23 Best Outdoor Activities and Attractions in Metro Phoenix
Phoenix New Times celebrated the cream of the crop with our 37th annual Best of Phoenix edition. Here are our top picks for things to do and see outside in metro Phoenix.
Best Golf Course
The Stadium Course at TPC Scottsdale
For a long time, the Stadium Course at TPC was known for being the location of the Valley's lone PGA Tour stop (even if it changed the name to sound more like a weird bathroom joke and less like a somewhat significant professional golf tournament), but not for being a course worth playing on. Last year, the course underwent considerable renovations, and it now boasts one of the better playing surfaces and atmospheres around. As a bonus, it's pretty sweet to be hitting the same links as the best players in the world do when they roll through town every February.
Best Western Stables
For those not familiar with the equestrian world, there are two styles of riding, Western and English. Though there are several differences between the two styles, the differences in riding boil down to how the rider guides the animal. English riders use reins connected to the horse's mouth and Western riders use their saddles, weight, and reins connected to the horse's necks. As you may have guessed, out here in the Wild West, Western style reigns supreme, for the most part, and the best place to experience it is at MacDonald's Ranch. This family-owned and -operated ranch is a peek back into what life was like in Arizona back when the Richardson family opened the ranch in the 1950s. But it's the stables that caught our attention. MacDonald's breeds its own horses so it can ensure that the animals are docile and well trained. From trail rides and cookouts to touring around in a stagecoach, MacDonald's will give you a true Western experience.
Tonto Natural Bridge Falls
When most people think of Arizona, they imagine miles and miles of dry rock, sand, and mountains — and the occasional saguaro. Though we can't deny parts of our state fit that description, those who know better also are aware of places like Tonto Natural Bridge State Park, home of Tonto Natural Bridge Falls. This impressive waterfall spills over the side of the Tonto Natural Bridge, which is known to be the world's largest natural travertine bridge. Visitors can see the 183-foot waterfall from observation decks at the top of the canyon or take the easy 300-foot hike to the bottom to get a dose of perspective and realize the scale of this natural wonder.
Best Miniature Golf
For nostalgic adventures in goofy golf, you can putt your colorful balls into a replica of the Alamo on the Flying Dutchman course, nab a hole-in-one along King's Arthur's Quest, or chip some dimples into a castle on the Princess Path. Each of the three 18-hole courses at retro Golfland is nestled within a moat of water slides from the adjacent Sunsplash Water Park, allowing for waterfalls, fountains, and mature foliage to help keep things cool and shady. Obstacles such as loop-the-loops, windmills, and fountains make for classic miniature golf staples with wheelchair-accessible options along each course. Each course is ranked by difficulty and boasts distinct themes with corresponding hazards and traps. Whether you foozle or bag the clutch putt, the classic courses at Golfland make the perfect game plan for a retro family fun night.
Best Desert Retreat
Silent Sundays at South Mountain
The desert has always been said to have healing powers. Maybe it's the fact that plants, animals, and people are able to thrive in this harsh climate, or maybe there actually is something different about this arid place. If you're going to try to tap into these mysterious environmental powers, South Mountain Park, the world's largest municipal park, is the place to do it and the fourth Sunday of each month is the time. Dubbed Silent Sundays, these specific days are meant for cyclists, skateboarders, wheelchair users, and strollers to take over the roads when the main access points are closed to motor vehicles. Appreciate the park peacefully, and let us know if you find any of those fabled powers.
Best Place to See Wildflowers
Boyce Thompson Arboretum State Park
It may be hard to believe when it's the middle of summer and temperatures barely dip below triple digits (even after the sun goes down), but the desert produces varied and beautiful wildflowers when the weather permits in the spring, and Boyce Thompson Arboretum State Park has an incredible showing. Take yourself on a walking tour along the main trail, which is 1.5 miles long, and feast your eyes on the colors and varieties of flowers desert plants can produce. To see the most plants in bloom, visit the park in March and April. Be sure to take plenty of photos to remind yourself of the beauty of the desert through the harsh summer months.
Best Place to See the Sunrise
Hot air balloon ride
We asked a hardcore hiker for his favorite early-morning hike — the one offering the best view of the sunrise. He laughed and replied, "The sun is the last thing I want to see on an early-morning hike!"
