From biking to hiking to riding in a hot-air balloon, we present the best things to do in and around one of Arizona’s premier outdoor cities.
Saddle Up for Wild West Adventure
Bumble Bee Ranch in Canyon City, an hour north of Phoenix, lets you saddle up and make like the Lone Ranger along the rocky canyons and creeks splitting Prescott and—where else?—Tonto national forests. A former stagecoach outpost, trail rides head up Bumble Bee Creek and into the foothills of the Bradshaw Mountains, where you’ll get into the frontier spirit with tales of wildlife and even wilder Wild West behavior. The ranch also offers wrangler-led pony rides for younger cowboys and girls and cattle drives on the property’s working cattle ranch.
Take to the Skies
The descent into Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport will already give you a sense of the scale of the rugged high-desert landscape framing the Phoenix Valley, though you very quickly also realize the extent of the sprawl that makes this the nation’s 12th-largest metropolitan area. Besides hiking, biking, and paddling away from the human conurbations of Maricopa County, you should also consider floating above it.
A number of hot-air ballooning outfitters offer sunrise and sunset floats from remote launch pads around the desert; more daring adventurers might want to strap in for a paragliding adventure from South Mountain Park. Fly High Paragliding offers tandem flights four times daily, plus a number of more technical classes.
Raft the Verde River
Arizona’s only federally-designated Wild & Scenic River, the 200-mile Verde flows south from its headwaters in Prescott National Forest toward Phoenix, offering intriguing glimpses of the Sonoran Desert’s distinct flora and fauna. There’s a 60-mile section between Beaslet Flats and Horseshoe Reservoir good for multiday floats, plus a number of accessible stretches for day trips out of Phoenix. Whitewater can hit Class IV during heavy spring snowmelt or rains, though it’s mostly a family-friendly Class II to III ride.
Be a Cowboy at Saguaro Lake Ranch
Saguaro Lake Ranch sits in a tranquil spot just beneath the dam that holds back ten-mile-long Saguaro Lake, about 40 miles east of downtown Phoenix. Downstream, the Salt River twists beneath the striking Bulldog Cliffs and Goldfield Mountains before flowing toward the Greater Phoenix metro area. This guest ranch has been run by the same family for four generations, and it shows in the hospitality and homey touches in evidence throughout the riverside property.
Guests sleep in simple but comfortable “ranchettes,” first built to house the workers who constructed Saguaro Lake’s Stewart Mountain Dam between 1928 and 1930. These days, however, you can also count on free property-wide WiFi, hooked up by the current owner’s grandkids (but happily no phones or televisions in the rooms). Daytime activities include hiking and horseback riding along the desert trails of Tonto National Forest, kayaking and tubing on the Salt River, or special programs such as art weekends and family reunions. Meals are shared buffet-style in a communal dining room, where you’ll feast on homemade treats such as BBQ chicken, biscuits, and fresh-baked cookies.
Scale the Praying Monk
On weekends and holidays, Phoenix’s Camelback Mountain/Echo Canyon Recreation Area becomes a literal conga line of hikers and trail runners shuffling toward the 2,407-foot summit, one of Phoenix’s signature red-rock peaks. Instead, get off the popular trail and negotiate over 50 accessible climbing routes that see a fraction of the crowds, from easy beginner faces to more strenuous routes that include the 80-foot face of the Praying Monk, a 5.7-rated climb. Hook up with a local outfitter such as 360 Adventures for excellent half- and full-day guided adventures that will have even the easily-intimidated giving it a go.
See the Spring Wildflowers
Deserts evoke a stillness and aridity that belie the profusion of life that actually thrives within the barren terrain. The Sonoran Desert is no exception. Straddling seven of eight climactic zones, you can actually find something blooming pretty much year-round, though spring rains bring a particularly effusive vigor to the desert’s ingenious animal and plant life. The best months for wildflower viewing are typically late February through April in the lower-lying Phoenix Valley area, which occupies the desert’s northern plain.
