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Long before the "Valley of the Sun" started competing as one of the fastest-growing cities in the West, it's natural beauty - and maybe a few cowboys - was all that inhabited this youthful metropolis.

If you're thinking of heading West, including to Bank One Ballpark, bring your walking shoes to blaze the city's great parkland trails.

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The beauty of Phoenix is that - unbeknownst to many visitors - there is more to this Central Arizona city than a plethora of health spas, golf courses and other getaway treatments to sooth the body and soul. What those small visitors to the Valley of the Sun witnessed so many years ago, still exists: its abundance and wealth of diversified parkland.

When it comes to experiencing the true outdoors of this Sunbelt mecca, your parkland options are literally endless. And bear in mind we're just talking within the city limits themselves. Venture out into the city's suburbs, east and west, north and south, and more tranquility awaits. But the 'burbs will have to await another column.

We're in the city, believe it or not, and at South Mountain Park - just a hop, skip and a jump south of bustling Sky Harbor International Airport - drive to the 2,200-foot summit and bask in the views of the valley floor. Better yet: do so on horseback, through well-carved summit trails that offer an assortment of high-desert plantlife along your journey. Fall and spring have South Mountain Park written with your name all over it because it's during these seasons when the plants come alive.

Factoid: South Mountain Park is the largest municipal park in the U.S. (Yep, the biggest). Another factoid: The park's trails, while exciting and scenic, aren't a picnic. Some are rather brutal to be quite frank, so plan your journey accordingly so we don't read about you as part of a made-for-TV Hardy Boys reincarnation. This is the desert after all and shade is not defined in the desert dictionary. Wander yes, but with plenty of H20, sturdy shoes, sunblock and a hat, my friends.

Yet if you really want to test your endurance however - and be rewarded with even more exquisite views - then day two in Phoenix, head to popular Camelback Mountain. The emphasis here is not just endurance, but popular.

Camelback Mountain is Phoenix's version of the hottest club in town on a Saturday night. Translation: It's often packed to the brim, but especially so on weekends. You could very well invest your morning just looking for parking on mid-to-late Saturday and Sunday mornings if you fail to plan accordingly. Unless driving in circles of frustration is your idea of a good time, may I suggest an alternative.

To make the challenging (but worthwhile) three-mile or so hike up Camelback, opt for a weekday morning or a weekend in the late afternoon when all the cool Phoenicians have hit the pavement back to their desert pads to shower up and prep for the evening's festivities.

Now that endurance thing.

Camelback is not for the faint of heart and if you have a bad knee, ankle, arm, temper or are afraid of heights - you see where this is going - this simply isn't your game. But if you're capable of the physical challenge, you'll enjoy the abundance of flowers as you journey upward. Along the route, the plants springing into action - in addition to encouragement from fellow brave souls coming down - will take your mind off just how much further you have yet to go.

Once you've reached the top, you'll be rewarded with panoramic views east, west, north, south - plus cool breezes (if there are any).

Several other parks in the Phoenix area also offer breathtaking scenery, serenity and varying levels of exercise all-in-one, including:

- Squaw Peak - Located northwest of downtown, it offers a variety of walking options, from one-hour to much longer treks. Also quite popular with the locals, try to avoid weekend mornings if you'd like to have the place somewhat to yourself. There's plenty of available parking here however, unlike Camelback.

- Papago Park - With its mysterious meteor-like rock formations, Papago Park is another favorite with the locals. There's really only one place to go however - up - so the same advice applies here as at Camelback. One difference: you can experience these magical formations without working up a hideous sweat. They can be easily seen from the Phoenix Zoo parking lot along Galvin Parkway.

- Dreamy Draw Recreation Area - One of the more developed of the city's park, it actually offers a paved footpath where joggers and even rollerbladers can strut their stuff. Usually not too crowded, either.

- Lookout Mountain - A hidden gem, Lookout Mountain is not as advertised as Camelback, Squaw Peak or Papago, but it's just as lovely. Offering scenic views of the downtown skyline better than the other parks, opt for an early morning strut. You'll probably be one of the few - if any - within what seems like an earshot of civilization, yet you'll still be in the city. Don't imagine: enjoy.

For information on Phoenix's municipal parks, visit:

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Jun 22 2002, 03:30:41
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