‘Groupies’ limited on Phoenix hiking tours

by Laurel Darren, Wild Bunch Desert Guides • August 08, 2022
“Our geographically-distributed company meets in a unique location each year. This time, we wanted to experience the Sonoran Desert. On the recommendation of our resort concierge, we booked a trip with Laurel and the Wild Bunch Desert Guides. What a great pick! From our initial contact months before the trip, Laurel was very responsive, a pleasure to work with, and it was clear she was passionate about providing a memorable experience. Laurel picked the 14 of us up at the resort and immediately established a fun and high-energy rapport with our group. She was great at reading the group dynamic, making us all feel comfortable, and reminding us that we were out to have some fun. Upon our arrival at the trailhead, our bikes and gear were equipped and ready per our specifications (including SPD pedals for those who requested them). All the gear was in top shape, and we were able to hit the trails quickly. I had initially been concerned that riding might be more ‘nose to tail,’ frustrating our more beginner and advanced riders alike. Fortunately, Laurel and her two guides did an awesome job of allowing the group to naturally separate a bit so that we could ride at our ability while also intermittently meeting up so that we could enjoy the experience together and shuffle up the groups. Along the entire ride, our guides were cheerleaders, support crew, comic relief, and naturalists. They did a great job of assessing each riders' experience and adjusting and making recommendations accordingly. Laurel's passion for riding, for the desert, and for providing everybody with a great experience was exceedingly evident and made for a memorable afternoon. It was a perfect way to experience the Sonoran Desert. I would not hesitate to recommend Wild Bunch!” – Tom on Tripadvisor, Dec. 2016

A solo cyclist takes a cellphone picture of a panoramic view from the Sonoran Desert floor during a Phoenix adventure tour with the Wild Bunch Desert Guides. The small mom-and-pop specialty shop offers corporate and group outings -- but only up to a point -- but is better suited to serve the needs of individuals, couples and families.(TOP) 
A solo cyclist takes a cellphone picture of a panoramic view from the Sonoran Desert floor during a Phoenix adventure tour with the Wild Bunch Desert Guides. The small mom-and-pop specialty shop offers corporate and group outings -- but only up to a point -- and is better suited to serve the needs of individuals, couples and families. (COVER) A small group outing of 10 people is the perfect size for the Wild Bunch to work their magic with every member on the adventure. In the picture, everyone is flashing big smiles while pausing for a picture in front of an amazing view during one of our Phoenix hiking tours. 

I received a phone call recently from a small company looking to book a group outing in September.

“I have 110 people and they want to do a guided Camelback Mountain hike,” the woman told me.

I was flattered her company thought enough of the Wild Bunch Desert Guides to entrust this task to my small mom-and-pop specialty shop.

However, I had to tell her the bad news.

“The City of Phoenix is not going to allow that to happen,” I said.

I explained Phoenix adventure tours companies such as mine are issued permits from the various local governing bodies to allow us to offer guided Phoenix hiking tours and Scottsdale mountain bike tours.

Same as our peers, Wild Bunch is licensed and insured – and we have to follow various local rules to stay in business.

A big no-no is any guiding company trying to take 110 people to “Ride the Camel” – especially in triple digit summer heat.

“It’s just not safe for so many reasons,” I told her, “And the city has Park Rangers in place to shut down anything large scale like that.”

Another issue for us? Wild Bunch no longer offers Camelback Mountain hikes to even couples and individuals. We refer those interested to Mad Desert Trekking -- the side venture of longtime Wild Bunch guide Matt Kalina.

My ambivalence to the adventure is well document in both our most-read Blog to date (see here) as well as in this Blog from last summer when we stopped guiding on the mountain (read on).

In fact, over the last year, the only special exemption was the epic personal journey of Philadelphia radio voice John Duffin detailed in this Christmas-time Blog.

After I explained all of this, the caller got snarky.

“OK, well if you don't want our business …”

And I quickly interrupted: “Actually, we don’t.”

