Phoenix hiking tours: Vacation destination | Wild Bunch Desert Guides

Phoenix hiking tours: Vacation destination

by Laurel Darren, Wild Bunch Desert Guides • July 20, 2021

“Laurel came highly recommended to us by another family that has repeatedly used her when visiting Arizona from the East coast. We were a mixed group of two families of parents with older teens. Laurel was a great communicator, explained charges, areas to explore, sent emails confirming, answered all text questions and even helped with area questions we had. She went well beyond and that is what makes dealing with a smaller company so much nicer. Her staff was spot on judging people's skill levels and made all feel comfortable no matter their strength or weakness. Good sense of humor with great knowledge of the area. We traveled off the ‘popular’ crowded paths, moved at a great pace, and got all the great views and workout. We both hiked and mountain biked. Our group was even able to split in two to allow the more experienced adventurous ones to do more so no one held back. A great outfit that can really work with novices and advanced die-hards.” – Joan, Cherry Hill, N.J., on TripAdvisor, 2019.

Laurel Darren (left) pauses to enjoy the incredible scenery and the amazing company of her mountain biking pals Lydia McNeese (center) and Amanda Hartman (right) during a three-month summertime visit to Lake City, Colo. Darren is the owner of Arizona's Wild Bunch Desert Guides. McNeese and Hartman are both from Lake City and training with Darren for a mountain bike race there next month.
Laurel Darren (left) pauses to enjoy the incredible scenery and the amazing company of her mountain biking pals Lydia McNeese (center) and Amanda
Hartman (right) during a three-month summertime visit to Lake City, Colo. Darren is the owner of Arizona's Wild Bunch Desert Guides; McNeese and
Hartman are both from Lake City and training with Darren for a mountain bike race there next month. 

LAKE CITY, Colo. – Many of you reading this Blog are either currently on vacation or considering a getaway to my usual stomping grounds.
If not already in Arizona’s vaunted Valley of the Sun? Please come visit!

My Phoenix adventure tour company, Wild Bunch Desert Guides, remains ready to show you and your crew a once-in-a-lifetime experience on customizable guided Phoenix hiking tours or guided Scottsdale mountain biking tours in the breathtaking Sonoran Desert.

However, for the summer, I am a tourist just like you, hence the newspaper-style dateline from the northeastern corner of Colorado’s incredible San Juan Mountains and what is billed as the “most remote county in the lower 48 United States.”

Lake City is not only the county seat, but also the only incorporated city in Hinsdale County. This historic Old West town founded in 1875 boasts more acres (538) and feet of historic boardwalk (500) than actual people (436), though the population does swell during June, July, and August when the “Summer Locals” invade.

Some of those visitors come for the fishing and hunting like my boyfriend Brett. Others like me come for the hiking, mountain biking and climbing.

Starting at 8,661 feet in elevation, and with over 100 miles of off-road trails, there are a lot of Peak Experiences” available as Lake City so aptly promises.

While I am away enjoying this personal R&R, there are some facts you should know:
  1. Wild Bunch still is open for business;
  2. Wild Bunch still is taking phone calls (602-663-0842) and responding to emails;
  3. Wild Bunch still is offering a summer discount code (SUMMER21) for a 15-percent discount on online bookings before Oct. 1;
  4. Wild Bunch is NOT offering Camelback Mountain hiking during the summer;
  5. I am still talking to guests about their hopes, dreams and wishes while on vacation; I am simply troubleshooting those logistical challenges remotely right now;
  6. I am having the time of my life, and this getaway is only reminding me how very important vacations are to people’s physical and mental well-being – and how what I do figures so vitally into all of that;
  7. This experience is allowing me to recharge my batteries and reflect upon everything related to my small mom-and-pop specialty shop.
Laurel Darren (right), the owner of Arizona's Wild Bunch Desert Guides, poses during one of her journeys with her Laurel Darren (right), the owner of Arizona's Wild Bunch Desert Guides, poses during one of her journeys with her "hiking family" from Colorado's Lake City Hiking Club.
Phoenix hiking tours: Destination vacation
Brett and I have been in Lake City since May 29, and I will not be back to the daily grind of Phoenix hiking tours and Scottsdale mountain biking tours much before Oct. 1, when Arizona travel tour companies shift back into the high gear of “normal” business hours.

