Visitors to Phoenix may know about the area’s golf courses and shopping, but to really experience the uniqueness of this desert city, get away from the typical tourist enticements and find some of the activities that can be enjoyed only in this unusual environment.
Unlike the flatlands of Chicago, Phoenix has a mountain literally in its backyard – Camelback Mountain. Camelback is great for urban hiking when time is short; it’s a favorite with locals because it’s so close. Spend an hour on one of the two easy trails – Bobby’s Rock Trail or the Ramada Loop Trail. If you have more time, take the longer Cholla Trail, or challenge yourself by hiking to the 2,700 foot summit on the Echo Canyon trail. The view is spectacular from any point on the mountain. It’s also the perfect spot to watch the sun setting on the city below you – although it’s best to drive to the summit to watch the sunset since the law requires that hikers arrive at their descent before dark.
Another great spot for looking down on this desert cityscape is South Mountain Park, the largest municipal park in the country. Drive the South Mountain Park Scenic Drive, which wanders through the park’s 16,500 acres and provides several lookouts, or hike the trails and see the area’s petroglyphs. The view from Summit Lookout at 2,330 feet emphasizes the size of this sprawling desert metropolis. The park includes 58 miles of trails for horseback riding, mountain biking, and hiking, including a wheel-chair accessible trail. Spend some time in the Environmental Education Center or participate in one of the ranger-led outdoor programs if you’re interested in learning more about the area’s desert ecosystem. The park has picnic areas, so bring a lunch and spend the day.
Visit the Desert Botanical Garden in Papago Park. This botanical garden has one of the world’s best collections of desert plants with 50 acres of outdoor exhibits. It is also home to 139 rare, threatened and endangered plant species from around the world.
220 acre Encanto Park may not be unique to a desert environment, but it’s a popular spot with the locals, especially families. The park has a lagoon (where you can rent canoes), a swimming pool, a nature trail, two golf courses, and fishing. One of its most popular attractions, though, is Enchanted Island, with rides, games, and a train that travels around the park.
Do as the locals do and go tubing on Salt River. Salt River Tubing is the company most people use when tubing. Floating down the Salt River on an inner tube is a wonderfully lazy and relaxing way to spend the day. If you go with a group, you can tie your inner tubes together and make a party out of it. The season runs from Memorial Day weekend to Labor Day weekend with tubing offered on the weekends only in September.
If you’ve never been to Phoenix or spent time in any desert environment, remember that it is very hot and very dry (it may be a city, but it’s a city that was built in the middle of a desert), so always bring sunscreen, sunglasses, a hat, and plenty of drinking water, especially when hiking in the parks or visiting the surrounding desert. Be especially diligent if children are with you.
If you have time to venture outside of the metro area, here are a few suggestions:
Drive Apache Trail
The Apache Trail, which contains some of the most beautiful landscapes in Arizona, has been designated a USFS Scenic Byway by the U.S. Forest Service, as well as an Arizona Scenic Historic Byway. The most popular route begins in Apache Junction, about 25 miles east of downtown Phoenix. It continues in a loop through Roosevelt, Globe, and then back to Apache Junction. Along the 80 mile trip, you’ll see magnificent mountain-top views, dense forests of saguaro and ferocactus, and several deep blue lakes. If time is a consideration, you can also take the shorter 46 mile route between Apache Junction and Roosevelt Lake. You’ll pass (and can stop at) Lost Dutchman State Park, Goldfield Ghost Town, Saguaro Lake, the Canyon Lake Recreation Area, the Theodore Roosevelt Dam site, and the Tonto National Monument. While this drive is spectacular, it is not for the faint of heart. The road is narrow in places, partially unpaved, and at some points hugs the edge of a canyon which then drops several hundred feet below. Large vehicles are not recommended.
Watch the sun setting in the Painted Desert
There are few sites more beautiful than the sun setting over the hills in Arizona’s Painted Desert (about 3.5 hours northeast of Phoenix). Because of the geographical history of the region and the composition of the rocks, the hills in the Painted Desert contain a multitude of colors – lavender, yellow, red, orange, pink, and gray, which took millions of years to create. The setting sun illuminates the brilliance of all these colors at once, like a rainbow in the middle of the desert. Set aside some time to visit the nearby Petrified Forest National Park, with 200 million year old fossils and one of the world’s largest concentrations of petrified wood.
And there’s always that little spot known as the Grand Canyon.
For a completely different perspective on Phoenix, drive from California to Phoenix and arrive after dark. After driving that long, lonely open stretch of desert highway and seeing nothing but the millions and millions of stars lighting up the black sky for miles on end, it’s a somewhat surreal feeling to slowly see some faint light in the distance and watch as it gets larger and clearer until you realize an illuminated city is rising from the desert. It’s a sight and a feeling you won’t soon forget.
Phoenix is easily reachable from O’Hare and Midway airports as well as Amtrak at Union Station.
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