Though a pilot mans each of Hot Air Expeditions balloon flights, the excursions are really guided by Mother Nature. The colorful balloons simply follow the wind, hovering above the cacti and coyote that call the Sonoran desert home before gently climbing breezes to give passengers a full view of the surrounding mountains and lakes. Groups can take morning flights year-round or afternoon flights from November through March, both of which offer spectacular photo opportunities, as well as time-sensitive challenges to any still-life painters on board.
The mutable nature of the flights mean they last anywhere from 45–90 minutes, after which, passengers will enjoy sparkling beverages and catered snacks, such as pastries. Each guest is awarded an official flight certificate as a memento of their aerial journey before boarding a courtesy van that returns them to the launch point. Though the actual flights last up to 90 minutes, groups should allow up to four hours for the entire trip.
As the sun rises and illuminates the jagged Sonoran Desert with rose-colored light, colorful hot-air balloons rise into the sky right along with it. This scene occurs seven days a week from September to May during Tucson Balloon Rides' one-hour sunrise floats. Soaring with the morning's easy wind currents, FAA-certified pilot Kevin Wilbur ferries passengers for 10 to 15 miles at altitudes between 500 and 4,000 feet over the cacti forests of Saguaro National Park West and the shrub-covered flatlands of Avra Valley. While gliding over the Tucson Mountains, he also points out important sites as well as deer, foxes, and coyotes. After a gentle touchdown, Captain Kevin and guests enjoy a champagne toast and brunch. If the voyage inspires anyone to become a hot-air-balloon pilot or a cloud, he can also help them earn their private or commercial pilot license with his training program.
No one knows where Dr. Vantas lost his way. Once an esteemed doctor at the vanguard of electroshock therapy for the mentally insane, the physician let his psychiatric hospital become a madhouse, prompting rumors of Vantas using inhumane experiments on patients. Those who enter his territory risk falling prey to its deranged denizens and the quack’s extremely cold stethoscope. This is the spine-tingling, horror-film narrative that plays out to visitors as they creep through The Asylum, a haunted site modeled after an 1870s-style mental institution and one third of of The Crypt Haunted Attractions’ three-piece tribute to fear.
The next stop is the The Crypt, a vault filled with the living dead that beckons intrepid guests to descend into it. Tiptoeing through the chamber's darkened corridors, voyagers must stay poised as they strafe around staggering corpses groaning about their hunger for brains or the lack of legroom in their casket. Anchoring the evening of fright is the Chaos Maze, the new lawless labyrinth that requires cunning, agility, and fearlessness to make it through unscathed.
It begins with a flurry of activity. Balloon operators prepare for lift-off, checking equipment and tossing ropes as spectators wander the grounds, observing the action. And then it reaches a new level: dozens of balloons take flight at once, filling the crisp December dawn sky with brilliant blues, purples, oranges, and reds that rival the colors around them. The Arizona Balloon Classic's orbs then set off on an aerial hare-and-hound race, drawing cheers from below as onlookers snap pictures.
For one weekend each year, visitors gather on the grounds to snap pictures and watch the balloons inflate and lift-off outside the Gilbert Civic Center for the Classic––a three-day festival celebrating hot-air balloon flight and culture. But the fun doesn't end with the descent to earth. After sunset the tethered balloons begin to glow, lighting up for the DESERT GLOWS portion of the festivities. Attendees browse exhibits and feast on treats from a variety of vendors, and children play in the Family Fun Zone. Last, on Saturday evening, sparks give balloons a run for their money, springing through the sky in a stunning fireworks display.
The seasoned trekkers at Take a Hike Arizona garnish the pristine Sonoran Desert with paisley pastiches of footprints as they lead wayfarers on personalized voyages through twisting trails and clandestine canyons. Expand your appreciation for the complex eco-system of this picturesque wilderness during an exhilarating half-day expedition that lasts 2–4 hours. The excursion can be customized into a leisurely, moderate, or challenging hike, depending on your level of experience or possession of an ephemeral quality that grizzled newspaper editors call “moxie.” In addition to possessing expert knowledge about local botanical and animal life, each tour guide is a rubber-stamped practitioner of first aid and CPR. Preadolescent amblers 12 and under are free with a paying adult, receive a complimentary disposable camera, and will be treated to games such as "desert bingo," an interactive game to keep kids engaged in the hike. Bottled water, snacks, ponchos (if necessary), and the use of backpacks and trekking poles are provided, so there is no need to bring tupperware containers of water or socks filled with emergency fondue.
As a college student and avid climber, Erick Geryol would work at a local pizzeria crafting pies every day after rock climbing. A decade later, he returned to purchase the then-unoccupied space where the pizzeria once stood and opened Boulders on Broadway—a salute to his dual loves of climbing and mountain biking. Not one to ignore his culinary roots, he put specialty pizzas at the center of the large menu, which are now served alongside more than 30 beers on draft and more than 70 in bottles. Visitors are invited to lock their bikes up inside and take a seat on the patio or at the lively bar, which frequently hosts special beer events, trivia, and Tip Your Bartender Night, which is every night.