During the extreme heat and higher temperatures of the summer months in the Sonoran Desert, outdoor activities such as Wild Bunch Desert Guides offer only early-morning adventures.

Scaling back summer hours annually is a safety necessity, but that also allows those in the Arizona adventure tour industry to enjoy a little vacation time themselves.

Brett, the mechanic behind the 4-wheeling fun of Stellar Adventures, has been coming to Lake City now for 10 years. This is my third summer with THAT guy, who usually camps off the beaten path.

During last summer’s visit, our plans to spend June 1 to Oct. 1 this summer in Lake City first took shape.

At the time, the CoVid-19 pandemic had hit Wild Bunch especially hard, forcing me to take a delivery driver job to stay busy myself and keep alive my small business.

So, while here last summer, I asked Doug DeShazo, the owner of Lake City Brewing Company, if I could get a small, part-time job waitressing. I was hesitant at first, because everybody else who works there is in their 20s, so I am old enough to be their mom!

But I kept in touch with Doug, and as soon as I got back here this summer, he followed through on his promise to keep me busy on the weekends when they are busiest.

Brett also has picked up a small, part-time job with Hinsdale County cutting down trees and watering lawns and just working in an environment that is beautiful and stress-free and where he is appreciated. 

We were fortunate to find a gentleman who owns a historic Victorian home right in the center of town, and he rents us the loft-style Carriage House on his property. The hardest part of moving here for the summer is our two hound dogs, but luckily, he allows us to keep them on his property to make this dream a reality.

After seeing the pandemic clouds start to part and the Wild Bunch bounce back stronger than ever, we made the final decision in February to return to this remote, out-of-the-way paradise.

Lake City is a small, beautiful, quaint, quiet town of great people who welcome “summer locals” like us with open arms.

This is one of those old-fashioned TV dreamland places everybody knows each other’s kids and families and you look out for your neighbors. Lake City is the Andy Griffith Show’s “Mayberry” come to life – the kind of place you wish were your hometown so you could always come back to be among people who consider you family.

There are so many wonderful shops and restaurants here, too. Everything is local and each business looks out for the other – instead of being in competition, they are in cahoots together, feeding off each other.

The restaurants work really hard in the summer to make their money when the tourists are here and they have the most foot traffic. The County Store still closes at 6 p.m., though, so you know you are in a small town.

There is no Wal-Mart or McDonald’s here, so it is not a “Convenience Town.” You have to drive an hour to Gunnison to get your groceries. You can not just get whatever you crave or desire without making serious plans.

The people are so NICE. There is a Facebook forum here where citizens ask each other, “Does anybody have this or that I could use?”

Or the most popular post: “Anybody going to Gunnison?” You know you are in a special place when people go to the store to pick up dog food or toilet paper or whatever else you might need. That is just what people do for each other here.

I marveled on Social Media the other day about being able to drive a half-mile in any direction in Phoenix and being able to grab a Sonic Blast.

Here? There is only one place to go – and it is SOOOOOO much better – the San Juan Soda Company.

Here you get a legit milk shake -- hand-made with real whole milk -- and it is so AWESOME.

The town and townsfolk remind me of all the things I want others to love about the Wild Bunch – hard working and caring with an overflowing amount of homespun hospitality. Small enough to remain on a first-name basis; not too big to fail you personally by treating you cattle or worse, like a “number.” A special treat you can not find on every street corner.

