Things to Do in Phoenix
Visible throughout most of Phoenix, Camelback Mountain rises 2,704 feet (824 meters) above the Sonoran Desert. The red sandstone formation gets its name from its resemblance to a resting camel, and it’s one of the metro area’s most popular spots for hiking, rock climbing, and other outdoor adventures.
Encompassing about 3 million acres (1,214,057 hectares), the Tonto National Forest is the country’s fifth-largest forest. The altitude ranges from 1,300 to 7,900 feet (396 to 2,408 meters), allowing for diverse flora, fauna and landscapes throughout. In fact, while in one part of the forest you might find a cactus-filled desert, in another you’ll walk through rugged mountain dotted with pines. You’ll also find beautiful lake beaches for peaceful relaxation and aquatic pursuits.
The main reason people visit Tonto National Forest is the outdoor recreation. There are eight wilderness areas in Tonto National Forest, including Four Peaks Wilderness, Hell's Gate Wilderness, Mazatzal Wilderness, Salome Wilderness, Fossil Creek Wild and Scenic Area, Salt River Canyon Wilderness, Sierra Ancha Wilderness and Superstition Wilderness. Each of these offers its own unique experiences. For example, while the Four Peaks Wilderness Area is known for its Four Peaks landmark and 16 designated hiking trails totaling about 40 miles (64 kilometers), the Salt River Canyon Wilderness is where experienced white water rafters go.
One of the most well-preserved ruins in North America, the 1,000-year-old Montezuma Castle was once home to ancient farmers known as the Sinagua Indians. Although the majestic ruins were given a “castle” title, they were actually a multi-family cliff dwelling. In 1906, the site was declared one of the United States’ first national monuments.
Get away from it all in the breathtaking Sonoran Desert, a 100,000-square-mile (260,000-square-kilometer) region that spans Arizona, California, and parts of Mexico. Though it’s the hottest of four deserts in North America, its two rainy seasons sustain unique animals and plants, including the only remaining jaguar population in the United States.
Originally built as a copper trade route, the Apache Trail now guides travelers past steep desert mountains, cliff dwellings, lake shores, eroded canyons, and old mining towns. This scenic road winds 120 miles (193 kilometers) through Arizona’s Superstition Mountains, from the outskirts of Phoenix to the vast Theodore Roosevelt Lake.
Historic Heritage Square takes you back in time to Arizona’s Victorian past. The square is home to the only remaining residential structures of the original Phoenix town site. Heritage Square features eleven Victorian buildings, each with its own unique design, history, and purpose. Today, the buildings have been refurbished and reopened as museums, restaurants, and shops. Each building is designed to give visitors a taste of life back in the original Phoenix settlement. The Baird Machine Shop, for example, was built in 1929 as a commercial structure. Today it is home to Pizzeria Bianco, a local pizza place featuring a wood-burning brick oven, homemade mozzarella cheese, and locally grown vegetables.
The cornerstone of the square is the Rossen House, a 2,800 square feet (260 square meters), fully restored, Victorian home which is now regularly open for guided tours. Build in 1895, the home features ten rooms and five fireplaces. Exhibits such as “A Victorian Christmas” and “A Victorian Wedding” all help the museum capture and show life as it was in the early twentieth century.
The Tuzigoot National Monument is made up of the remains of a pueblo building on a hilltop outside of Clarkdale, Arizona.
Built and occupited by the Sinagua people from roughly 1000 to 1400 C.E., the Tuzigoot village buildings include some with two or three stories. The ruins cover 42 acres, and you can see pithouses (entered via ladders through doors cut into the roof) and petroglyphs. There are other Sinagua ruins in the area, but this is the largest. There are artifacts recovered from the excavations of the Tuzigoot site on display in the visitor center.
The name “Tuzigoot” is an Apache word, and the site was named by an Apache who was on the archaeological excavation crew in the 1930s when the site was found. The name means “crooked water,” referring to a nearby river.
Located in Central Arizona’s Tonto National Forest -- within an hour of Phoenix -- the rugged 160,000 acre (64,750 hectare) Superstition Mountain Range is one of the state’s best hiking, rock climbing and outdoor activity attractions, especially for those with a true sense of adventure. Some popular treks in the Superstition Mountains include Miner’s Needle, Weaver’s Needle, Cave Trail and Peralta Canyon Trail (Peralta Canyon Area) and Treasure Loop Trail, Siphon Draw Trail and The Hand (Lost Dutchman Area). Those wanting to enjoy otherworldly desert scenery will love the mountain’s hoodoos and curving canyons, formed by volcanic eruptions that occurred over 15 million years ago.