Buzzkill. But, hey, we get it. In Phoenix, it's a race against the heat. So instead of a mountaintop, we have a different suggestion for getting a bird's-eye view of the desert sunrise: a ride in a hot air balloon. There are several companies that offer rides at all times of the day — some even include a champagne brunch! — in different parts of the Valley, so we'll leave the Googling to you. Enjoy the view and hold on tight.
Best Desert Motorcycle Ride
Riding from the south on Scottsdale Road, the route to Bartlett Lake takes you through North Scottsdale and finally into Carefree, a modern Mayberry in the desert. Coming from the west on Carefree Highway to Cave Creek Road, you'll rumble through the less posh but equally scenic Cave Creek and its biker bars. Either way, you'll be having fun even before you take the final leg east to the lake. Once clear of civilization, the ride turns into pure heaven for motorcyclists. Though not as full of twists as the road to Tortilla Flat, plenty of curves and dips unfold on the last few miles. The asphalt on Bartlett Dam Road is smooth, but watch for sand drifts around the bends.
For a round-trip ride that takes only two or three hours from most points in the Valley, you get the feeling that you've gone somewhere much more remote. Arriving at the lake doesn't mean you have to grab a burger and beer at the marina. Take off your boots and cool your heels in the water on one of the beaches, or keep riding on the smaller, fun park roads that surround the lake. It's definitely better in the cooler months, but Bartlett satisfies the jones for something other than the Valley's straight-edge grid system.
Best Place to Appreciate the Dry Heat
Lost Dutchman State Park
Most Phoenicians know to stay indoors during the hottest summer months, but sometimes you just have to break out your hiking boots and hit the trails even when it feels like the inside of an oven outdoors. Whether it's the fact that you drive 40 miles out of the city or it actually is a bit cooler, Lost Dutchman State Park makes the summer heat tolerable. With an abundance of fauna and flora year round and the legend of the Lost Dutchman to keep you entertained and on your toes, there's no better place to explore the desert landscape in the most brutal time of year than this destination in Apache Junction.
Best Mountain Bike Ride
Desert Classic Trail
Minutes from nearly anywhere in the Valley, a wonderful and relatively safe outdoor adventure can be had by nearly any decent bike rider, on nearly any bike that has gears and fat tires. Start from South Mountain Park's Pima Canyon entrance near 48th Street and Elliot Road. Once on the trail of rolling hills, the ordinary world vanishes. The single-track trail guides riders and hikers through miles of up-and-down and across much of the 16,000-acre, surprisingly lush Sonoran Desert park. Endorphins will flood your brain as you strain to conquer the uphill portions, followed by tsunamis of adrenaline on the twisty paths down. A few technical sections may cause you to push your bike uphill for a few feet — practicing these parts and nailing them is very satisfying. It's great to go out and back a few miles, like a dusty luge run. But if you keep going, the goodness continues for a total of roughly nine miles each way. Doing the entire 18 miles can be a mini-epic sort of experience, yet one that even novice riders can handle (as long as they bring plenty of water).
Best Place to See a Cactus
Saguaro Cactus 101 at McDowell Mountain Regional Park
The rangers at McDowell Mountain Regional Park — a 20,000-acre county park in the northeast corner of the Valley — offer sunset hikes, reptile-feeding expeditions, and the particulars regarding the state's most majestic cactus, the Saguaro. For $6 (unless you have a park pass) and an hour of your time, you'll take an easy half-mile walk and learn everything from how long the Saguaro lives to whether you can get water from it, and more.
Best Desert Drive
Four Peaks Trail
For those of us who enjoy driving off the pavement, a trip on the famous Apache Trail is an experiment in misery. Unless you're out there at the crack of dawn, you'll undoubtedly be stuck behind people driving 10 mph who have no interest in letting faster traffic pass. Luckily, there's a much better alternative in the Four Peaks Trail. The starting point, off State Route 87 north of Fountain Hills, is fairly far from the start of the Apache Trail, but they both end up at Roosevelt Lake. The trail is quite a bit rougher than the Apache Trail, but that only means it's more fun, and you can take it on even with the puniest of SUVs. All the drivers we've encountered on this trail are willing to concede their position to faster traffic, leaving your pace up to you — which is probably the most important part of enjoying an off-road drive.
