2018 Tour de Mesa Review

A few weekends ago, I rode the 2018 Tour de Mesa. It was my first of the Perimeter Cycling events held in the Valley after doing El Tour de Tucson for the past few years. The Mesa version was a 60-mile loop that had a bit of everything – flat sections, screaming downhills, grinding climbs, roads completely devoid of cars and sections where riders had to suck some serious exhaust. In short, a perfectly legit and enjoyable road ride made better with good support, good traffic control and a good finish line festival.

I’m not one of those guys at the front of the pack. The 2016 Tour de Scottsdale was my first road event in a very long time thanks to a near-miss some years ago. I’ve worked my way back into road bike events with the simple goal of trying to get a little better with each one. That’s been going well, with my average speed in each race rising.

With that out of the way, here’s my 2018 Tour de Mesa review.

Registration and Check-In

Online registration is what it is. It’s hugely convenient next to the old days of race registration. So that was all fine.

Packet pick-up was also pretty decent. There was a small exhibition going on. The first person who saw me was very enthusiastic – a bit too much so. Her recitation of “go here do this than that in this order” was more hand-holding than I need and was ultimately more confusing than anything else. I’ve checked in for many races, and it’s not rocket surgery. Ever.

The goodie bag was full of stuff that got recycled after a cursory glance. The bag it came in was by far my favorite item. Quality re-usable grocery bags are awesome! I didn’t take a Tour de Mesa t-shirt because they’re just as ugly as I expect from Perimeter event t-shirts. They put most Christmas sweaters to shame.

Getting the Ride Started

I showed up at the starting line for the 2018 Tour de Mesa confident in my preparation. Strava has been a huge help in tracking my mileage and effort. I’ve figured out what electrolytes I need. I’ve tuned my eating habits on the bike (no more gels – just fig bars). My ritual starting a week before the ride ensures that I’m hydrated, well-rested and topped off with electrolytes. I was probably a little too confident: I spent time yacking with other riders instead of making a visit to the portable toilets – that would cost me later.

When the group rolled out for its start, I had the novel experience of not being stuck in narrow streets behind riders who were all over the place. The wide streets allowed passing room, and I was able to find a comfortable pace within moments. I didn’t experience the frustration of being confined behind anyone. Sure, there were a few people out there who deserved a "hey, get to the right unless you’re passing" yell. But I contained myself.

Out of the City – 2018 Tour de Mesa

Once we turned on to Country Club/Beeline Highway, little groups started to form. Some were spontaneous, others were clearly friends who were used to each other. For a random guy like me who trains alone, this presents some opportunity to be social while also enjoying the benefits of drafting. But try as I might, I really couldn’t find a group in my Goldilocks Zone. Some were just a touch too slow, some a touch too fast. As the climbs steepened, I passed many of the groups who’d zipped by me in the flatter parts.

Beeline presented a nice place to get into a groove. Which I could’ve gotten into better if I’d made a visit to the john. But no. Within 30 minutes of the race start, all I could think about was a toilet. The second rest stop (I completely missed the first) came just short of 20 miles in, and I went running for the john. That little visit cost me about 2 minutes. The work I’d put in on the climb got undone. Ultimately, I’d see the same people over and over again: I’d pass them on a climb, then they’d band together in a downhill or flat section and pass my lonely ass. And they’d be going just a bit too fast for me – maybe because they were drafting off of each other, or I’d put it too much energy on the climbs.

Great Scenery, A Few Problems

I should mention here that the scenery after the third rest stop was spectacular. The mountains in this area area a treat for the eyes, and I wished I’d thought to put a camera on my bike. Next year, I definitely will. The speeds also picked up in the downhills. One guy on a low-slung handcycle that looked like a street luge zipped right by me at ludicrous speed. I really enjoyed seeing that!

I made my first refueling (as opposed to the "defueling" of the last one) at Aid Station 4. There, one of the friendly volunteers helped me wrangle my spare canisters of EFS drink mix into my bottles. I was in and out very quickly, and that proved to be the only filling stop I needed (I started with two full-sized insulated bottles and a smaller bottle, all filled with EFS).

Tour de Mesa
“Sports drinks have nutrients!” “Hmm, yeah – gimme more EFS, heh heh!!”

I also had a few strange problems starting to pop up: My butt was absolutely killing me by about 40 miles in, which is extremely unusual. This is not something that happens to me at all. I’ll have to solve that mystery. Also weird: My left hip flexor didn’t seem happy at all. Fortunately, I know of some ways to deal with that.

The middle of the Tour de Mesa is kind of the crux of the thing: In my head, I had my sights set on two stiff climbs. As we were grinding up what I thought was the first of them, a couple of guys were like "just one more hard effort and we’re home free!" Somehow, the first of the climbs didn’t even register as a big deal. OK. I can deal with that. Five minutes later, we were descending back into Mesa.

Back into the Concrete Jungle

Our route along University took us into a section that didn’t have a bike lane. Fortunately, the local police agencies (including DPS) had that all under control. A few drivers had moments of confusion, but the situation was well in-hand. Everyone seemed to feel safe and able to concentrate on the last miles of the ride. (Except for some people on the Facebook page. There was some carping about the section without the bike lane, which I can understand.)

We had a wind coming in from the southeast, which gave a little boost of speed as we approached downtown Mesa. About a half mile from the finish, I accelerated and passed a few riders without getting overtaken myself. My right calf didn’t respond well to the hard effort, but I can’t complain about a slight, fleeting cramp in the finishing chute of a race. Not at all.

I also learned that medals were based on your finishing time, and my finish was good enough to snag me a gold. I think that’s kind of a nice setup, and I think more races should consider having different medals. It’s something to shoot for when you know you don’t have a chance at winning.

There were a few food truck available for refueling – and some company was giving out samples of hard kombucha (that went down pretty well!). Another nice touch: There were activities for kids. Had I known, I might’ve recommended that my wife bring our little person down to enjoy the fun.

I’ll definitely do this race again and look forward to it. Good course and an overall good vibe.

Random Thoughts: 2018 Tour de Mesa

STUFF I ATE/DRANK DURING THE RIDE: A fig bar every 45 minutes, one bottle of EFS per hour. DID NOT USE: Hammer Gel that I carry just in case, vial of pickle juice.

LESSON LEARNED: I might need to team up with other people to take my times up a notch, especially in El Tour de Tucson

RANDOM OBSERVATIONS: Strava tells me my heart rate was a bit higher for this ride than for my previous road rides. This tells me I’m able to work a bit harder without worrying about cramping. That’s huge, and means I have a bit more performance to extract from myself.

Recap: Prescott 6’er Mountain Bike Race

For the past year, I’ve ridden about 90 percent of my mountain bike miles on a belt-drive singlespeed (first a Raleigh XXIX, then a Domahidy Ti). The big question on my mind has been -- could I actually race the thing n the Prescott 6’er?

prescott 6'er
A bit of race-prep help from a short person.