Superstition Mountains is an apt name for the range, as it’s home to a number of legends. Its history dates back 9,000 years, with some of its many inhabitants including the Apache Indians, Spanish explorers, Mexican gold miners and American trappers. One story is of the “Lost Dutchman’s Gold Mine,” about a man named Jacob Waltz (aka the Lost Dutchman) who supposedly knew where the world’s richest mine was -- somewhere in the Superstition Mountains -- and kept the secret even after he died in 1891. Additionally, Apache Indians believed there was a hole in the mountain that led to hell.
An interesting related attraction is the Superstition Mountain Museum in Apache Junction, where visitors can peruse artifacts, historical treasures and folklore objects from the Superstition Mountains and surrounding area. You’ll also find the Elvis Memorial Chapel, a chapel and movie museum showing films made at Apacheland. The museum is open 9am to 4pm daily (except Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day and New Year’s Day). Admission is $5 per adult, $4 for seniors 55 and over, and free for youths 17 and younger with a paid adult.
Designed as a 50th anniversary present for his wife, the Wrigley Mansion was constructed in 1932 by enterprising gum salesman William Wrigley Jr.
The mansion sits atop a hill, providing scenic views of the mountains and Phoenix landscape below. The Wrigley family sold the property in the early 1970s. After changing ownership several times, it looked as though the mansion was going to be demolished in 1992, until the Hormel family purchased the Mansion and restored it with the intention of sharing it with the public. The on-site restaurant is a popular spot to grab a bite to eat or celebrate a special occasion.
Guided tours of the Wrigley Mansion provide details about its history and fun tidbits like ghost stories that have been told over the years. Some tours include lunch at the Wrigley Mansion as well.
This iconic contemporary art museum is located on 21-acres of local park in the heart of Scottsdale and showcases between nine and 12 exhibitions each year. Visitors who venture to this popular attraction will find some of the best examples of art, design and architecture in the Southwest.
Travelers agree the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art is an ideal place to escape the city’s heat while taking in some fabulous pieces. But since the museum is relatively small, it’s good to check ahead to be sure it’s not between exhibits.
More Things to Do in Phoenix
Located in nearby Tucson, Mission San Xavier del Bac is a Spanish Catholic mission dating from 1692 when it was founded by Father Eusebio Francisco Kino, a Jesuit missionary. At the time the area was an Indian village, and Kino was the first non-Indian to visit the place, which was then known as Wa:k (although he wrote “Bac,”). It is he who called for the construction of the church, named in honor of San Francisco Xavier; however, the church needed to be rebuilt after 1770 due to destruction from Apache attacks.
Because at this time Spanish Jesuits were banned from the Americas, it was rebuilt under the eye of the Franciscans. This is a unique facet of Mission San Xavier del Bac, as it’s one of the few Arizona missions still led by Franciscans, with mass still taking place. Additionally, the church is touted as the oldest European structure in Arizona still intact, and often the country’s best example of Spanish Colonial architecture.
As soon as you arrive at the site, you’ll understand why it’s known as the “White Dove of the Desert.” The structure is done in white adobe with a sand-colored ornate entrance, which appears striking against the cacti-filled desert landscape. Inside, original statuary, frescos and sculptures bring history to life with such beauty even non-religious visitors can appreciate it. In fact, the artwork is a highlight of a visit. It is recommended to take a tour with a docent -- which typically take place 9:30am, 10:30am 11:30am and 12:30pm, although call first to confirm -- to really grasp the history of the mission and understand what you’re looking at in the church and museum areas. Before leaving, light a prayer candle and browse the gift shop for a momento of your trip.
Featuring some of the area’s top boutiques and shops, Scottsdale Fashion Square is Arizona’s largest shopping destination with miles of more than 250 stores, 40 of which cannot can be found elsewhere in the state. A range of different retailers can be found, including luxury brands such as Tiffany & Co., Prada, Neiman Marcus, Jimmy Choo, Burberry and Nordstrom.