She quickly backtracked. “Wait a minute. We're willing to pay you.”

My answer, though, was firm and the same as before: “But you need to understand. Camelback or not – we’re simply not built to accommodate 110 hikers.”

A couple of years ago, when I was just starting off in business, I am sure I would have tried to find a way to make a 110-person hiking tour happen somewhere safer in the beautiful Sonoran Desert.

With a struggling start up, I never wanted to turn away business because I did not know when or where that next booking would come.

But as Wild Bunch has matured – and I have become wiser – I have come to realize the pure logistics of 110 people are just too much to manage for a small company with a limited number of guides.

So, I keep the largest groups to a maximum of 70-75 on Phoenix hiking tours and 20-25 for Scottsdale mountain bike tours.

A man and wife pause for a picture along a scenic Sonoran Desert trail during one of our Phoenix hiking tours. Couples marking special occasions such as anniversaries or birthdays is a common sight on Phoenix adventure tours with the Wild Bunch Desert Guides.
A man and wife pause for a picture along a scenic Sonoran Desert trail during one of our Phoenix hiking tours. Couples marking special occasions such as anniversaries or birthdays is a common sight on Phoenix adventure tours with the Wild Bunch Desert Guides.


Phoenix hiking tours: Camelback revisited
My decision last summer to avoid Camelback Mountain hiking tours was reinforced in late June.

A group of 15 filming the “Bad Girls Gone God” reality TV show decided to tackle the challenge while on a religious retreat.

Instead of getting closer to God by reaching the summit of the iconic Southwest landmark, eight of the hikers had to be helicopter rescued off the mountain, and three were transported to local hospitals with heat-related illness.

Thankfully, a larger tragedy was averted than what happened last summer in the sweltering Arizona heat – as sadly detailed in this previous Blog.

However, suffice to say, the City of Phoenix was not pleased to shut down the tourist attraction for the rest of the day while multiple fire department and emergency crews were tied up at the rescue.

The documentarians also got a nice bill from those chopper rides down the mountain from their insurance companies.

One of the largest rescue operations in Camelback history captured headlines locally – including this FOX-10 television report (see here) – as well as nationally in newspapers such as the Washington Post (read here).

The Facebook post from the Phoenix Fire Department included a video of the scene and this summation: “Today was one for the books!"

The story was sadly familiar: A group consisting mostly of out-of-state visitors started together at 7 a.m., carrying only a small bottle of water in one hand, and a cellphone in their other.

So, they were ill-prepared for the challenge from the start – especially when the beginning temperature of 91 degrees rose quickly to 97 by 9 a.m. before jumping to the withering blast-furnace conditions of 106 by noon – and eventually reaching a high of 108 that afternoon.

Some of the hikers did finish despite feeling the effects of the heat. But others frighteningly were unable to finish their descent while suffering on the trail.

By the time rescue crews were summoned, the hikers were spread out over several mile markets on the rocky, strenuous 2-½ mile Echo Canyon Trail, which added to the difficulty of the operation, according to the Phoenix Fire Department. The mountain’s other route, the even more difficult Cholla Trail, remains indefinitely closed.

"We had no idea going into it that this apparently was one of the hardest trails in Phoenix," one hiker told KPHO-TV.

But then many visitors fail to realize Camelback is hardly a hike for everyone – especially in the unrelenting sun and heat of the summer – despite my best efforts in these Blogs and from the Facebook group dedicated to educating the public -- group name: Please Don’t Die Or Have to Be Rescued On Camelback Mountain, Arizona.

Not having enough water is a normal problem – even fewer have the other essentials Wild Bunch Desert Guides carry on Phoenix hiking tours and Scottsdale mountain bike tours to combat the heat.

Shockingly, the group failed to research the adventure – but they are far from alone.

I get so many guests who wish to do Camelback Mountain without truly appreciating the many dangers – and then they persist in resisting taking my advice.

