Be my guest on Phoenix hiking tours

by Laurel Darren, Wild Bunch Desert Guides • October 24, 2023

I could have done the same thing many visitors choose to do when they come to my backyard in Arizona’s Valley of the Sun for a trip into the Sonoran Desert.

I could have saved a few bucks and simply consulted a map before hopping on my mountain bike for a solo adventure in Colorado during my annual summer vacation to the peaceful mountain paradise of Lake City.

Instead, I followed the many signs that led me to Irwin Guides – the extremely popular and amazing guiding outfit based in Crested Butte – and the experience changed my life for the better.

A pamphlet from Irwin Guides.

A mountain bike tour pamphlet from Irwin Guides. 

Phoenix hiking tours: The guest in me
Maybe because I was very transparent -- and let the person I spoke to on the phone know that I own a Phoenix adventures tours company myself – but I was treated like a queen for the day.

Although I am sure Irwin Guides tends to all of their clients like royalty – same as my Wild Bunch Desert Guides – I like to tell myself they booked me with their finest guide to make sure I was shown an excellent time.

Either that or I won the lottery because I certainly had their number one mountain bike guide.

Reed Betz is a pro’s pro who's been with the company since day one and does all of their mountain bike training all over the world.

So, I was honored to be in the company of greatness and enjoy an epically amazing ride.
Irwin’s business model is the same as my Phoenix hiking tours & Phoenix mountain bike tours – except on a much, much larger scale now.

I was heartened to notice they go the extra mile to take care of their guests and deliver the same private, boutique experience as my mom-and-pop specialty shop.

Irwin Guides started out super small like the Wild Bunch – but they have grown into a multi-million-dollar international business.

In addition to the mountain bike ride I enjoyed in middle September – as one of my last blast activities to say farewell to another summer vacation in Colorado – Irwin Guides does super high-end adventures all over the planet.

They are the company you call now to helicopter you and a guide into a remote snowpacked mountain for some backcountry skiing or another activity WAY above my paygrade (ha).

So, I am hardly comparing my little business to their luxury boutique experience – instead, I am looking up to them and saying to myself, “Oh God! Someday!”

But it was gratifying to see that the Wild Bunch shares nearly all of the same qualities, values and standard operating procedures as the top adventure operator in the world.
For instance, same as I have done a hundred times before in my usual roles as an owner and guide, I consulted with Reed the day prior to our adventure about the ride’s details.

As I was driving to Crested Butte the morning of the ride, though, I spent a lot of time putting myself into “client mode” -- so Reed could just do his job and I could simply enjoy the experience instead of being a trained critic.

But during the adventure, I have to admit – I honestly felt like I was staring at a male version of myself as a guide. Reed is a fun, free-wheeling spirit like myself -- and the way we do things was both spookily similar and incredibly comforting.

The only real difference is Irwin allows you to bring your own bike -- or you have to rent a bike in Crested Butte -- where the Wild Bunch has a fleet of bikes for use.

This contrast, I suspect, is because more visitors to Colorado bring their bike than do so in Arizona.

Reed Betz of Irwin Guides checks for maintenance issues on the bike of Wild Bunch Desert Guides owner Laurel Darren before their mountain bike adventure together in mid-September.

Reed Betz of Irwin Guides checks for maintenance issues on the bike of Wild Bunch Desert Guides owner Laurel Darren before their mountain bike adventure together in mid-September.

This also explains why – upon arriving at their headquarters – they took my bike to put it on a stand for a closer examination, so Reed could make sure there was nothing going on that could cause a mechanical issue on the trail.

That first-class service was very impressive – and it allowed Reed to do the same things Wild Bunch does in talking through any possible issues prior to the adventure – whether it is Phoenix hiking tours or Phoenix mountain bike tours.
The next step was dropping off my vehicle at the end of the trail before we took his company vehicle to the start – and then away we went on an amazing ride with too many breathtaking views to count.

However, the most incredible detail about the ride was getting to watch Reed work – and finding out he has educated himself on weather patterns, which is a pretty cool tool to have in your back pocket to navigate a place where the conditions can change quickly.

There was a 70-percent chance of rain forecasted for the day – and there was a shower during our ride – but we remained dry because Reed was able to read the clouds and figure out the best places for us to ride and avoid the precipitation.

I remember being at the highest point of our ride and him saying, “Those two clouds are going to come together and it's going to create moisture.”

Amazed, I said to him: “Holy cow! Are you a meteorologist?”

A little while later, after riding away from that area and descending down about 1,000 feet, we stopped because there were some Aspens that were starting to turn colors. We also looked back to where we were and saw the rain coming down.

Unlike a TV weatherman, Reed’s prediction was spot on.

Now I have to figure out how to do that myself because that was some witchcraft sorcerer shit right there.

Reed Betz of Irwin Guides considers the cloud formations to correctly predict the weather patterns during a mountain bike ride with Wild Bunch owner Laurel Darren.

Reed Betz of Irwin Guides considers the cloud formations to correctly predict the weather patterns during a mountain bike ride with Wild Bunch owner Laurel Darren.?

But then Reed was incredibly impressive anyway – a rad person with a skill set to match as a mountain biker. Simply an excellent guide.
We ended up doing Doctor Park Trail, which is rated as an Intermediate/Advanced challenge in Gunnison County. 