The three-story mall features unique architecture, a food court, wine bar, several restaurants, and movie theater. There is also a free playground area for toddlers. The experience is highly stylized and mostly indoors, with an abundance of large windows letting in natural light. An onsite concierge can help with amenities, services, and transportation options, including a free trolley that runs throughout. There are also seasonal events held inside at the Scottsdale Fashion Square. It is one of the thirty largest shopping malls in the country.
Chase Field, the first retractable-roof, natural grass stadium in the U.S., is home to the Arizona Diamondbacks of Major League Baseball. The stadium in downtown Phoenix features a swimming pool and one of the largest video scoreboards in the MLB. When baseball isn’t in season, the venue hosts live music and other sporting events.
As a non-profit organization, the Arizona Science Center‘s main goal is to entertain and educate people of all ages about science. They opened in 1984 as a small, 10,000 square feet (3,048 square meters) museum featuring select hands-on exhibits. Since its humble beginning, the Arizona Science Center has quickly grown into one of the most popular local attractions in Arizona. Today the Arizona Science Center stretches over 120,000 square feet (36,576 square meters) and is one of the most high-tech museums in the world. With over 40,000 square feet (12,912 square meters) of gallery space, they currently feature over 300 hands-on exhibits in five different themed galleries. There are daily shows in their multi-media Dorrance Planetarium as well as in the giant, five-story IMAX Theater.
The Arizona Science Center is designed around the concept of making learning fun. Exhibits are created to be interactive, encouraging visitors to learn from doing. In addition to the regular exhibitions, you can enjoy a variety of educational programs to help people of all ages have fun with science, such as summer camp programs, adult night outs, and even use of the facilities to host events such as high school proms and birthday parties.
The SEA LIFE® Aquarium near Phoenix is home to over 5,000 animals and is an excellent attraction for families. One major draw is you don’t simply look at animals, you interact with them. First of all, the aquarium hosts a number of educational talks as well as feeding demonstrations with rays and sharks. Additionally, a touch pool allows you to hold crabs, starfish, sea squirts and shellfish.
While there are many animals to explore at SEA LIFE Aquarium, there are some visitor favorites. One is a white tip reef shark -- especially interesting to watch during feeding time -- named Jr. residing in a 161,000 gallon (60,9451 liter) ocean tank. There’s also Loki the Giant Pacific Octopus, known as the trickster around the aquarium and a lover of shellfish and crustaceans. Then there’s Zival, Arizona’s first green sea turtle and an herbivore that lives in the water but breathes oxygen. Fun fact: Did you know female green sea turtles will swim thousands of miles just to lay their eggs in the same place they were born? These are just a few of the interesting resident creatures you’ll encounter at the SEA LIFE Aquarium.
Enjoy the ultimate indoor LEGO® adventure at LEGOLAND® Discovery Center Arizona. Located in the Arizona Mills Mall in Tempe, this interactive LEGO-themed entertainment park features a dozen rides, build-and-play zones, games, workshops, a café, shop, and a 4D cinema, and offers hours of educational fun for kids and their families.
You could think of Phoenix’s South Mountain Park as a large outdoor playground. Actually, a very large outdoor playground. With more than 16,000 acres to explore, according to the Trust for Public Land, South Mountain Park is one of the largest municipally operated parks in the United States.
With more than 50 miles of trails, South Mountain Park is a favorite among horseback riders, hikers and mountain bikers. But drivers can take in the scenery too. A little more than five miles up the Summit Road, there are Valley wide views to be had at Dobbins Lookout. If you’re inspired, keep going to the Gila Lookout for a view of the Gila River Valley. The drive is scenic, so take it slow to safely enjoy the view. There are many steep sections and blind curves and cars share the road with bikers and hikers.
If there’s a paradise for outdoor enthusiasts, McDowell Sonoran Preserve just might be it. With more than 30,000 acres, including the McDowell Mountains, visitors can hike it, bike it or even climb it.
With more than 120 miles of trails, picking which way to go can be tough, so ask the experts. Most mornings McDowell Sonoran Conservancy Pathfinders are on duty at the Brown's Ranch Trailhead, Gateway Trailhead, Lost Dog Wash Trailhead, Sunrise Trailhead and Tom’s Thumb Trailhead. Pathfinders have all sorts of information and suggestions to insure a fun, safe day on the trails.
