Phoenix adventure tours: Cheers to ‘frequent flyers’
Laurel Darren, Wild Bunch Desert Guides • March 12, 2022
“Two adults and two teenagers on a 2-hour Phoenix Mountain Bike tour on desert trails. Was personalized to our ability with super nice bikes. Guide was excellent, knew every turn and almost every cactus. The scenery was unbelievable. Huge thanks!!! We’ll be back!” – Nvelop, Napa Valley, Calif., on TripAdvisor, April 2019
Pausing for a photo in front of a couple of iconic Saguaro Cactus during a 2020 girlfriends trip with the Wild Bunch are Kate Thornton (left) and Jean Heinly.
The first time Jean Heinly encountered Wild Bunch Desert Guides owner Laurel Darren, the Pennsylvania mother of four had mixed emotions.
- NOTE FROM LAUREL DARREN: As the owner of the Wild Bunch Desert Guides, normally this Blog is devoted to sharing my thoughts about my small business – as well as the many life lessons learned or reinforced in the hectic industry of adventure tours Phoenix/Scottsdale. This Blog is no different, except the storyteller this time is my longtime friend and editor Steve Tappa. I have tapped the 30-plus-years veteran sportswriter from my hometown in the Quad Cities (Eastern Iowa/Western Illinois) to tell you the tale of some of my most loyal guests – and allow them to explain why the Wild Bunch remains on their “must do” list. I know I am annually heartened to see so many familiar faces returning to enjoy another one of our guided Phoenix hiking tours or guided Phoenix mountain bike tours. All of our “frequent flyers” seem to become part of our extended family – but these folks are right at the head of the table. I am blessed to know them and humbled to have their continued confidence to deliver a fun, memorable and safe experience every time for them, their family, and the many visitors they host.
“She was very curt and very strict,” Jean said with a big laugh, remembering an exchange five years ago this May before one of the Wild Bunch’s Phoenix adventure tours.
“I told her I have these four young adult kids, so they're probably going to be drinking the night before, and she goes, ‘No, they're not. We're not having anybody hung over -- and we're meeting at 7 a.m. because it’s going to be super hot.’
“First of all, as a mother, I was like, ‘Oh cool, she's going to keep these guys in line!’ But then on the other hand, I'm like, ‘Oooo, man, she might not be any fun!’”
Thankfully, those worries quickly melted away that next day.
Now, the Heinlys rank among the biggest fans of the Wild Bunch, returning each year to Arizona to keep alive an annual streak of adventures that just missed the COVID shutdowns and survived last year’s continuing pandemic problems.
Jean and her husband Chris are even considering becoming full-time snowbirds, and purchasing a winter home in Arizona, after graduating from resorts to rental properties for longer stays.
The latest visit to “The Valley of the Sun” is for six weeks, with this year’s Wild Bunch adventure in March one of the Phoenix mountain bike tours offered by the small mom-and-pop specialty shop.
“She gave us a great first impression without a doubt,” Chris said. “We found a great place to continue pursuing what we love, and we plan to keep on doing it, and Laurel is a big part of that.”'
(TOP) During the Heinly's first trip to Arizona in 2018, the group of family cyclists included, left to right: daughter Carmen, sons Quinten Heinly and Gavin, and father Chris. (BOTTOM) Exploring a scenic rock formation during the 2018 Heinly family trip are, left to right: family friend Emma Thornton, and Heinly children Quinten, Carmen and Gavin.
Phoenix adventure tours: The first time
The Heinly family broke with their tradition of beach vacations to visit Arizona for the first time in 2018 because Jean said they needed a change of scenery -- and most importantly wanted to have a more activity-filled adventure for an incredibly active family.
For instance, 57-year-old Chris rides and sponsors the amateur cycling team Keystone Racing back home in Reading, Penn.
The couple’s now 30-year-old twin boys Gavin and Morgan – and 29-year-old son Quinten – are all boxers, as well as soccer and hockey players. The baby of the family, 25-year-old daughter Carmen, is a tennis and lacrosse player.
