Finding a little adventure and a lot of grapefruit in the Valley of the Sun

The suburbs of Arizona’s most populous city are probably the last place you’d expect to find adventure. But you don’t have to look far past the walls of its master-planned communities to discover a wilder side of this place.

Just beyond Phoenix’s nondescript subdivisions, we stumbled upon challenging hikes, exotic food and even an olive farm.

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Everything moves a little faster in the Valley of the Sun, which is about my speed. I learned to drive in Southern California, where it isn’t uncommon to merge into bumper-to-bumper traffic moving along at 75 miles an hour.

For the last few weeks, I’ve been driving a rental Cadillac CTS sedan. Hertz lets you choose vehicles like the CTS through its Ultimate Choice program. But I didn’t have to. Somehow, an agent at the Phoenix Airport location had been tipped off to my driving preferences. Maybe it was something I said after returning the last CTS — that this was one of the best rental cars I’d ever driven. Plus, it had plenty of room in the trunk for my middle’s son’s unicycle. A Hertz representative handed me the keys to a CTS and we were on our way.

At first glance, there’s absolutely nowhere interesting to go in Phoenix. It’s a grid of mini-malls and suburban sprawl, one neighborhood virtually indistinguishable from the next. We settled into a rental home in Gilbert, one of the nearby communities, where the cookie-cutter homes looked so similar that I routinely forgot which house was mine.
Was this, as my 15-year-old-son claimed, where “Creativity goes to die?” It couldn’t be, I told him.

Within a few days, we’d caught wind of a few attractions. How about the Desert Botanical Garden, a short drive from the airport, which was holding its annual Las Noches De Las Luminarias in the evenings? It’s a holiday-themed, evening event with 8,000 hand-lit luminaria bags plus the sights and sounds of 10 entertainment ensembles. There’s something about walking among the towering saguaro cacti and giant face sculptures in the twilight that’s truly special. From a distance, the cacti look like figures, transfixed by the setting sun.

Turns out even Gilbert has its own version of a botanical garden, Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch, a network of hiking trails and lakes, conveniently located near a library. We alternated between daily walks in the preserve — where we spotted a gaggle of waterfowl and, not unsurprisingly, a fox or two — and a local bike trail that featured an abundance of ripening grapefruit and lemon.

Confession time: These paths were my all-time favorite morning walks. I figured that any ripening fruit hanging over a fence is fair game, and I came prepared with a backpack. When I passed an orange tree, I harvested the fruit and returned to our rental home to offer my kids a choice of citrus.

“Dad,” my daughter said in an accusatory tone. “Did you steal those?”

No, I said sheepishly. I was simply helping our neighbors maintain their lawn. Yeah, that’s it. Helping.

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She remained unconvinced.

For more advanced hikes, two options really stood out. The first, right across from the Desert Botanical Garden, is one of the most popular in town — Double Butte Loop Trail. It’s a busy path that, while unremarkable, offers some stunning views of the city and, if you’re an aviation geek like me, a nice view of aircraft landing at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport.

But for some truly spectacular sights, you have to ascend to Wind Cave in Usery Mountain Regional Park. It’s a challenging three-mile hike that winds through a pristine desertscape of shrubs, cacti and rocks. On a mid-December afternoon, you can admire this part of the Phoenix suburbs untouched by developers, then watch the sunset and the lights of the city flickering on, as you descend.

There’s also a food scene in Phoenix, though it might not seem like it at first. Barnone, which bills itself as a community for skilled craftsmen, is a standout, and in more ways than one. The building, including a 1950s Quonset hut, stands out among the chain restaurants and commercial buildings in the valley. So do the vendors, which include a microbrewery, a machine shop and a stationery store. Our favorite? A vegan restaurant called the Uprooted Kitchen. Try the peanut butter cup dessert and then tell me you don’t want to become a vegan. I’ll wait here for your answer.

Perhaps the biggest surprise was finding an olive farm in Phoenix. It’s relatively new, at least by the standard of olive farms and olive trees, which can live to be thousands of years old. The Queen Creek Olive Mill specializes in producing extra virgin olive oil and offers a fascinating tour that explains the growing, harvesting and production process. There’s a gift shop and a restaurant. Younger kids may be more interested in eating than in learning about the difference between virgin and extra virgin olive oil, but there are picnic tables and they serve Neapolitan pizza, so who’s complaining? The owners of this olive farm, Perry and Brenda Rea, are former Detroiters with a fascinating backstory who started the farm in the late 1990s. They’re also really into being olive farmers so much, they even have the rare olive oil sommelier distinction. And they have a great sense of humor.

Our visit to Queen Creek Olive Mill changed how I think about olive oil. I’ll always insist on the EVOO designation in a glass bottle with a bottling date and the name of the grove on it. OK, so I’m an olive oil snob now. And, while we didn’t get to stroll through the olive groves — the tour is limited to the streetside sales facility — I have a much deeper appreciation of this simple and often overlooked fruit.

So if anyone ever tells you Phoenix is boring, tell them they haven’t tried hard enough. The Valley of the Sun is a place of adventure — if you know where to look.