The races I do are typically long: I’ve been in 24-, 12- and 6-hour races, along with singletrack races 40-65 long. And I also do the occasional 60+ mile road bike tour. The biggest question mark comes from my legs’ tendency to completely seize up about 4-5 hours into a hard ride (more on that later).

Well, I decided it was time to see if my solid (for me) summer of training, some new practices and a fun belt-drive bike could get me through the Prescott 6’er. If you’re unfamiliar with the format, that’s as many laps as you can do in 6 hours. Each lap was 8.6 miles with about 650 feet of climbing. My previous longest singlespeed ride has been about 30 miles, with right around 2,000 feet of climbing.

It’s Race Day at the Prescott 6’er

If you didn’t know the Prescott 6’er was going on, it would be easy to overlook the venue, which was right near a gravel pit. In fact, we had to point one other racer in the right direction. It was a small field, with only 6 racers in the men’s singlespeed solo category. In all, I’d estimate fewer than 200 racers. The promoter, Mangled Momentum, gave the event a friendly, low-key vibe that was extremely welcoming. There was even a beginner class.

prescott 6'er

The start-finish area passed close to spaces for team tents, with a dedicated Solo Alley. Mangled Momentum was even nice enough to put up a tent for solo riders who needed some shade – I brought my own, but that was still a very nice touch.

I set up my little camp with a cooler full of water bottles filled with EFS mix. I trained with EFS because of its large load of magnesium, which was part of my cramping problem in previous events. I also had a jar full of pickles, a box of fix bars, a bunch of gels, various single-serving electrolyte powders, extra EFS mix, some jugs of water and a bottle of Starbucks iced coffee just in case I felt a bit sleepy.

Oh, and someone asked me about my gear ratio, probably because I’m not only rolling a singlespeed, but also a belt drive. They got my standard answer:

Prescott 6'er

Go Time

I started out at the back of the pack for a few reasons: I wanted to take the first lap a bit easy. Getting wedged behind people prevents me from going at the course like a spider monkey -- thus blowing my legs out early. I often felt like I was holding back on the descents and climbs. But I kept it friendly and easygoing knowing that it would be a long day. I passed only when it was safe and tried to chat with other riders.

The course itself is seriously fun riding that has that elusive, hard-to-define "flow" that seems to make bikes and riders happy. There were a few sandy patches, but traction was overall pretty good anyway. The hardest part was the far north part, where there were some steepish switchbacks covered in loose rocks.

On the Rocks

It was on the switchbacks in the first lap where I had my major problem of the Prescott 6’er: My seat tube water bottle cage broke! My plan was to ride two laps at a time with two water bottles. I figured that would be good for the distance (I don’t like racing with a Camelbak if I can help it). But that plan went pear-shaped in a hurry. I had to hop off my bike, fetch my bottle and broken cage, stuff it all in my jersey pocket and then re-start in the switchbacks.

A few people I’d recently caught also reeled me back in because of this, but it probably would’ve happened anyway. I already got away from my plan of riding my own race and not focusing on who I’m catching or who’s catching me.

Lap After Lap

I actually rode my second lap slightly faster, but the stop to deal with my water bottle cost me some time. The nice thing about the second lap is that I wasn’t front wheel-to-poop chute with everyone else, which gave me space to ride the way I like. And also had more opportunities to take a gulp out of the water bottle. There just wasn’t really time and space on the first lap.

The third lap was definitely a bit slower, and I felt just a twinge in one of my calves. I staved that off with a generous swig of pickle juice. On the fourth lap, I felt no sign of cramping, but my legs felt tired. I settled into my camp chair to enjoy some shade, a can of coconut water, more pickle juice and an electrolyte packet that dropped a huge magnesium bomb into my system; my wife, who has ridden four Ironman-distance triathlons and definitely knows her stuff, suggested magnesium to me -- but with an ominous warning along the lines of "too much of it will make you shit like a demon." Well, let’s just say this electrolyte package may have been the definition of "too much."

But did my legs cramp, even on my first singlespeed race? Now. Those legs stayed loose and ready to go, albeit with less life in them than the first few laps. My biggest problem on that fifth lap was getting pounded by the seat. On a geared bike, you can shift into a higher gear, push the pedals a bit and keep the weight from settling square on the ol’ taint (or chode, if you were a Beavis and Butt-head fan). On downhills, my speed exceeded the bike’s gearing, so my butt settled right onto the seat. This is just something I gotta get used to for future races.

The fifth lap of the Prescott 6’er also brought the demon of trail boredom. Races like the Tour of the White Mountains ensure that you don’t keep seeing the same stuff over and over again, which definitely keeps me mentally more alert. I kept getting that Groundhog Day feeling.

By the time I finished that last lap, I knew I was for the first time ever in dead last. But my time would’ve gotten me into mid-pack in the familiar and comfortable environs of the regular solo class. And there was really no way for me to move up. So I just said "it’s time to go have a shower -- but maybe first a stop at the portable toilets." I was also a bit in the Groundhog Day cycle of boredom. I’d seen the same trails too much in a given time frame.

Digressions and Final Thoughts on the Prescott 6’er

Let me digress here: When you’re at an event where there are portable toilets, thank the people who keep those in decent shape. Shake their hand, and don’t even think of cringing when you do. They are vital and important people taking on an extremely dirty job to make your life better through sanitation. Better yet, go immediately to your streaming media player and find the Australian film "Kenny," which is all about the adventures of a portable toilet plumber. You will never take these people for granted again!

Prescott 6'er
“Do these blokes really need that much magnesium?”

About the event itself – so low key and laid back. If you sign up for a future Prescott 6’er, you won’t have to wait in long lines. You won’t have to circle around looking for parking. You won’t have to drive into some remote place. You can even send people for a quick supply run to a nearby grocery store if you forget something. And bike shops aren’t far away.

I’m hoping some event photos appear, especially since I saw a few people snapping shots with SLR cameras. The only other photos are from the start/finish shoot, which doesn’t make for very good photography.

The promoters also provided a pretty cool event t-shirt, along with some free gels and fizzy electrolyte tabs. Racers would also find coolers full of water and Hammer Nutrition products, along with solid stuff like bananas and cookies.

I would definitely race this event again and recommend it to anyone interested in a longer event. The six-hour (along with the 12 and 34) format has its ups and downs. You see the same trails a lot, unlike something like the Tour of the White Mountains where it’s one giant loop. This format allows you to support yourself much more easily. Personally, I like to do a bit of both.

Can Condor Airlines Help Phoenix Become a "Real City?"

Condor Airlines just might help Phoenix become a real city. Here’s what I mean: Whenever Phoenix and Philadelphia play leapfrog in the city size rankings (which invariably makes our local journalists generate reams of predictable content), I always bring up Sky Harbor International Airport and its lack of intercontinental flights.

