‘Family’ makes Phoenix hiking tours great

by Laurel Darren, Wild Bunch Desert Guides • November 06, 2023
Matt Kalina poses with a pair of guests while guiding a Phoenix hiking tour for the Wild Bunch Desert Guides.(TOP) Matt Kalina poses with a pair of guests while guiding one of the Phoenix hiking tours for the Wild Bunch Desert Guides. (COVER) Laurel Darren, owner of the Wild Bunch, enjoys a laugh with Matt out on the trails.

In one of the first Blogs ever written for my new website back in 2021, I addressed my ambivalent relationship with Camelback Mountain hiking tours.

That essay remains among my most popular to date – and helps explain why my guided Phoenix hiking tours company now avoids the iconic local landmark and tourist trap.

But while my Wild Bunch Desert Guides staff still refuses to take guests up the mountain, I admit to the allure of the rocky challenge – especially upon flying into Sky Harbor Airport and seeing “The Camel” from the air.

Thankfully, one of my former guides, Matt Kalina, started his own business not long after our ban.

So, Wild Bunch has a trusted counterpart, Mad Desert Trekking, to refer any and all guests insisting on climbing Camelback.

The close relationship between our companies includes Matt sending Phoenix mountain bike tours our way – and elicits a wonderful, harmonious vibe from guests impressed that “rival competitors” work so closely together for the good of the visitors to the Valley of the Sun.

During a rush of guests late last spring, the friendship between Matt and I also allowed me to get back on “The Camel” for the first time in a long while.

Helping out Matt in a pinch reminded me what’s great about our friendship – as well as brought back good memories (and conflicting feelings) for Camelback Mountain hikes.
Matt Kalina points out some landmarks while guiding one of the Phoenix hiking tours for the Wild Bunch.
Matt Kalina points out some landmarks while guiding one of the Phoenix hiking tours for the Wild Bunch.

Kinship on Phoenix hiking tours
Matt came to Wild Bunch Desert Guides in the early days when I was just getting my small mom-and-pop specialty shop going.

After I landed the first of my big guided Phoenix hiking tours, I reached out to my inspiration, 360 Adventures owner and founder Bruce Leadbetter, to see if he had any guides I could contact to work the event.

As one of the top 5 Phoenix adventures tour guides, Matt was at the very top of the list – and he became somebody I could count on from that day forward despite being in high demand because of his incredible skills, awesome personality and versatility to deliver so many different adventures.

“That is so nice of Laurel to say,” Matt told my website editor. “Guiding is such a fun job. You get to meet so many cool people and do so many cool things.

“It can be a challenging business because you're working weekends and it is seasonal, but you can also use that to your advantage, taking time off during the off season, which tends to be June through early or late September.”

Few guests probably realize unless you happen to draw the company owner, most guides are independent contractors who can work for multiple companies.

And I certainly support that freedom – because the gig is often a second form of income, guides should be allowed to work as much as they can. I know I don’t want to hold back anybody on my staff for selfish reasons.

Working for multiple companies I think makes them a better guide, too – they’re exposed to different situations and bring back different ideas and skills – and that also keeps things fresh for everybody.

I know I always was honored when Matt could work for the Wild Bunch – and I still am -- because he always is willing to jump in and take a Phoenix adventures tour for us when he’s able.

In turn, I also love when we can return the favor and help out Matt – and either side of that equation happens more times than most people might think.

That is why I have always believed that you should be friends with your counterparts in this industry.

You never know when your paths will cross out there on those trails.

You never know when somebody might need help with a medical issue or another problem.

You never truly know when you're going to need someone out in the field.
Matt Kalina laughs while displaying
Matt Kalina laughs while displaying "crossbones" sans the skull during a Wild Bunch hiking tour in Phoenix.

Phoenix hiking tours: A team of rivals
Matt and I have a special bond as transplanted Midwesterners. He’s from Wisconsin and I grew up not far away on the Iowa/Illinois border on the Mississippi Riverfront.

He arrived in the Sonoran Desert more than a decade before I did – and has so much wealth of knowledge in this business – Matt has always been someone I can turn to for advice or simply to talk shop and vent. We are always bouncing ideas off each other.

So, when Matt started Mad Desert Trekking, I have to admit it was a hard pill to swallow.

My initial worry was I had lost a friend and gained a competitor.

“Oh my God,” I fretted. “He has so many of my client’s names and numbers from years of reaching out to guests.”

But the spiritual part of me reasoned, “But, Laurel, when you left Arizona Outback Adventures to open your own company, you also had access to tons of names and numbers and what did you do?”

And the answer was I did not reach out to those people because I was professional. Instead, I let past guests find me if they wanted.

So, in my heart while it initially hurt to lose Matt as part of my staff, the good angel on my shoulder was reminding me, “He's still a dear friend and he’ll do the right thing.”

And he has done that from the start.

One thing I really adore about Matt was he called me directly and was honest from the start.

“I'm going to open up my own company and here's what I'm going to do,” he told me.

And the more I thought about that conversation, the more traits I realized we share.

He had always wanted to branch out on his own like me -- and I am really proud of him for remaining a great guy while doing that.

Plus, Matt offers Camelback and Piestewa Peak – two hikes not on the menu at my Wild Bunch Desert Guides – as well as some other Phoenix adventures tours few others are qualified to offer.

“I had a lot of time during the (COVID) pandemic to think about the best way to go out on my own,” Matt told my website editor. “Laurel’s a longtime good friend – and I really appreciate her support. I know she's always talking me up – so I try and help Laurel as much as I can, too.