Best Bird Watching
Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch
This oasis in the middle of Gilbert is ever-changing, with an abundance of desert flora and fauna. But our favorite activity while exploring the 110 acres of the preserve will always be seeing how many different kinds of birds we can spot. During the cooler months of the year, October through March, the Riparian Preserve and the Desert Rivers Audobon Society offers family bird walks free of charge on every third Saturday — possibly the best way to catch the almost 200 birds that call the preserve home.
Best Place to See a Spring Training Game
Over the past few years, something of a stadium arms race has developed among Cactus League teams, which are constantly building bigger and more elaborate stadiums across the Valley. Though these new ballyards certainly are impressive, they aren't necessarily better. There's something about Scottsdale Stadium, the spring training home of the San Francisco Giants, that just makes it better than the rest. Maybe it's the location, where you're within walking distance of postgame burgers and beers in Old Town Scottsdale. Maybe it's the energized crowd, which roots for a team that's won three World Series championships in the past five years. Maybe it's the fact that Scottsdale Stadium is becoming something of a classic Cactus League ballpark, if there is such a thing. Or maybe it's something else. All we know is, it's where you want to watch spring training.
Best Rock Climbing
Lookout Mountain Preserve
For the slightly more advanced sport climber, Lookout Mountain is like an outdoor gym. The climbing area, conveniently located in a north-central part of town at Greenway Road and 16th Street, consists of a single crag with about a dozen bolted routes ranging from 30 to 50 feet high. From the parking lot, take the trail up and right to the sheer climbing area. Some sections of loose rock are on the crag, meaning rock fall is a potential danger — so exercise caution. Most of the basalt is fairly solid. Novices will find nothing too easy here, and most of the climbs have to be led from the ground up. If you can lead 5.10 or 5.11, though, you can spend the better part of an afternoon here blowing out your forearms. Since the tragic closure of Lower East Wall in Scottsdale years ago due to a housing development, Lookout Mountain is the only spot in the Valley we know that has a single wall with multiple quality routes. Their proximity means you can quickly set up and climb several routes in a row, providing a workout experience superior to the plastic holds of indoor gyms. The best part: no entry fee.
Best Hotel Pool
The Biltmore is the epitome of the Arizona dream. The entire campus is an idyllic getaway; the architecture is designed so ingeniously that you forget you're in the middle of one of the biggest cities in the country the instant you step in the door. It makes relaxing at one of the hotel's three pools nothing but a relaxing getaway from the smog and the endless sprawl and the hustle of Phoenix. The fabulous Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired vistas will make you happy to drop $15 on a martini as you dip your toe into the lifestyle of the rich and famous.
Best Place to Watch a Sunset
Everyone knows there's nothing quite like an Arizona sunset. However, the view from your backyard is nothing compared to a view from higher up. To really take in the sunset, go to the top of South Mountain. The directions are easy: Drive south on Central Avenue until you're at the top. The view of Phoenix is fantastic — there's a great panorama of downtown Phoenix, and even something like the University of Phoenix Stadium, more than 20 miles away, can easily be seen. Then, when the sun goes down, and the sky's colors start to change, you'll hear the oohs and aahs of everyone there, as if it were a Fourth of July fireworks show. One word of warning: This view of the sunset is not a secret, in any sense. You'll want to get there early to secure a parking spot and a place to watch.
Best Hiking Trail
Peralta Trail to Fremont Saddle in the Superstitions
Phoenix has no shortage of glorious hiking trails within its city limits. But the problem with those trails is that they make you feel very much that you're in a city. You're constantly reminded of mankind's incursions into nature by the city views you're working so hard to avoid. You have to go a little farther outside city limits to really get that immersive outdoor experience, but thankfully you don't have to travel long. The Superstitions offer one particular hike that has it all: the Peralta Trailhead to Fremont Saddle. The trail is mostly isolated from city views, is only five miles round trip, and has a fantastic reward at the end: panoramic views of the endless layers of rock and saguaro of the Superstition Mountains, one of the most beautiful ranges in Arizona, and a spectacular view of Weaver's Needle, a dominant peak that juts prominently to the northwest.
