Hikers, bikers and climbers in Greater Phoenix have come to the same conclusion as coyotes, roadrunners and jackrabbits: The Sonoran Desert is a great place to play.
Three major mountains buttress Phoenix, providing visitors an outlet for every grade of high-desert pursuit. Hikers can traverse 51 miles of trail at South Mountain Park and Preserve, one of the largest municipal parks in the United States; mountain bikers can climb to the top of McDowell Mountain then hurtle back down again; and climbers can leave their chalky handprints on the granite “hump” of Camelback Mountain.
The Sonoran Desert is also home to the kind of cactus most people only see in cartoons. The majestic saguaro, found in no other desert in the world, can grow as tall as 50 feet and live as long as 200 years. And you don’t necessarily need hiking boots or a mountain bike to see one: Professional outfitters are happy to put adventurous sightseers in the saddle of a horse, the seat of a Jeep or the basket of a hot-air balloon.
And, of course, Phoenix is also the gateway to one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World: the Grand Canyon. Visitors who touch down at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport are only a scenic daytrip away from the canyon’s South Rim. Those who seek a quicker and more dramatic route to the Grand Canyon can book an aerial tour that will take them sweeping over the 277-mile geologic marvel in an airplane.
Whether you climb the 1,000-foot rise to the summit of Camelback Mountain or embark on a quick jaunt to the top of Piestewa Peak, you will be rewarded with expansive views of the valley below. On Phoenix’s southern frontier is South Mountain Park and Preserve, where a labyrinth of trails exposes hikers to native flora as well as cultural treasures such as ancient Indian petroglyphs. This landmark is popular among trail runners, mountain bikers and those who enjoy horseback riding. There’s also a road to the summit, so cyclists and motorists can enjoy the view.
Whether you’re a seasoned pro in search of extreme singletrack or a weekend rider looking for a pleasant escape, Greater Phoenix has a mountain bike trail for you. Dozens of breezy paths sweep through valleys and over hills, while challenging terrain puts even the hardiest riders to the test. The 3,200-foot climbs of the McDowell Mountain Regional Park—a 22,000-acre jewel in the lower Verde River Basin—reward hardcore fat-tire enthusiasts with outstanding views and swift descents. At the other end of the spectrum, the gentle trails that snake through Papago Park are a joy for riders of all ages.
For many visitors and locals, there’s no better way to connect with the land, soul and heritage of the Southwest than exploring the region on horseback. Remote riding trails are scattered throughout Greater Phoenix and its unpopulated outskirts. You can book a daytrip with one of many local outfitters, spend a week in the rustic environs of a dude ranch, or take advantage of the open range at Sheraton Grand at Wild Horse Pass, a full-service resort with its own equestrian center.
Inspire your soul as you float high above the desert terrain in a hot-air balloon or glider. Experienced hot-air balloon companies offer dramatic dawn and sunset flights, and some even combine your high-altitude experience with up-close tours below. More daring types might want to try soaring above the desert floor in a sailplane or glider. Either way, taking to the sky will give you a whole new perspective on Greater Phoenix’s immeasurable beauty.
Visitors who are ready to rumble can buckle into the seat of a Jeep or Hummer for a guided tour of some the Sonoran Desert’s most remote places. Four-wheel excursions let you cover miles of rugged terrain fast, taking you to remote spots like hidden canyons and abandoned gold mines, and guides teach you something along the way. Many custom tours even include a Southwestern cookout or catered supper (just to make sure the engine is the only thing growling during your day of adventure).
Novice and experienced climbers alike know that Arizona peaks make for perfect on-rope adventures. Popular areas include Camelback Mountain, South Mountain Park and Preserve, the Superstition Mountains, the McDowell Mountains, Pinnacle Peak, and Queen Creek Canyon.