Phoenix New Times' Best of Phoenix 2017 is out now. Here's our list of the best things to do and see outdoors in the Valley.
Best Place to Watch the Sunrise: Hole-in-the-Rock
Hole-in-the-Rock at Papago Park is just the spot for a sunrise hike. We don't need anything challenging so early — a quick hike up to the hole at 5:30 in the morning is plenty. The area around the hole is smooth; bring a blanket and spread out.
Best Place to Watch the Sunset: Lost Dutchman State Park
If you truly want to watch the desert become a piece of art during the golden hour, drive east out of town to the base of the Superstition Mountains. Lost Dutchman State Park becomes a living watercolor as the sun dips below the horizon, especially during the cloudy, dusty monsoon season. The fading light refracting and dancing across the results of volatile ancient volcanoes showcases just how beautiful our harsh landscape can be.
Best Place to Watch Birds: Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch
"Wastewater treatment" doesn't bring to mind a natural oasis. But in Gilbert, the city's water management system has birthed a surprisingly popular birdwatching venue. The city began storing treated wastewater in a series of ponds in the mid-1980s near Guadalupe and Gilbert roads, and birds such as egrets and warblers flocked to the site as a result. Birdwatchers dutifully followed, and now the Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch attracts thousands of people every year.
Best Desert Drive: Joshua Tree Parkway
Though our neighbors to the west have the most famous Joshua trees, Arizona has a stash of the U2-favorited agave plant definitely worth hitting the road to see. Hop in the car and head toward Las Vegas on U.S. Route 93. There's not much to see for a while, but eventually you'll began spotting random Joshua trees until you hit a thick, dense forest of them nestled in the desert landscape.
Best Wildflower Trail: Dixie Mountain Loop Trail
Colorful Arizona wildflowers line the side of the road, fill up our backyards and garden centers, and populate the landscape of many hiking trails in our short yet beautiful spring season. A scenic hike in particular is the Dixie Mountain Loop Trail at the Phoenix Sonoran Preserve in north Phoenix. This single-track, 4.7-mile trail has an elevation gain of 807 feet, and there are lots of cactus, yucca, blooming cholla, and desert flowers like yellow Mexican prickly poppy and purple lupine.
Best Hiking Trail: Pinnacle Peak Park
Goldilocks would love Pinnacle Peak Trail. Camelback Mountain or Piestewa Peak? Too steep. South Mountain or the Superstitions? Too long. But the four-mile out-and-back path at Pinnacle Peak Park in Scottsdale is just right. It's a workout that takes an hour or two, a soul-nourishing walk through a lush, Sonoran Desert landscape, and a brush with the truly wild. What's not to love?
Best Bike Ride: Bush Highway to Saguaro Lake Marina
The total mileage on this one depends on where you begin. If you don't want to go from home, you can begin by parking near Power and McDowell roads in Mesa, which is near a Loop 202 exit. From there, pedal north on Power Road, which turns into Bush Highway after entering Tonto National Forest. The austere, Sonoran countryside on the highway will take your mind off the hills — of which there are plenty.
Best Easy Bike Trail: Highline Canal
This off-the-beaten-path little canal provides smooth riding for about five miles, just south of Baseline Road in Phoenix, from Central Avenue to around South 40th Street. There are trails on both sides of the canal, paved on the south side and hard-packed dirt on the north side, which is actually smoother than the asphalt. The route provides scenic views of South Mountain.
Best Rock Climbing: McDowell Sonoran Preserve
It's time to get out of that rock gym and take your calloused fingertips to the Valley's best granite playground — the McDowell Mountains. Hundreds of rock-climbing routes populate thousands of acres of the McDowell Sonoran Preserve, some accessible by specially marked trails for climbers. It would take years to bag every route in the McDowells, and the variety and easy access is well worth the trip.
Best Water Park: Big Surf
Big Surf is a Valley tradition, and with good reason. The nation's first wave pool offers respite from the summer heat and (lesser-known fact) a damn good place for serious surfers to practice when California is a little too far. Add classic pools, slides, and thatched roofs, and you've got your weekend plans right there.
