Phoenix hiking tours: No substitutes, please!

Phoenix hiking tours: No substitutes, please!

by Laurel Darren, Wild Bunch Desert Guides • August 08, 2021

“I'm a female lone traveler with zero desert hiking experience, so I was very glad to find a company that offered solo guided Phoenix hiking tours. I had a great time! My guide was friendly and knowledgeable, and he kept me safe ... I was so distracted and captivated by the beauty of the desert and all of the cactuses.” – Amber on Tripadvisor, Aug. 2019

A female hiker pauses in front of a rock formation to take a photo of the Sonoran Desert scenery during a recent guided Phoenix hiking tour with the Wild Bunch Desert Guides.
A female hiker pauses in front of a rock formation to take a photo of the Sonoran Desert scenery during one of
the recent guided Phoenix hiking tours with the Wild Bunch Desert Guides.



The headlines coming out of Phoenix in the last week have been distressing for thrill-seeking tourists and Arizona adventure tour companies alike.

First, a woman visiting from Boston was found dead -- a victim of heat illness – hours after wandering off the trail alone presumably looking for water and relief from the heat while hiking iconic Camelback Mountain without the aid of a paid guide.

Then, Camelback Mountain and the second most-popular tourist attraction Piestewa Peak were shut down for a couple of days after 11 a.m. – the first time a new city ordinance was invoked requiring the closures when the National Weather Service issues an Excessive Heat Warning of 105 degrees or warmer.

Let me first offer my condolences to the woman’s family and friends.

Her death is truly heartbreaking because the avoidable circumstances of the tragedy have been discussed at length in this space – see my love/hate relationship with Camelback Mountain hiking tours.

As the owner of Wild Bunch Desert Guides – a small mom-and-pop shop offering guided Phoenix hiking tours and guided Scottsdale mountain bike tours -- it is also my job to warn of the hazards and properly prepare guests for the challenges of the adventures booked with us.

There also is a reason Wild Bunch suspended offering Camelback Mountain hiking tours until after Oct. 1 – long before the new city ordinance was passed by the local park board in the wake of rescue teams having members end up in the hospital themselves after a steady string of heat-related emergencies this summer.

“Monday Morning Quarterbacking” is easy thanks to crystal clear 20/20 hindsight.

And nobody likes to hear “I told you so!”

But this is precisely what I have been Blogging about all summer – and stressing to guests when we speak on the phone to prepare for their adventure – between June 1 and Oct. 1, the Wild Bunch tours start early in the morning to keep you safe and comfortably out of the worst heat of the day.

A group of five hikers descends a rock formation during one of the Wild Bunch's recent guided Phoenix hiking tours.

A group of five hikers descends a rock formation during one of the Wild Bunch's recent guided Phoenix hiking tours.
 

Phoenix hiking tours: No negotiating!
Our website, online booking program and local advertising flyers are all incredibly clear.

I also reiterate the message in all booking calls and emails.

Early morning start times are REQUIRED during the pottery-kiln heat of June, July, August, and September.

For the 3½-4 hour “half-day” guided Phoenix hiking tours or guided Scottsdale mountain bike tours? Those adventures need to start at 6 a.m. or earlier.

For the 1½-2 hour guided adventure tours – Phoenix hiking or Scottsdale mountain biking – the last tour starts at 7 a.m.

These start times are NON-NEGOTIABLE.

In the summer, Wild Bunch Desert Guides is like the little Alabama diner in the movie “My Cousin Vinny” with a simple menu featuring this awesome variety of selections – Breakfast, Lunch or Dinner.

Three choices! No substitutes! That is it!

But then, the entire Arizona adventure travel tour industry is a chorus of one-note singers in the summer, with the same sort of limited hours offered.

Why? The reason is simple: If you want to avoid triple-digit temperatures and the legendary Arizona “dry heat” that literally takes your breath away – and can easily lead to heat illnesses -- you need to be safely off the trails by 10 a.m.

Wild Bunch offers a 15-percent discount for all tours booked online this summer. Simply use the code SUMMER21 at checkout.

However, for guests calling direct, I recommend the 1½-2-hour adventure tours in the summer because that does avoid the worst of the heat AND allow for a little more sleep.

What people need to understand is Wild Bunch is not trying to ruin your vacation by making you get up early to go out on the trails.

We understand you might want to go out on the town some night (or every night) and have a few alcoholic drinks.

We also understand if you have small children, and they don’t want to get up that early – or more likely, they refuse to go to sleep early enough so they can get up that early.

We get all of that!

But this is why you hire a guide – to show you the way to a safe, fun, and memorable time on an adventure of a lifetime.

Trust our pathfinders to show you places and see sights you might not otherwise see if you hit the trails by yourself?

Entrust our guides with your health to make sure to keep you safely having fun when in unfamiliar surroundings?

Then why not also follow our pre-adventure advice and recommendations, too?

An ounce of prevention is so much more valuable than a pound of cure.

Or, as sports coaches remind their athletes constantly -- make the small sacrifices to realize the big rewards.

