Hometown pride: Finding what's special about the 'Nix

Okay, don't laugh: This year, instead of bashing this sprawling, hot vacuum we call home, I've resolved to stop dissing Phoenix. That's no simple task, because there's something about these miles of desert-y 'burbs that invites — no, begs for — criticism. From the endless traffic to the cookie-cutter houses to the lack of neighborhood identities, it's just too easy to mumble and snark about Phoenix. But I'm through complaining. This year, I'm all about embracing what's lovable here in this parched patch of land.

Seriously. I've resolved to do all the things that can be done nowhere else but Phoenix. I'll explore the great outdoors, seek out fantastic architecture, and visit world-class resorts and quirky museums — all in hopes of remembering that there's a whole lot to love here.

I'll start by literally hitting the trail. One of the best reasons to love Phoenix is our abundant great outdoors, and I'm headed there, because metropolitan Phoenix is home to more than 100 mountain-biking and hiking trails. Some of them are old mines, like the Four Peaks Mine (take SR 87 northeast until you get to the Four Peaks turnoff), where I can indulge my "Wizened Prospector" fantasy while getting some fresh air and working my gams, too. And then I'll stretch some and head out to the super-popular and red-rock-studded Dreamy Draw Park (2421 West Northern Avenue), home to rumors of UFO landings and some pretty striking scenery.

More obvious hiking destinations are Camelback Mountain (5700 North Echo Canyon Parkway) and Piestewa Peak (Lincoln Drive, west of 24th Street), our local "Gucci" trails, where it's possible to work out and work it at the same time, surrounded by the best bodies and the cruisiest cuties out for a healthful stroll. If you're looking for some history in your hike, the Hedgepeth Hills (State Route 101 at 59th Avenue in Glendale) is the place you want. There, you can expand your lungs and stretch your tired muscles while also learning the difference between sedimentary and igneous rocks, assuming you care. These hills merge into the Deer Valley Rock Art Center (3711 West Deer Valley Road, Glendale), one of the best-kept secrets in town and home to a museum, extra-twisty trails, and more than 1,500 cool petroglyphs — something you certainly won't find at the local mall.

If horseback riding and vista viewing is more your thing, take Central Avenue through all its crazy curves until you dead end at South Mountain Park. At over 16,500 acres, this is the largest municipal park in the nation. The white-knuckle, seven-mile drive to the top offers some of the best views of the valley, and there are a host of trails, for novice and expert hikers alike, throughout the park. Horse trails abound, too, so indulge your Wild West fantasy with a giddy-up past cactus and other flora, then ride on over for a steak dinner at T-Bone Steakhouse (10037 South 19th Avenue), where several of the local trails end and where dinner begins.

Once I've finished my hiking tour of Phoenix, I'm going to head out in search of some pretty buildings. Our town is home to some tacky houses, for sure, but we're also home to world-class architecture, too. Why else would Frank Lloyd Wright, after discovering our desert, have founded Taliesin West (12621 North Frank Lloyd Wright Boulevard, Scottsdale) as a summer home and school for students who were fleeing the winters in Wisconsin? Established in 1937, this forward-thinking school has graduated architects who've gone on to erect some really amazing structures, from the Biltmore Resort to Grady Gammage Auditorium in Tempe. Once on the outskirts of any development, Taliesin West is now surrounded by homes and businesses, way the heck out in the northeast Valley, but I'm not going to let that stop me, and it shouldn't stop you, either — a visit to this place should be on the "must see" list of any Phoenician.

Likewise, our local Case Study houses, which I've resolved to seek, find, and ogle. Wright's strong tradition of desert-influenced design led to Desert Modern Architecture and some smokin' midcentury homes, exemplified in Case Study houses, which were experiments in design sponsored by Art and Architecture magazine from 1946 to 1966. Built by a who's who of architects — Eames, Saarinen, Nutra, and a couple of local kids made good, like Ralph Haver and Al Beadle — these swanky modern designs exist in only a few places, like Palm Springs and Phoenix. Sadly, some of them are being torn down to make way for God knows what, so I've resolved to see them before they disappear for good. Lucky for me (and you!), a lot of Case Study houses are featured in modern home tours throughout the year. Web sites like www.modernphoenix.net are great at shout-outs about midcentury tours, and I plan to start my "see some cool architecture" resolution right there.

But first — and although I am but a lowly wage slave — I'm going to visit some of the gorgeous resorts that dot our hilly landscape. There can't be that many places on Earth where one is within driving distance of so many fancy-pants resorts, and I've resolved this year to drop in on several. And I don't have to stay there to enjoy the perks, either. Sure, if I were flush, I'd check in for a week at each of them, but heck, I live here, so I'll sleep at home and indulge in the amenities at some of the tonier Southwest spa palaces, since most of them will let me spend the whole day for the price of just one spa treatment. You'll find me getting wet at the Biltmore (2400 East Missouri Avenue), the gorgeous water slide at the Buttes in Tempe (2000 West Westcourt Way), and among the four acres of pools and waterfalls at the Pointe Hilton at Squaw Peak (7677 North 16th Street). That's a whole lot of glamour and pampering, without ever having to clear airport security!

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