What to Do in Arizona: Outdoors in Phoenix
For those of us who are lucky enough to call Arizona our home state, we are familiar with the true beauty of our backyard. We are blessed to have an amazing diversity of weather and landscapes within a few hours of our homes. We (Four Season Guides) are based in Flagstaff, in the mountains of Northern Arizona – but in the middle of the winter, we love to head down to the southern Arizona deserts to play.
Phoenix, our state capital, is an absolute jewel for vacationing and outdoor recreation during the winter months; when much of the rest of the country is under snow.
Even as the Phoenix metropolitan area has grown into one of the largest in the US, it has managed to retain much of its Southwestern charm. The Phoenix area has preserved large portions of the Sonoran Desert that are the perfect outdoor playground from late September through May. The city is situated in the heart of The Valley of the Sun and is surrounded by the ‘Sky Island’ mountain ranges of southern Arizona. You can combine wonderful hiking, mountain biking, and horseback riding with the vibrant urban energy of the state’s largest city. What better place to combine your cowboy spirit with city chic?
Our city of Flagstaff and the surrounding Coconino National Forest (home of the world’s largest Ponderosa Pine forest) are relative unknowns when people think of Arizona. However, the Phoenix area is truly an iconic Arizona landscape; and nothing more singularly represents the desert Southwest than the Saguaro cactus. These tree-like cacti can grow up to 50 feet in height and live for over 200 years. The Saguaro, which grows extensively throughout the metro area and surrounding mountains, can only be found in the Sonoran Desert, and their showy flowers are officially Arizona’s State Flower. In late spring, Saguaros burst into bloom, producing a ring of white flowers that attract a variety of birds and insects that pollinate them. These flowers will transform into a crimson-red fruit later in the spring and early summer season.
While Saguaros grow all across the Phoenix area, one of the best places to see them is in the Black Canyon, just north if the city. If you plan visit, be sure to hit up the world-class mountain biking trails of Black Canyon Trail System and enjoy over 80 miles of outstanding riding. These trails are considered among the Top 20 mountain bike trails in the country by both the International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA) and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). After the ride, we recommend checking out the famous Rock Springs Cafe, Arizona’s oldest independently owned restaurant. They are well-known for baking up the best homemade pies in the state!
Hiking opportunities abound in the Valley of the Sun. For a rewarding hike in the heart of the city, climb the popular Camelback Mountain. This short but aggressive hike leads to a 2,700-foot summit and provides a stunning 360-degree view of surrounding metro area. When the weather is warm (or you want to avoid lots of other hikers), plan to start very early in the morning. You might even consider a sunset hike. Either way, bring at least 2 to 3 liters of water and some salty snacks to keep you going. This hike is not recommended from June through early September due to excessive heat.
For longer day hikes, trail runs, and even multi-day trips, head out east of Phoenix to the Superstition Wilderness. This spectacular landscape offers over 170 miles of trails to explore. You can combine the trails in this wilderness with those of the Lost Dutchman State Park and explore the two areas at the same time. The area encompasses 160,000 acres of desert mountains and allows for you to truly escape the city and find some peace and quiet.
And though this isn’t a particularly active pursuit for the Phoenix area, we highly recommend visiting the Desert Botanical Gardens while you’re there. The 140-acre property features over 50,000 varieties of desert plants viewable along themed trails. There are daily tours or you can self-explore the trails and experience the subtle beauty of the desert flora. Throughout the year, they host numerous events and concerts for the whole family. One of our favorites is Noche de las Luminarias, an annual holiday event held at night November through January. Enjoy the gardens in the evening hues of sunset, all accented with thousands of luminaria bags.
We encourage you to explore our beautiful state and definitely suggest spending a few extra days of your trip in the Phoenix area. If you’re interested in exploring Northern Arizona, contact us and we can offer valuable information or even arrange a guided hiking tour in Grand Canyon, Sedona, Flagstaff-area National Monuments, or many of the other beautiful locations Arizona state has to offer.