'March Madness' underway: Here's 'Elite Eight' Arizona adventures

'March Madness' underway: Here's 'Elite Eight' Arizona adventures

by Laurel Darren, Wild Bunch Desert Guides • March 06, 2021

“Laurel came highly recommended to us by another family that has repeatedly used her when visiting Arizona from the East coast. We were a mixed group of two families of parents with older teens. Laurel was a great communicator, explained charges, areas to explore, sent emails confirming, answered all text questions and even helped with area questions we had. She went well beyond and that's what makes dealing with a smaller company so much nicer. Her staff was spot on judging people's skill levels and made all feel comfortable no matter their strength or weakness. Good sense of humor with great knowledge of the area. We traveled off the ‘popular’ crowded paths, moved at a great pace and got all the great views and workout. We both hiked and mountain biked. Our group was even able to split in two to allow the more experienced adventurous ones to do more so no one held back. A great outfit that can really work with novices and advanced die-hards.” – Joan, Cherry Hill, N.J., on Tripadvisor, Jan. 2019




Laurel breaks out the big guns for this Blog.

Since I am a Midwestern gal, I know all about the charm of living in an area blessed with four seasons.

The blooming rebirth of spring and bountiful fields of green popping up everywhere. Those seemingly endless hot summer nights with a radio and your best friends. The rustic colors of fall foliage when there is crispness in the air.

Even the first snowfall each winter is met with childlike giddiness and an abiding comfort in the time-marking turning of the seasons.

But once the temperatures begin to plummet and the snow starts piling up, and a snowblower and de-icing rock salt become pure gold, winter in the Great White North does get real old real freaking fast.

Now, I NEVER would make fun of my pals “marooned” in my native Eastern Iowa/Western Illinois like so many Gilligan’s Island Castaways stuck in a chilly climate.

When I call home, I NEVER remind them Arizona has been an amazing 70 to 85 degrees consistently for, gosh, I cannot remember it has been so long. Maybe since a Labor Day heat wave, I think?

Noooooo. I would NEVER do that!

The lack of 2021 precipitation in the “Valley of the Sun” has been perilously low to the point Arizonans are worried that a killer wildflower season might not happen. The Wild Bunch Desert Guides can verify this, spying only one lonely wildflower blooming this week in a visit to Cave Creek.

Yeah, I know. Cue the tiny violin playing “my heart bleeds for you.” The lack of rain days means the sun is shing bright every day in the beautifully majestic Sonoran Desert. The cactus is still there and need their hugs, love, and attention, too.

Everyone from the Winter Wonderland wants to be in Arizona, especially now, during the “March Madness” of Spring Breaks.

However, a word to the wise: As the owner & operator of one of Arizona’s highest-rated adventure tour companies, my head is spinning right now from the grateful energy I feel for being so dang busy right.

A couple of days ago, I booked over 10 tours in the next two weeks combined, with six more coming through online through our booking system, and three others the result of Tripadvisor tours.

For a small mom-and-pop specialty shop such as the Wild Bunch Desert Guides? That is an awesome number of guests coming our way.

I actually had to turn off online booking for a few days in the next couple of weeks because we are completely sold out.

I felt terrible today having coffee with a friend not being able to offer undivided attention because my phone was blowing up with texts, calls, and emails regarding booking tours.

So, if you are considering Spring Break plans, my advice is not to wait until Selection Sunday for the NCAA basketball tournaments.

Also, if planning a “March Madness” dance to Arizona, consider doing these “Elite Eight” adventures during your visit.

I can personally recommend these Arizona travel tour companies because I have done them myself and have a personal friendship with the owners of the companies. (Spoiler alert: I am especially close to the operator of my top two picks).

NOTE: All these tours I would consider to be national championship-caliber, but for the purposes of this Blog, I will rank them in countdown order, eight to one.


Laurel (center) and friend Mary prepare for lift off.
 
No. 8: Hot Air Expeditions
Let me tell you how beautiful it is when the Wild Bunch Desert Guides are out on a Phoenix guided mountain bike tour or Scottsdale guided hike and look up into the Sonoran Desert sky and see a ton of colorful hot air balloons drifting by overhead.

I admit I was a tiny bit scared of the landing before I did my first flight. But they took fantastic care of me and allayed my fear.

My pilot was Mike, and I was with a fellow Quad Cities native Mary Moyle. Experiencing the beauty of the desert floor from above is breathtaking. We actually were up when there was a snowstorm in Scottsdale. So, the next day, we also had the privilege of seeing mountains that were snowcapped.

