Best Zen Experience: The Japanese Friendship Garden
The next time you need a moment of Zen, you're welcome to join us at Ro Ho En, also known as the Japanese Friendship Garden of Phoenix. Completed in 2000 as a symbol of the relationship between Phoenix and its sister city Himeji, Japan, this 3.5-acre "strolling garden" offers stress relief and inner calm in the form of paved paths, shade trees, stone sculptures, friendly wildlife, and a central lake.
Best Place to See a Spring Training Game: Salt River Fields
If baseball is America's pastime, then we think it's safe to say that spring training specifically is Arizona's. And while we're lucky enough to choose from a mittful of places to watch this American classic, we keep going back to Salt River Fields. Even if the complex wasn't incredibly easy to access right off the Loop 101, didn't have an abundance of parking available or a well-shaded grandstand, and didn't offer great tanning potential on the affordable lawn seating, we'd still have a soft spot for these fields.
Best Golf Course: SunRidge Canyon
In a region known for top-notch golf courses, it can be hard to choose. Don't get teed off; choose SunRidge Canyon, made famous by its challenging last six holes (the Wicked Six). Though the 71-par course is in a residential neighborhood, it doesn't feel that way, because everywhere you go on the course, you're surrounded by gorgeous panoramic views of the McDowell Mountains.
Best Water Park: Big Surf
The history behind Big Surf is nothing short of incredible. Once a pool hall featuring musical acts such as Pink Floyd and Elton John, for decades, Phoenicians have been catching waves formed from 2.5 million gallons of water. These days, Big Surf is a bona fide water park, with speeding water sides and its newest addition, the Mauna Kea Zip Line.
Best Hotel Pool: Hotel Palomar
If you want to feel hip, modern, and cool (literally), we recommend grabbing your most fashionable swimsuit and heading over to the Hotel Palomar in downtown Phoenix. Sure, other hotel pools might be larger or more tricked-out, but none are more stylish than the Palomar's rooftop escape. Between dips, you can lounge in one of the plush poolside cabanas with a delicious cocktail from Lustre Rooftop Bar, just actual steps from the edge of the pool.
Best Place to Watch the Sunset: The Top of South Mountain
If you truly want to take advantage of everything South Mountain has to offer, we suggest visiting at sunset. Whether you brave the hike or opt for the windy drive to the summit, there's no better place to let the vastness of both the park and the surrounding city overwhelm you than standing on the peak of the mountain while watching the glow of the evening golden hour wash over the Valley.
Best Place to Watch the Sunrise: Phoenix Mountains Preserve
Everybody knows that Phoenix has stunning, photo-worthy sunsets. Though fewer people rave about them, the Valley's sunrises are just as remarkable. Phoenix Mountains Preserve holds the best places to watch the sun slowly peek over the eastern horizon. And the best part is that the hikes to get to the vantage points aren't overly strenuous. Stick to the southern side of the preserve, try to get as much height as possible, and watch the Valley light up as the day begins.
Best Cactus Garden: Tovrea Castle at Carraro Heights
Go ahead and call it the wedding cake. The three-tiered Tovrea Castle, visible from the Loop 202, is a Phoenix icon that beckons like a desert mirage with an outer defense of saguaro cactuses. The castle's gardens and grounds are equally exotic, filled with more than 100 species of unique desert flora, including over 5,000 cactuses.
Read on for the best desert drive, hiking trail, and group bike ride.
Best Urban Marshland: Tempe Town Lake
Depending on your deal, Tempe Town Lake is a recreational haven, or a waste of resources, or possibly the butt of a joke. In any case, the 225-acre manmade reservoir in downtown Tempe beneath Mill Avenue was closed on February 10, and drained to replace the Town Lake Western Dam. If you happened to have visited Tempe Beach Park or the North Bank Path during this window, you would have noticed a rare sight: a vast marshland dotted with beer bottles, parking cones, canopy frames from various events, and only the maker knows what else.
Best Desert Drive: Arizona State Route 88 in the Superstition Mountains
If you've got a couple of hours, a steady hand, and a vehicle with high clearance, a great way to enjoy the Superstition Mountain Wilderness is the long, winding Apache Trail, which leads from Apache Junction into the mountains and to bodies of water such as Apache Lake, Canyon Lake, and Roosevelt Lake. The route's paved for a bit, but really gets fun once you're on dirt roads, which twist around high cliffs as you descend toward Fish Creek, which can range from a trickle to a slightly bigger trickle.
Best Rodeo Grounds: Buffalo Chip Saloon & Steakhouse
A staple of the country and western spots along Cave Creek Road, the Buffalo Chip Saloon & Steakhouse is known for its live music and dance hall, authentic barbecue, allegiance to Wisconsin sports teams, and of course, its backyard rodeo arena. Whether it is in fact your first rodeo, or you've been part of bull-riding audiences since your boots were snug, the Chip offers live bull-riding sessions on Wednesday and Friday nights.
Best Group Bike Ride: Phoenix Downtempo Ride
Established in spring 2015, the Phoenix Downtempo Ride is a community organization offering free weekly bike rides where just about anyone is welcome. The Phoenix Downtempo Ride meets at 7 p.m. at spots like Encanto Park's Amp Island, Steele Indian School Park, Margaret T. Hance Park, and Coronado Park. The ride averages eight miles per hour, and lasts for approximately an hour, arriving usually at a restaurant or 21-and-over bar.
Best Hiking Trail: Siphon Draw Trail
The Phoenix metro area has many excellent hiking trails, but the king of them all is Siphon Draw in Lost Dutchman State Park. Go outside and look east —see the sheer-cut mass of rock jutting from the earth like the desert version of the Wall in Game of Thrones? That's your destination. The hike will be slightly more than four miles round trip, but it's so steep it'll feel like twice that. At least one section will require one or both hands to surmount. What do you get for all of this pain and suffering? Only the chance to stroll next to the largest cliffs in the Phoenix area.
Best Hike in the Heat: Echo Canyon Trail, Camelback Mountain
What could make metro Phoenix's toughest short trail even tougher? Braving it in the area's legendary heat, of course. Echo Canyon Trail ascends about 1,200 vertical feet in 1.5 miles, and is known to reduce even tough Arizona Cardinals players to whimpers. When springtime coolness disappears, the fire department comes out more often to Camelback Mountain as unprepared or unfit hikers suffer. Be warned: Even experienced hikers can succumb to extreme heat.
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Best Hiking With Kids: Pima Canyon, South Mountain
Pima Canyon is an ideal place to introduce kids to real hiking, or at least the general concept of it. Tykes don't always tolerate heading down a single-track trail in one boring direction; they'd rather scamper, scramble, and explore. Here, you'll find an awesome mix of trails within a relatively small area, and the little ones can do what they want. Go around sunset for a good chance at hearing the yips and yaps of the coyotes who live in the 16,000-acre South Mountain Park/Preserve.
Best Rock Climbing: Hanging Gardens
The parking lot of the Tom's Thumb trailhead in Scottsdale's McDowell Sonoran Preserve is less than an hour's drive from central Phoenix, but it feels like another planet. The main sign of urbanity is the parking lot — which, though large, fills up with vehicles on good-weather days like there's a Black Friday sale going on. This hill of granite and cactus has a lot to offer for rock climbers, especially at the tallest formation in the area, Gardener's Wall. Our favorite climb there is Hanging Gardens, a moderate route that will get you noticeably nearer to the clouds. It's rated a 5.5 for technical difficulty — sounds easy, but with outdoor climbing, everything's more intense. There will be fear.