Gold Canyon Golf Resort: Dinosaur Mountain course headlines local favorite

By Shane Sharp, Contributor

GOLD CANYON, Ariz. -- The traffic on the Superstition Freeway begins to disappear east of Apache Junction. In fact, the Superstition Freeway begins to disappear east of Apache Junction.

Gold Canyon Golf Resort - Dinosaur Mountain - 15
Gold Canyon Golf Resort offers views of the Superstition Mountains.
Gold Canyon Golf Resort - Dinosaur Mountain - 15Gold Canyon's Dinosaur Mountain golf course - 15th
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Gold Canyon Golf Resort - Dinosaur Mountain Course

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Dinosaur Mountain, designed by Ken Kavanaugh and opened in 1982, is often touted as one of the best public golf courses in Arizona. It has some of the most dramatic elevation changes in Arizona golf, and you would struggle to find a golf course in the state that is in better condition. Controlling your yardage can be tricky, but the scenery more than makes up for any of the golf course’s challenge.

18 Holes | Resort golf course | Par: 70 | 6653 yards | Book online | ... details »

The multi-lane artery that flows east and west from Phoenix through the burgeoning East Valley narrows to two lanes and reverts back to U.S. 60, pure and simple, as it rambles by the Gold Canyon Golf Resort on its way to the high-desert outposts of Globe and Miami.

For more than 18 years, golf-starved residents of the Valley of the Sun have made their way to this rustic golf resort at the base of the Superstition Mountains. From downtown Phoenix it's a 40-minute drive to the front door of one of the resort's alabaster casitas. From there, it is a one-minute walk to the first tee of either the property's sublime golf courses.

"We are a stay-and-play property but have a strong local constituency," says Scott Scherger, Gold Canyon Golf Resort's long-time director of golf.

Strong enough that the readers of Arizona Business magazine voted Gold Canyon's Dinosaur Mountain the no. 1 public golf track in the state for 2001-02, besting big name golf bastions like Troon North, Grayhawk, and SunRidge Canyon. In previous and subsequent rankings, the course rarely strayed from the magazine's top five.

Yet, because of it's remote location, paltry price point, and non-name brand designer (Tucson-based Ken Kavanaugh), Dinosaur Mountain manages to fly below the radar of many national golf glossies. Golf Digest raters, clearly under the influence of desert heat, stuck Dinosaur Mountain with four stars (it says here it's worth another half). The course has never sniffed Golf Magazine's vaunted Top 100 You Can Play rankings, and rarely (if ever) receives any ink from the New York City based monthly.

Yet, the layout is, as anyone who's played it will attest, one of the most photogenic, memorable, jaw-dropping courses in all of Arizona.

"It is a roller coaster ride with one memorable shot after another," Kavanaugh recently told "It is an approach shot golf course and that is how you defend par these days, via the greens and the surrounds. It is resort golf and it is dramatic golf."

Most golfers don't realize Dinosaur Mountain is a two-part mini-series; Kavanaugh actually crafted the course during two separate stints. The resort's original owners had completed nine holes of what is now the Sidewinder Course and nine holes of Dinosaur were under construction. When he arrived in the late '80s, Kavanaugh designed what are now holes one through four and 14 through 18 on Dinosaur. A few years later, he returned to complete the course.

Over an iced tea in the Greenwoods Bar and Grill, Kavanaugh admits Dinosaur's piecemeal development is hard to follow. He also says he was in two different places in his career when designing the first and second segments. The first time around, he yearned to build a course worthy of, and even superior to its setting. The second time around, he decided to let the site's postcard views, elevation changes, and overall "wow" factor stand on its own.

And stand it does. Right from the opening hole. The 316-yard uphill par-4 starts the ride up the mountain and is capped by one of the most diabolical greens in the Valley. Sloping severely from back to front, approach shots landing above the cup are "fried" as Kavanaugh is prone to saying. Putting back down the green, balls easily can roll all the way back to the front of the green.

Survive the first, and it's game on

Dinosaur Mountain wastes little time in delivering the product that has made it a local favorite. The par-3 second is one of only a handful of one-shotters in the Valley to garner a handicap rating as stiff as 11 (hint: it's not the downhill tee shot).

The 514-yard third is one the few area par-5s to garner a No. 1 handicap rating. A steep, uphill approach and a tiny, two-tiered green keeps this sweeping dogleg left from being reached in two by all but local long drive champ Brian Pavlet.

Most golfers attempt to get through the three opening holes with some semblance of pride and a respectable number. From there, even serious score keepers eschew accurate record keeping in favor of prime photo opportunities.

The 467-yard par-4 fourth starts with a nose-bleed level tee box. There are spectacular views of Dinosaur Mountain, jagged rock outcroppings and even a sliver of grass below sometimes properly identified as the intended landing area. Like Arnold Schwarzenegger after a cold glance from Maria Shriver, the fairway moves hard to the left. Tee shots cajoled down the right side funnel to the middle and provide a decent look at another diminutive, back to front sloping green.

The 236-yard par-3 fifth carries on the drama with a tee box perched some 100-feet above a green just slightly smaller than the outfield at Bank One Ballpark. Watching a well-struck iron reach its apex against a backdrop of the Superstition Mountains, hold its position for split second, and plummet towards a lush green putting surface instantly erases the pain of 110 degrees and a $20 worth of sports drinks.

And on and on one could go with the play-by-play at Dinosaur Mountain.

"You have to see it to believe it," Scherger says. "I don't know how else to describe it. You just have to see it and play it to understand."

Gold Canyon Golf Resort's Sidewinder Course

Scherger, who bears an uncanny resemblance to Matthew Broderick, is captaining a golf cart towards the first tee of Sidewinder. The most popular course among first time visitors is Dinosaur Mountain, hands down, he confides. The course that garners more repeat play than a Golden Tee machine is Sidewinder, however.

"Sidewinder is good golf minus the bells and whistles," Scherger says.

Dinosaur Mountain plays up, along and over (logically) Dinosaur Mountain. Sidewinder (appropriately) snakes around its base, darting in and out of natural arroyos and dry creek beds. The scorecard says that Dinosaur Mountain slopes to a prodigious 143 from the tips (6,653 yards). Sidewinder tips out at 6,509 yards and slopes to a manageable 130.

"I think it plays harder than that," Scherger says. "Sidewinder is more of a tee shot golf course so if you are spraying the ball it makes for a long day."

No one -- not locals and not traveling golfers -- should be opposed to a long day at Gold Canyon Golf Resort.

Stay and play at Gold Canyon Golf Resort

It's little wonder many locals decide not to make the 40-minute drive back to the Valley, proper. Gold Canyon Resort offers three casita levels: spa, deluxe and patio. Spa casitas have indoor and outdoor whirlpools, deluxe casitas feature one or two queen size beds, refrigerators, indoor and outdoor fireplaces. Patio casitas sport choice views of the Dinosaur Mountain course and come in king size or two queen size bed editions.

Shane SharpShane Sharp, Contributor

Shane Sharp is vice president of Buffalo Communications, a golf and lifestyle media agency. He was a writer, senior writer and managing editor of from 1997 to 2003.

Reader Comments / Reviews Leave a comment
  • gold canyon-dinosaur

    mark vinciguerra wrote on: Jun 12, 2008

    our group played the dinosaur last year for the first time and this year twice in june-it is a staple(a definite must)now on our annuual AZ trip....course quality 9 on a 10 scale....views-the best of any course in AZ(and we've played 'em all)