Phoenix’s stunning Sonoran Desert scenery sets it apart from every major city in the United States. And the best part? Great hiking trails, mountains and desert adventures are all around us, so it’s easy to step into the wild side.
Sonoran Desert Scenes
The famous saguaro grows only in the Sonoran Desert, and if you’re looking to get up close and personal with our iconic cactuses, they’re happy to stand for a photo op. (Just don’t touch!) Hikers can head to Spur Cross Ranch Conservation Area to find a veritable forest of saguaros along Dragonfly Trail, while the Desert Botanical Garden offers encounters along meandering walking paths throughout its 140 acres of local flora and fauna.
Phoenix is surrounded on all sides by mountains—and some are even in the heart of the city. The parks and peaks of the Phoenix Mountains Preserve include thousands of acres of pristine hiking and biking trails through rugged desert scenery. Mountain adventurers can also head east to the Superstition Wilderness to tackle the trails in Lost Dutchman State Park or climb high for views of Weaver’s Needle on Peralta Trail.
So, what season is the best to enjoy the outdoors in the Sonoran Desert? Any of them! Pleasant fall and winter temps entice outdoor lovers of all types to soak up the sunshine. In spring, the desert bursts to life during wildflower season, when you’ll find a palette of petals and vibrant cactus blooms. Skip the trails during the hot summer and cool down instead with water adventures at Lake Pleasant Regional Park or the Lower Salt River.
No matter when you visit, there’s always something magical about a desert sunset to end a day in Phoenix. You can catch one over a panorama of downtown from Dobbins Lookout at South Mountain, accessible from a scenic drive or a 5-mile round-trip hike on Holbert Trail. If you prefer to kick back and imbibe, snag a spot on the patio at Different Pointe of View or El Chorro for some of the best tableside sunset views in town.
Hiking the Trails
Get acquainted with the Sonoran Desert on an easy walk through the iconic red buttes of Papago Park. Trails include an accessible, paved pathway on the west side and an interpretive nature trail on the east side. If you’re up for an easy half-mile hike, check out the park’s popular Hole-in-the-Rock viewpoint. You can also head to the McDowell Sonoran Preserve to learn about Sonoran Desert flora and fauna on the ADA-accessible Kovach Family Nature Trail.
Warm up with a longer hike on the well-maintained Waterfall Trail in White Tank Mountain Regional Park. The namesake of this 2-mile canyon hike only appears after rainstorms, but you’ll always be able to see ancient petroglyphs and towering saguaros. For a moderate, mountainous hike that sweeps you into a slice of peaceful Sonoran Desert just minutes from the city, head into the Phoenix Mountains Preserve on the 3-mile Quartz Ridge Trail.
Escape on a longer desert adventure on a trail that feels remote but is just a short drive away. At 16,000 acres, South Mountain Park and Preserve boasts trails for all levels, and one of its most secluded trails packs in plenty of fun. The 3.5-mile Hidden Valley via Mormon Trail loop squeezes hikers through a crevice called Fat Man’s Pass and features a natural rock tunnel, some hand-over-hand clambering, and plenty of cactuses, wildlife and scenery to make you forget you’re just 20 minutes from town.
Summit one of Phoenix’s challenging peaks for spectacular views and bragging rights. The iconic Camelback Mountain is a popular pick with its two challenging trailheads, Echo Canyon Trail and Cholla Trail, both steep, rocky ascents where you’ll scramble and sweat for the panoramic payoff. Nearby Piestewa Peak in the Phoenix Mountains Preserve sports the second-highest point in the parks, accessible on the strenuous Summit Trail.
Hiking’s not the only way to explore the Sonoran Desert. Swap two legs for four wheels on a thrilling, off-road ATV experience at Arizona Outdoor Fun, where guides lead the charge through the rugged wilderness. Or strap in for a Hummer or Blazer tour of the desert with Stellar Adventures.
Water recreation in the desert? You bet! The Lower Salt River on the city’s eastern edge is a go-to for all-season escapes, including stand-up paddleboarding, kayaking and rafting. Outfitters such as REI Co-op Experiences and 360 Adventures will get you floating on tours where it’s not uncommon to spot wild horses, eagles and other wildlife on the shores.
Check one off the bucket list with Hot Air Expeditions or Rainbow Ryders when you soar over the Sonoran Desert in the basket of a hot-air balloon. This gentle ride with a bird’s-eye view lets you follow the paths of coyotes and jackrabbits and look out over the mountains that surround the city from breathtaking heights.
The experiences don’t stop at high-flying tours, either. Foodies can pull up a chair and enjoy fine dining in gorgeous desert digs with Cloth & Flame. Guests are invited to mingle at a chic community table and tuck into multicourse meals crafted by local chefs, against backdrops such as the Superstition Mountains, the buttes of Papago Park or open spaces set against an iconic Southwestern backdrop.
Desert Day Trips
If you’re itching for more one-of-a-kind desert scenery, hit the road on the historical Apache Trail, a famous route through the Superstition Mountains, accessible on Phoenix’s eastern edge. You’ll wind past lakes, stunning canyons, and scenic stops such as Goldfield Ghost Town, Theodore Roosevelt Dam and the cliffside dwellings of Tonto National Monument. Don’t forget a pit stop at the Old West town of Tortilla Flat for prickly pear-flavored gelato.
Two hours north in Sedona, you’ll find yourself surrounded by a new kind of desert. Stunning red rock formations and cliffs tower over a cultural community famous for an eclectic mix of art, the outdoors, boutique shopping and Sedona’s famed energy vortexes.
This article originally appeared in the 2020 Visit Phoenix Official Travel Guide.