And, except for 58-year-old Jean -- a former runner now turned into a self-described “gym rat” because of hip replacement surgery – the entire family also golfs, too.
“So, we came out here and did all the touristy things -- horseback riding, skeet shooting -- whatever it was, we did it,” Jean said.
While staying at The Phoenician, Jean said to the concierge, “I'd like to do some cycling where my husband will be challenged, but I won't die.”
The concierge suggested Wild Bunch Desert Guides, and after Jean made the reservation for six, Laurel was in contact for her usual detailed follow up described above.
“So, we get there that morning, and she's still very strict like she was on the phone the day before, like the first 20 minutes while we're going through everything. And, of course, my boys are slightly hungover and she's not happy about that,” Jean recalled.
“It was the boys and my daughter and her girlfriend, and of course out come the phones, with them looking to ‘Selfie’ it up, and Laurel’s like, ‘Ah, no. Unsafe. Put the damn phone away. Not doing that, not here. We’re not helicoptering anybody out.’
“But then at a certain point, when she understands where you are coming from, and gets you where she needs to be so she can relax, there’s a cool change.
“Like she knew my husband was way more qualified than the rest of us are – but she figured out right away that the kids were able, but they were still waking up and then I was the trailer and I'm a talker, so she was talking to me at the start.
“So, about a good hour into it, I'm like, ‘Man, this girl is so cool,’ and then she rides up with my husband and starts talking to him and now he is smitten because he realizes what kind of cyclist she is. So now they're talking the whole time.”
As a mother shepherding over her active brood for years, Jean truly appreciated Laurel’s bottom line emphasis on having fun -- but ensuring that it is done safely in the Sonoran Desert.
Despite the breathtaking, other world beauty, the desert can be potentially dangerous because of the unfamiliar surroundings and wildlife for visitors – especially mountain bike riders roaring along rocky, twisty, and sometimes cactus-lined trails.
So, guests are constantly reminded to stay on the trails and avoid taking photos until a break or making a scheduled stop at a landmark or “money shot” vista.
The weather conditions also can pose a threat because of the heat and the possibility of dehydration – especially for night-before revelers with more alcohol than water in their system.
The Wild Bunch Desert Guides are always prepared for any emergency, though – medical or otherwise – and make sure to carry extra water among so many other items.
“It's like being a teacher in class the first week of school with new students. Laurel has to lay down the boundaries,” Jean said to perfectly sum up the initial phase of any of the Phoenix adventure tours with the Wild Bunch.
“When she's out there with my quote, unquote, kids -- I call them kids, but they're young adults -- she knows how to engage them and talk with them. She told this funny story – it’s about this guy who fell in the cactus, and they had to pull out all these little pins with tweezers from his backside.
“Oh my God, when my kids heard that, they were just dying laughing. So now that authoritarian person from the first 10 minutes I met her, now I get it. She’s got to start with putting that wall up and setting expectations, but once the professional formalities are out of the way and she knows you’re ready, you get to see the fun side. Now she's so fun and so relaxed around us now.”
(TOP) While looking over an iconic Saguaro Cactus, the 2019 Heinly group of friends listens intently to their Wild Bunch guide during a Phoenix mountain biking tour. From left to right: Michelle Davis, Mike Kuczala, Chris Heinly, Scott Davis, Noel Garapola, Joe Garapola and Cyndy Kuczala. (BOTTOM) Wild Bunch Desert Guides owner Laurel Darren talks about survival in the desert to some of the 2019 Heinly group, from left to right, Scott Davis, Cindy Kuczala and Michelle Davis.
Adventure tours Phoenix: Many happy returns
Upon returning home from Phoenix after the first trip, Jean remembers telling dozens of friends about Arizona, Laurel and the Wild Bunch.
“If you like cycling or hiking, it doesn't matter what your level of accomplishment is, she will make it work for you,” said Jean, who personally loves the Phoenix hiking tours. “So, I just started passing her name around and people would come back and go, ’Oh man, we had a great time.’