Laurel Darren (right) enjoys the trails of Colorado's San Juan Mountain on a mountain bike ride with Lake City local Lydia McNeese. The two are training with another Lake City resident, Amanda Hartman, for a race there next month during Darren's summer vacation away from day-to-day operations for Arizona's Wild Bunch Desert Guides.

Laurel Darren (right) enjoys the trails of Colorado's San Juan Mountain on a mountain bike ride with Lake City local Lydia McNeese (left). The two are
training with another Lake City resident, Amanda Hartman, for a race there next month during Darren's summer vacation away from day-to-day
operations for Arizona's Wild Bunch Desert Guides.

Phoenix hiking tours: Take a break
Whether taking care of Wild Bunch guests via cellphone and email – or simply feeding my own soul -- I find myself busy every day in Lake City juggling my dueling passions of mountain biking and hiking.

I have two girlfriends here that help keep me busy.

Lydia McNeese has been a special education teacher for 20 years in this region and Amanda Hartman owns the aforementioned San Juan Soda Company.

Do yourself a favor and visit often if you are ever in this part of the country.

San Juan Soda Company is a historic ice cream store and soda fountain like you would see in the early 1900s. It has a longtime family history with the business passing down through the generations of Amanda’s family and now she is the owner and operator. She and her staff are so insanely talented, every day the line of customers is out the door into the park with people anxiously awaiting their creations.

The three of us ride mountain bikes together 2-3 mornings each week. We are all training for the Lake City Alpine 50 Mountain Bike Race in August.

It is so AWESOME to be in the presence of two really strong women like that.

I am also honored to be an invited member of the Lake City Hiking Club, which meets twice each week in the summer. Everybody else in the group is older and wiser and in so much better shape than me!

These people are typically in their 50s or older and they simply kick ass. They are so vibrant and care so deeply about each other. It truly is inspiring.

They love to hike and they make sure to take the time to enjoy THEIR people and THEIR surroundings each and every day.

No day is the same with these people. They make the ordinary extraordinary. They have made me slow down and really stop to “smell the wildflowers” – and truly appreciate where I am at and who I am with and what I am doing.

That is one of the great benefits of being surrounded by people who have had some amazing journeys and awesome life experiences. Their wisdom just soaks into your soul.

I hiked my first 14’er with the club recently and had the leader, Glenn Heumann, at the top of Handies Peak rooting me on when I was struggling with Daisy Mae and making sure I had the appropriate welcome at the top.

My experiences with both groups is such a revelation when I think about Wild Bunch Desert Guides offering Phoenix hiking tours and Scottsdale mountain bike tours.

This is their territory, so these people are GUIDING ME!

It helps that all of these people take me places where I do not have cellphone access all of the time, so I can really enjoy the beauty of nature. They have allowed me to be truly present in the moment and get in touch with myself and my thoughts much better.

Being here recharges my batteries and refocuses me for the journey to come. I have found myself thinking more about big picture items than simply worrying about the day-to-day grind of details.

I am able to see the proverbial forest through the trees.

It is good to be reminded of what it is like to be on the “other side,” standing in the shoes of one of our Wild Bunch guests.

(TOP) Laurel Darren and her Plot Hound Daisy Mae enjoy one of their vacation adventures with Colorado's Lake City Hiking Club

With hiking poles hoisted to the heavens, Laurel Darren (center), owner of Arizona's Wild Bunch Desert Guides, is

Laurel Darren and her Plot Hound Daisy Mae enjoy one of their vacation adventures with Colorado's Lake City Hiking Club. (BOTTOM) Laurel is "properly welcomed" to the summit of Handies Peak by her friends with Colorado's Lake City Hiking Club.

Phoenix hiking tours: How magic happens
The Lake City Hiking Club is SOOOOOO welcoming.

Everyone in the group always takes the time to make sure everyone else is doing OK. Someone always brings something extra in case somebody forgets to bring anything. We are allowed to bring our dogs on the hikes and everybody in the group makes sure the dogs are OK, too.

