Phoenix hiking tours: How I spent my summer vacation

Phoenix hiking tours: How I spent my summer vacation

by Laurel Darren, Wild Bunch Desert Guides • August 25, 2022

“We had a FANTASTIC experience with Wild Bunch! We were in Scottsdale for our twin boys' 13th birthday and one of our boys is obsessed with hiking and hunting for reptiles. On a whim, we arranged for a dusk hike, and we were SO grateful we did this! We received a recommendation for Wild Bunch and Laurel immediately called me to set up the hiking plan. She took into account my son's interests and made sure that this birthday hike was extra special. Jason was our guide, and he could not have been more spectacular! Patient (my son had a MILLION questions), kind, knowledgeable -- he was fantastic. And even brought birthday cake for the boys once we reached the summit! Thank you so much Laurel, Jason, and Wild Bunch!” – Courtney Johnston on Google, Oct. 2020

 
Laurel Darren (center) enjoys a mountain bike adventure with friends during her working summer vacation in Colorado.(TOP) 
Laurel Darren (center) enjoys a mountain bike adventure with friends during her working summer vacation in Colorado. (HOME PAGE) Laurel pauses during a mountain bike ride to drink in everything Colorado has to offer.

 
With schools back in session all over the country, I wanted to show my solidarity this week with the oppressed student population suffering through traditional school-starting assignments such as the annual essay, “How I spent my summer vacation.”

Unlike the kids forced to “work for the man,” I am quite happy to share my thoughts and experiences.

But then, my summer vacation is hardly over – I have more than a month left! -- and it is barely a break from my “homework.”

My Wild Bunch Desert Guides continue offering Phoenix hiking tours and Phoenix mountain bike tours – albeit only at special early morning times to help beat the withering summer heat in the Valley of the Sun.

However, again this summer, my boyfriend Brett and I have escaped the pottery kiln of the Sonoran Desert for the mild temperatures and laidback atmosphere of another tourist destination – Lake City, Colorado – a remote paradise tucked away in the beautiful wilderness wonderland of the San Juan Mountains.

So, like a lot of Phoenix adventure tours operators during the summer offseason in Arizona, I am managing my mom-and-pop specialty shop from afar – and give all the credit to my all-star staff for continuing to produce five-star rated experiences for our guests.

Part of my working vacation also has involved me pulling double-duty – managing the Wild Bunch “satellite office” in Lake City (aka my cellphone and rental home) to guide special Colorado summer hiking tours for the first time.

And let me tell you, this effort has been a real learning experience reminiscent of my early days founding the Wild Bunch back in 2016.

Laurel stops to admire the beauty of a cascading waterfall during one of the Wild Bunch's Colorado summer hiking tours.
Laurel stops to admire the beauty of a cascading waterfall during one of the Wild Bunch's Colorado summer hiking tours.?

 
Phoenix hiking tours: Back to school
The inspiration to add Wild Bunch-quality adventures to Lake City’s motto of providing “Peak Experiences” came last summer when I was introduced to so many great trails by the fantastic people with the Lake City Hiking Club.

Right now, because of the super-popular Alpine Loop, this old mining town is best known as a haven for OHV activities -- meaning “Operated off of Highway Vehicles” such as All-Terrain Vehicles (ATVs), dirt bikes, four wheelers, three wheelers, jeeps, motorcycles, trail bikes and snowmobiles.

So, bringing a guiding hiking outfit to town was something I hoped would offer a new and different experience for out-of-town visitors looking to explore the region’s incredible beauty – which ranges from snow-capped mountains to rushing rivers and cascading waterfalls, and from crystal clear Alpine lakes to colorful, wildflower-filled meadows as far as the eyes can see.

The motivation is the same I had long ago – and still have – to show visitors to the Valley of the Sun the many wonders of the Sonoran Desert through Phoenix hiking tours and Phoenix mountain bike tours.

So far, I am thrilled to report the Wild Bunch Desert Guides have had the pleasure of taking several guests on Colorado summer hiking tours. The adventures have been as spectacular as the usual reaction to our brand of homespun hospitality and exclusive experiences tailored especially to only you and your family or travel party.

However, this has been a different summer in paradise.

