Sonoran Adventure

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Outdoor adventures are just as much a draw to the Phoenix-Scottsdale area as the famed golf, spas and spring training. 

By Micaela Myers

Outdoor adventures

Located a half-day’s drive or short, one-hour direct flight from John Wayne Airport, the Phoenix-Scottsdale area makes for a perfect desert escape from Orange County. While Phoenix is the country’s most populous state capital at nearly 1.5 million, the smaller resort town of Scottsdale is the destination of choice for many desert-lovers looking for a getaway. Golf remains one of the main attractions, with nearly 200 golf courses offered locally, while others partake in some rest and relaxation in Scottsdale’s spas—the city is known for having one of the highest numbers of destination spas per capita, as well as some of the country’s most luxurious spas and top wellness practitioners.

In addition, the area is increasingly known for its plethora of outdoor activities and abundant open space. Located in the vast and unique Sonoran Desert, Scottsdale boasts 330-plus days of sunshine a year and is home to the 21,400-acre McDowell Sonoran Preserve, perfect for hiking, biking, climbing, horseback riding, rafting, fishing, bird-watching and more.

Outdoor adventuresHitting the Trails

The skies are wide open and blue, framed by striking mountains. The Sonoran Desert, which stretches from Arizona down into Mexico, is a magical place with its towering saguaro found only in the Sonoran. These iconic cacti only grow “arms” when they reach 50 to 100 years old. They can reach 50 feet tall and live between 150 and 200 years. This special desert ecosystem is bursting with unique flora and fauna, and because Scottsdale has so much open space, there are countless ways to get out and explore nature.

The Scottsdale area is home to 320 miles of trails, 60 of which are in the McDowell Sonoran Preserve. Head out to hike or mountain bike in the early morning to view the most animals as well as beat the heat. Keep a special eye on the blooming and fruiting plants, which attract birds and butterflies. You may even spot a desert tortoise, which can grow up to 14 inches long and live up to 40 years.

Those seeking a tougher challenge can go vertical, with more than 200 named climbs in the preserve under a variety of difficulty ratings. The desert isn’t all dry either. The Verde, Upper Salt and Lower Salt rivers make for great rafting, kayaking, canoeing, fishing and tubing. There are also six lakes within an hour’s drive.

If you don’t want to go it alone, sign up for a naturalist-led hike, or climb, bike or hit the waters with an outfitter. Several area outfitters offer horseback riding as well, for a true western experience and a great vantage point for viewing the Sonoran Desert.

Flying High

Ready to take a hot air balloon ride? The Phoenix-Scottsdale area offers great weather for taking off and enjoying sunrise views of the valley and mountains, with several hot air balloon companies to choose from. Those who are afraid of heights may be surprised that the hot air balloon experience is so slow and smooth—almost like floating—that most people aren’t scared at all, and find the adventure truly rewarding. To celebrate a successful voyage, participants end the ride with a Champagne toast and breakfast as the balloon is packed away.

Balloons aren’t the only way to take to the skies in Scottsdale; visitors can also book a seaplane adventure to see the Native American cliff dwellings, take a helicopter tour to the Grand Canyon’s South Rim, or try a powered parachute experience.

While golfing, spas and Cactus League baseball spring training are all great reasons to visit the Phoenix-Scottsdale area, coastal Orange County residents who enjoy the outdoors will find the natural adventures yet another reason to head east. Whether climbing, flying, taking a Jeep tour or any adventure in between, the singular Sonoran Desert transports visitors to a western landscape just made for outdoor play.

To learn more about the activities mentioned here, visit

Where to Dine

Many of Scottsdale’s resorts feature celebrated restaurants by star chefs. La Hacienda by Richard Sandoval at the Fairmont Scottsdale Princess was voted the No. 1 Mexican Restaurant in Arizona (Ranking Arizona, 2012). The restaurant features a tequila bar with more than 200 varieties to go with its delicious, indigenous ingredient-driven Mexican cuisine. The resort is also home to Bourbon Steak by acclaimed chef Michael Mina, offering natural, organic and hormone-free cuts of beef, slow-poached and finished over the wood-burning grill (

Experience Native American culture at Kai Restaurant at Sheraton Wild Horse Pass Resort & Spa, where Chef de Cuisine Joshua Johnson uses local ingredients from the Gila River Indian Community to capture the essence of the Pima and Maricopa tribes. (

With a long list of awards, Quiessence Restaurant at the Farm at South Mountain is famous for its daily menus featuring contemporary American cuisine focused on seasonality. (

Partake in the well-known and well-celebrated hybrid cuisine of chef Vincent Guerithault at Vincent on Camelback, where the French-trained chef combines classic techniques with the flavors of the Southwest. (

Visit Zagat ( to preview more of the area’s top restaurants.

Outdoor adventures

Where to Stay

The Phoenix-Scottsdale area is home to dozens of award-winning and stunning hotels and resorts. While the choices are virtually endless, here are a few standouts to get you started:

Fairmont Scottsdale Princess: Situated on 65 acres, the AAA Five-Diamond Fairmont Scottsdale Princess is an oasis in the desert, offering 649 oversized guest rooms, five swimming pools, a kid’s program, four award-winning restaurants, state-of-the-art meeting facilities and a brand new spa concept: Well & Being at Willow Stream. For those who come to golf, the resort is adjacent to two 18-hole championship golf courses, including the Stadium Course, home to the PGA Tour’s Waste Management Phoenix Open and named one of the “Top 10 Public Golf Courses in Arizona” by Golf Digest. (

Sanctuary Camelback Mountain Resort and Spa: Luxurious mountain and spa casitas offer awesome views at this 53-acre, AAA Four-Diamond resort, which features an Asian-inspired spa experience, dining by “Iron Chef America” winner Beau MacMillan at Elements, plus swimming, tennis and hiking. (

Four Seasons Resort Scottsdale at Troon North: Relax in a one- or two-story adobe casita, enjoy one of three restaurants, or head to the spa for a customized, signature treatment at this 210-room resort nestled at the foothills of Pinnacle Peak. (

FireSky Resort & Spa: Experience the four elements at FireSky, a resort designed to create a magical world of comfort and beauty near Old Town Scottsdale, where you can shop, visit local galleries, dine, hit the nightclubs and more. Or, take a short trip to see Cactus League spring training; Scottsdale Stadium, the official San Francisco Giants spring training facility, is located just 10 minutes away ( Back at the resort, enjoy dining, spa treatments or a poolside cocktail. (

Those who appreciate architecture won’t want to miss a trip to Taliesin West, the winter home and school of Frank Lloyd Wright from 1937 until his death in 1959. The school is still open on the grounds, where architects draft and work daily. This architectural gem from the master himself is also open for tours. ( LBM


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