It is a very caring, inviting atmosphere -- which is the same sort of special sauce I hope me and my staff provide to our guests on Phoenix hiking tours with the Wild Bunch Desert Guides.

The one difference here is nothing is flat like in the Sonoran Desert. All the Lake City hikes typically start at 9,000 feet before you go up. The elevation gain is normally at least 1,200 feet or more.

And there are people in the club in their 60s and 70s and they are CRUSHING IT! I am like “SLOW DOWN!

Here I am in the back a lot, turning around to act like I am looking at the scenery, so they do not see me breathing heavy!

I am 45, and these are the people I am striving to be like when I grow up. They are the Sherpas on the Himalayas. They are amazing physically and they are teaching me spiritually to stop rushing to get done, to slow down and appreciate the many gifts along the trail.

On the mountain bike rides, we are all training for the same race, but more than a goal binds us.

For example, the other day, the gameplan was for the three of us to reach the top of Cinnamon Pass.

However, Amanda found herself in a head space where she was exhausted from running her business – which is so freaking busy. She also is a mom of four in charge of a thriving household, and on top of that, Amanda is an Emergency Medical Services volunteer in this county.

So yeah, she was feeling a bit overwhelmed – and who could blame her?

At one point, Amanda stopped and said, “Hey guys, I am going to head over to American Basin. I have to get myself together.”

Lydia and I continued up to Cinnamon Pass, but before we did, I got off the bike and walked over to her and just gave her a big hug.

Amanda started to get emotional, and I just stood there looking at her and assured, “I’ve been there. We all have these days,” I told her. “I can not tell you the number of times I have been you right now. Go feed your soul, girl! Go do what you need to do.”

I told her, “You know where the keys are and take the Tacoma if you need it to get back to town.”

Lydia and I did not want to leave our friend, but we knew exactly how she felt and that she needed some alone time to think it through and clear her head.

When we got back from the top, we got a text from Amanda that told us she had a great hike by herself. “It’s EXACTLY what I needed,” she enthused.

However, I find myself following more often here than my customary leading role on a Scottsdale mountain bike tour.

Amanda and Lydia are my mountain bike “guides” here.

For example, Lydia and I went out one day and got 5 miles up Engineer Pass when we saw lightning. You should have seen how quickly we got back to town on those bikes.

She is a local. She knows the weather patterns here. She knew not to mess around.

That is exactly what we try to deliver with the Wild Bunch. We are the local experts making sure your adventure is safe while getting all of the “treats” you should receive when you “shop local.”

But these ladies are not just “my guides,” they are first and foremost my friends.

I can bounce so many things off them. Amanda and I specifically talk shop a lot as small business owners. There has been more than once where we have shared some tears.

Like the other day when I got a little emotional on the bike because I was having stress in my business and she was riding next to me just listening.

Finally, she said, “You got it. Laurel, you can do anything!”

So, they are my spiritual guides, too – they get me on so many different levels.

Plus, they are freaking amazing on the bike.

The other day we went and rode Big Blue. That is six miles of climbing up to 10,000 feet and then you bomb down into Big Blue Trailhead, which is another six miles. Then you have to come back up six miles and bomb back down.

Amanda was just on fire. So, Lydia I asked her, “Where did you get these super powers? Oh, let me guess – the coffee ice cream???”

But challenging myself to grow mentally, physically, and spiritually is just what I am looking for while on vacation – and I hope I deliver this aspect to my guests with the Wild Bunch.

With Colorado's San Juan Mountains providing a beautiful backdrop, Laurel Darren (right) and Lake City local Lydia McNeese pose on their mountain bikes to celebrate reaching Cinnamon Pass. Darren's adventures. part of her summer vacation, also offer daily reminders about her small business, Wild Bunch Desert Guides.

