Phoenix hiking tours: ‘Nightmares on Cactus Street’ | Wild Bunch Desert Guides

Phoenix hiking tours: ‘Nightmares on Cactus Street’

by Laurel Darren, Wild Bunch Desert Guides • September 15, 2022


Mountain biking was the highlight of our Girls Trip to Arizona. The owner Laurel was so friendly, fun, safe and customized the ride to our ability. She made it FUN!! Super encouraging … I can’t wait to take my family!! If you want to experience something new and live your best life, I highly recommend this experience!!” -- Debbie Breer on Google, Oct. 2020

A wife takes a picture of her husband with a breathtaking backdrop behind him during one of the Phoenix hiking tours from the Wild Bunch Desert Guides.(ABOVE) A wife takes a picture of her husband with a breathtaking backdrop behind him during one of the Phoenix hiking tours from the Wild Bunch Desert Guides. (COVER) Wild Bunch founder & owner Laurel Darren gives off a "spooky" vibe with a cactus looming behind her.

Tragedies of all shapes and sizes unfortunately happen every day all around the world.

However, as the owner and operator of a five-star rated Arizona adventure tours company -- offering guided Phoenix hiking tours and Scottsdale mountain bike tours – the heartbreakers that hit home hardest for me involve Average Joes and Jills simply trying to enjoy the outdoor treasures of a beautiful area they are visiting.

Most saddening to me? The mishaps are usually completely avoidable by following some simple safety rules we stress at my Wild Bunch Desert Guides.

Yet, all it takes is one misstep in unfamiliar surroundings to cost people their lives.

For instance, we all know the sad stories of solo hikers who get lost in the wilderness. That all-too-familiar tale played out again this summer in our beautiful but dangerous Sonoran Desert (READ)

Heat-related illness is an all-too-usual suspect anywhere in the country – but especially Arizona -- when adventurers sadly become victims (READ).

Like any peer or competitor in our backyard, this is a big reason why my small mom-and-pop specialty shop limits Phoenix adventure tours to the earliest morning hours in the worst of the heat every summer (READ)

Otherwise, there are only two basic trail safety rules the Wild Bunch lives by:

  • Rule 1: Stay on the trail
  • Rule 2: Listen to your guide

For those not utilizing the services of the Wild Bunch or another guiding company, the advice I offer those includes:

  • Use the “buddy system” and avoid hiking or mountain biking alone;
  • Know where you are going ahead of time – and make sure to let others know of your plans, from the trail used to estimated time of completion;
  • Make sure to bring extra drinking water and remain hydrated;
  • Make sure to have a fully charged cellphone and first-aid kit with you for emergencies;
  • Be aware of your surroundings and the conditions – and never hesitate to turn back rather than press onward at the first hint of not feeling right.

Of course, the smartest adventurers – rookies or veterans – leave all of those safety worries up to a certified guide who is both permitted and insured to operate in the area.

Especially when on foreign soil, allow guides to show you the way to the best sights and experiences – as well as ensure the safety of you and your family or travel party.

And heaven for bid if something should happen, but the Wild Bunch Desert Guides are medically trained to administer first aid and fully equipped to manage crises ranging from dehydration to an unexpected or too-close-encounter with wildlife.

A father and his children make their way down a rocky trail during one of the Phoenix hiking tours offered by the Wild Bunch Desert Guides.
A father and his children make their way down a rocky trail during one of the Phoenix hiking tours offered by the Wild Bunch Desert Guides.

‘Safety dance’ on Phoenix hiking tours
In six years of offering Phoenix hiking tours and Scottsdale mountain bike tours, thankfully I can count on one hand the number of tours the Wild Bunch Desert Guides have had to formally “fire” for completely disobeying our simple safety rules.

Typically, the rule requiring guests to remain on the trail is broken by younger children – and that happens a lot, although the parents are often quick to step in and prevent a repeat occurrence.

Kids naturally want to explore. Often, they step off the trail to look closer at something. Or maybe they saw something move and now they want to follow and investigate.

