arizona – Pima & Dynamite Trail Network

gila monster, wandering justin, arizona
A gila monster!

I almost don’t notice it. But the slow, wiggling movement catches my eye. A splotch of black and orange among shades of brown.

Yes! It’s a gila monster!

Thirty years of living in Arizona, and this is only the second one I’ve seen in the wild.

This is exactly what makes the trail network near Pima and Dynamite in Scottsdale one of the city’s best outdoor activities. You can rip through more than 50 miles of great trails. You can enjoy stark-but-beautiful high-desert scenery.

And you can come face-to-face with wildlife. Here at Pima & Dynamite, I’ve seen more than just this gila monster. Add to the list rattlesnakes, juvenile bald eagles, chuckwallas, jackrabbits and coyotes.

pima and dynamite, mountain biking, wandering justin, arizona
The entire area is riddle with trails.

About my pebbly, leathery gila monster friend: He moves slowly, but quickly enough to get away. I get a bit of video on my Fuji XP-10 (a nice complement to my handlebar-mounted Helmet Hero) before he scurries under a bush. He is venomous, but too shy and slow to be of much danger. The encounter puts a grin on my face for the rest of the day.

Ripping through a tight corners. Short bursts of power to muscle my way up climbs. Flying up and down rolling sections of trail -- these are all great. But a glimpse of nature puts an extra shine on the day.

santa cruza superlight, pima & dynamite, mountain biking, arizona, adventure bicycle company, wandering justin
Fully loaded for a day at Pima & Dynamite.

Speed, excitement and fitness are great reasons to ride. But so is seeing the bigger world around you. There are few better places to bring it all together.

About Pima & Dynamite

  • Most of the trails are on Arizona State Trust Land. You need a permit to legally use the area. Check the State Land Department website for more information.
  • A map helps. And Dale Wiggins is a map master. Check out his offering for Pima & Dynamite.
  • Park at the intersection of Pima Road and Dynamite Boulevard. I usually park on Dynamite just off the westbound lane.
Another example of the crazy wildlife you'll find at Pima & Dynamite.

Views from North Scottsdale – Third Annual McDowell Sonoran Challenge

McDowell Sonoran Challenge, examiner.com, phoenix mountain bike examiner
This is a look I call “Blue Steele”

I was hanging around having a hot dog at the Weenie Wagon; then I heard the phrase of the day from a guy who works at Sunday Cycles in Phoenix:

"I felt like I was getting seasick!"

It might sound like a complaint, but it wasn’t. Having just finished the 20-mile bike course of the Third-Annual McDowell Sonoran Challenge, I knew what he meant. The course is filled with big rollers made by years of use from off-road motorcycles. They’re part of what makes the trail network running through the McDowell Sonoran Preserve and bits of State Trust Land one of the best outdoor recreational sites in Scottsdale.

Big Bumps, Lots of Challenge

McDowell Sonoran Challenge, unicycle
Yes, this madman’s ready to rock a unicycle!

But boy, there was an awful lot of these rollers. How many? So many that I often had a hard time finding a long-enough stretch of trail to drink from a water bottle or slurp down an energy gel. Each time I took a gel, I’d wind up riding for a few minutes with a half-empty package of Chocolate Outrage-flavored Gu clenched in my teeth, waiting for a chance to finish it off.

And that is better than riding flat, straight, way-too-wide trails. This was real desert mountain biking, with the occasional steep pitch and super-hard turn. There was also so much sand that I suspected David Hasselhoff and Pamela Anderson were course volunteers – not so much fun, but that’s mountain biking for ya.

McDowell Sonoran Challenge
Numero Uno Cinco Cinco

I also loved the really complete, thorough, clear trail markings. I was never in danger of veering off-course. Gotta love that! After the race, the expo area was not the usual explosion of commercial hoopla – just a few vendor tents and people hanging out. I also liked the swag bags. My favorite bits were the t-shirt with the event logo and the reusable shopping bag with the McDowell Sonoran Conservancy (the event was a fundraiser for the conservancy, a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving open spaces as part of the McDowell Sonoran Preserve).

McDowell Sonoran Challenge
Nice scenery

Smart Set-up at the Starting Line

The starting area was pretty cool. There were chutes for each event. Course marshals asked everybody to do a reality check and line up accordingly – that prevent fast people from getting stuck behind the newbies. Good thing, since it’s a narrow course without a lot of room to pass! Another great idea: Riders "launched" in a fashion similar to a time trial. Two riders would leave every 10 seconds. It really prevented the angst, drama and frustration of a mass start.

Here’s what I can’t figure out: There’s a place in the plaza where organizers had the expo called Rare Earth Wine and Coffee Bar. I had an hour to kill before the race started, and I locked onto the words "Coffee Bar," anticipating a nice americano to warm me up. But no – Rare Earth is apparently far too leisurely to be up at 8 a.m. Not until 11 a.m. most days, and 4 p.m. on Sunday. Huh?

McDowell Sonoran Challenge, Sunday Cycles, hot dogs, Weenie Wagon
Questionable for all the right reasons.

Other Stuff

I guess it was a show of solidarity for people doing cool things for outdoor recreation and preserving open space: Rand Hubbell, supervisor of McDowell Mountain Regional Park, was out spreading the word.

Without meaning to, I’ve put together an unprecedented-for-me streak: I’ve done three races in the past few months: The McDowell Dust Devil series race, the Four Peaks12 Hours in the Papago and the McDowell Sonoran Challenge. And I’ll be in the Kona 24 Hours in the Old Pueblo later this month. That’s a lot of racing in a short time -- for me, anyway!

See results for the Third Annual McDowell Sonoran Challenge.