With Colorado's San Juan Mountains providing a beautiful backdrop, Laurel Darren (right) and Lake City local Lydia McNeese pose on their mountain bikes to celebrate reaching Cinnamon Pass. Darren's adventures. part of her summer vacation, also offer daily reminders about her small business, Wild Bunch Desert Guides.

Phoenix hiking tours: Behind the curtain
Wild Bunch Desert Guides remains super busy this summer. I am thrilled – but not surprised – because people are travelling again. When the Canadian border opens again, I suspect we will see even more tourists flooding to Arizona.

While I am still running my thriving little company remotely, I would be remiss without mentioning Joe, my jack-of-all-trades right hand man who makes this all possible.

Without a Radar O’Reilly-style “staff sergeant” providing boots-on-the-ground back home, no way could this “General” get away from the battlefield.

Joe is more than my Social Media guru on Instagram. He is a general manager right now -- checking on the equipment, reaching out to the guides, confirming the schedules. He is handling all the concierges and hotels this summer.

I also am thankful for the commitment to excellence by my many longtime and loyal guides, who have consistently delivered the five-star ratings Wild Bunch receives from TripAdvisor, Google, and Yelp.

Like any boss, there are days I get irritated or mad at them for being late or whatever is the small detail du jour. But at the end of another wonderful day here in paradise, I think to myself, if they did not do their jobs so well, Wild Bunch would not be here in the first place.

To be sure, there have been a few days where I am Amanda, on top of a mountain crying my eyes out because something with the business is not going right.

Maybe all of my guides are unavailable – because they also are taking time to do personal stuff and be with their families or go on vacation.

So, I have had to come to the realization I just have to say, “SORRY. WE ARE SOLD OUT. WE CAN NOT ACCOMMODATE THAT TOUR.

I have never been one to easily admit defeat or shrink from a challenge. So, that remains a hurdle I am still learning to get over.

But I have to accept I am only being honest with the guest. I am not pulling the rug from beneath them. All we can do is do our best and being here has reminded me of that.

There also have been some difficult days here because the cell reception is tough, too.

To get service it seems you have to be standing on one foot, facing north, with your hat turned backwards, while wearing a purple sports bra and Wild Bunch t-shirt.

Managing that has been difficult and frustrating for a person used to being on the phone constantly texting, emailing or calling.

Funny, the girls and I were up on the Continental Divide trail a few weeks ago when my phone went off and Amanda was like, “You have service up here?”

I literally got a call from a guest, but I let it go to voicemail.

That is another thing this summer has taught me – You can live your life and still let calls go to voicemail. You can stay in the moment uninterrupted.

When I am out on a hike or bike ride with my friends? I am starting to accept that is “my time,” and I do not have time to pick up that phone. I can get back to the caller or texter and the world will not end while they wait.

I want and need to be responsive, but I also cannot be on call 24/7 as much as I want to be. There are messages that I am just going to have to return.

There are going to be some other changes like start times and other details when I go back, too.

The time here in Lake City has allowed me to think a lot about the guided Phoenix hiking tours and guided Scottsdale mountain bike tours from the Wild Bunch.

This summer also has reminded me why vacation is so important. This is why getting out of the norm and getting away from the day-to-day worries and the daily grind is so beneficial in recovering who you are and reclaiming who you want to become.

That is why I am here on vacation, of course, but this is also what I strive to do as a guide and adventure tour owner and operator. These are the kinds of experiences that I yearn to deliver, which feed my soul and let me share my passion in life.

This summer here in Lake City has only strengthened my commitment to make every tour Wild Bunch offers remarkable and once-in-a-lifetime memorable.

With her right arm raised and trusty mountain bike on her left side, Laurel Darren celebrates reaching the 12,800-foot summit of Engineer Pass in Hinsdale County, Colo. Darren is the owner of Arizona's Wild Bunch Desert Guides, which offers customizable guided Phoenix hiking tours and Scottsdale mountain biking tours.

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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