So, even though our guides offer a safety briefing before beginning each tour -- and talk about the dangers of kids and adults wandering off trail – I get a report seemingly every week that a kid has gone off trail.

The most egregious instance, though, earned a letter from my lawyer banning the family from ever attempting to use our service again.

My loyal and longtime guide Rebel had the misfortune of working with the mountain biking family where their teenager was glued to his cell phone.

I was there at the beginning of the tour to say hello to the family and thank them for booking with us. Instead, I found myself watching this kid -- he would not put his cell phone away – and in turn did not listen to anything Rebel said, including the safety speech. 

Finally, I had to say to the parents, “I really need you to please put that phone away. He has to listen to what's going on.”

The mother in the group angrily answered back, “That's not your child!”

And I shot back: “But it is my company and it is my liability if something happens to your son on this tour. So, I would highly recommend and suggest your son put the cell phone away right now.”

With that, the teenager threw one of the biggest fits you likely have ever seen. He threw one of the backpacks guests borrow from us on the ground, and then threw the bike down on the ground in the parking lot right in front of me. 

I looked at the mom and said, “If there's damage to that bike, you just signed a waiver saying you will pay for it. You better get your son under control right now. Rebel is not dealing with this. This is a safety request we make for everybody – and it is for the safety of you and your family.”

Yet, the mother still resisted, “My son doesn't have to do anything he doesn't want to with that cell phone.”

That is when I said, “Fine. Rebel, the tour is over.” 

Offended now, the mother said, “And you're going to charge us?” And I said, “Absolutely. I've asked you twice. This is not a joke. Your son cannot ride a mountain bike and look at his phone at the same time.”

At that point, the father took the phone, put it in his backpack and his son got even crazier. 

As we began to pack up, the mom begged and pleaded. “We really want to do this,” she said. “We will calm our son down.”

Rebel calmed the situation down for a moment by agreeing to take the family riding.

However, a mile into the experience, the son threw another huge fit – throwing the bike down to begin walking in the middle of the desert and ranting, “I quit, I'm done. I'm out of here. This is ridiculous. I want to ride with my phone.”

Rebel called me but knew my answer ahead of time. “Cut them off,” I said. “Come in. You’re done.”

Bottom line? The teenager put his family – and my guide – in serious danger by walking on the desert floor where there's cactus pods and all kinds of other stuff – including wild critters.

But he didn't care. He didn’t want to listen to anybody. And that’s the biggest danger of them all.

A father (third from the left) and his children enjoy one of the Phoenix mountain bike tours from the Wild Bunch Desert Guides.
A father (third from the left) and his children enjoy one of the Phoenix mountain bike tours from the Wild Bunch Desert Guides.

More nightmares on hiking tours Phoenix
Another horror show played out during one of our Phoenix hiking tours at Tom’s Thumb.

A family had two teenagers looking to get pictures for Instagram at the iconic landmark. 

I am certainly cool with sharing shots on social media – especially when you tag Wild Bunch Desert Guides!

But what I am not down with is climbing up huge boulders and jumping off of them in an attempt to capture eye-catching photos.

Thankfully, my guide that day was Tommy, a retired Police Officer.

Tommy asked the parents multiple times to please not allow their kids to climb up the rocks.

“Well, they're teenagers,” the parents finally said shrugging their shoulders. “They can do what they want.”

Wrong answer.

Tommy made the call by himself that day. “OK. We're done. We're not hiking anymore.”

The doting grandfather in our guiding group also had the misfortune of dealing with misbehaving teenagers one day, too, during one of our Scottsdale mountain bike tours.

The two siblings Don dealt with were straight out of the movie “Step Brothers.”

They were bickering at each other the entire tour. What’s more, they were playing their own warped game of bumper cars -- trying to push each other off the trail or attempting to throw their sibling from the bike seat.

I would have had a field day with two dumbskulls wanting to knock their brother into a Cactus or down a ravine.

