Well, I gave a couple of bikes a spin over the weekend. I tried the Gary Fisher Ferrous 21" 29er, the Paragon (same as the Ferrous, but Aluminum), a $400 29er (don't remember the brand), and a Giant Yukon.
The Ferrous was fantastic! Great components and solid fit. Really liked the Fox Fork
I prefer steel, so the Ferrous beat the Paragon
The cheapo was terrible - I really did not like the DART shox
The Yukon was OK, but I really like the 29" wheels - makes me feel a little less like I'm driving a clown car
All said, the Ferrous comes to $1800 at my local bike shop. That's a bit expensive - but after doing some more research, it seems that some of the components I didn't like on the cheapo are also on the lower end model of the Specialized.
Any thoughts? Should I give in and stick to the Rockhopper 29er, therefore sticking to my budget or shall I shell out some major $s for the better components?
Thanks for everyone's insight so far. Super helpful!!!