Phoenix hiking tours: Be spontaneous & open to new experiences | Wild Bunch Desert Guides

Phoenix hiking tours: Be spontaneous & open to new experiences

by Laurel Darren, Wild Bunch Desert Guides • February 20, 2023

“I recently visited Scottsdale for the first time. Not an experienced hiker, I enlisted the help of the Wild Bunch Desert Guides. Laurel was wonderful. She determined the best trail that would be suited for me. Laurel made the hike not only fun, but educational as she pointed out interesting things along the way. Another guide joined us for the hike and it was so great to have these two experienced guides show me the beauty of the desert. Loved it so much, booked a hike for the next day with another guide, who guided me through Cave Creek. She was excellent! Would highly recommend this service to anyone, no matter what your level of experience is.” – Sharpie, Madison, Wis., on Tripadvisor, March 2017

A Phoenix hiking tours group jumps for joy together in front of a scenic backdrop during a adventure with the Wild Bunch Desert Guides.(TOP) A Phoenix hiking tours group jumps for joy together in front of a scenic backdrop during a adventure with the Wild Bunch Desert Guides. (COVER) A Wild Bunch adventure tours group celebrates reaching an iconic picture site during their Phoenix hiking tour.

With the NFL’s Super Bowl and the PGA Tour’s Phoenix Open happening the same week earlier this month in the Valley of the Sun, I did everything possible to prepare my small business for an expected onslaught of visitors.

Starting in the fall, I first begged my Wild Bunch Desert Guides to postpone any vacations or delay any requests for time off. We added extra shifts of Phoenix hiking tours and Phoenix mountain bike tours to our booking website and calendar.

I also amped up my SEO (Search Engine Optimization) on my company’s website. We also took out Google ads to try and reach the oncoming avalanche of visitors. And the special Blog we prepared to tell visitors about the many great activities available in the desert had three time more views than the most-popular Blog ever on our website.

The Wild Bunch also offered an online booking discount when other services – from resorts to airlines – jacked up their rates.

But to the surprise of myself and many of my Phoenix adventure tour colleagues, none of us were “Super Busy” during the expected biggest week of the year. 

Instead, everybody was SLOOOOOOW – from the ATV tours at Stellar Adventures to the incredible journeys with Hot Air Expeditions

Some of my colleagues -- such as former Wild Bunch guide and good friend Matt Kalina at Mad Desert Trekking -- had hardly any tours on the books Monday through Friday during Super Bowl week.

Wild Bunch did have a sold-out Saturday the day before the Super Bowl and final round of the Phoenix Open. But like everybody else, it was hardly the insanely busy time imagined.

So, while constantly checking the bookings for my small mom-and-pop specialty shop leading up to “Super Week,” I kept seeing on Instagram that Epic Valet was in desperate need of temporary help at the Phoenix Open.

And I started to get interested.

I thought: I doubt they will need me to guide any tours. And it is probably a no-brainer to park cars, especially at a PGA Tour event. Plus, you get to drive something nice – and I just saw all of those great vehicles at the Barrett-Jackson Car Auction. So why not? 

The moment I reached out to Epic, the next thing I knew I was filling out a Google document, and getting asked what shifts I could work.

And poof – I was hired!

A couple descends a rocky downhill past the Old Southwest trademark of a Saguaro Cactus during a Phoenix hiking tour with the Wild Bunch.
A couple descends a rocky downhill past the Old Southwest trademark of a Saguaro Cactus during a Phoenix
hiking tour with the Wild Bunch.

Super fun week for Phoenix hiking tours owner
In radio host Dave Ramsey’s world, I am the model of the “Side Hustle Queen” – and that goes well beyond driving a delivery truck during the pandemic.

I have always been spontaneous and open to new experiences. So, I have done a lot of odd jobs in my life.

The extra money is nice – but the biggest motivation is staying busy and being around other people. I hate just sitting there alone on the couch watching TV. Variety is the spice of life – and I am determined to live life to the fullest.

Even when I go on vacation, I can’t sit still for very long.

Look at my last few extended summers in Colorado with my boyfriend Brett. I have a few side hustles to keep me busy, including helping out on weekends at Lake City Brewing Company and offering Colorado summer hiking tours for the first time in 2022.

Despite my many work experiences, I have to say parking cars as a valet was a first for me, and I was delighted to find out it was an absolute blast.

Honestly, the hardest part of the whole deal was not knowing how to start a Tesla Model X, which uses a credit card-type key.

It is super nerve-wracking when you get into a brand new $100,000 car – and with the owner standing there watching -- you are looking around like, “How the hell does this thing work?”

I mean, I drive a Tacoma for God's sake.

Thankfully, though, I worked with mostly 20-something professionals that showed me how to navigate the new six-figure technology – and in turn, because I was one of the few workers over the age of 40, I was the go-to call to drive a stick shift.

I picked up that long-lost skill way back in high school when my stepdad Tom taught me how to drive a stick shift in his pearl green-blue Honda Prelude.

My softball pitching coach, Dale Matlick, also used to let us kids drive his stick shift truck in the cemetery out in little Reynolds, Ill., where I took pitching lessons.

Another of the hardest things about the whole week was for me to say to a lot of my co-workers – “I could be your mom.”

The energy was really good, though, and together we had a lot of fun. It reminded me a lot of being around the young adults each summer on the crew at Lake City Brewing Company.

The job also was a lot like the Wild Bunch Desert Guides -- being active and around young people really does give you energy and makes you feel younger.

Epic Valet’s owner JC Brooks is somebody that I really respect, too. He is a lot like me with Wild Bunch. JC is very visible. He is on site. He is available to help.

