Horseback riding, Phoenix, AZ

Six Ways to Enjoy the Outdoors in Phoenix, Arizona

Fort McDowell Adventures ride, Phoenix, AZ

Guide on the Fort McDowell Adventures Trail Ride near Phoenix, Arizona.

The most surprising part of Phoenix, Arizona, is the easy access to nature and outdoor activities, even though it is one of the larger cities in the United States. Phoenix is in the midst of the Sonoran Desert, a striking landscape dominated by huge saguaro cactus, with rugged mountains and intriguing rock formations. Several natural areas are interspersed throughout the Greater Phoenix area where you can hike, enjoy scenic vistas, learn about the desert, ride the open range on horseback, take to the air for a bird’s-eye view, and even see the desert from a kayak. Yep, that’s right – kayaking in the desert!

Kayaking on the Salt River near Phoenix

Kayaking on the Salt River near Phoenix

While the possibilities are almost endless, here are six ways to get in touch with nature and the outdoors that we especially enjoyed:

1) Take a horseback trek through the desert

If you prefer exploring while sitting down, a horseback trip is the perfect choice. We did a two-hour trek with Fort McDowell Adventures through unspoiled desert terrain against a mountain backdrop. Although their stables are only a short drive from the city, it felt as if we were travelling through remote wilderness terrain.

Horseback ride, Phoenix, AZ

Riding across the desert.

Horseback ride, Phoenix, AZ

The green Verde River Valley contrasts with the dry desert uplands.

Accompanied by expert guides, we rode across dry rolling hills where we zigzagged among giant saguaros. Then there was the contrasting greenery of the tree-lined Verde River Valley. The most exciting part was crossing the river itself. Hawks and eagles soared above, though the highlight was getting close to some of the legendary wild horses that live in the desert.

Horseback ride, Phoenix, AZ

Crossing the Verde River.

2) Kayak in the Desert

The most unusual thing we did was kayak in the desert. A stretch of the Salt River near Phoenix makes for a pleasant half-day trip. We did a guided trip run by REI Co-op in Scottsdale who use inflatable kayaks which are stable but have a lot of give to them if you encounter low water or other obstacles. Our guide Mike indicated that he has used these kayaks in class 3 rapids.

Kayaking on the Salt River near Phoenix

On the Salt River.

Salt River, Phoenix AZ

Our guide Mike.

Our trip was quite easy-going. We mostly just steered in the steady current, yet there were enough riffles, minor rapids, and obstacles to keep things interesting. And we happened to see a bald eagle perched on a high tree, a great blue heron stalking the shoreline, and a few other birds along the way.

Salt River, near Phoenix AZ

Desert hills lining the Salt River.

The desert looks different from the water, as we pass through a narrow strip of greenery with shrubs and tall trees, interspersed with red cliffs. The water was fairly shallow, but conditions can change quickly. A week before we arrived, heavy rains caused a flood that carried debris that was now caught in the trees about two metres up.

Salt River, Phoenix, AZ

Take-out on our Salt River trip.

3) Take a hike in the Desert

Hikers are spoiled for choice with a series of trails in parks scattered throughout the city and nearby. Usery Mountain Regional Park in Mesa offers extensive hikes, some with sweeping views, a nature centre, and even a campground if you fancy sleeping in the desert.

Usery Mountain Regional Park, Phoenix, AZ

Usery Mountain Regional Park. The huge Phoenix sign with an arrow in the background is historic, first built in the 1950s as a navigation aid for pilots.

Another area we enjoyed was the McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, a vast natural area with an extensive network of trails and free admission as a bonus. It covers over 30,000 acres and 225 miles (360 km) of trails, so you can do some serious hiking if you like. For a more leisurely stroll, the trails close to the preserve entrance are excellent as well. Plan on being near the entrance near sunset (the preserve closes at sunset) to photograph the low sun washing a warm glow across the desert or providing spectacular backlighting on the cacti.

Trail in the McDowell Sonoran Preserve, Phoenix AZ

Trail in the McDowell Sonoran Preserve.

McDowell Sonoran Preserve, near Scottsdale, Arizona

Sunset, McDowell Sonoran Preserve.