Lake City has not been as busy as it was last year – and with most visitors still wishing to ride in a four-wheeler – the Wild Bunch has not been overwhelmed with foot traffic looking to beat the path less traveled.

But that is OK. I know from my previous start-up experience that we are playing the long game – just getting the word out and building the base of the business.

And on the horizon, I can see great things coming. Wild Bunch already is receiving a lot of calls and texts for Colorado summer hiking tours – but unfortunately, most of the interest is coming for trails we are not permitted to operate on.

The majority of prospective guests have asked about securing guides for two of the 14ers here – so-called because they are in the 14,000-foot range of elevation. However, we do not have the necessary permits or insurance for the Matterhorn or Wetterhorn Peaks, so I have had to turn away a lot of business.

Luckily, I am blessed with a fantastic staff here as well – and my Colorado guides also have other jobs, so the Wild Bunch is not income that they depend on to meet living expenses. This is a passion project for them all, too.
That is one reason this summer reminds me of those first formative steps with the Wild Bunch back in 2016.

Another reminder? I have flyers EVERYWHERE.

However, in a big difference from Arizona, I have brochures at businesses I would not think to hit in Phoenix or Scottsdale.

For instance, in Lake City, I have flyers at the liquor store. That is pretty awesome when you think about it.

My brochures also are front and center -- displayed in glass cases, no less -- at the two major restaurants in town, Southern Vittles and Packer Saloon & Cannibal Grill.

The Wild Bunch brochures also are at the Lake City Brewing Company – as well as the laundromat and post office.

But this is a whole different world then even Old Town Scottsdale – much less the metropolitan area of Phoenix. Lake City is a smaller, tight-knit community. Oh sure, this is a tourist destination, too, but this also is a place where everybody knows your name. 
 
So, I am grateful The North Face Lodge puts my brochures into each of their rooms here. I am ever so thankful the Gowdy Properties have my brochures at all their rental homes here.

Unlike Arizona, there are not hotel or resort concierges to recommend your services to visitors. But that is more than made up for by the positive word of mouth generated from the whole town telling guests about the pure golden treasures they can find up in them 'thar hills with our help.

Everybody is on the same team here, everybody is rooting for each other, everybody is pulling the rope in the same direction – looking to give guests their best possible visit.

Laurel (left) and Colorado gal pal Amanda Hartman sneak in a picture during the Hard Rock 100.

Laurel (left) and Colorado gal pal Amanda Hartman sneak in a picture during a mountain bike ride around Lake San Cristobal.
 

Lessons learned by Phoenix hiking tours
I have always said I learn best by doing. You try things and find out what works and what will not work.

This truly has been a “learning as you go” experience – so I already see some details that need tweaking for next summer.

I would love to add those other 14ers for our guests – since the Matterhorn and Wetterhorn Peaks are a popular request – but I don't see that happening.

Those two hikes are extremely dangerous -- that's why people want a guide in the first place, and I don’t blame them. Logically, that makes total sense.

People aren't wrong when they say to me, “Well, don't you want to guide on a dangerous hike?”

Yes. Sure. I wish I could. I am a guide because I love showing people beautiful things – and making memorable experiences – while keeping them safe.

But the problem is the insurance companies look at those adventures and go, “Uhhhh, no! There is too much risk. No thanks. We won't cover you!” And I totally understand that.

This is not Mount Everest, and we are not Sherpas. We also are not charging thousands of dollars or allowed to assume no risk by our government.

Wild Bunch Desert Guides also do not have permission to offer those hikes.

Some guests have asked, “Well, what does that matter? Who is going to know if we go?”

Well, it does matter. That is not an ethical way to operate in business – by choosing to look the other way – nor am I going to jeopardize losing my permits elsewhere by taking guests on unapproved hikes.

Plus, doing so is a risky proposition if God forbid somebody should get hurt on an unapproved, uninsured hike. That would surely cost me the business I have worked so hard to build.

So, I have to change my strategy a little bit next year and even consider adjusting my prices for Colorado summer hiking tours.

I don't want to devalue what we do, but I need to find ways to meet the needs of more guests to the area and show them the beauty I have fallen in love with here in Lake City.

Among the other adjustments, I need to make sure to keep up my Facebook posts for Colorado summer hiking tours during the winter when I am back full-time on Phoenix hiking tours and Phoenix mountain bike tours.