My view: I don’t care how many people live here – Phoenix won’t be a "real city" as long as its residents must go to Los Angeles or New York or Houston to fly to locations far abroad.

And finally, at long last, Sky Harbor has made a step in the right direction: In June, Sky Harbor announced that new service to Frankfurt, Germany, would begin in 2018 with twice-a-week flights on Condor Airlines. Condor will use a Boeing 767-300 for the flights, which are scheduled to fly May-September.

Condor Airlines
Autumn in Germany

Condor Airlines Reconnects Arizona to Germany

If you’ve lived here long enough, you might remember that Lufthansa used to connect Phoenix and Frankfurt. But that’s been gone for a long while, with only British Airways connecting Arizona to another continent. That, my friends, is not the stuff of a true "big city."

So the Condor flights are definitely a nice addition, even if it belongs in the "It’s About Time" file. And it’s only twice-weekly service. But it’s an airline rated 3 stars by Skytrax (that’s a star better than most domestic airlines, right?). Condor also has partnerships with Hawaiian Airlines and Alaska Airlines, if that matters to the air miles hogs out there.

Hoping for More Condor Airlines Flights from Phoenix

I’d also like to see that window open up a bit more: To me, October is THE time to be in Germany. You want to talk about an amazing autumn? Then you need to see a place like Schwabisch Hall or Rosengarten in October. And that whole Oktoberfest thing, right? Still, I’ll take any service at all at this point. And I really want to motivate Arizonans to just get on this plane already.

Condor Airlines
A Condor Airlines 767 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Look, Arizona -- traveling abroad is a good thing. You need to get out there and see a bit of the world, and Frankfurt is a terrific gateway to the rest of Europe. From there, you’re close to some really nice parts of Germany and also a fast train ride away from France, Belgium – just about anywhere in Europe!

So book some flights on Condor. Show the airlines that we’re not a bunch of insular homebodies who won’t go anywhere. Help Phoenix become a real city. And then maybe Sky Harbor can score daily service instead of twice weekly. From there, who knows? Maybe Asia?

Recap: 6 Hours in the Papago

My training plan for the 6 Hours in the Papago mountain bike race wasn’t a winner: A month before the race, I came down with strep throat. Before my antibiotics even ran out, I was headed to New Zealand for two weeks. That doesn’t add up to a lot of pre-race saddle time.

Fortunately, I didn’t plan to win anyway. Did I have fun, though? Oh, hell, yes. It was one of my better days at a race … I credit the pre-race dinner of raviolis and Stone Xocoveza.

If you’re looking for a good race when January rolls around next year, here’s what you should know about 6 Hours in the Papago.

It Used to Be 12 Hours in the Papago

That’s right – 6 Hours in the Papago was once twice as long as it is today. The change in length had something to do with permitting from the City of Tempe. The new setup did wonders: Twelve hours is a LOT of time on a 7-mile loop in Papago Park. No, downright monotonous. But for a six, it’s pretty spot on.

6 hours in the papago
That’s me at my last Papago race – the 12-hour edition!

The Course is Jam-Packed with Stuff – Kind of

Each 7-ish mile loop will give you about 500 feet of climbing. That’s pretty solid as the laps pile up. And they’re not long, grinding climbs. Instead, you get short bursts. There are also no long downhills, but there are a few parts that can be tricky – especially as people jockey for position.

You’ll also spend some time blasting along flat, smooth canal bits. Not the most exciting, but … hey, it’s a mid-metro area mountain bike race.

The loop doesn’t include any of my favorite parts of Papago, probably because it would be hard to deal with crossing Galvin Parkway and -hey!- the city of Phoenix managed to destroy those awesome bits, anyway.

The Course Volunteers Were Off the Charts

From the course marshals to the crew of kids at the refueling station, every 6 Hours in the Papago volunteer was smiley and helpful from the first lap to the last. They put out a lot of energy to give the race a very fun vibe.

Organizers and Sponsors Had Their Priorities Straight

Look, I don’t need a huge medal and a bunch of useless sponsor coupons in my race bag. And frankly, I have exactly one race t-shirt that I’ll wear out of the house.

What I got for my entry fee at the 6 Hours of Papago was frankly, far more valuable than any of that: a well-stocked refreshment tent where I could fill up my water bottles and grab some sponsor-supplied Hammer gels whenever I needed them (I could swear the electrolyte mix was Heed, which I supplemented with Kola Nuun tablets – exactly why are those delicious little tablets discontinued?!).

Speaking of sponsors, AZ Barbecue was there selling food; racers got a ticket for some free bbq, but I didn’t partake – my priority after a ride or race is to take my shorts off and brush my teeth, and one of those always causes me problems if I do it before I leave the venue. Oh, and SRAM was the title sponsor. I’ve had soft spot for them since the Grip-Shift days, and my current bike is mostly SRAM. Just sayin’.

I Think I Missed Solo Alley

I thought there was supposed to be a place where solo riders could park and make a little encampment. But it looked like that plan morphed into more of an area for teams and clubs to congregate. I really could’ve used having my car and gear around … my 6-, 12- and 24-hour race plans always involve (I know this sounds gross) copious amounts of V-8 and chocolate milk, and that run to my distantly parked car  — and the cooler inside it — was a bit of a pain. But it was hardly enough to put a damper on things. Just a small tweak that could be in the works for next year?

What’s the Strategy for Average Joes?

I’d like to improve my standing the next time I do this, and I’m trying to lock onto a good strategy. I noticed that my first four laps were considerably faster than the dudes just ahead of me in the standings. Then my times ballooned up again (corresponding with the laps where I had to jet out to my car). Maybe I’d be smarter to hold back a tiny bit more … maybe use some lower gears in the climbs and hit the electrolytes a bit harder earlier.

I did start spinning low gears a bit, and the decision seemed to pay off, especially after my final infusion of V-8 kicked in. On my last lap, my quads came back online to nearly full power with no danger of cramping … that was after the previous three laps where I relied on calf power to spin the pedals (and frankly, no small amount of farting – to anyone who’d been with 150 feet of me, my deepest apologies).

Final Thoughts

I’ll sign up for 6 Hours in the Papago next year for sure. It was fun and well-supported, not to mention 10 minutes from my front door in the middle of a huge metro area. That’s an opportunity not to be missed.

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!

Last Day of Monti’s La Casa Vieja

Monti's
The Fountain Room – the most-haunted area at Monti’s La Casa Vieja.

People call Phoenix and its satellite cities an area without a past, shucked of history, a collection of pass-through transients. The closing of Montis La Casa Vieja on Monday splinters another link to the past -- and the deed will be complete when most of it gets bulldozed to make room for a high-rise development in the landlocked city of Tempe.

