Located three miles west of Superior, AZ and just over 60 miles from Phoenix, Boyce Thompson Arboretum State Park is Arizona's oldest and largest botanical garden.

Dedicated to fostering education, recreation, research and conservation opportunities associated with arid-land plants, the Arboretum features flora from the Arizona desert and deserts around the world.

Set alongside unspoiled native Sonoran Desert vegetation with a backdrop of rock formations, Boyce Thompson Arboretum offers both beautiful walks and the chance to learn more about desert vegetation.

And it's all close enough to make a great day trip from Phoenix.

History

The Arboretum was founded by Colonel William Boyce Thompson, a mining engineer, financier, and philanthropist.

One of his ventures was Magma Mine in Superior. He built a home, Picket Post, in Cook National Forest in the Arizona Hills, and shortly thereafter purchased over four hundred acres of land around the property. He selected Franklin J. Cider of the University of Arizona to establish an arboretum on a portion of that land in the 1920s. Its initial mission was to study the plants of the desert and make the results available to the public.

The Arboretum merged with the University of Arizona in 1965 and is now in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. It became part of the Arizona State Park system in 1976.

Trails

Over three miles of nature trails weave through the Arboretum. As well as taking you past gardens and exhibits recreating various deserts of the world, the trails offer scenic views of the Arboretum and the land around it. The Main Trail is 1.5 miles long with numerous smaller trails branching from it. The 0.3-mile long Curandero Trail features native medicinal and edible plants.

walking path under shade of trees, Boyce Thompson Arboretum State Park, Arizona
Boyce Thompson Arboretum State Park. Photo credit: Donna Janke

The rugged 0.27-mile long High Trail crosses through native vegetation of the Arizona Upland subdivision of the Sonoran Desert, looking out over Magma Ridge and the riparian area of Queen Creek Canyon. From this trail, you also get views of the west-facing wall and windows of the 7,000 square foot Picket Post mansion perched on volcanic cliffs.

Tip: On a hot day, you may want to make the high trail the first thing you visit in the Arboretum before the heat of the day makes the incline more difficult and the open parts of the trail sweat-inducing.

Gardens

Areas within the Arboretum contain gardens with a specialized focus. These areas aren't specifically sectioned off but rather flow from one to the other as you walk the trail.

The first garden you'll encounter is the Hummingbird-Butterfly Garden. The more than 800 species of cacti in the Cactus Garden include saguaros, the iconic symbol of Arizona, as well as prickly pears, twisted chollas, barrel cacti, and hedgehogs. Cacti produce delicate and intensely colorful flowers that make a late-spring visit to the Arboretum particularly memorable.

The Taylor Family Legume Garden contains mesquite, peanuts, beans, ironwood, and the Arizona Palo Verde, Arizona's state tree, which is ablaze with yellow flowers in April.

The water-efficient residential theme plots in the Demonstration Garden show ways to live in harmony with the desert by choosing appropriate plant species.

The Wing Memorial Garden contains herbs that have flavored food and healed the sick for centuries. There is also a Heritage Rose Garden.

The Smith Interpretative Center, built of quarried stone, highlights cacti and succulents from around the world.

Lake and Trees

Ayers Lake, a man-made reservoir, supplies the arboretum with irrigation water. The lake is home to migratory waterfowl and has been stocked with two species of endangered fish, the Gila topminnow and the desert pupfish. Two amadas offer views of the lake and surrounding area.

Donna Janke

As you walk the trails through the Arboretum, you encounter several shady spots to sit, rest and enjoy the scenery, under a grove of palm trees or in the fresh scent of the Eucalyptus Forest.

Beyond the Arboretum

There are no restaurants at the Arboretum, but there are picnic tables and grills for visitors to use. You can bring your own food with you or purchase snack items in the gift shop. Alternatively, you can drive the three miles into Superior after your visit to Boyce Thompson and have a bite to eat at one of the restaurants in the small community that began as a mining town in 1875.

Check out The World's Smallest Museum before heading back to Phoenix. This quirky establishment, located on U.S. 60 in Superior, is dedicated to the artifacts of everyday life. Outside the 134 square foot building, you'll find sculptures made of rusted working man's tools and mining equipment.

Visiting the Arboretum

Boyce Thompson Arboretum is open every day except December 25. Hours vary by season. Signage identifies plants and provides information so you can easily go through the Arboretum on your own. Daily guided tours are also available.

Allow at least two to three hours for your visit. Events scheduled at the Arboretum include bird walks, painting classes, photography workshops, tree tours, and walks focusing on edible plants. You may wish to schedule your visit around one of these workshops or events.

No matter what time of year you visit, you'll find beautiful scenery and something in bloom. The best time to visit according to the website is "Right now." The gardens change with the seasons, bringing spring flowers in March and April, cactus blooms in April and May and sporadically into mid-summer, butterflies and dragonflies in summer, colorful foliage in fall, and abundant birds in winter.

All in all, the perfect desert day trip to take from Phoenix.

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