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.

Heritage Square is home to beautiful architecture, fun shops, and fine dining.
Todd Grossman
Heritage Square is home to beautiful architecture, fun shops, and fine dining.
Hiking Camelback Mountain is free — and healthful, too.
Todd Grossman
Hiking Camelback Mountain is free — and healthful, too.
The Heard Museum offers gorgeous Native art.
Todd Grossman
The Heard Museum offers gorgeous Native art.

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!

The most surefire way for me to stop griping about Phoenix is to spend more time in our wonderful museums, because they're improving by leaps and bounds with each exhibit. By now, even passersby must have noticed the Phoenix Art Museum's (1625 North Central Avenue) $60 million facelift, and it's been all over the news about how the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art (7374 East Second Street, Scottsdale) has been showing some stellar work. And there's the small fact that Phoenix boasts the West Coast's largest monthly gallery event, First Fridays, which draws upwards of 15,000 people and continues to grow.

Before heading back to First Friday, I plan to drop in on the Heard Museum (2301 North Central Avenue), with its beautiful gardens and Southwest-centric events like the Hoop Dancing Show and the Basket Festival. This home to Native American arts and artists is the largest of its kind, and has grown so rapidly that it now boasts two satellite locations (Heard Museum North, at The Summit at Scottsdale, 32633 North Scottsdale Road in Scottsdale; and Heard Museum West, 16126 North Civic Center Plaza in Surprise).

Over in the East Valley, I plan to drop in on Mesa Contemporary Arts (1 East Main Street, Mesa), a great addition to the local art scene with its sprawling campus, sculpture gardens, and famous "Sound in the Ground" concerts. Also on my list is the Pueblo Grande Museum (4619 East Washington Street), where those Hohokam ruins found during a recent highway construction project are now on view, and Glendale's Bead Museum (5754 West Glenn Drive), to rub elbows with jewelry fans and bling aficionados and to check out the 100,000 different kinds of beads on show there.

While I'm waiting for the light rail to be completed, I've resolved to learn about our local railroad history at both the Arizona Railway Museum (330 East Ryan Road, Chandler), and Phoenix's Arizona Street Railway Museum (1218 North Central Avenue), where Arizona's illustrious impact on the Great Iron Horse is well documented in entertaining filmstrips and archival samples.

Also on my resolution list is the Phoenix Museum of History at Heritage Square (105 North Fifth Avenue), where one can learn about how our fair city evolved from cowpoke town to metropolis; and the Hall of Flame Fire Museum (6101 East Van Buren Street), whose collection of firefighting equipment dates back to the 18th century.

Now that I've listed all the things I've resolved to love about Phoenix, I'm beginning to wonder what I've been griping about all these years. I'm sure I'll remember when summer returns and it gets toasty out. In the meantime, I'll stick to my resolution and try to remember there's a whole lot to see and do here that just plain isn't available anywhere else but Phoenix.

THE VALLEY TOP 10
More must-see spots for tourists and locals alike

Desert Botanical Garden
From the 6,000 luminarias that light the succulent paths during the holidays to the Garden's year-round live-concert series, there's no better way to experience the beauty of the desert. You'll be amazed at what was meant to grow here. 1201 N. Galvin Parkway, 480-941-1225. www.dbg.org

West of Western Food Festival
Just when you thought the best you could hope for in regional fare was drive-through taco stands with names ending in "-berto's," this world-class food festival brings more than 60 of the best local chefs together for two days of food and wine in an homage to local culinary traditions and native cuisine. Check out www.westofwestern.com for information on this year's dates, locations, and menus.

Arcosanti
Built as an experiment by Italian architect Paolo Soleri, Arcosanti is an exciting, ever-expanding building concept. There's a theater for events and concerts, and the artisans there turn out some great ceramic-and-copper bells as well as some really yummy bread. Highway 74 in Mayer; call 520-632-7135 for directions. www.arcosanti.org

Heritage Square
This cute historic spot, smack dab in the middle of downtown Phoenix, is home to a revolving schedule of fun festivals and educational events. From the Thai Culture Days to the Japanese Matsuri Festival, you'll explore the whole world one event at a time. Keep Heritage Square's event calendar (available on its Web site) handy, and you'll never want for things to do. Best of all, most events are free! 115 N. 6th St. www.phoenix.gov/parks/heritage.html

Japanese Friendship Garden
Designed by Japanese architects from Phoenix's sister city, Himeji, Japan, this gorgeous garden sports a giant koi pond, lush landscaping, and an authentic tea house. Call for tour info and tea ceremony reservations. 1125 N. 3rd Ave.; 602-256-3204.

Phoenix Improv Festival
Think it's funny to live in the desert? So do these folks, who've launched an annual festival to prove it. Last year, teams came from places as far away as the Czech Republic to wing it for hours on end. Call 480-251-3697 for information on where this year's festival will be held. www.phoeniximprovfestival.com

Boyce Thompson Arboretum
This botanical wonderland also provides gorgeous hiking trails and is home to some pretty fantastic bird-watching, besides. 37615 U.S. Highway 60, in Superior; 520-689-2811.

Red Hot Robot
This newish Central Phoenix store is an homage to all things robot. Toys, cards, shirts — it's all about mechanical men, all the time. 14 W. Camelback Rd., 602-264-8560.

Bikini Lounge
Built in 1947, this is one of the oldest bars in town, and one of the last remaining old-school tiki bars in the country, as well. Call it a "dive bar" if you must, but the Bikini is truly one of a kind. 1502 Grand Ave., 602-252-0472.

The Farm at South Mountain
Nowadays, most of our food is shipped in from elsewhere, and local farming is a distant memory. But The Farm's 100-year-old pecan trees remind us that Phoenix does have an agricultural past. Three delicious restaurants, an art gallery, and a holistic spa make for a relaxing retreat. 6106 S. 32nd St., 602-276-6360.

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