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Desert Adventures: The Best Things to Do in Phoenix, Arizona

With it’s signature red rock landscape, crystal blue skies and endless sunshine Phoenix is a city where life is best lived outside. Whether you’re traveling to Phoenix for a business trip or to Scottsdale for a girlfriend getaway, the proximity of several mountains, the Sonoran Desert and a handful of lakes and rivers means you’re never too far from some outdoor adventures. So if you want red mountain hikes, crave a bit of culture or desire nothing more than to lounge in a poolside cabana in Scottsdale; there is no shortage of outdoor activities in Phoenix. Pack your bags and check out some of the best things to do in Phoenix, Arizona.

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Hiking in Phoenix

There is no doubt Phoenix offers up some of the best urban hiking in the country. Where else can you hit the trails during the day with plenty of time for a poolside cocktail in the evening? Camelback Mountain in Scottsdale is perhaps the best known hike in Phoenix but the nearby Usery Mountains, Tonto National Forest and Superstition Mountains have miles of trails waiting to be explored. While beautiful the desert can also be brutal; make sure you stay on marked trails, watch out for wildlife (a snake bite is a sure way to ruin your day) and drink plenty of water. With countless trails ranging flat and wheelchair accessible to 2,000 foot climbs that require scrambling and boulder hopping, some of the best hiking in Phoenix is only minutes from downtown.

Laze by the Pool in Scottsdale

When the Arizona sun brings temperatures into the triple digit range the only thing you really want to do is lounge by the pool with a fruity drink in hand and naturally Phoenix has elevated lazing by the pool into an art form. Scottsdale is well known for it’s world class luxury resorts featuring over the top pools that are the perfect antidote to the blazing Sonoran sun. The Hyatt Regency Scottsdale features a 2.5 acre aquatic playground with 10 pools, 20 fountains and a three-story tall tall high speed waterslide (check out my review for the Hyatt Regency Scottsdale); while the Fairmont Scottsdale Princess features six pools including one that has a 9,000 square foot white sand beach.

Horseback Riding in the McDowell Mountains

For a true taste of the wild west, cowboy up with the folks at Fort McDowell Adventures. Atop your trusty steed explore the sun-baked hills dotted with saguaro cactus and mesquite while real-deal cowboys share the history of the Yavapai Indians and tell tales of long lost gold mines. We-Ko-Pa Resort, a family friendly resort operated by the Yavapai Nation that boasts a pool with views of the nearby Red Mountains as well as a cozy spa and an award winning casino, is the perfect place to rest your haunches after a day in the saddle.

Stand Up Paddle Board in Mesa

When you think of Arizona adventures stand up paddle boarding probably isn’t the first thing that comes to mind but when the desert temperatures climb there is nothing like a day out on the water. With six lakes and a handful of rivers the Phoenix area offers ample opportunity to get out on the water. Pick up your rental board from the friendly folks at No Snow Stand Up Paddle in Mesa on your way out to Saguaro Lake. This two square mile lake, with views of the Four Peaks mountain range, towering sandstone cliffs and namesake saguaro cacti lining the shores is one of the most stunning places I’ve paddled. Lake Pleasant, a 10,000 acre lake popular for windsurfing and waterskiing, is just a 45 minute drive from downtown Phoenix.

Hot Air Balloon Ride in Phoenix

A hot air balloon ride tops many bucket lists and with over 300 days of sunshine per year and the beauty of the Sonoran Desert stretching out for miles Phoenix is one of the best places in the US to make your ballooning dream a reality. Watching the sun rise from behind red rock mountains while gliding up to 5,000 feet above the desert landscape is equal parts thrilling, magical and surreal and with a champagne brunch after you land this flight with Hot Air Expeditions is one experience you won’t mind getting up early for. If you’re a first timer be sure to check out my tips for your first hot air balloon ride.

Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin West

Including an architectural tour on a list of outdoor adventures may seem a bit odd, but hear me out. Taliesin West, the winter outpost of famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright, is where the architect’s signature brand of organic architecture is on full display. The home is equal parts Flintsones and mid-century modern while the history of Frank Lloyd Wright, his family and students (Taleisin West continues to serve as an architectural school to this day) are fascinating. Time your visit to Taleisin West for the evening for magnificent sunset views over Scottsdale and the surrounding McDowell Mountains.

Spend a Day Out on the Farm in Queen Creek

The deserts around Phoenix hold many surprises and one of the biggest for me was discovering the rich agricultural heritage of the farming communities near Mesa on the Fresh Foodie Trail. Queen Creek Olive Mill, Arizona’s only working olive grove, offers a true farm-to-table experience with it’s olive press and cafe. At their Olive 101 class you can learn about (and sample) the olive oil pressed on site then dine on casual Tuscan-inspired fare at the Mill’s onsite eatery. When it comes to peaches Georgia has nothing on Schnepf Farms, Arizona’s largest organic peach farm that has been run by the Schnepf family for over four generations. Over 250,000 visitors stop by Schnepf Farms for juicy peaches straight from the tree, fresh baked peach pies and peach cinnamon rolls from their bakery, as well as the many festivals the farm hosts throughout the year.