A hiker finds a little shade from the sun under an iconic Saguaro Cactus during one of the recent Phoenix hiking tours from the Wild Bunch. Relief from the heat is few and far between in the Sonoran Desert, especially during the sweltering summer months.

A hiker finds a little shade from the sun under an iconic Saguaro Cactus during one of the recent Phoenix hiking
tours from the Wild Bunch. Relief from the heat is few and far between in the Sonoran Desert, especially during
the sweltering summer months.

 

Phoenix hiking tours: No kidding!
Triple-digit temperatures are never good wherever you might be in the world.

If you are from the Midwest or the Northeast or really anywhere else in the country, I am sure you are familiar with TV meteorologists going nuts any time the thermometer threatens 100.

Heat advisories are issued, and officials warn to limit outdoor exposure, check on the elderly and to keep your pets inside.

Triple-digit heat in Phoenix? That is just another summer day here in the Valley of the Sun.

But that hardly makes the conditions hum drum.

Yes, it feels different than the humid conditions you might incur “back home.”

But that “dry heat” can be even more lethal because the humidity is not assaulting you while the temperatures are steadily rising to blast-furnace levels. You don’t realize you are boiling sometimes until it is too late.

So please heed our warnings when Wild Bunch Desert Guides says – no guided Phoenix hiking tours and no guided Scottsdale mountain bike tours will start after 7 a.m.

We do not negotiate on start times.

We will not adjust your start time if you are late – that just costs you time on the trails.

We will not relax our 48-hour cancellation policy because you were unable to wake up on time.

My cutoff as the owner of the Wild Bunch is it has to be under 100 degrees for the entirety of the tour.

Over 100 degrees is just plain dangerous and reckless.

Quite honestly, I get sick and tired of people who book tours and the closer we get to going out together, they try and talk to me or my guides and ask for later start times.

Or the morning of the tour, and they are supposed to be there at 6 a.m., I get a text message saying they are going to be an hour or more late because they wanted to go later.

Simple answer: My guides will cut their time. It is a safety issue.

What I would really like to do is have a direct and honest heart-to-heart talk with anyone considering an adventure tour with the Wild Bunch Desert Guides.

Most will argue: “Oh, your guides live there. They should be able to handle it, right? They should be able to take us out at 9 a.m. They should be able to take us in the afternoon without a problem.”

But therein lies the problem.

The guides should not be put in a bad position where they have to rely on their medical skills to try and fix an issue that should have been avoided in the first place.

There are legitimate accidents and emergencies, but there are also tragedies that should and could have been avoided.

See the recent death on Camelback Mountain as the latest example.

Why not listen to the experts when they tell you – NOTHING AFTER 7 A.M.

Really, what is the argument?

“No, please, I want to sweat until I can’t sweat anymore? I like feeling uncomfortable and want the sensation of cramping and feeling like I am not able to breathe? I want to put me and my family in danger? I want to experience heat illness on my vacation?”

With the natural beauty of the Sonoran Desert as the backdrop, Matt Kalina of Wild Bunch Desert Guides (left) -- a certified professional wilderness guide and holder of multiple other certifications -- shares his knowledge and experiences with a group of guests during one of our Phoenix hiking tours.

With the natural beauty of the Sonoran Desert as the backdrop, Matt Kalina of Wild Bunch Desert Guides (left)
-- a certified professional wilderness guide and holder of multiple other certifications -- shares his knowledge
and experiences with a group of guests during one of our Phoenix hiking tours.


 
Phoenix hiking tours: No fair!
Here is an example of a recent experience with a guest who disregarded the many warnings from Wild Bunch Desert Guides.

The guest was booked for one of our 7 a.m. Phoenix hiking tours with their children.

They knew for four weeks they had a 7 a.m. start time.

At 12:24 a.m. the morning of the hike, they texted their guide and said, “Our kids aren’t sleeping well. We’d like to move the hike to 9:30 a.m.”

That is not being fair to their guide.

That puts them in a no-win spot – they either have to be the bad guy and say “no,” or they have to go against what they know to be dangerous.

That also is super disrespectful to somebody’s time to assume they have all day to accommodate you – much less should be receiving a text after midnight.

And then, Wild Bunch is the bad guys if we charge you for a last-minute cancellation?

To me, your kids not getting any sleep is not an excuse to fail to show up for a hike. That is not our problem.

We didn’t take your kids to the Arizona Diamondbacks game the night before, loading them up with sugary snacks and then tried to get them to go to bed late and now they can’t sleep.

You want to move the hike because you made those decisions?

And now it is up to me to refund the tour you booked?

So, imagine how this call would go with an airline: “I know we are booked for a flight at 7 a.m. But my kids can’t sleep, and we can’t go now. Can we go later in the day?”

Or “I bought tickets to the Chicago Cubs game. But we can’t go at 1 p.m. Is it OK if we move back the start of the game to 7 p.m.?”

It is clear on our website – Wild Bunch’s latest starting times are 6 a.m. for 3½-4-hour Phoenix hiking tours and 7 a.m. for 1½-2-hour Phoenix hiking tours.

