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.