Best Hotel Pool: Westin Kierland Resort & Spa
When it comes to hotel pools in metro Phoenix, we've got an embarrassment of riches, but there's nowhere we'd rather be than the Westin Kierland Resort & Spa in north Scottsdale. The Adventure Water Park welcomes all ages, and when we're done with the high-energy fun and just want to relax, we head over to the adults-only Aguamiel Pool for a more serene swimming experience. Best of all, you can buy a resort pass for the day, so you don't have to fork over the cash for a room to experience the best hotel pool in town.
Best Mountains: The Superstitions
The Supes, as locals call the range, soar above all other Phoenix-area crags in both height and spirit. The western cliff faces — the volcanic rock colored a soft brown — rise to more than 5,000 feet and can be seen from most anywhere in metro Phoenix. Take it easy on the short trails around Lost Dutchman State Park, gazing in awe at circling hawks and plains that erupt with color in wildflower season. Or take it hard, pushing your physical limits to the top of steep trails like Siphon Draw. Whatever you do, be prepared for adventure.
Best Pool Party: Release Pool Party at Talking Stick Resort and Casino
The people at Talking Stick Resort and Casino start their pool party season in early April, and no one is complaining. The 2017 Release season started off with that wild child Dillon Francis, and continued bringing in popular DJs and the party crowds every weekend through at least Labor Day. Bikini-clad babes and dudes in trunks can hit the pool, the bar, or the heavy mob of music fans gathered by the stage where headliners like Steve Aoki and Taryn Manning get the party started.
Best Go-Karts: Octane Raceway
There's something about the sound of tires skidding over concrete that gets our blood moving. Even better is to feel them skidding underneath us, followed by the snappy sensation of the go-kart suddenly sticking to a straight line, zooming out of a curve. We love Octane for those visceral reasons and a whole lot more. Adult races go 14 laps; kids get 10 on somewhat slower cars. All the track's electric cars have punchy acceleration and relatively high top speeds.
Best Labyrinth: Franciscan Renewal Center
Franciscan Renewal Center is an oasis of calm in the heart of Scottsdale. The labyrinth is a flat path bordered by stones where the public is invited to walk in quiet contemplation. There’s no cost to use it or reservations needed; the labyrinth is open when the center is, from early in the morning to mid-evening, all year round. There’s something about the mindfulness required to navigate the gently winding path that makes the cares of the world drop away.
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Best Place to Play Horseshoes: The Monastery
When we want a bit of that good horseshoe juju, we play a couple of rounds at The Monastery in east Mesa. The bar/restaurant is located in a Santa Fe-style house and has a little something for everyone, including a full menu, plenty of TVs, cornhole, volleyball, live entertainment, giant Connect 4, and the aforementioned horseshoe pits. The Monastery is family-friendly as well, making it an ideal place to take the kids for an afternoon of fun.
Best Golf Course: Golf Club of Estrella
It's hard to keep an eye on your ball with the distracting beauty of the Sierra Estrella mountain range in the background, but that doesn't stop Arizona golfers from flocking to this saguaro-spotted course. Eighteen well-maintained holes flow along the contours of the Sonoran Desert, accommodating washes and Bermuda grass-covered hillsides that add to the challenges already presented by water hazards, creatively cut sand traps, and split-level fairways.
Best Place to Watch a Spring Training Game: Peoria Sports Complex
Let's face it — there's no bad place to watch spring training in Arizona. But we agree with Texas baseball fan and author Dan Hammond (Delbert Judd, The Solomon Twist), who prefers the stadium in Peoria, spring training home of the San Diego Padres and the Seattle Mariners. It has more of a "minor-league feel," says Hammond.
Best Mountain Views From a Parking Lot: Biltmore Fashion Park
A solid, panoramic view of the mountains that make Phoenix "the Valley" usually comes at a premium price point. If a plane ticket, a cushy bank job on the top floor, or a high-end resort cocktail all sound out of your league, try the Biltmore parking garage, why don't you? Head for the four-level parking garage on the north side, climb the sunlit stairwell to the top, and then take a deep breath: you'll be left with the best, free, 360-degree view of our fair city.