We had more descent than climb -- which is also a killer quality in a guide when you can make a route work for you with less climbing and more descents. That's some sorcerer shit, too.

Even though I have done the Leadville 100 and many other challenging rides, I am hardly ashamed to admit there were some sections where I had to get off and walk my bike because I am not as confident in my skill set on technical terrain.

Understanding this, Reed also was fantastic in coaching me through the hardest parts.

For example, his best suggestion was I needed to use my drop more on my seat post -- and I know am terrible at doing that. I feel like there's too much thinking going on. You have to push the button, get it down, pop it back up – and I'm just not good at multitasking.

I come from a road riding background where you don’t have to do that – so it’s something I don’t normally think about.

Reed was able to see that right away and kept gently reminding me to put my seat post down -- because when you do that, and you go over technical terrain, your body naturally stays back -- versus the tendency to move forward, which can turn into an over-the-bar situation, and nobody wants that.

So, I was like, “Oh my God, thank you so much for helping me!”

But then it was such an epic experience because Reed was one of the best guides I have ever had the honor of meeting -- and I see a lot in him of how I am when I am out in the field as a Phoenix adventures tour guide.

Reed Betz from Irwin Guides convenes with nature during a mountain bike ride with Wild Bunch owner Laurel Darren. 

Reed Betz from Irwin Guides convenes with nature during a mountain bike ride with Wild Bunch owner Laurel Darren.?

Phoenix hiking tours: The guide in me
I have to admit -- it was fun to be treated like a queen after being on the other side of the equation as a guide and business owner.

It reminded me again how important our guests are to us – and how crucial our guides are to the success of an adventure.

It took picking up the phone and booking something like my ride with Reed to put myself back in the client’s shoes and truly appreciate again how much of an impact a guide can have on a guest.

There's a lot more to guiding than just, “I'm following you on the bike.”

It's the way that guide makes you feel before, during and after walking away from what you have done on Phoenix hiking tours & Phoenix mountain bike tours.

The best guides make you want to tell everyone how awesome of an experience you have had – like this Blog -- so, it's so important that you are always on your A game when you show up.

You never know what you're doing for somebody -- or what heartstring you're hitting -- or the joy you're bringing.

You never know if the guest you are working with is in the middle of a divorce or at a career crossroads or dealing with a death in their family.

You might just make somebody’s whole day on that guided Phoenix adventure tour.
I personally needed that reminder because over the last three years, my time guiding in the field has been lessened because I own the Wild Bunch Desert Guides – and so I have more behind-the-scenes work to do than anything.
I have to take care of ALL of our guests – not just one guided hike in Phoenix or a guided mountain bike ride in Scottsdale. I have set the table for ALL of our guides to have success.

But the experience with Reed lit the fire under my ass and inspired me to get back to my first love of guiding.

Watching Reed work with me as a client rekindled my love of guiding and I have already scheduled myself multiple times already this new season to go out in the field.
As a business owner, it's super important for me to still go out and do tours because it keeps me on the front lines -- and it keeps me constantly reminded of what my guides are dealing with every day. It keeps me in contact with the guest experience.

You are able to be in both of their shoes and see how each is responding to what you are selling. And that is huge because what happens with a lot of successful chains is they lose what made them special to begin with.

Once you move beyond one location, the person that made the business cook is now splitting time between buildings or not even present at any site. When you expand, it comes down to training to ensure quality, consistency and infusing the same passion.

And that is why you see a lot of lot of chain restaurants fall short of what they originally started as because it is hard to get other people to buy in and create that magic.

Irwin Guides has clearly done that – and they inspire the rest of us small operators to dream about having similar success someday.
Reed also could not have known he was doing it, but he rejuvenated my passion for guiding by reminding me with his passion and skills of how awesome this job can be.

I got to see from this amazing guide and incredible company that my Wild Bunch is on the right track and doing things correctly.

Last year was a hard, truly stressful season – but my experience with Irwin definitely jump started me for the new season that started Oct. 1 by filling my heart with joy and refueling my passion.

So, when guests call this season, don’t be too surprised if you happen to get the owner of the company to guide you on Phoenix hiking tours or Phoenix mountain bike tours.

My spark has been reignited, and I am forever grateful. 

About the Author

Laurel Darren is the founding owner of the Wild Bunch Desert Guides, a 5-star rated adventure tour company that offers guided hiking tours and guided mountain biking tours in Arizona’s picturesque Sonoran Desert in the Phoenix/Scottsdale area. Arriving in the legendary “Valley of the Sun” in 2012 -- from the home of John Deere in the Quad Cities of Eastern Iowa/Western Illinois -- this corn-fed Midwest girl brought 30 years of athletic chops under her chaps. A 3-sport high school standout and former college softball player – who won her conference’s Athlete of the Year award as a prep senior – Darren has graduated to competing in many races as an adult, from road running and cycling, to cyclo-cross and Mountain Bikes, and even Duathlon and Triathlon “Ironman” competitions. Darren was a popular, top-rated senior mountain bike guide at Arizona’s Outback Adventures before branching out to start her own small adventure business in 2016. To book a guided mountain bike tour or guided hiking trip – or a combination of the two adventures – please visit the home page or call 602-663-0842.


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