Hot Air Expeditions is owned by sisters Amanda and Stephanie Long and, of course, I support “girl power.”

Consider booking an early morning tour with them. Their tours are delightful.

Contact info: hotairexpeditions.com or 480-502-6999.
 

Laurel and boyfriend Brett enjoy a horse back riding adventure.

No. 7: Windwalker Expeditions
If you want to have an amazing experience with a guide who has been doing this for over 25 years and is just the cat’s meow, you have got to book a horse back adventure with Windwalker.

Shelly and Joseph have been in business for about 30 years and they are the nicest people in the Arizona adventure travel tour industry.

We went out with Joseph and saw 5 Gila Monsters, plus some of the most beautiful desert scenery I have ever experienced – and that is saying something considering I practically live in the desert.

It was an incredible adventure.

Like Wild Bunch Desert Guides, Windwalker is a small, private boutique, so they offer a special, personalized touch with a truly fantastic experience.

Contact info: windwalkerexpeditions.com and 480-585-3382.


All aboard! A trip on the Desert Belle on Saguaro Lake is one of the many highlights on the Apache Trail.

No. 6: Detours American West Apache Trail
This is a great way to go see some of the beauty of the Superstition Mountains while having a guide talk to you about the history.

Detours American West visits a small old-fashioned ghost town on the Apache Trail, then you drive through some windy roads down to the Desert Belle Cruise, where you jump on a boat and get to see some pretty cool wildlife.

If you talk your guide into it, you also can get some famous prickly pear ice cream at the Tortilla Flat Country Store & Ice Cream Shop -- a little old Western place.

This is a must-do for a day trip.

Contact info: Detoursamericanwest.com or 480-663-9013.

Sun's out? Guns out! Laurel shoots and scores with Stellar Adventures.  
 
No. 5: Stellar Adventures
Not to be biased but Stellar Adventures has the best-looking, most awesome, fun, amazing, diesel mechanic that takes care of all their off-road vehicles.

My guy Brett is the best and he is also a guide, so request him! (LOL)

Stellar’s main man JJ also is my business mentor. He has helped me with tons of connections and had my back through some rough moments in business.

For off-road joy-riding fun in the desert, they H1 hummers, KM1009 Blazers, ATVS, UTVS -- what a way to get the adrenaline flowing.

I do have to say my personal fav is the shooting experience with an NRA-certified safety instructor. Please know you are not shooting at Sonoran Desert flora or fauna. Instead, you are shooting at standing targets.

And no, you are not pinning a picture of your ex on the target (LOL).

Personally, with a pat on my back -- if I can reach that far -- I am most proud of shooting a 50-cal. As Sundance says to Butch in the movies, “Think you used enough dynamite there?” Wow, what a kickback.

You can combine a shooting experience with an off-road vehicle experience and have major adrenaline going all day.

Contact info: stellaradventures.com or 602-402-0548.
 

Fore! Kirk (left) and Monica (right) link up Laurel with Old Town Scottsdale.
 
No. 4: Joy Rides AZ
Monica and Kirk are just awesome people. They are professional goofballs who know how to make any golf-cart ride super fun.

Joy Rides AZ is in Old Town Scottsdale and they know everything about the town. I mean all the places ... you know, the really super cool stuff.

They can take you on an Instagram tour for pictures, a wine-tasting tour for connoisseurs, a historical tour for history buffs, a dive-bar tour for lounge lizards, a find a new man/woman tour -- you name it, they can customize it.

They are the ONLY golf-cart outfit that is properly Insured and licensed, too.

They are just so fantastic! I highly, highly, highly suggest you jump on a cart tour with them and experience Old Town Scottsdale their way.

Check their new carts out and request Captain Kirk.

Contact info: Joyridesaz.com or 480-657-7857.
 

Rock on! Laurel, Ellen and Rebel enjoy a Red Rocks bike ride in scenic Sedona.
 
No. 3: 360 Adventures
So, I worked as a guide for Bruce years ago during the summer and let me tell you how awesome it is to be the one snapping the pics of people on mountain bikes who have never seen Sedona.

This is the reason I am in business and why I love Arizona guided mountain biking so much.

I LOVED guiding visitors in Sedona, so whenever given the chance, I jumped.

So many mountain bikers live to ride the legendary RED ROCKS. To see their faces light up and look out over the magnificent vistas. I LOVE Sedona.

Close your eyes and feel the vortex of energy. You must book a mountain bike or hiking tour with 360 Adventures. An absolute MUST DO!!

Contact info: 360-adventures.com or 480-722-0360.