I saw JC get his hands dirty by working every position. So, he sends the message he is not too good to be out there on the front lines -- which I respect because I am the same way with our Phoenix hiking tours and Phoenix mountain bike tours.

But the one thing that I noticed -- which is so smart -- JC doesn't have a radio on him. That keeps him from being mired in all the shit going down. Instead, he is in the back of the house managing the most important details.

Even after working for Epic, I really wonder how they do it -- dealing with cars that are hundreds of thousands of dollars. I can only guess the insurance risk. It has to be astronomically crazy.

Because I own a small business – and shockingly displayed some mature attributes and leadership qualities (ha) – Epic had me do more than simply drive cars that week.

I also got to exercise my customer service muscles while dealing with the patrons of the golf tournament – which is much different from my small mom-and-pop specialty shop where you are dealing with people who are excited and happy to be on a Phoenix adventure tour.

Some of golf tournament gallery had too much to drink – this is the raucous “Animal House” party capitol on the PGA Tour, after all.

Or there were designated drivers who wanted their car in 5 minutes so they could get the drunk people home quickly and out of their hair.

So, some of those interactions were a little bit stressful. And it does amaze me how extremely difficult, outright cruel, and super uncool some people can be to others when they insist on getting their way ahead of anybody else.

The triggering statement to me always is, “Don’t you know who I am?”

But I am honestly grateful that Epic’s management team trusted me enough – and thought highly enough of my crisis management skills -- to put me in some of those difficult situations. I liked rising to the challenge to offer a shield and make sure my co-workers could do their best work and not get bogged down by the complainers.

As a ticket taker, my job was to take the valet ticket, and hand it to another person to scan and find the car. Easy enough.

But I also was the person dealing with the inevitable lost tickets by some patrons. So, I was the person who was getting the brunt of those people waiting for 30 minutes to get their vehicle.

With 4,500 cars passing through valet service, I found myself doing a lot of explaining with a valet needing on average a couple of minutes just to find a car in that massive parking exercise.

Kudos to Epic Valet – and companies like them – for managing such a monstrous logistical task. They have some major shit they have to deal with -- but they are really good at what they do, and have some very high-end clientele because of that at the major restaurants and big-deal events here in the Valley of the Sun.

I did ask JC to meet me for coffee after everything settles down later this spring. I always love to hear from successful business owners on what makes them and their operation tick.

A Phoenix hiking tours group takes in the fabulous flora of the Sonoran Desert floor on a Wild Bunch adventure.A Phoenix hiking tours group takes in the fabulous flora of the Sonoran Desert floor on a Wild Bunch adventure.

From Phoenix hiking tours guide to ‘Valet Girl’
The best part of working for Epic Valet during “Super Week” was getting to drive some pretty sweet cars.

The coolest vehicle I drove was the Tesla Model X. Personally, I would never own one, but it was cutting-edge different. My reaction after getting in? “What in the hell? Am I going to Mars in this thing?”

But I also got to drive some other awesome machines – a 2023 Porsche 911, a new BMW 350, and a couple of super sweet Mercedes. When you sit down in those BMWs, the seats have hip-hugging technology now. Other than the promise of prison time, I still wonder how that one didn’t come home with me.

We did have one of the newest Ferraris come in, but I didn't get to drive that car. But I did park some new Highlanders, a new Tacoma, and a new Cadillac. And I did drive some stuff from back in my day like a couple of Honda Civics.

I did not personally meet any celebrities, but we did have a few come through valet -- a couple of pro athletes and some people on the billionaire list.

I also got to see country music star Jason Aldean with his security team.

So, we were dealing with a high-roller crowd. But the coolest group of people we dealt with were the Thunderbirds – the community leaders who have been long-term volunteers making the Phoenix Open among the most special non-majors on the PGA Tour since starting in 1937.

The Thunderbirds are limited to 55 active members annually – and when they reach age 45, they transition from an active to life member. So, there are nearly 350 members who still volunteer to keep the event great for all the local charities that benefit from the golf tournament.

So, like JC, the Thunderbirds are super-successful hands-on people – and they take good care and show their appreciation for the valets and other people that work the Phoenix Open. It was an honor to meet and interact with so many of them.

But then I met so many wonderful people during my “Super Week” side hustle – same as during any week of running my small mom-and-pop specialty shop.

Being spontaneous and open to new experiences has always paid off well for me, though.

So, I hope the Wild Bunch Desert Guides are a good deal for people brave enough to try Phoenix hiking tours or Phoenix mountain bike tours.

And while patrons getting their cars parked at a PGA Tour event are the definition of a VIP – the Wild Bunch strives to make our guests feel special, too.

We take the time to get to know their name and feel more important than a faceless booking number – which is the service they get down the street at the big box operators.

And unlike those cattle-call bus tours, Phoenix adventure tours from the Wild Bunch are completely private – just you and your family or travel party. We never ask to combine groups or add William from Washington or Wanda from Waukesha to your tour.

Wild Bunch also makes the extra effort to customize your fun. Want to see some great landscapes for memorable pictures? Desire more of a rocky-ride challenge behind the handlebars? Have some physical limitations we need to take into account? Celebrating a special milestone or need a trail to fit several different ages and abilities?

We want to know about all of that!

Working as a first-time valet brought me a lot of joy. And I am truly grateful for the opportunity – and thankful at age 46 I am up to the long hours and physical rigors of the job because of my biking and hiking activities.

But working for Epic Valet also reminded how much I love being a Phoenix adventure tours guide and how much it means to me to deliver once-in-a-lifetime super memories to the guests of my Wild Bunch.


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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