I could easily turn this into a rant about developers, greed and a myopic worldview. I’ll resist the temptation – mostly. Developers say they’ll fold the "historic Hayden House" into the new construction. I’m not sure exactly what that means: Keep in mind that the building has gone through about as much adding-on and renovation as a 15th Century Irish pub, to the point where original elements are fused into newer bits that seem inextricably linked. Who knows what will really survive when demolition begins?

Monti's
An old Make-A-Wish plaque rolls the years back at Monti’s.

But enough of that. Plenty of better-informed people have more to say about it than I do. Let’s instead take a look at Nov. 17, the final night Monti’s served to the public.

My friend Nicole, who likes history and hauntings (and wrote a cool blog post about Arizona hauntings), organized a group dinner among some friends. She’d never had a look inside Monti’s, and the legend of its haunted halls enticed her. We managed to get a seat in the Fountain Room, which is said to be the most-haunted of all the rooms (considering the building sprawls over no less than 11,000 square feet, that offers a lot of ground).

Monti's
Seriously, do people think the Illuminati met here?

I was there less for the supernatural, and more for the memories. I spent more than a few evenings at Monti’s with friends: We’d have a pre-game steak or prime rib before heading down to Veteran’s Memorial Coliseum to see the Phoenix Roadrunners. In recent years, my good friend Todd and I would gather there to eat prime rib and talk about whatever was on our minds (guitars and music, often enough).

But it was really interesting to just roam the building. It has that enveloping creepiness that only an old, haphazardly renovated building can possess. One particular hallway, in particular, seemed to drink in ambient sound, muffling every whisper or footfall. I overheard one patron claim that one of the back banquet rooms was the scene of meetings of the Arizona branch of the Illuminati (I tried very hard to not roll my eyes -- I may have succeeded somewhat).

Monti's Floorplan
A glance at Monti’s floorplan gives you an idea of how big and chaotic it is. Or was …

One of the more interesting moments: Nicole spied a weathered brass plaque on the fountain in the Fountain Room. It bore the old wishbone logo and mission of Make-A-Wish from its earliest days as a "last wish" organization for terminally ill children (it has since moved on to serve kids with life-threatening medical conditions, the difference now being that many of the kids can survive their illnesses).

For all the fun I had, though, it was just sad. The servers seemed torn about it all. And every person wandering Monti’s with a digital camera clearly wished it wouldn’t come to this.

Monti's
This secluded dining room just felt … weird.
Monti's
Todd pokes around a more secluded area.
Monti's
Diablo Way had an eerie mojo – it seemed to absorb sound.
Monti's
A piece of the original adobe wall at Monti’s.

Where to Beat the Summer Heat in Arizona

Summer Heat in Arizona
A summer hike near Flagstaff – a great place to beat the summer heat in Arizona.

If you live in Arizona, there’s a good chance the summer heat has its oppressive boot squished against your neck. And you want to know how and where to beat the summer heat in Arizona, someway, somehow. I have some tips for all of you who are afraid of getting heatstroke on the way out to the mailbox.

Go Curling

That’s right. Curling. The Coyotes Curling Club has a legitimate, for-real curling barn – none of this playing-on-hockey rinks crap. It’s always cool in there. Just sign up for one of its ever-more-frequent Learn to Curl sessions. Better yet, talk your employer into doing a Learn to Curl session for your company. Call it team building while cooling off. The Coyotes Curling Club has all the gear you need. Just wear a good pair of pants that allow freedom of movement and won’t show your buttcrack. (This is pretty much the only item on the list that involves staying in town. Do you really need a blogger to tell you to do obvious stuff like go to a movie, a public pool or an ice-skating rink? No.)

Beat the Summer Heat in Arizona
The Coyotes Curling Club – a great place to wear funny pants AND beat the summer heat in Arizona.

Get Out of Town

There are plenty of places around the state to beat the summer heat in Arizona. Here’s a quick roundup of them.

Prescott – The problem with Prescott is that its summers are warmer than they used to be. But the temperatures are still lower up there, and you’ll probably get an afternoon monsoon storm to cool things off. You’ll find plenty of hiking and mountain biking, but you can also just lounge around near the old-school courthouse area if you’re more sedate. No matter what, I no longer consider a trip to Prescott complete without a visit to Granite Mountain Brewing Company. Its own beers are great, and you’ll often find mead from Superstition Meadery on-tap at Granite Mountain Brewing, too (if you’re never had mead, this is the place to try it). There’s a lot of places to catch live music, too, and they’re walking distance from each other. Just one thing – NEVER go to Prescott anywhere near Independence Day. It’s a madhouse.

beat the summer heat in Arizona
On horseback near Greer.

Flagstaff – The obvious choice. Cooler than Prescott, more funky, even more outdoor stuff, more culinary variety. It takes longer to get there, though. But it’s worth a little extra time. I haven’t gotten to Flagstaff Extreme Adventure Park yet, but -- an aerial obstacle course? How could I not love it? I’m also a huge fan of the Lava River Cave. If you have some time and energy, you can hike to the summit of Humphreys Peak, Arizona’s highest point at 12,600 feet and change. And you should can also think about shorter-but-still-cool hikes like SP Crater and Red Mountain (S P Crater is the coolest place you’ve never heard of). If you like microbrew and top-quality espresso, Flagstaff is silly with it. I’m partial to Fire Creek Coffee Company – they serve beer there, too.

TREETOP ADVENTURES
An adventure in the trees? Count me in.(Photo credit: bill85704)

Greer/Pinetop/Show Low - I’ve combined these three towns. Greer (Arizona) is off by itself, while Pinetop and Show Low are nestled together. Look, you’re not going to find great nightlife or dining here. The mountain biking is pretty stellar, though, and the area is the closest thing Arizona has to a rain forest. If your goal is to beat the summer heat in Arizona, this is the place to trounce the triple digits. One of my highlights – going for a bike ride and having a herd of elk romp right past me.

Tombstone - OK, I admit that Tombstone is ridiculous Old West kitsch ramp straight to 11. But it’s also in one of Arizona’s wine-growing regions. If you’re into wineries, this is as good a place to base yourself as any. It’s also far cooler than you might expect, with some nice afternoon drizzle during the monsoon season. Bisbee is also nearby, and pretty funky-cool. I need to hang out there a bit more to give a more thorough rundown -- or if anyone reading this knows Bisbee and wants to do a guest post, well, consider the welcome mat out.

Haunted Places in Arizona – An Expert’s Top 6

haunted places in Arizona
The Domes – one of the weirdest and coolest spots in Arizona. (Photo from www.pyramidbeach.com)

Want some expert info on haunted places in Arizona? Then you’ll like this guest post from Nicole, who runs the Haunted Arizona website. Here’s what she has to say!

Since I was a young child, I’ve been interested in ghost stories. Enough that, as an adult, I started my own website about them (specifically, about reportedly haunted places in Arizona, my home state). When I was invited to write a guest post on WanderingJustin.com about my favorite haunted places in Arizona, I enthusiastically said yes! I will admit I was only asked to write about my top five, but it was hard to narrow it down, so the only logical thing to do, in my mind, was to throw in one extra.