“So then, the second year I thought when we decided to go back, ‘She's not going to remember us.’ But sure enough, we book another tour, and she texts me back like I'm her long-lost friend and from there, we just struck up a long distance, once in a year friendship.
“And now she knows my husband wants to be challenged. We've also come out here with other couples, and we've done couples rides where all the guys are cyclists and all the girls are not, but she just makes it work.”
As a small mom-and-pop specialty shop, the Wild Bunch is contrary to the big tent operators offering Phoenix adventure tours that better resemble cattle calls.
The Wild Bunch specializes in providing homespun hospitality with a completely customizable private experience – guided Phoenix hiking tours and guided Phoenix mountain bike tours exclusively for you and your family or travel party. Nobody from the outside public is ever added to your group. EVER.
“The other thing is we feel safe with Laurel and her guides,” Jean said. “We were on a (Wild Bunch) trail ride once with Rebel, who is an amazing person herself.
“One of my daughter's girlfriends got something in her shoe and she thought it was just a little nothing at first, but it turned out it was a spike from a cactus, and it really got in there. And so out in the middle of nowhere, Rebel did like minor surgery on her out there in the desert.
“So, we know to trust Laurel or one of her guides when they say, ‘Uh, that's not a smart thing to do.’ But we also know to let it rip when we hear, ‘yeah, go ahead and give that a shot.’”
However, the real testament for the Heinlys came last year when Chris shipped his bike to Arizona for their extended stay.
“But something happened, and the bike went missing for a week,” Jean said. “My husband was flipping out because those bikes are so expensive.
“Laurel was so gracious, though -- she found a bike for him and brought it to our rental property and gave him all the lowdown on it -- just to make sure he could ride for those few days that he was missing his bike. It was just great.
“She just goes above and beyond. She has hooked us up with so many other small business owners. She is forever connecting you with someone who can help you if she can’t.”
For instance, Laurel connected Jean with a personal trainer and found Chris both another road cyclist to pair with on rides, as well as a yoga instructor who also happened to become his PGA Tour-veteran golf instructor.
The Wild Bunch Desert Guides also regularly refers guests to other amazing attractions and activities in Phoenix as well as the incredible nightlife options in Scottsdale.
One of the many friendly counterparts among the Phoenix adventure tours companies is the 4-wheeling fun of Stellar Adventures and Laurel’s business mentor JJ Briles.
“That's a blast, too,” Jean said. “Oh my God, they are so much fun.
“But that’s typical of what Laurel does. Last year when we were here -- when everybody was just trying to stay open and function and continue to keep the doors open on their businesses, she wasn’t just keeping her people busy and her business going. She was supporting a whole lot of other people.
“She'd tell you about them, and she gave you connections and phone numbers and was just trying to keep everybody up and moving. So that was awesome. We were both so impressed because we're business owners, too.”
(TOP) During the Heinly's 2020 visit before the COVID shutdowns, Wild Bunch guide Rebel (front) posed for a picture with these Phoenix mountain bike tour rider -- left to right: Scott Davis, Joe Garapola, Mike Kuczala and Chris Heinly. (BOTTOM) The group of girlfriends riding together in 2019 included Jean Heinly, Noel Garapola, Cyndy Kuczala, and Michelle Davis.
Latest Phoenix adventure tour
During this trip to Phoenix, Jean is recovering from hip replacement surgery, so she is unable to join Chris for any mountain biking in Phoenix.
However, Chris had a couple of friends come to town for one of the most special Phoenix mountain bike tours ever with the Wild Bunch.
Scott Helm, a cyclist of note, and another Heinly pal Eric Schippers are returning from Costa Rica and an attempt at the withering Ruta de los Conquistadores – a three-day, 150-mile stage race featuring 20,000 feet in elevation climb in difficult conditions.