4) Visit the Hole-in-the-Rock

If you’re looking for a great outdoor experience that is super easy to do, with free admission, then a visit to the Hole-in-the-Rock is hard to beat. Indeed, we would rank this among the top must-do things in Phoenix.

Papago Park, Phoenix, Arizona

Hole-in-the-Rock at sunrise, Papago Park.

It is located in Papago Park with a network of hiking trails around red butte formations. You can drive right up to the Hole-in-the-Rock formation, then take a short uphill walk to the opening. The sandstone butte has a large window-like hole where you walk through for great views over the city.

Papago Park, Phoenix, Arizona

View from side the Hole-in-the-Rock.

It’s a designated archaeological site, with evidence that the ancient Hohokam people used it as a calendar. Rays of light coming through the hole hit the rocks at different spots throughout the year, making it handy to mark the winter and summer solstice, or when to plant crops and perform ceremonies. They even carved markers to help with the measurements.

Papago Park, Phoenix, Arizona

Hole-in-the-Rock.

Though this popular spot gets a lot of visitors, we had the place to ourselves one morning shortly after sunrise. This suited us just fine, since sunrise and sunsets are ideal time for photography, when the low sun turns the rocks a brilliant red. See more photos in our previous posting on Hole-in-the-Rock.

5) Visit the Desert Botanical Garden

Located next door to Papago Park, the Desert Botanical Garden is the place to go to get oriented on the Sonoran Desert as well other deserts around the world. If you thought that deserts were mostly sand and little vegetation, this place is quite an eye-opener. Covering 140 acres, and with over 50,000 plants, it boasts the world’s finest collection of desert vegetation.

Desert Botanical Garden, Phoenix, Arizona.

Desert Botanical Garden.

The gardens have five loop trails, each with a different theme, including everything from an Agave Yucca Forest to desert wildflowers, and how people traditionally lived in deserts. A nice touch is that volunteers are stationed throughout the gardens to answer your questions or demonstrate various aspects of desert plants: cactus identification, or how to tell the difference between similar-looking aloes and agave, for example.

Desert Botanical Garden, Phoenix, Arizona.

Early morning backlighting on a cactus.

The best time to go is first thing in the morning, ideally just after the gardens open at 8:00. In winter, the sun will still be low in the sky, with warm light on the plants and terrain. Best of all is the spectacular backlighting on the cacti, many of which seem to glow in the low sunlight. A bonus is that there are fewer people around as well.

Desert Botanical Garden, Phoenix, Arizona.

Desert wildflowers.

For more details, see our posting dedicated to the Desert Botanical Garden.

6) Take a Hot Air Balloon Ride

Phoenix is a hot air ballooning hotspot, with more fly-able days per year than anywhere in the country. We were picked up well before dawn and driven to the liftoff site for Hot Air Expeditions where they were already unrolling the massive balloon. Powerful fans fill it with air, then once it starts to inflate, they turn on the propane burners, and the gigantic bulb soon takes shape. Pilot Gary checks that it’s ready, then everyone jumps into the over-sized wicker basket.

Hot air ballooning, Phoenix, Arizona

Ballooning over the outskirts of Phoenix

The ground crew unties the ropes, then it’s up, up and away as we rise almost straight up, just as the sun clears the nearby mountains. We have a sensation of effortless floating with no feeling of movement since we travel at the same speed as the light wind. Other than the occasional blast from the burners, there is no sound either. We gradually glide away from the edge of the city, over the highway, and towards open desert.

Hot air ballooning, Phoenix, Arizona

Ballooning over the outskirts of Phoenix.

Near the end of the flight, Gary aims for a flat clearing he’s spotted with few rocks. We skim the tops of low bushes then gently bounce down as the ground crew grabs the basket to slow it to a stop.

Hot air ballooning, Phoenix, Arizona

Having a blast ballooning over Phoenix.

Then it’s time to celebrate. Champagne has long been a ballooning tradition, though here we not only toast the trip with a glass or two of bubbly, but also enjoy breakfast served on tables set up in the midst of the Sonoran Desert.

For more details, see our posting dedicated to Hot Air Ballooning.

For more information, see www.visitphoenix.com

Hot air ballooning, Phoenix, Arizona

Breakfast and champagne toast.

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