 
Laurel leads a Wild Bunch Desert Guide hike.
 
No. 2: Wild Bunch Desert Guides half-day Hike
OK. I am admittedly a teensy little biased!

But I am so proud that the Wild Bunch Desert Guides deliver a 3-4 hour hike that is fun and educational for the whole family. Not to mention, a half-day guided Arizona hike helps burn some calories for some good food and drinks in the Phoenix area.

Wild Bunch strives to help make things efficient for you and your family by putting you on a trail that matches your vision and capability.

Wild Bunch does offer a guided Camelback Mountain hike, but as mentioned in a previous Blog, that challenge is not for everyone.

Instead, we have so many other incredible trails to explore and match to the skill levels of your group.

During our wildflower season, we try to get as many guests as possible out to see the beauty of the Sonoran Desert.

Contact info: wildbunchdesertguides.com or 602-663-0842.

 
Laurel on a Wild Bunch Desert Guides mountain biking adventure.
 
No. 1: Wild Bunch Desert Guides mountain bike tour
OK. I am a lot of biased (ha). But this is my personal favorite, of course!

The Wild Bunch has literally THE best attention-to-detail, most crazy, fun, and safe rider guides for which a girl like me could ask.

All my guides provide a tour that is memorably unforgettable.

Wild Bunch Desert Guides can take anyone who can ride without training wheels on a guided Scottsdale mountain bike tour for typically 3-4 hours of time with breaks for water, amazing pictures and healthy (SOMETIMES NOT) snacks.

We use Skratch bars, as they satisfy almost any food allergy and we throw some other goodies in, too.

Our Marin bikes are amazing and guests have nothing but good things to say.

OK, OK, I will shut up. You get the point.

Contact info: wildbunchdesertguides.com or 602-663-0842.


Laurel and her mom enjoy a UTV experience in Arizona's Sonoran Desert.

Final Four March Madness thoughts
For those unable to choose between No. 1 and No. 2 – and settle this bragging rights battle – Wild Bunch Desert Guides does offer a Hike and Bike Combo.

Get the benefits of both activities in one day with lunch included as a natural break between the Phoenix hiking and Scpttsdale mountain biking adventures.

Note: You must be kind of an endurance freak for this adventure. It is fun but can be kind of difficult. We can design the trails to fit any level of rider -- from beginner to advanced.

All these activities mentioned are highly recommended, and should be considered during a visit to the “Valley of the Sun.”

A couple others that would be in my Sweet 16 include Phoenix Segway Tours and Arizona Kayaking, with info available with a little research.

Anything to get out in our sunshine. Especially if you are a snowbird.


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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Getting outdoors and hiking or biking is not only good for you mentally and physically, but it's one of the safest activities you could participate in. We are taking all appropriate measures following CDC guidelines to avoid any COVID-19 transmission. More details here.
 

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We chose Wild Bunch Desert Guides for a mountain biking excursion during our recent trip to Tempe, Arizona. We contacted Laurel a couple of months before traveling, and immediately knew we had chosen correctly. She responded immediately and kept us updated on our ride status up until our trip. The whole experience was perfect from start to finish. Our group consisted of two experienced roadies and a couple that has limited cycling experience. Laurel took us on a ride that fit our group perfectly, providing challenge while matching the technical abilities of everyone. When we arrived, our bikes were setup and ready to roll. She provided everything we needed and the equipment was top notch. She taught us how to ride different terrain, stopping to give us tips when the trail got a bit more technical. Her knowledge of the desert is awesome and our water breaks were super informative -- we learned so much about the Arizona desert. We even got to eat some cactus! Laurel's love for her job and company are apparent. It would be difficult to imagine we could have found a more positive and genuine guide. Thanks Laurel! Our ride with you was the highlight of our trip!!!

- Kent & Lisa L.

The hubs and I took off for a day of ‘first time’ hiking not knowing what to expect. We met Laurel as our guide for the day and she welcomed us with the biggest smile ever. Listen, she treated our concerns/fears as if they were her own and she went out of her way to make us feel secure and safe while navigating through the complexities of Camelback Mountain. We had a blast! She even took us on an impromptu walking excursion at the end of the hike. Because of Laurel, the owner of the company, hiking is something we look forward to doing again. Sidenote: She has a beautiful and thoughtful way of exchanging authentic communication while climbing that makes you forget you're on a mountain. She's a Rockstar! If you've never hiked before or if you're a seasoned hiker that needs a guide, do yourself a favor and book with The Wild Bunch!

- M. J.

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