Cycling legend Lance Armstrong – the former 7-time Tour de France winner – once called the event the hardest race he has ever done.
“Some of that (event) is hike-a-bike, where you have to throw the bike on your shoulder and start climbing up the hill,” Chris said. “But, unfortunately for Scott and Eric, they cancelled the race this year, but they did the event with a guide.
“It sounds like it was an unbelievable amount of effort and a lot of stuff to overcome. He tried to talk me into going and I'm like, ‘No way, man. I'm good here.’”
The 2-hour Wild Bunch adventure ride promised to be far less daunting.
“This is going to be a chill event,” Chris said. “Nothing crazy technical. It'll have some technical in it and we'll make sure we're staying out of the cactus. At least that's our major point.”
Still, Chris and another out-of-town buddy in Phoenix joining in the Wild Bunch ride were cranking up their road cycling mileage in preparation – including 60-70 mile rides on consecutive weekends, he said, with 30-40 mile rides in between.
“Scott’s a great guy and he's really looking forward to it,” Chris said. “I'm looking forward to riding with him again. He's one of the guys that got me into cycling a number of years ago.”
So, when Helm decided to visit his friend, Heinly thought of only one outlet to provide an expert-level experience.
“I've always enjoyed Laurel’s rides a lot,” Chris said. “She's been a great guide for us and just a real treat to talk to and get to know. She’s also an ass-kicking cyclist, so I get to talk cycling and in a cycling lingo with her.
“I have great conversations with her. I know she's done some races with a single-speed bike, which is unbelievable. You're definitely bad-ass when you're doing races with a single-speed bike.
“Laurel always has great guides who work with her, too. So, I can only say great things about Laurel and her company.”
Jean relished the opportunity for another reason, though.
“Scott is a phenom, and Laurel loves that because typically those guys are like, ‘Are you kidding me? This woman is not going to show me how to do this,’” Jean said with a laugh. “But I'm like, ‘Yeah, she is.’ It's cool to know someone like that who’s really at her level in the game.”
Wild Bunch Desert Guides owner Laurel Darren (front) receives a thumb's up from Emma Thornton during a Heinly family Phoenix mountain bike tour in 2018.
Coming attractions: Adventure tours Phoenix
There is no way the Heinlys can predict how long their Wild Bunch Desert Guides streak of Phoenix adventure tours will last.
However, what they do know is they hope to buy a second home in the area in the next 2-4 years to accommodate their annual visits to Phoenix.
“I like the sunshine, but my husband does not like laying around the beach,” Jean explained. “We also still have so many people still coming home to roost.
“And there's way more activity level here than say Florida. My husband says we would get old and fat real fast there. That's just kind of how Florida is -- there's an afternoon nap kind of vibe there for retirees.”
The Heinlys are hardly retired, though. They own L&H Signs -- a super successful sign business in Pennsylvania.
The company specializes in large-scale structural signage for casinos, sports stadiums, corporate buildings, and financial institutions.
The most-visible example of L&H’s work is the massive “A” logo marking Truist Park, home of baseball’s 2017 World Champions, the Atlanta Braves.
The company also has handled signage for the Hard Rock Casino and is working on Centene Stadium, future home of professional soccer’s St. Louis City SC.
“Chris goes back home a couple of times to handle some details when we are here,” Jean said. “But, the company is going good, and we have a great team of people that are taking on more and more duties.
“So, we are at that time of our lives when we can get away more and more often – and we want to get into some sunshine in the winter and remain active for as long as we can.
“So, we keep coming back to Arizona, and while we’ve done all the (Phoenix adventure tours from) Laurel with some friends, there’s more still coming, and any time we get a cyclist like this year, we feel confident to call her knowing (Wild Bunch) will provide a great time (on Phoenix mountain bike tours).
“Even though I know it’s not easy all the time, Laurel always seems to fit us in. As amazingly gifted as she is athletically, she’s just truly a good character person I feel I could call like any other friend and say, ‘I’d love to go have a drink with you.’”
About the Author
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