As I have stated a million times over – why hire an expert if you reject what the expert is telling you?

Your safety is our No. 1 priority. If you trust us to show you a great time on a once-in-a-lifetime experience, please also rely on our experience and expertise, and heed our warnings.

With some rocky terrain as the picturesque backdrop, a solo hiker flashes a wide smile while enjoying a guided hiking tour in Phoenix with the Wild Bunch Desert Guides.,

With some rocky terrain as the picturesque backdrop, a solo hiker flashes a big grin while enjoying a guided hiking
tour in Phoenix with the Wild Bunch Desert Guides.

Update on Phoenix hiking tours
The Wild Bunch Desert Guides have so far had a slower summer compared to last year. But that is by design.

I shut down online booking for the month of June and July because I had multiple guides who took much deserved time off.

After the biggest spring we have ever seen in the Phoenix adventure tours industry, everybody needed a good, long break to recover and recharge their batteries.

Oh, my little mom-and-pop specialty shop still offered Phoenix hiking tours and Scottsdale mountain bike tours – but with a limited number of guides available on a given day, I had to really manage all of that carefully.

Online booking is now open again, and we are taking reservations for August, September, and October – booking the remainder of the summer and into the next season.

To get geared up for our eighth season in business, Wild Bunch is offering a “Sizzlin’ Summer Special” during the remainder of August.

Any half-day Phoenix hiking tours or half-day Scottsdale mountain bike tours are half off the posted online fee.

Please note: The discount does not apply to the 90-minute option – nor to groups of 10 or more. The tour also must be before the calendar turns to September – and you must meet your guide at the trailhead (no pickups are available).

This discount does not apply in the online booking feature. To receive the half-off discount, you must call (602-663-0842) or book by email (send an email through our contact page).

Just remember: Before Oct. 1, Wild Bunch still operates under special summer hours – meaning you must begin your tour at 6 a.m. or 7 a.m. NO EXCEPTIONS.

The reason is simple: Avoiding the same sort of heat experienced by the “Bad Girls Gone God” documentary group.

You can count the number of days of temperatures below 100-plus degrees in Phoenix on one hand this summer.

A monsoon producing flash-flood warnings in late July actually offered some rare relief from the pottery kiln. The National Weather Service shared this fact: Phoenix actually set a record by recording three consecutive days in July with highs in the low 80s for the first time in recorded history dating back to 1896.

Otherwise, that cold snap interrupted a stretch of 37 straight days of temperatures in the triple digits. June had one day below 100; August has experienced one high of 99 so far.

The rest of the 76 days this summer have been 100 or more – much more, quite often.

My guides reside in Phoenix – so they are climatized to handle that kind of heat. My guides also are medically trained to manage any situation on the trail.

But here’s the rub -- I do not even want to put my guides in that situation. I do not want them to have to deal with a bunch of dehydrated guests on the trail. That is not fun for anyone – and the bottom line is we want to keep you safe while having a fun, memorable experience.

We have blogged about this extensively in the past. Some people do not fully appreciate the pure power of the withering heat in Arizona until they have suffered the ill effects themselves.

They think that I am making this up – or making too big of a deal about it – or trying to ruin their vacation by making them get up so early. Or when I tell somebody, “You guys really need to watch your alcohol consumption the night before you go out with us,” they think I am a killjoy – and they laugh it off and say, “Oh yeah, we'll be fine.”

I cannot tell you the number of times my guides have called me the next day and said, ‘Well, we had to make the half day into a 2-hour tour because the people were too hot, or they couldn't take the heat, or they came after partying late last night and started off dehydrated from the alcohol.”

So, forgive me if I come off like a bitch – but I am trying to save you the pain and agony by sharing my experience and expertise to keep you and your loved ones safe.

The family that plays together, stays together -- and this foursome is having fun during a Scottsdale mountain bike tour with the Wild Bunch Desert Guides.
The family that plays together, stays together -- and this foursome is having fun during a Scottsdale mountain bike tour with the Wild Bunch Desert Guides.