Don was even more upset, calling off the tour early and scolding the parents in the process.

“I have listened to those two bickering long enough,” Don said angrily. “Something dangerous is going to happen. You parents aren't controlling the situation. So, your tour is over.”

It is an awkward situation, but I applaud my guides for standing up for themselves like that.

I also have their back when something like that happens because we have to abide by what the city permits allow us to do.

If the City of Scottsdale or a trail steward were ever to witness that kind of behavior? Unchecked, we could face serious consequences – including losing our permits to operate on the trails and in their parks.

Especially when I am guiding with kids on the tour, I am very up front with the parents to define our roles.

“I am the guide,” I will say, “and while my goal is to show you a once-in-a-lifetime experience, my sole purpose here today is for safety -- to make sure you are fed and watered – and to make sure you know everything you want to know about the desert.

“But I am not the parent,” I add, “So, it is your responsibility to make sure your children are behaving. And I will call this tour if you are not responsibly managing your kids. Because it's not fair to the guide.”

Wild Bunch is very upfront about our role. We are not a babysitting service.

My specialty shop receives inquiries all the time from parents who want to drop their 8-year-old off for a bike ride so mommy can go enjoy some alone time at the spa or daddy wants to golf or go drink with friends at the bar.

Or sometimes, mom and dad want to take the training wheels off and go on a ride together while the guide takes the 8-year-old beginner.

Uh. No. Sorry. If you want to arrange childcare at your resort and then go riding with us? Fine. But don’t bring your child expecting us to ride with them solo. We're very particular about situations with minors. 

Have we had a 16-year-old who's a killer rider that we've let go with a guide? Absolutely. I actually put two guides on that at the same time for the proper oversight. The parent also can’t leave – they must be at the trailhead. This is not a drop off military school. The parents have to be there and be a big part of any tour.

A couple celebrates an anniversary with a glass of Champagne during a Phoenix hiking tour with the Wild Bunch.

A couple celebrates an anniversary with a glass of Champagne during a Phoenix hiking tour with the Wild Bunch.

Phoenix hiking tours: Safety first 
The safest way to avoid a dangerous situation on Phoenix hiking tours and Scottsdale mountain bike tours is to follow our number one rule and remain on the trail. 

Most trails are cleared and well-kept by trail stewards or park volunteers who dedicate their life to that cause, which in turn keeps us all safe.

A guide leading a tour can easily see trouble coming on a well-maintained trail.

But when you go off trail, guides lose that ability, and you never know what you could encounter. So that's why it's so important to stay on the trail and not wander off or investigate on your own.

Now, do Rattlesnakes appear on the trail from time to time? Absolutely.

Do Gila monsters show up on the trails? Sure do.

Is it dangerous? You bet! But it also can be a super cool part of your once-in-a-lifetime experience.

At Wild Bunch Desert Guides, we actually want our guests to see a Rattlesnake, Gila monster or Horny Toad because our pathfinders know how to handle those unique situations.

If we do see a rattlesnake on the trail during a ride for instance, sometimes we have to put the bike between the snake and our guests to keep everybody safe.

Or if on a hike, we go off trail and find a clear path on the tail side of the snake to get around the reptile because sometimes they are simply sunning themselves and don't want to move.

Or sometimes we have to step off the trail to let 12 horses go past -- but the guide will make that decision. We stay as close to the trail as we can but step off because horses and bikes can't fit on the trail together – and we certainly do not want to spook a 1,000-pound animal.

Another situation where guides have to step off trail is if a guest has a restroom emergency far from a restroom. Our guides check out a spot and pick where there's a clear path and some privacy.

What we can do without is the medevac helicopter lowering the gurney to whisk you away to the hospital.

We also do not want to see the Scottsdale Fire Department coming out with their Mountain Cart to get you out of there because you've been hurt by stepping off trail and falling into cactus or getting bitten by a critter. 

We want you to have a good experience and our guides are going to do whatever it takes to make sure that happens – but your safety is our number one priority.

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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