“The Phoenix guiding community is really tight knit. It's very common to run across and help others as we are doing tours. But Laurel and I have been helping each other out as far as guide availability since I started – and the ethic we're looking at is trying to help each other operate and make each of our businesses better.

“The bottom line is we don't want to have to cancel any availability. And we've been able to do that and sometimes it's pretty tough when there's so many tours running the same day -- but we can help each other.”

So, that is how I lost a great guide but gained a fantastic business ally.

If he needs a guide for Phoenix hiking tours, Matt is thoroughly professional and always calls me first instead of reaching out himself.

“Hey, Laurel, can we borrow Henry today?” he might ask. “I have the perfect hiking tour for him.”
Matt Kalina shares his Sonoran Desert knowledge while guiding a Wild Bunch hiking tour in Phoenix.
Matt Kalina shares his Sonoran Desert knowledge while guiding a Wild Bunch hiking tour in Phoenix.

Phoenix hike I normally avoid
One day on the phone during one of those guide exchanges, I said to Matt, “Hey, listen, if you ever need someone to do Camelback in a pinch, call me and I’ll take it.”

He responded with a tepid, “OK,” which actually sounded more like a question, with Matt knowing my reluctance for Camelback Mountain hiking tours.

“I mean it,” I added. “Seriously.”

A good amount of time passed after I made the offer – and I did some work on other Phoenix hiking tours for him -- but then one day, Matt called needing a guide for “The Camel” and I cringed a bit.

“I told you only in a pinch!” I said in a half-joking, half-anxious tone.

He explained it was a solo female guest for an 11 a.m. start -- and reported she was really excited – knowing full well I am a sucker for girl power.

The guest was unable to change the time of the adventure, but Matt had a huge group going out at the same time that day, and even borrowed some of my Wild Bunch Desert Guides to help him with that group tour.

So, I took the job – but it also took me some time to work up the necessary excitement.

The parking sucks. The mountain is overcrowded. The challenge is extremely hard and certainly not for everybody.

I actually thought about it for a couple of days and wondered, “What did I do?”

But as Matt and I agree, “It is hard not do for visitors,” he told my website editor. “Many people feel compelled to do it, and I totally understand, because I was in the same boat when I first got here.

“It's an iconic landmark and the highest peak in Phoenix. So those two things really combine to drive the demand and interest in summiting the peak. But until you get your hands on those rocks, most people fail to realize it’s one of the most difficult hikes because it is so technical in nature. That’s why you see so many helicopter rescues among all the rescues there.”

But I called Matt when I was driving to the Camelback Mountain hike that day.

I was listening to Pat Benatar and all the songs that get me fired up when I need to feel invincible.

I said, “I just want you to know I’ve got on my Wonder Woman tights and Spiderman sunglasses, and this is going to be fun.”

When I met the guest, she actually recognized me from my usually colorful get up. She was on the phone with Matt and was like, “I totally see her.”

From that moment, we had an absolute blast together.

Sure, the parking still sucked – but I remembered instead how much fun riding “The Camel” can be.

We started on Echo Canyon, which is the more difficult side of the mountain, with Matt and the guest allowing me to pick the side I wanted to do.

The guest was super awesome – a young lady doctor who explained how much this vacation meant to her and how epic it was to be hiking Camelback.

She was so cool to get to know.

On the way to the top, I said to her, “Hey, since we both got an uber here, and don’t have cars to return to in the other parking lot, do you just want to do an up and over and go down Cholla Trail?”

At the top, she looked down the other side of the mountain and said, “Oh yeah! We got this!”
Matt Kalina poses with a guest on the summit of Camelback Mountain, which offers breathtaking panoramic views of the Phoenix area.
Matt Kalina poses with a Wild Bunch Desert Guides guest after together reaching the summit of Camelback Mountain, which offers breathtaking panoramic views of the Phoenix area.

Phoenix hiking tours: Lessons learned
So, while I was getting killer photos for Matt and the guest during the adventure, I started thinking to myself, “This isn't that bad.”

Camelback Mountain hiking tours are far from my favorite. But I have to admit, we had a great time that day.

So, I sincerely love that Matt asked me to do that.

It’s truly an honor to have another company’s owner trust you enough to go out and perform for their business because they know your heart and intention is exactly the same as theirs. 

I also have to admit it was so great not to be “The Boss.”

My joy level was so high because I was so stoked just to be guiding – much less on Camelback Mountain again. 

The only responsibilities I had was to the guest – and to Matt to get a killer review for Mad Desert Trekking if she so chose.

I only had to wow the shit out of her.

There were no phone calls to answer or permits or insurance or accounting or logistics problems to worry about.

Instead of dealing with the dozens of details that distract me daily, I was getting paid to do something I love doing.

Whenever I take a tour for Matt, I never say anything about my background or my Wild Bunch Desert Guides. Because of the potential for a conflict of interest, I feel it is not appropriate for me as a guide working for another entity to bring up my own business.

However, Matt has typically already told the people that I own another Phoenix adventures tour company – and we do the same when he is working as a guide for us.

I know that because his guests bring it up – and are not only impressed by having another Phoenix hiking tours owner guiding them, but they also express how cool it is to see another business head helping out a counterpart.

And I wholeheartedly agree with them and speak at length how lucky I am to have such an awesome friend.
-- Camelback is f’ing hard 
-- Wild Bunch no longer riding ‘The Camel’ 
-- Camelback Christmas gift for a guest & guide 

-- Matt Kalina guides ‘Super Bowl kids’ with Super message 
-- Matt Kalina among the ‘Superheroes of the Sonoran’ 


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 www.wildbunchdesertguides.com or call 602-663-0842.


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