#6. London Bridge, Lake Havasu City
There’s something fascinating about a bridge that was built in London now being in Arizona. Even if there were no supposed hauntings surrounding it, the fact that an entire bridge was removed from its original home in London, transported to Arizona, and put back up in Lake Havasu City, would still be an interesting tale. Add some ghosts into the mix — and not just any ghosts, but British ones — and it becomes something else altogether. The bridge is made of granite, which is said to be one of the best materials for storing residual energy, explaining why most of the paranormal activity at the bridge appears to be residual rather than what we consider spiritual or conscious entities. It is said that some of this energy, and therefore some of the apparitions, were transported from London along with the stones of the bridge. Reports of a British policeman and other ghosts are common, and ghost tour guides claim that patrons of their tour (which takes place daily) are frequently touched and witness ghostly activity on a regular basis.

haunted places in arizona
The Hassayampa Inn – beautiful, but a bit spooky in the right light. (image from www.historichotels.org)

#5. Hassayampa Inn, Prescott
This is one haunted places in Arizona I’ve been hearing about for years, dating back to my days of recording TV shows like "Scariest Places on Earth" on VHS. The Hassayampa’s most famous story is about a young bride named Faith, who, on her wedding night, committed suicide by hanging herself from the bell tower above the honeymoon suite, after her groom left to buy cigarettes and never returned. Faith frequently haunts the hotel to this day, generally being kind to female guests who stay in her old suite, while male guests tend to have nightmares in the same room. There are many other ghosts reported in the hotel as well, including a young boy, and the "Night Watchman," a spirit in old west attire who seems to be checking the doors and windows to see that they are locked.

#4. Jerome Grand Hotel, Jerome
As someone who works in a hospital, they are often some of my favorite locations to hear of hauntings. The Jerome Grand Hotel was originally built as a hospital, giving it an entirely more interesting history than the majority of hotels out there. It is certainly not hard to understand why a hospital, or former hospital, would be haunted, considering the unfortunate amount of pain, confusion, sadness or frustration associated with many patients before their deaths. There are said to be at least eight different ghosts lurking in the hotel today, most prominently the ghost of an engineer who was employed by the hospital and who died in the boiler room by having his head pinned underneath the elevator car. Other ghosts from the hospital era include a nurse, and a young mother who died giving birth to a stillborn baby. It is said that the mother will not rest because she is still upset by her child being buried in an unmarked grave. The ghost of a miner has also been seen for decades, even by nurses and patients before the conversion from hospital to hotel. Hotel rooms that used to be inpatient rooms frequently have reports of labored breathing and coughing sounds, whether the rooms have guests staying in them or not.

haunted places in Arizona
Yuma Territorial Prison – what ISN’T creepy about an old prison?

#3. Yuma Territorial Prison, Yuma
Like hospitals, prisons are another favorite category of mine when it comes to haunted places in Arizona. The Yuma Territorial Prison was used until 1908, when all of the inmates were moved to the current state prison in Florence. It remained empty and the building was abused for many years, and it is now in use as an historic state park (definitely convenient for us ghost hunters!) When the living inmates were moved to Florence, they left behind the graves of up to 119 prisoners who died during their detainment, eight of which were shot by guards while attempting to escape. The prison graveyard no longer has any headstones, but one recovered stone is now on display in the visitors’ museum (which has a lot of reports of activity, so if you get a chance to visit, make sure to stop in at the museum). The most haunted area to seems to be the Dark Cell, which was used for solitary confinement. A reporter from Arizona Highways magazine willingly let herself be chained up in this cell with as much historical accuracy as possible, but even she didn’t stay long before claiming there was a presence in the cell with her.

#2. The Birdcage Theatre, Tombstone
It’s almost difficult for me to give this one the rank of number two. It could almost be considered a tie for number one, and I’m sure some people would argue that the Birdcage is in fact the rightful owner of the first place title. Quite possibly the single most-haunted place in Arizona, this is the location you are almost guaranteed to see if you are, like myself, the type to watch a marathon of paranormal shows on TV near Halloween. Legend says that as many as 26 different ghosts call this Old West theatre their permanent home. This is the same number of murders that were reportedly committed during the eight years the theatre was in business, and it is said that there are over 120 bullet holes that still remain throughout the building. The amount of activity reported at the Birdcage is so much that I wouldn’t even know where to begin if I were to attempt writing it all. All I will say is that this theatre was considered one of the roughest places in the Wild West for the eight years it was open, and those who gave it that reputation seem to have remained as wild in death as they were in life. This is definitely one place that deserves your time if you feel the desire to research these haunted locations more thoroughly.

#1. The Domes, Casa Grande
I’m not sure what exactly it is about the Domes. I’ve researched the story of how and why these structures were built and abandoned, and it isn’t anything particularly spooky. Still, simply looking a photo of the place, even just an aerial shot from Google Earth, gives me a very strange feeling. Something about these odd, dome-shaped buildings in the middle of nowhere is extremely intriguing to me, enough that they even beat out the famed Birdcage for my absolute favorite haunted place. Don’t get me wrong, the stories surrounding the domes can get pretty sinister — skinned animal carcasses, concrete slabs covered with the dried blood of Satanic sacrifices, a menacing shadow person, things being thrown at visitors’ heads — but in all honesty, I’m not sure how many of the stories can be believed. Regardless of how much of this is true, there is just something sincerely creepy about the place, from the shape of the buildings, to the fact that they were abandoned halfway through construction, to the tunnels underneath them. Throw in the shadows, the whispers, the tapping on visitors’ cars, and the legends about the evil deeds that have taken place there, and this is a place worthy of #1 on my list of haunted places in Arizona.

All of these locations can be read about in more detail (including visitor information such as prices, hours, addresses, etc) on my website, Haunted Places of Arizona: www.hauntedarizona.freeiz.com. You can also like our Facebook page at www.facebook.com/hauntedarizona.

Arizona High School Cycling League Has Plan to Interest More Girls

Getting more women involved in mountain bike racing is an old challenge. It’s plagued event organizers and the industry as long as the sport has been around. Now the new Arizona High School Cycling League is taking a shot at it. After its first race on Sept. 29, I noticed a huge difference in the number of boys versus girls. I asked Mike Perry, Arizona High School Cycling League executive director, via Facebook about how the league plans to get more female high school racers involved. His answers impress me, and they go beyond the usual “awareness” message that I’ve largely tuned out. Here’s his answer in its entirety. What do you think?

It really is a challenge to get more girls involved, and it’s front and center on our priorities. We’re coming at it from a few angles.

Arizona High School Cycling League
Junior varsity girls riders Nicole Linebaugh (103) and Christine Clark encouraged each other through the first Arizona High School Cycling League event.

