Phoenix, Arizona is a desert oasis filled with world-class resorts, high-end restaurants and spas, championship golf courses, and breathtaking desert sunsets. And at only 12 miles away, it also gives close access to Scottsdale. With stunning views all around, it’s the perfect place for a vacation or getaway for a mixture of leisure and activities. This is a place that appeals to couples as well as families while soaking up the sun and the culture. Here are some unique and affordable ways to make the most of your Phoenix area vacation.
Let’s start with opting outside, especially with the Sonoran Desert as a big backyard. There are some interesting parks and outdoor attractions to explore.
The Desert Botanical Garden offers 140 acres to explore native flora and fauna. Visitors will walk through trails landscaped with more than 50,000 desert plants and soaring red rocks. Don’t miss the Butterfly Pavilion showcasing thousands of live butterflies. Admission is free on the second Tuesday of each month. Reservations are required.
If you’re looking for a free activity that will get your heart pumping, hike iconic Camelback Mountain. The Echo Canyon Trail is a steep and rocky 1.23-mile trek to the summit. This is not a hike for inexperienced hikers or children. However, if you’re fit and adventurous, it’s a must-do, with stellar views of the city as your reward. Remember to take along extra water and avoid hiking during the heat of summer.
For a desert hike that is family-friendly, the 4.2-mile Lost Dog Wash Trail is the perfect way to go. A “passport” at the trailhead provides clues to a kids’ scavenger hunt for specific flora and fauna along the way.
The McCormick-Stillman Railroad Park is a great destination for train buffs of all ages. Take a ride on the Paradise & Pacific Railroad or hop on a vintage carousel from the 1950s. The park also boasts a free museum, shops, and playgrounds. Individual rides are $3 each, but you can purchase an all-day wristband to enjoy the fun again and again.
Soar over the Sonoran Desert in the basket of a hot air balloon with Hot Air Expeditions or Rainbow Ryders. This gentle ride offers a bird’s-eye view of coyote and jackrabbit paths and overlooks the mountains that surround the city. Check for seasonal coupons via the links above. Sunrise flights are available year-round; sunset flights are available from November through February/March.
If you’re an avid golfer or just a casual player, Phoenix and its neighboring communities are home to a whopping 200 golf courses in a variety of styles, and Greater Phoenix is known as one of the top destinations for golf. This is a great way to enjoy the desert scenery and fresh air while improving your game.
As much fun as it is to be outside, it’s always wise to plan a few indoor activities as well, on the off-chance of inclement weather or perhaps a bad case of sunburn. Some of the best attractions in the area include Phoenix’s Mystery Castle was created as a love letter from a father to his little girl. As a child growing up in the 1930s, Mary Lou Gulley begged her dad, Boyce Gulley, to build her a castle that wouldn’t wash away like sandcastles in the ocean. She suggested that the desert would be the ideal location, and Gulley went about creating the Mystery Castle, which boasts 18 rooms, 13 fireplaces, parapets, and many other nooks and crannies to explore. Unfortunately, Gulley died before the family could move in, but Mary Lou did eventually live in the castle, giving tours until her death in 2010. Today, visitors can tour the unique castle from October through May. Be sure to bring cash – credit cards are not accepted.
The Musical Instrument Museum (MIM) contains over 8,000 instruments from more than 200 countries and features special exhibits and concerts throughout the year. Sections popular with kids include the Experience Gallery, where you can try out a host of instruments, and the Mechanical Music Gallery, which features instruments that play themselves.
If you’re looking for a fun and educational escape for the kids, head to the Arizona Science Center in Downtown Phoenix. There are four levels of hands-on exhibits designed to spark creativity and an interest in science at an early age. The Dorrance Planetarium, one of the largest in the country, offers several daily showings that highlight the wonders of the sky. Many school groups and programs visit in the morning, so plan to visit after 1 p.m.
The Butterfly Wonderland transports guests of all ages to the rainforest by immersing them in the world of butterflies and other rainforest animals. Learn about Monarch migration in a captivating 3D movie, observe live chrysalis as they emerge naturally into beautiful butterflies, spend ample time strolling through the conservatory with the butterflies, get up close to unique reptiles that inhabit rainforests across the world, and even indulge in edible insects!
The Heard Museum spotlights the history and culture of American Indians through traditional and contemporary art. The permanent collection boasts over 40,000 pieces of fine art and objects, including Hopi katsina dolls, Navajo and Zuni jewelry, Navajo textiles, and Southwestern ceramics from prehistory to the present.
The Phoenix Art Museum features more than 19,000 objects in nine focus areas including American and Western American art, Latin American art, fashion design, photography, and more. The fashion collection is one of the most unique in the world, with more than 6,000 items depicting 500 years of fashion history. “Pay What You Wish” on Wednesdays from 3 p.m. to 9 p.m. Or enjoy free admission on the first Friday of the month from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m.
Take a break and cool down between activities with a trip to Soda Jerk Co. Milkshake Bar. This retro 1950s milkshake harkens back to the days when soda fountains served up photo-worthy treats like the Sweet Tooth cotton candy-flavored milkshake. If you’re looking for a hotel beverage, try Lux Central. This independent coffee bar features all your favorite caffeine jolts, along with hard-to-resist pastries. The cafe also serves beer and wine.
If wine is your thing and you’d like to delve a little deeper than just a glass, consider visiting LDV Winery. Arizona has a burgeoning wine scene. Wine tasting at LDV provides a sample of the warm-climate grapes that thrive in the desert, including three of the winery’s current offerings.
With so many budget-friendly attractions to explore in the Valley of the Sun, the only hard part will be choosing which ones to place on your itinerary. You might also need some help choosing accommodations. We recommend the following places to stay.
In Phoenix, consider the Royal Palms Resort and Spa for a unique experience. Royal Palms provides an engaging journey for all the senses with an enchanting Spanish Mediterranean mansion that was built back in 1929. The resort offers 119 artfully appointed casitas, estate rooms, and villas. For more luxury, book your stay at Mountain Shadows. This boutique resort is set in the shadow of Camelback Mountain in the serene town of Paradise Valley, just ten minutes from historic Old Town Scottsdale. Contemporary design is infused with a dash of the 1950s modernism and abundant natural light. Choose from chic resort guestrooms and two-story lofts in the luxurious wing of residences.
If you would prefer to stay in nearby Scottsdale, plan a stay at Sheraton Desert Oasis, a hotel property that harmonizes with the Sonoran Desert landscape seen outside your private balcony or patio. Book a stylish one- or two-bedroom villa providing up to 1,290 square feet of intuitively designed living area for accommodating as many as eight adults. Or consider The Westin Kierland Villas for stylish villas that inspire relaxation. Guests will appreciate generous balconies and custom touches that reflect the beauty of the desert.
No matter where you decide to stay or what you decide to see and do, Phoenix is a great option for a memorable and scenic trip.