Head to the city’s Desert Botanical Gardens for an eye-popping precursor of what you’ll find in easy-to-access South Mountain Park and Preserve. In the East Valley area near Mesa, tackle Jacob’s Crosscut Trail in Lost Dutchman State Park for an impressive hike over the cliffs at the base of the Superstition Mountains. To the west of Phoenix, Mesquite Canyon Trail in White Tank Mountain Regional Park is another superlative hike, with or without the seasonal blooms.
Play the Desert Slots
The pristine desert slots surrounding Phoenix are prime for canyoneering, though the technical nature of the sport, not to mention its inherent dangers (cf.: Ralston, Aron), means visitors should go with an outfitter. (Besides, canyoneers are notoriously secretive about their stashes.) The knowledgeable guides at 360 Adventures will pinpoint the best local spots given your group’s skill levels and conditions on the ground.
Parker Canyon, east of Phoenix, is a deep, technical gorge with lots of big rappels and variable water flow through the narrows. Salome Canyon is another sublime gorge in the same area, with waterfalls, tubes, and swimming holes. Late April through May is typically the best time for canyoneering, with all the canyons sitting beautifully with high flows from the spring rains.
Take a Flightseeing Tour of the Grand Canyon
The Big Ditch merits so much more than a mere day of your time, but if you can’t afford a longer foray to the world wonder 180 miles north (as the crow flies) of Phoenix, then ditch the day-tripping coach tours and do it in style. Westwind Aviation operates a daylong fly-and-hike adventure to Grand Canyon National Park that departs Phoenix Deer Valley Airport, swoops north over Tonto National Forest, Sedona, and Flagstaff, before dropping you close to the park’s southern entrance.
Here you’ll transfer into the knowledgeable hands of the guides from Arizona Outdoor Adventures, with whom you’ll descend into the billion-year-old gut of the Grand Canyon down the South Kaibab Trail. Enjoy gourmet sandwiches, organic granola bars, and trail mix while drinking in the views at one of the best picnic spots on the continent.
Bike the Trails at McDowell Mountain Regional Park
The Phoenix area might not have the epic swoops, vistas, and drops of Colorado’s or Utah’s best singletrack, but what you get out here is accessible, all-season riding (OK, maybe not at the height of summer, unless you’re really hardcore). McDowell Mountain Regional Park, about 40 minutes from downtown Phoenix, is the region’s best mountain-biking venue.
A competitive race circuit provides amped-up technical riding on three separate loops, totaling about 15 miles. Or go au naturel on an additional 25 miles of trails, which weave along easy-riding doubletrack past thickets of cholla cacti, over undulating rocky pitches, and down into the dry washes of the Verde River Basin. For an even more epic ride, hook up with Windgate Windmill Pass, which threads the McDowell Mountains and McDowell Sonoran Preserve right into downtown Scottsdale. Keep your eyes out for the pair of mountain lions who prowl the higher ridgelines here.
Explore the Country’s Largest Urban Park
Buttressing the southern end of metro Phoenix’s epic sprawl, South Mountain Park and Preserve unfurls into the wilderness with the suddenness of a voodoo spell. At 16,000 acres, it’s the country’s largest urban park. One minute you’re driving through low-slung residential ‘hoods, the next you’re hitting a dusty trail through fields of meteor-sized boulders and sentinel saguaros. There are over 60 miles of trails from which to choose.
For an easy two-hour loop, head up toward 2,690-foot Mount Suppoa on the Kiwanis Trail before cutting east to Fat Man’s Pass and Hidden Valley. On the hike home, take the spur for the Holbert Trail to glimpse a series of prehistoric petroglyphs carved into the rocks by the region’s Hohokam people thousands of years ago. If you have a shuttle vehicle available, continue from Fat Man’s Pass on the National Trail for an excellent full-day hike.
- Saddle Up for Wild West Adventure
- Take to the Skies
- Raft the Verde River
- Be a Cowboy at Saguaro Lake Ranch
- Scale the Praying Monk
- See the Spring Wildflowers
- Play the Desert Slots
- Take a Flightseeing Tour of the Grand Canyon
- Bike the Trails at McDowell Mountain Regional Park
- Explore the Country’s Largest Urban Park