The other day, Wild Bunch did have to move a lot of guests around because there was a lot of rain in Arizona.

When the cities throw up a “REFRAIN” sign, commercial companies like ours have to pull people off the trails. Otherwise, it is not only disrespectful, but we can lose our license to operate tours.

So, Wild Bunch did move one couple to 11 a.m. because one of our Scottsdale mountain bike tours was something they REALLY wanted to do badly, but they had booked so much other stuff for their vacation, that was the only day and time they could go.

The weather forecast said at 11 a.m. it was going to be 91 degrees. But by noon? It was going to be 102.

So, my guide had an hour window to get them on and off the trails.

I warned the gentleman in the couple, “I am going to make an exception because of the forecast, but you have to promise to drink a lot of water.”

They got out there. But the woman rode like 500 meters and had to turn back. It was just too hot. The dry heat is SOOOOO intense.

That is why we start so darn early and try and get guests off the trails – long before it gets to that point.

Last week, Wild Bunch had a group of six booked through a concierge I adore.

The concierge called me up: “They can’t go until 8:30 a.m. now because of a business call somebody in the party had to be on.”

Initially, I declined. But the concierge lobbied me.

“They really want to go,” he said, “because they have been in the hotel all weekend because of the rain.”

So, I felt bad and relented because I was talking to a dear friend.

But my guide had to take one of them back to the trailhead early because they got overheated.

The group actually got there at 8:45 a.m. and by the time Wild Bunch got everybody up and ready to roll on bikes, it was already 9:15 a.m.

And so, by the time they should have been off the trail and headed back to their resort for the rest of the day of swimming and Margaritas, they were just starting to ride into a pottery kiln with ever-rising temperatures.

That is not an equation that ever works.

A group of three hikers pause in the early morning cool for a picture in the breathtaking Sonoran Desert scenery after experiencing an amazing Arizona sunrise during one of the Phoenix hiking tours offered by the Wild Bunch.

A group of three hikers pause in the early morning cool for a picture in the breathtaking Sonoran Desert scenery
after experiencing an amazing Arizona sunrise during one of the Phoenix hiking tours offered by the Wild Bunch.


 
Phoenix hiking tours: No worries!
The bottom line for the Wild Bunch Desert Guides?

I am damned if I do, and damned if I don’t. I am the bad guy for trying and I am the bad guy if saying no.

So please don’t ask. Or beg. Or plead. Or argue. Or try and negotiate.

There is a protocol in place to help save you from yourself.

Want a perfect experience on one of our Phoenix hiking tours?

Follow our advice and recommendations perfectly.

No substitutes are on the menu. No “special requests,” please.

Just like in “My Cousin Vinny,” selecting the simple option “breakfast” works out perfectly.

Otherwise, my questions back are pretty simple and straight forward.

Why do people want to broil like grilled meat when they can enjoy the beauty of the Sonoran Desert in more pleasant conditions?

Why do guests bother hiring a guide if they want to ignore and reject our expertise?

When in Rome, do as the Romans.

Adjust to the conditions.

If you go to Alaska in the dead of winter, you don’t ignore the cold.

If you visit the Caribbean during the Hurricane season, you prepare in case a storm interrupts your beach time.

I sound like I am being mean. But I am just being honest and direct.

There is no negotiating a non-negotiable item.

Laurel Darren, owner of Wild Bunch Desert Guides, flashes a wide smile with a breathtaking view as the backdrop during one of our guided Phoenix hiking tours.

Coronavirus & Tours

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 go mountain biking in Arizona every year. There are two things we look for -- a challenging trail appropriate for our family, and an amazing guide. Laurel is an amazing guide we have worked with previously, and we couldn't have been more excited to support this business she is growing. Why was this excellent? We had full trust that she would pick a trail that fits us (started at Tom's Thumb and ended 21 miles later back at Tom's Thumb), and she knows when to push us and when to dial it back. Laurel has an amazing energy and positivity to her that's infectious. She works incredibly well with our son, who mountain bikes in middle school, challenging him appropriately, while also not letting those a little less fit (me) get too far behind. The bikes were fantastic, she had everything we would need for a fun day. It made it an incredible end-to-end experience and we will definitely see her again when we return to Arizona. I think you'll find Wild Bunch unique in the sense that if you are a hard-core mountain biker, you'll be challenged … if you are middle-of-the-road amateurs like us, you will be challenged and have fun, and even if you are somewhat of a beginner, you'll find that Wild Bunch can adjust to what's right for you and show you a great time!

- Wilson D.

Matt was our guide. He did an excellent job of judging our fitness and our level of interest in information about the area. He was very willing to answer questions. Best of all he gave us a great hike that we could not have done or fully appreciated on our own. The pace was not too slow or too fast and was a little bit challenging all the way. He was well prepared and brought all the supplies we needed. I showed up with only good sneakers and a hat. Someone let on that it was my birthday and when we got to the summit, he even had a birthday snack for me. I like doing tours while traveling and this was a good one. Well worth it as a private for two people. I would do another one of their tours or a second route on this same Sonora Desert hike through Squaw Peak.

- Ben A.

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