1) We have been very intentional about the composition of the league leadership and board to ensure both are representative of our communities. That means having women (and minorities) in key positions. For example, our Chief Referee is female, our Registration Manage is hispanic and our Merchandise Manager is a hispanic female. 2) Team scoring at our races is co-ed, the highest placed four riders on a team, and must include at least one girl and one boy. That gets the boys’ / men’s attention knowing that they need to have girls on the team to be competitive in the team category. 3) We’re working with teams to ensure they have females coaches in their ranks. Teams in more established leagues have told us that they’ve experienced firsthand that girls are more likely to join, engage and remain active in the team when at least one of the coaches is a woman. Roughly 25% of the participants who have gone thru our coach licensing have been women. 4) We’re putting on girls-only skills clinics and other opportunities. It’ll come as no surprise that group dynamics change when boys and girls are together when learning. Generally boys already have the advantage of more time riding and they want to show off, both of which can be very intimidating to the girls. Pros Chloe Woodruff, Krista Park and Pua Mata have all done girls-only events for the league, and we’ll continue to work with them (and others).

We’ll continue to do more as we learn and evolve; like I said, it’s a priority for us.

Congrats to the Arizona High School Cycling League for a successful first event – and good luck to the league and all its racers. Be sure to check out my race report on Yahoo! Voices. You can also view the race results on the league website.

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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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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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Arizona Mountain Biking Trails – Grading the Governments

Phoenix Mountains Preserve - Piestewa Entrance...
The city of Phoenix is pretty solid when it comes to maintaining its mountain biking trails. (Photo credit: Al_HikesAZ)

THIS POST IS BADLY OUTDATED. I WILL REFRESH IT AT SOME POINT IN THE FUTURE. PLEASE READ THIS ONLY AS A SNAPSHOT OF VALLEY MOUNTAIN BIKING IN 2013. THANKS!

Awhile back, I graded a bunch of my local Arizona mountain biking trails. Now I want to turn the focus to the local governments that plan, build and maintain trails in the metro Phoenix area. So I guess I’m not just grading cities – the Maricopa County government is also responsible for a good chunk of trail, along with the State Land Department.

Now that we’ve agreed to put semantics aside, let’s fill out the report cards.

Arizona (state government) – C
The State Land Department is responsible for a good hunk of singletrack in North Scottsdale. These mountain biking trails, known as the Pima & Dynamite trails, are the work of a few generations of off-road motorcyclists. Call that a blessing and a curse: The trails wouldn’t be there otherwise, but folks who are heavy on the throttle make a mess.

And the state doesn’t do much to help. State workers signed many of the routes, which is nice. But the trailhead box that says "Maps – Please Take One" is often empty. Many of the trails could use maintenance. Technically, you need a permit to use the trails -- and state officials make it hard as possible to get a permit. It’s 2013, yet you can’t get a permit online.

Arizona mountain biking - pima and dynamite
Notice the deep, sandy scree and the bike it caught? Bad trail building.

Estrella Mountain Regional Park – D
There are lots of mountain biking trails in this 19,000-acre park, both in the Competitive Loop area and the rest of the park. Call it just short of 50 miles total -- none of which mountain bikers love. It’s hard to believe the same designer responsible for the Comp Track at McDowell Mountain Regional Park is responsible for this sandy, flowless mess.

How dire is the situation? A bunch of rogues built Fantasy Island North Singletrack, their own bike trails southwest of the park. And did a far better job than their government-sanctioned brethren.

Goodyear – C
Goodyear has no mountain biking trails of its very own. Maricopa County manages the Estrella trails, and the Fantasy Island North Singletrack network is on private land, where volunteers plan, build, maintain and manage. If the Goodyear city government had a lick of sense, it would offer a fair market price for the FINS land: If it ever becomes more profitable for the developer to sell the land, it’s gone – guaranteed. Goodyear could be heroes for outdoor lovers of several stripes if it ponied up.

On the plus side, the West Valley Trail Alliance posted on its Facebook page that Goodyear has in its hands a proposal for a bike park; the plan includes dual slalom, skills and pump track areas along with a little something for the kiddies. Watch Goodyear take a giant leap forward in grade if it okays the project.

arizona mountain biking fantasy island north fins
The city of Goodyear didn’t build FINS – but they should tap the experts who did.

McDowell Mountain Regional Park – A
A pump track, a competitive track, singletrack trails for all skill levels – there’s not much missing from this gem of a county park. A few years ago, there were whispers about a flow trail. Nothing has come of it yet. But be patient. This is the park that gave Arizona its first pump track on public land and the first land manager-sanctioned night rides. The staff also adds new amenities often, from bathrooms to new trails.

The 15-mile Pemberton and the 9-mile Long Loop are the park’s biggest slabs of trail. But there are connectors galore, and ample opportunity for fun. And there’s no local mountain bike venue that hosts more race events. There’s a good reason for that. This is desert-flavored Arizona mountain biking in all its variety.

Phoenix – B
South Mountain Park and the Phoenix Mountain Preserve are both in city jurisdiction. That means Phoenix can claim the National Trail, Mormon Trail, Desert Classic Trail and Trail 100. Oh, and the center-of-the-city mountain bike oasis of Papago Park where so many local riders got their start. Not too shabby, Phoenix! The city has also added some new tails on the west side of South Mountain in recent years.

McDowell Mountain Arizona mountain biking
The newly rerouted bit of the Pemberton Trail has some nice new rock scenery.

But, it lags on some of the newer features more progressive organizations embrace. Like a pump track – ample room for one at Papago or South Mountain, but I guess there’s too little funds or initiative.

Scottsdale – D
This is a city that just doesn’t know how to build a mountain biking trail. Every trail it builds is fine for hiking. But its planners can’t seem to build a cool trail system that will make the city a destination for mountain bikers. Case in point? The new trails that snake away from the soon-to-be-opened Brown’s Ranch Trailhead. Too wide, too slick on the surface, no berms, terrible in the corners.

The slightly older trails in the McDowell Sonoran Preserve also thrill few mountain bikers. They’re OK just for being there. But riders from other parts of the Valley don’t make a point to visit.

Tempe – D
There are not many trails in Tempe’s jurisdiction, just the southern parts of Papago Park. It’s almost a good thing it doesn’t have more: Its idea of trail improvements include widening trails and lining them with rugby ball-sized rocks (which never stay put, by the way).

Tempe park crews also made a hash of putting in a pedestrian walkway, which screwed up the routing for the 12 Hours in the Papago race -- a very cool and unusual epic mountain bike race square in the middle of a major city. It could also find space for a pump track if it had the wherewithal. And only the outcry of local mountain bikers saved an ad hoc dirt jump area from getting flattened.

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Arizona Mountain Bike Trail Profile: FINS

FINS scenery, mountain bike trail
A look at the Fantasy Island North Singletrack terrain.

I hate comparing anything to Fight Club – especially a mountain bike trail. But I have no choice with the Fantasy Island North Singletrack, aka FINS, which is a great Arizona mountain bike trail.