I also need to continue networking with the Lake City Chamber of Commerce to make those community bonds increasingly stronger.

Most all, I need to dig in and double down – and work hard again to build something special – just like I did in 2016 in Phoenix and Scottsdale.

This is a different world here, but I know the Wild Bunch can be successful if I continually learn and evolve.

Laurel pours one of the Tin Cup Shots offered to participants at the Sherman Aid Station during the Hard Rock 100 endurance race.

Laurel and her boyfriend Brett are fired up for a concert at the iconic Red Rocks amphitheater.

(TOP) Laurel pours one of the "Tin Cup Shots" offered to participants at the Sherman Aid Station during the Hard Rock 100 endurance race. (BOTTOM) Laurel and her boyfriend Brett are fired up for a concert at the iconic Red Rocks amphitheater.

 
School’s out for hiking tours Phoenix
I also have to keep in mind this is my summer vacation – this is my escape – so I need to enjoy myself.

And I do – hiking or mountain biking every day with my family of friends here in Lake City.

I also got to see a concert last week at the legendary Red Rocks Park and Amphitheatre – and really enjoyed a backstage pass and tour of the historic facility.

But I am also one of those fast-twitch types who always have to be doing something – I always have to be in motion – so I am working at Lake City Brewing Company for fun and that’s cool to be the “mom” on a staff of 20-somethings. Interacting with the kids keeps me young.

One thing that I am super proud of is getting to volunteer this summer at the Hard Rock 100 at the 72-mile mark’s Sherman Aid Station.

The Hard Rock 100 is one of the biggest and best-known endurance races in the country – as well as one of the hardest challenges. The race starts in Silverton, Co., and runs through the San Juan Mountains -- featuring 33,000 feet of elevation gain over 100 miles.

The endurance race also includes the most extreme of our Colorado summer hiking tours – the 14’er of Handies Peak.

So, being the veteran endurance athlete I am, I was trying to figure out how to get involved with the Hard Rock 100.

One night, a friend mentioned Bennett Levine – whose mom Martha runs the aid station – works at the small theater in town where we were to see a movie.

I wrote my name and number on a napkin and approached Bennett -- apologizing if it seemed this older woman was hitting on him.

“I know this is so crazy, but can you please give this to your mom?” I asked. “I'd really like to volunteer at Hard Rock 100.”

She texted me couple days later and I was just really stoked because all of the aid stations are amazing on this race -- but that Sherman Aid Station has a history of being the coolest. A lot of high school kids work there because they award a college scholarship each year for a student who volunteers their time.

Also, this summer, I worked the San Juan Solstice 50 at the Carson Aid Station. I was the “sweeper” picking up flags among other duties with my gal pal Lydia and her son Jayden.

What is really cool about that race is all of the money raised is donated to the all-volunteer EMS crew in Lake City. From the organizers to the participants and race volunteers, everyone is on board to simply thank those first-responders for the dangerous duties they perform.

The Lake City EMS crew just did a mountain rescue the other day – so it is an especially hard job here with a lot of logistical obstacles often in the way. 

It was really special for me to be involved in both races because I like to give back to the communities that I am part of.

I also feel like I am banking my karma for this weekend’s Alpine 50 mountain bike race – knowing there will be people out there helping me because I was out there helping others before this.

A video of the 50-mile Alpine Loop is here with the race featuring 2 major mountain passes and 12,000 feet of elevation gain.

But same as any challenge – including the addition of Colorado summer hiking tours to my business – I am geared up and ready to go.

Like my fictional fighting hero, “Rocky Balboa,” I am prepared to come out swinging at the bell, and last all 15 rounds if I must, knowing if I get knocked down, I simply have to get back up again and keep punching.


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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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.

Laurel, Ellen and Tommy didn't just guide us, they hiked with us, and after four hours we felt as if we had made new and wonderful friends. They were also attentive to others on the trail, checking in with hikers who looked like they might need assistance and offering guidance to a mountain biker who had gone astray. These hikes were the highlight of our trip and truly I can't say enough about the experience. Pricing is more than reasonable and frankly the opportunity to spend time with these experienced guides -- Priceless!

- Katherine C.

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