Best Trail Ride
Channel your inner cowboy or cowgirl and hop in the saddles at Ponderosa Stables, which has been offering the best trail riding in Phoenix for about 40 years. Not only will you have the opportunity to explore South Mountain from the comfort of a horse's back, but you'll be led by a trained and knowledgeable guide who will offer interesting facts about the environment and the way cowboys lived back in the day. Take your pick from a daytime ride, breakfast ride, or steak dinner ride, which ends after sunset at T-Bone Steakhouse. Rides start at $55 per person and can vary in length of time.
Best Holiday Attraction
Las Noches de Las Luminarias at Desert Botanical Garden
Where else can you combine live music, hot chocolate, twinkly lights, and the most gorgeous desert plants in the world? Lucky for us, the Desert Botanical Garden is located smack in the center of the Valley, and the long-honored garden tradition of holiday luminaria is still going strong. The season just isn't complete for us without tickets to this event, featuring carolers, bell players, and other local musical acts. It may not snow in these parts, but it begins to look a lot like Christmas when we throw on a light jacket and head off into the night to the Desert Botanical Garden.
Best Water Park
At 13, we rode our 10-speed to Big Surf in Tempe with a friend on one of the hottest days of the year and suffered from a small bout of heat exhaustion, vomiting what little breakfast we'd had on the side of McClintock Drive. With only enough money to get in, we quenched our thirst from the water fountain and ate ketchup from our fingers, pretending we had fries to go along with it. It was one of the best days ever. We took our pilfered rafts to near the wall where the waves start, riding them across the backs of other swimmers waiting for the surge to take them, too. When we grew bored of the rafts, we gave them to some little kids and tried to body-surf among the crowds of bikini-clad women, muscled dudes, and children who hopefully held their pee until the bathroom. Decades later, amazingly, we can have the exact same experience — only better, because not only do we drive and have the money to pay for lunch, but because Big Surf is better than it used to be. Featured in a 1960s National Geographic issue, Big Surf has changed dramatically over the years to include an array of water slides (some not for the timid) and a play area for smaller kids. The sand that nearly produced third-degree burns in the summer has been long replaced by cooler Astroturf. The staff is more professional than ever, keeping an eye out for mischievous 13-year-olds. We try not to cause too much trouble for the sake of our kids.
Oak Flat Campground in the Tonto National Forest
We'll miss Oak Flat Campground and its nearby thousands of bouldering routes when they're gone. Great places to boulder — a term for rock climbing that focuses on short routes where a fall isn't deadly — are not that common in or near the Valley. Oak Flat is a uniquely scenic part of the Sonoran Desert, populated by ancient lava formations frozen and twisted into spectral forms that just happen to contain great hand- and footholds for climbers. Located about 30 miles east of Phoenix, just east of Superior off U.S. 60, Oak Flat is a peaceful land of creek beds, bushy mesquite, and a lifetime's worth of exhilarating bouldering routes concentrated in one convenient place.
And the area will be gone, it appears, unless a political miracle occurs. In December, Arizona's U.S. senators, John McCain and Jeff Flake, shepherded a dead mining bill onto a must-pass defense-spending bill, achieving what Congress could not: the giveaway of Oak Flat and hundreds of surrounding acres near Devil's Canyon — land that some Native Americans claim has been held sacred for centuries — to a foreign mining company. Resolution Copper plans to dig into the rich ore under the land, destroying the surface in the process. Climbers will miss the former home of the world's largest outdoor bouldering contest, so get out there as much as possible in the next few years.
Best Green Patch in the Desert
Steele Indian School Park
Farmland once sold to the federal government, which built the Phoenix Indian School (attended by 900 students in its heyday), since has been transformed into a thriving urban center of activity boasting indoor and outdoor performances spaces, dog parks, historical displays, open green areas, and covered ramadas. Three of the original buildings have been preserved, and the site also includes an American Indian Veterans Memorial. Now operated by the city of Phoenix, the park is used by multiple generations who enjoy walking, fishing, playing volleyball, and more. Paintings on 8-foot wooden panels done by local artists through a project spearheaded by Hugo Medina are installed facing the street along wrought-iron fencing around a portion of the park's perimeter. Like community gardens at the park, they're part of ongoing efforts by PHX Renews to activate a portion of the park that was previously a vacant lot. It's a fun place to hang out, a community gathering place that draws diverse visitors, and a testament to what's possible when people, organizations, and government collaborate for the mutual good.
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