I first wrote about FINS for Mountain Flyer magazine back in 2009. During my first ride there, I met a couple of other riders. Turns out, they were two of the two trail-building honchos responsible for the network. Read the story for the history – I’d rather focus on the here and now. I’ll just say our conversation spawned the story for Mountain Flyer. I’ve often wondered if they still would’ve agreed to the interview in retrospect: I’ve heard little from them since. So there’s not much talking about Fantasy Island North Singletrack outside the trail builders and local riders. Even the website for the group responsible is … um, a bit inscrutable.

This past weekend, I checked out what’s happened since my last visit when it totaled about 12 miles. The answer? Plenty! Here are my takeaways for anyone who wonders about an overlooked mountain bike trail.

FINS Trailhead, mountain bike trail
The FINS FINS Trailhead – be sure to drop some bucks into the kitty!

FINS is Built for Bikes

Horses aren’t allowed on Fantasy Island North Singletrack. Hikers? Yes, but there are certain trails the builders request that hikers avoid. What we have here are twisty, turny, windy trails. Don’t shut your brain off. Brake before the turns, check yo’self and all that – the next corner or dip is never far away.

All this adds up to a mountain bike trail that’s made for mountain biking. There’s always something happening, and never a dull stretch of trail.

Something for Every Skill Level

Let’s say you’re not a mountain biker yet. But you plan to buy a mountain bike after work and hit the trail tomorrow. If you live near Fantasy Island North Singletrack, you can go from “barely able to stay upright” to “total badass.” There are smooth, groomed places to get your flow on without taxing your skills or legs. And then there are steep, nasty climbs. Bermed corners. Jumps. Steep descents with tight switchbacks. Even a freakin’ mountain bike teeter-totter! And when you can clean the entire mountain bike trail, get a singlespeed and repeat.

FINS Boneyard, mountain bike trail
“I’ve got a bone to pick with you!”

One Feature Needed

I spent a few hours trying to ride as many Fantasy Island North Singletrack trails as possible, with few repeats. I was able to put in about 17 miles, though I probably could’ve gotten another four miles.

I did more backtracking than I’d prefer. If it’s even remotely possible, I’d love to see an outside loop running 12-15 miles added to the mountain bike trail network. Not easy, I know. But worth considering.

More From These Geniuses

This is a quality mountain bike trail network, not only in fun factor – they appear to be sustainable, too. I admit that some of the steep, switchbacked sections will probably need careful maintenance.

But the rest? So well done. I saw little in the way of erosion. If I were a public land manager interested in improving the trails I manage, I would contact the Fantasy Island North Singletrack crew and hook them up with a paid gig.

FINS from North Star, mountain bike trail
North Star is the high point of FINS.

There is serious knowledge in these trails – just witness the awesomeness of Kimurel’s Hurl, two-tenths of a mile of mountain bike bobsledding! (Check the video and watch for Suicide Squirrel.) McDowell Mountain Regional Park officials have publicly mentioned a flow trail – well, I’d say the FINS team could nail it On.The.Head. Sign ’em up! And if I managed Estrella Mountain Regional Park, I’d pay them good money to work some magic on the currently tragic, sand-choked, no-flow-havin’ mess called the Competitive Track.

An elevation profile and my GPS tracks, mountain bike trail
An elevation profile and my GPS tracks.

Pitch in

Some people who care have swung their shovels and other implements to make this mountain bike trail what it is. They even provide printed maps, as if the permanent maps posted throughout the trail network aren’t enough. Don’t live in the neighborhood? Too strapped for time? Pitch a few bucks into the handy cash receptacle at the trailhead. They deserve it.

The Maricopa County Parks system charges $6 per carload to enter and use the trails. Make of that what you will.

How to Get to Fantasy Island North Singletrack: Go south on Estrella Mountain Parkway from Interstate 10. Continue until you enter the Estrella Mountain Ranch community, and watch for Westar Drive. Head west, and park at either Westar Elementary School (NOT during school hours) or at the trailhead less than a mile up the road.

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First Ride on “New” Mountain Bike Trail – with video

McDowell mountain bike
The newly rerouted bit of the Pemberton Trail has some nice new rock scenery.

Nothing gets me as excited quite like a new mountain bike trail. Or even a re-routing of an old favorite trail.

Ever since McDowell Mountain Regional Park announced that crews had re-routed a bit of its 15+-mile Pemberton (aka Trail B) loop, I’ve been eager to see what it’s all about. I purposely avoided reading up on exactly what would change – I also love surprises.

Here’s what you need to know:

    • The McDowell Mountain Regional Park managers made the best change possible: They took the trail away from a sandy service road on the north side of the park and cut some new doubletrack (it ain’t singletrack, but it’s no Jeep road, either) See the end of the post for video.
    • Racers who will participate in the Fat Tire 40 should be stoked. This makes the worst portion of the course quite a bit more fun. I expect racers will be a touch faster without the sandy slog.
    • The new bit of trail is about 15 minutes long at my leisurely but experienced speed. At some point, it reconnects to the original trail. I’m not sure where because it was a sneaky transition.
    • The extra twists and turns should add a bit to the trail’s original mileage.
wandering justin mtb
Hey, it’s me!

The new bit of trail is not some sort of mind-blowing singletrack experience that will inspire epic heavy metal songs. So why am I excited? Because it makes a favorite local trail about 20 percent better. And that’s nothing any rider should take for granted.

It’s also a nice signal of intent from the McDowell Mountain Regional Park staff. They continue to seek ways to make the park’s experience even better for mountain bikers. Consider some other first for the park: the first competitive race loops, the first official night rides and the first pump track on Arizona government lands. In the future, I suspect you’ll see a flow trail open.

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Cool Content – Top Finds from Other Blogs

English: oaken beer barrel in brewery Hanssen
Make a great beer awesome by aging it in an oak barrel. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Should you drink your own pee? Well, not recreationally. In a survival situation. That’s main point of the lead story in today’s Cool Content Crypt.

This comes from the blog of survival wiz Cody Lundin, whose topic cuts right through the stream of other recent blog posts to earn a spot here. Cody, a fellow Arizona dude, differs from celebrity survivalist Bear Grylls – now that guy is ready to swill his urine if the beverage cart on a 60-minute flight rolls a bit late. Found out what Cody has to say. And be ready should you run dry of water on your next adventure. Or even if you think "it’s sterile and I like the taste" justifies anything.

Next up, DailyWritingTips.com offers some thoughts on the Most Overused Words of 2012. Lots of links there for those who want further reading. I like writer Mark Nichol’s disdain for the phrase "man cave." While I love the male-centric second-hand store on Cave Creek Road in Phoenix that bears the same name, I stopped thinking that having women around was bad when I was about 12 years old.