Group think for hiking tours Phoenix
With online booking back on, small corporate groups that cancelled during the heights of COVID-19 are requesting to come back.

However, please realize, the maximum the Wild Bunch Desert Guides can take on Scottsdale mountain bike tours is between 20 and 25 – and we can only accommodate up to 70 or 75 people on Phoenix hiking tours

Hiking is easier than a biking tour for a lot of reasons when dealing with large groups – least of all being the number of bikes available in our fleet at any one time.

The bigger the party, the exponentially harder the logistical challenge becomes – and Wild Bunch is just not built for the large-scale outings. We are a small boutique company offering homespun hospitality and specialized service by tailoring our tours to the wishes of our guests – so we simply do not have enough staff at one time to cover busloads of guests.

The Wild Bunch staff also wants to get to know you. We are not ranch-hands and cowpokes trained to herd cattle. If you want to bring 110 people on Phoenix hiking tours, there are bus tours out there on the internet built for that kind of nameless, faceless volume experience.

I am so thrilled and honored when guests call and say, “We have 75 people that want to go on Scottsdale mountain biking tours with you because you customize the experience.”

But unless they are willing to break into smaller, more manageable groups, I have to be honest and say, “We don't have the number of bikes to handle that.”

The rule of thumb is at least one guide for every eight guests – and at some point, we run out of our most precious commodity and limited resource.

That was never my vision to serve large group outings.

Wild Bunch has always valued more the individual traveling alone on business and seeking something interesting, fun, and physically active to do. Or the couples celebrating special occasions together on a special outing. Or the nuclear families with mom, dad, and the kids enjoying a once-in-a-lifetime experience together on vacation. Or the small group of friends sharing something cool in the same travel party.

All of those scenarios are what we do best – because they are exclusive experiences for you and your loved ones. Wild Bunch never asks you to share your tour with random folks you don’t know. Our guides are focused on you and YOU alone and getting to know YOU and showing YOU the best time.

We never wanted to do 110 guests at a time. I never wanted to say, “Put them all on a bus and bring them over!”

We want to make every single person in the group feel like they are special.

There is no such thing as “Too Big To Fail” in the guiding business. That is why we are in Phoenix adventure tours business in the first place. Our attention to detail and level of guest service far surpasses the bigger cattle calls you can easily find on the internet.

I know when I travel, I dislike being treated as a nameless, faceless number – prodded and pushed this way and that. I don’t know about you, but I am a social animal that enjoys meeting and getting to know people – so I am not a big fan of having instructions screamed at me through a blowhorn.

I bet I have turned down at least five groups this summer that have called about doing Camelback – including the largest corporate outing mentioned.

Understandably, their hearts are set on the Southwest landmark. But I am only trying to save them from the embarrassment of having Park Rangers ordering them to leave.

And for outings that size, Wild Bunch simply cannot compromise our integrity or values and accommodate a large event such as that.

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.


Recent Blog Posts

Phoenix adventure tours guide all revved up

“Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” is fast approaching the 40th anniversary of the classic movie’s 1986 release. While I work hard – and juggle a lot of side gigs with the same fervor – I identify with the iconic film for a couple of reasons. For starters, I am a Midwestern native, growing up a short car ride away from Chicago and its suburbs, the setting for the high school hookie adventure. And like the main character, I believe in playing hard, too – sharing in Ferris’ motto that, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” Which brings me to one of my latest thrill-rides …

Guiding your Phoenix adventure tours

Besides our guests, the guide we provide is the most important element of any Phoenix adventure tours from the Wild Bunch Desert Guides. Our pathfinders deliver the perfect mix of homespun hospitality and local expertise to produce five-star rated Phoenix hiking tours and Phoenix mountain biking tours. So, we always take time to match the perfect guide and perfect trail to every guest to help produce the perfect experience.