Things to Do in Phoenix
Camelback Mountain is an iconic mountain visible throughout most of the phoenix metropolitan area. Towering over the city at 2,704 feet (824 meters) above sea level, the mountain was named after its very obvious resemblance to a resting camel. The mountain features unique sheer red sandstone cliffs as well as a variety of desert wildlife. Some of its more popular desert animals include Rock Squirrels, Gila Monsters, Javelinas, Coyotes, and Grey Foxes. These natural wonders make the mountain a very popular hiking and rock climbing location.
Although it is possible to hike to the top of Camelback, both trails are a strenuous undertaking and are only recommended for advanced hikers. Echo Canyon Recreation Area does, however, offer two easier hiking options for those less advanced hikers. All trails offer the ability to experience desert wildlife up close, as well as admire Camelback’s unique geological formations.
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.
The Montezuma Castle National Monument is one of the most well-preserved and accessible ancient dwellings in North America. Built amongst the limestone, these 1,000 year-old ruins were once home to ancient farmers known as the Sinagua Indians. Although the monument has adopted the title “castle” due to its majestic appearance, the ruins were actually a multi-family cliff dwelling (similar to a modern-day high-rise apartment complex). Abandoned irrigation systems built by the prehistoric Hokokam Indians made the land and location ideal of these farmers. The high cliffs allowed them to access the fertile land surrounding Beaver Creek while remaining safe from flooding. In 1906, the Montezuma Castle was declared one of our country’s first national monuments. Since then, it has been a popular tourist location. In addition to the cliff dwellings, the monument includes the Montezuma Well, a limestone sinkhole that is believed to be the remains of the Sinagua’s irrigation system.
The Sonoran Desert is a 100,000 square mile (260,000 square kilometers) arid region in North America that stretches across large portions of Arizona, California, and the northwest Mexican states of Sonora, Baja California, and Baja California Sur. Although it is the hottest of the four North American deserts, its distinct bimodal rainfall (raining heavily both in the summer and winter) makes the region extremely biologically developed and diverse. The Sonoran Desert is home to some of the most unique animal and plant life in North America, many of which cannot be found anywhere else. For example, the only remaining jaguar population in the United States (estimated between 80 to 120 jaguars), can be found in the Sonoran Desert. Other more well-known animals include roadrunners, gila monsters, cactus wren, and desert bighorn sheep.
Apache Trail is a 120 mile (193km) historic road that connects Apache Junction (the east edge of the Phoenix metropolitan area) to Theodore Roosevelt Lake. Although the trail’s official name today is “State Route 88”, it adopted the name “Apache Trail” in reference to the Apache Indians who originally inhabited the Superstition Mountains. The road was initially built as a way to open copper trade between the city of Globe and the Phoenix area. Today, however, it has become a very popular tourist destination. Winding through the Superstition Mountains, this circular road provides some of the most beautiful scenic views in central Arizona. It guides you up and down the steep desert mountains, past cliff dwellings, lake shores, eroded canyons, and old mining towns.
In addition to simply enjoying the beautiful scenery, many travelers choose to stop and explore the various historic treasures along the way.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
With 114 miles of shoreline, the hard thing about a visit to Lake Pleasant 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.
Mystery Castle is located in South Phoenix, in the foothills of South Mountain Park. The “Castle” was built in the 1930s by Boyce Luther Gulley for his daughter Mary Lou Gulley. After being diagnosed with tuberculosis, Gulley unexpectedly left his wife and daughter and moved to Phoenix, Arizona. There, he began building a home to give to his daughter. He lived much longer than expected and spent 15 years building the 8,000 square foot (743 squared meters), 3-story ‘castle’. In 1945, Bruce Gully passed away and left the house to his teenage daughter, Mary Lou, and her mother. They both moved in shortly after and Mary Lou still lives there today. The real story however, is not why Boyce Gulley built the house, but how! The Mystery Castle is made entirely of found and inexpensive materials, featuring everything from automobile parts, to telephone poles, to rail tracks.
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