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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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Heavy Metal Hammerfest: Thoughts from a Spectator

In cyclocross, the bike sometimes gets a lift on your back. (Photo by Brandee Lepak)

I just went to my first cyclocross race. And after seeing it in-person, I have to agree with Dr. John’s assessment: “Words hardly do it justice.”

The race I saw was the first in the Heavy Metal Hammerfest series in Arizona … so maybe I should say “words hardly do it Justice for All”. It was the first chilly night in the Phoenix area, perhaps brought on by the sport’s roots in European winter cycling (I told organizer Brandee Lepak that she should try tricking the weather gods by holding the event in late September so we get some relief from the heat). Aside from that, here are some thoughts about the first-ever Heavy Metal Hammerfest race and cyclocross in general:

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British Airways Adds Extra Flight to Phoenix Sky Harbor

Sky Harbor needs more than a daily flight from London to make Arizona a major air travel player.

British Airways will increase the number of flights from Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport to London Heathrow Airport from six a week to daily.

Phoenix city officials are aflutter about the extra flight, which starts Dec. 5.

“Intercontinental flights are huge contributors to the success of our Phoenix airport system, our city’s economy and our region’s overall economic future,” says Mayor Greg Stanton in a press release. The same release claims that British Airways flights to Phoenix Sky Harbor put $100 million into the local economy.

Even if we take that figure at face value (and I’m skeptical), let’s curb our enthusiasm: The mayor’s overstatement of economic impact belies typical Phoenix thinking – measuring success against its own past rather than against cities of similar size.

If I were the mayor, this would be my quote.

“This is a minuscule step in the right direction. The Valley of the Sun is far too populous an area to be served by only one airline that connects us to but one intercontinental destination. It’s an embarrassment that residents need to stop in other cities to reach international centers for business and leisure travel. Phoenix Sky Harbor must connect to the world – for commerce and for tourism – if we are to grow beyond being the nation’s largest small town.”

The press release includes a quote from David Cavazos, city manager: “My goal is to continue to gain additional international routes, while ensuring that this British Airways flight remains successful.”

I hope that’s in his annual review with measurable expectations of success. In my time here, Phoenix Sky Harbor has done a pitiful job of being “international” in anything more than name (remember the Lufthansa service to Frankfurt? R.I.P.). Of course, Cavazos says “international,” which could mean more routes in North and Central America. Big deal.

This extra British Airways flight is nice. But those charged with pursuing new routes and airlines should be cautious about patting themselves on the back before Phoenix Sky Harbor connects non-stop – at a minimum! – to Asia, Oceania and continental Europe.

Rogue Columnist, German Tourists, Direct Flights and Jan’s Junket

More intercontinental flights to Phoenix Sky Harbor would be nice, but they're not the only way Germans come to Arizona. (Darren Koch via Wikimedia Commons)

Rogue Columnist, one of my favorite bloggers, has a post about Arizona Governor Jan Brewer’s junket to Germany. Local media have only been able to get a partial list of the manifest for Jan’s Germany Junketsm, and she has not disclosed a budget for the two-week trip.

As usual, Jon Talton (the Rogue’s real name) accurately skewers the silliness and waste. But he misses his mark on the impact of German tourists on Arizona:

"As for tourism — forget it. Germans who want American sun go to Miami. Unless the state could lure or underwrite direct flights to Germany and France, it will never be a big player in this field."

I pointed out to him, as a first-generation German-American, that German loves Arizona. They love Old West kitsch, Cruise America camper vans, the Grand Canyon.

Jon concedes that Germans do love the Old West, but stays put on his assumptions that no direct flights from Germany equals little tourism.

Not so.

Germans don’t travel like Americans. They don’t don’t come only to visit Arizona. Lufthansa had a daily flight here at one point – but a single daily flight means you only have one departure and arrival time, versus multiple departures and arrivals at other intercontinental hubs like Los Angeles or New York. And Germans want to see a big slice of the country using their much heftier slice of vacation time. So why take a direct flight into an overgrown regional airport like Phoenix Sky Harbor when they could hit an intercontinental hub city and then drive into Arizona?

And German tourists love driving. If you see a Cruise America camper, I’d bet there’s a 1 in 5 chance there’s a German at the wheel.

The direct flights just don’t matter as much as Jon thinks. Germans come to Arizona. They spend money. They enjoy themselves. The direct flights are a separate issue – I think they’d benefit Arizona travelers more than visitors from Germany.

Night Mountain Biking – McDowell Mountain Regional Park

Darkness settles on the land …

Mountain biking in the moonlight is back: McDowell Mountain Regional Park once again has its night mountain bike rides going for the summer. The May 25 ride was the second of the season, and the first of the year for me. As always, it was a treat to be out there at this excellent park with other mountain bikers after sunset.

I had a few things occur to me as I rode. I pass these along as some food for thought. Make of them what you will.

1. I saw plenty of riders with their lights fired up even before the sun dropped below the horizon. Don’t do that – save your batteries for when you need them.

2. My budget light system is adequate for night mountain biking. But I basked in the glow of people laying out 1,500 lumens. I stayed behind slower riders a few times just to light-swipe them.

3. Speaking of that budget system – two of my three batteries conked out prematurely. Fortunately, I got an early start and finished before the last light flamed out. I considered tagging along with other mountain bikers in case I lost it.

Getting some lean into a corner.

4. You’ll run into all sorts of cool people at the trail. And I don’t mean me! I bumped into Bill from Adventure Bicycle Company, the very same awesome shop where I once sold bikes and spun wrenches. He solved my lighting woes with a shiny new NiteRider system.

5. I didn’t spot many creatures -- just a few bunnies and mice. No tarantulas this time! At McDowell Mountain Regional Park, you can sometimes even spot desert tortoises or snakes. Fun!

6. There was a stiff wind coming out of the west, which made for a slow slog on the climbs On the back side, though, a body my size is like having a sail!

7. The mountain biking community has one awesome advocate in Rand Hubbell, the supervisor of McDowell Mountain Regional Park. Mountain bikers talked him into being the first government park to offer an organized night ride – and he’s never looked back. He always looks for new features to add, and he drops good words for mountain bikers to other government officials so they’ll recognize s for the awesome economic boon that we are.

Saguaros in the sunset.

8. The Pemberton Trail at McDowell Mountain Regional Park is perfect for night mountain biking – rippin’ fast fun, not too technical, a good length for some exercise. Mountain bikers of any caliber will have fun … especially at night.

9. A big thank-you to Fountain Hills Bikes for the brats and hot dogs.

10. I don’t know who was responsible for the huge TV screen that played Adam Sandler’s Oscar-winner "The Waterboy," but thanks! That added some post-ride fun.

11. I lost one of my new gloves. But sometimes, you have to look on the bright side … it gave me a chance to tweet this funny:

Justin Schmid ‏@wandering_j

@MCParks That ride was a Thriller, and I got Bad about keeping track of the gloves and Beat It before I knew what happened.