Fit families will enjoy the way the Family Passport keeps everyone moving together. Scavenger hunts for animal tracks, rocks and other nature provided attractions can provide inspiration for hours of exploring. When you visit five Preserve trailheads (Gateway, Lost Dog, Sunrise, Tom’s Thumb and Brown’s Ranch) and get your passport stamped you’ll win a Preserve bandana.
From the 1796 oil-painted image of George Washington by Gilbert Stewart featured on the dollar bill, to modern couture fashion, ancient Japanese samurai armor-wear and even works by Monet or special exhibits featuring drawings by the likes of Michelangelo, the Phoenix Art Museum is vast and varied in its collections. The 285,000-square-foot space spans four floors and has grown to become the largest art museum in the southwestern United States and a top Phoenix visitor destination since its 1959 opening. Days could be spent examining the 18,000 pieces of contemporary, fashion, modern and photographic art as well as traditional American, Asian, European and Latin American art in its regular collections. Out of state visitors will appreciate the region-evoking Western American collection in the upper level’s north wing.
Live performances, festivals, lectures, independent art films shown in its 300-seat theater and the PhxArtKids Gallery—which encourages families to think creatively and make art onsite—make this an interactive, conversation-evoking space. The first Friday of each month, the museum stays open til 10 p.m. and a trolley connects it with other art and culture destinations downtown. The onsite Palette restaurant serves modern lunch and snack options featuring locally-sourced produce alongside Arizona-made wine and beer.
Arizona’s Wildlife World Zoo Aquarium and Safari Park makes up the largest collection of exotic animals in the state. Many of the animals are endangered species; most recently the zoo welcomed a pair of cheetahs. The park offers a variety of animal encounters to increase awareness. From sea lion shows and petting zoos to giraffe feedings and stingray pools, there is no shortage of face time with the animals.
Most recently, the Safari Park was added bringing the total size of the park to over 80 acres. Visitors can experience panoramic views of Africa’s most interesting habitats, including lions, baboons, antelope, and jackals. ‘Dragonworld' features ectotherms, including a large white crocodile, which use their environment to control body temperatures. At times there are even baby animals in the baby nursery that can be visited. Boat, train, and tram rides make the park easily accessible and extra fun.
With 114 miles of shoreline, the hard thing about a visit to Lake Pleasant Regional Park is making up your mind what to do first. The lake is a great spot for a variety of water sports. Along with a 10-lane boat ramp, Lake Pleasant offers a full-service marina equipped to handle 1,000 boats. Sport fishing is very popular. A nice variety of fish including white bass, largemouth bass, striped bass, channel catfish, and black crappie swim in Lake Pleasant. Wildlife viewing includes Bald Eagles.
But you don’t have to be wet to enjoy Lake Pleasant. With numerous overlooks and seven miles of trails, hiking and biking are popular with visitors. Add 450 picnic sites and parking for 200 vehicles to the list and it’s hard to go wrong. In addition to 165 campsites, there is also a visitor center and a desert education center at Lake Pleasant.
Make your way to Phoenix’s Papago Park to find one of the largest and most unique collections of desert plant life in the world. Stretching over 140 acres (57 hectares), the Desert Botanical Garden is home to hundreds of rare and endangered plant species from around the globe.
Mystery Castle is located in South Phoenix, in the foothills of South Mountain Park. Boyce Luther Gulley, who moved to the southwest to treat his tuberculosis, built the castle in the 1930s for his daughter, Mary Lou. Today, it is considered a Phoenix Point of Pride, one of 33 attractions representing the best of Phoenix.
Phoenix Zoo was founded by Robert E. Maytag (yes, like the appliances!) in 1962 and is the largest non-profit zoo in the United States. It is considered a "Phoenix Point of Pride," one of 33 attractions that are supposed to represent the best of the city. The zoo stretches over 125 acres (50.6 hectares) and displays over 1,300 animals. It is divided up into four walking trails: Africa, the Tropics, Arizona and Discovery. The 2.5 mi (4 km) connected trail is easy to walk and offers numerous exhibits along the way. In addition to standard zoo animals, such as zebras, elephants, and giraffes, the Phoenix Zoo features Stingray Bay, a guided Safari Train, carousel, petting zoo, and camel rides.
The zoo focuses on animal preservation and youth education, hosting numerous community events to help encourage, educate, and inspire. The Discovery trail is specifically designed for children, featuring elaborate play areas. Youth Camps and other programs are hosted regularly as well as numerous private events such as concerts and even weddings.
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