Snowbirds from the Midwest, the northern states, and Canada have long flocked to the Valley of the Sun to escape the brutally cold winters at home. With its unique Sonoran Desert scenery, abundance of attractions, great places to eat, and 300 days of sunshine per year, Phoenix is full of things to do outdoors all year long. Yes, the summer months can be quite hot, with temperatures reaching the triple digits, but it’s a dry heat (or so the locals say), and the sun sets around 7:30 p.m., quickly bringing relief to this desert city with low humidity.
While the city of Phoenix is at its heart, the metropolitan area rolls into Scottsdale, Tempe, and the other towns of Maricopa and Pinal Counties with the ease of a tumbleweed in the wind. So this article on the best things to do outdoors in Phoenix includes recommendations beyond the Phoenix city limits and across the metro area.
1. Hit The Trails
Although Phoenix is called the Valley of the Sun, the city is not fully encircled by mountains like Salt Lake City or Albuquerque. But there certainly are plenty of gorgeous mountain hiking trails to explore.
For a relatively easy hike with amazing views (especially at sunset) just minutes from the Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, I highly recommend the Hole in the Rock Trail at Papago Park. This 0.2-mile trek has an elevation gain of 200 feet and rewards hikers with beautiful views from a wind-eroded hole in the red rocks.
In the southeastern Phoenix suburb of Queen Creek, the San Tan Mountain Regional Park offers a variety of hikes that range from easy to difficult and short (about a mile) to long (more than 5 miles). If you’re visiting Phoenix in the spring, this is also one of my favorite places to view Arizona wildflowers in bloom.
The Hieroglyphic Trail in the foothills of the Superstition Mountains in the southern part of the Tonto National Forest is another scenic hike. On a clear day, you can see Camelback Mountain to the west as you climb a moderately challenging path past hundreds of tall saguaro cacti along this 2.8-mile out-and-back trail. Don’t miss the petroglyphs carved into the rock at the end of the trail!
Pro Tip: For a day trip full of outdoor adventure, you’ll find a variety of hikes and more at Tonto Natural Bridge State Park, about 2 hours northeast of downtown Phoenix. And for more great hikes in the Grand Canyon State, see this article.
2. Watch For Wildlife
While you’re likely to see hummingbirds flitting around orange tree blossoms and roadrunners streaking across the desert landscape in many spots across the Phoenix metropolitan area, one of my favorite places to bird-watch is the Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch in the eastern Phoenix suburb of Gilbert. With seven water recharge basins incorporated into the 110-acre preserve, it’s an oasis in the dry desert that attracts nearly 300 species of birds.
In addition to a variety of birds, watch for bighorn sheep, bobcats, and prairie dogs when you’re exploring the wilderness areas of Phoenix. At night, you may even hear the chilling howl of a coyote in the distance! Hike the Dreamy Draw Recreation Area at the base of Piestewa Peak or climb aboard the Dolly Steamboat for a scenic nature cruise on Canyon Lake.
For guaranteed animal encounters, visit Liberty Wildlife, a nonprofit rescue and rehabilitation center for Arizona’s wildlife just south of the airport. And there’s always the Phoenix Zoo. I can’t visit without feeding the giraffe at the Giraffe Encounter!
3. Enjoy An Interactive Scavenger Hunt
An ideal way to get the lay of the land while enjoying the outdoors is to explore via an interactive scavenger hunt. The Let’s Roam app is my favorite, and their hunts in Arizona’s capital city range from less than a mile to nearly 3 miles long. Learn about Phoenix’s downtown core, tour the Arizona State University campus, and admire the art in Scottsdale with these scavenger hunts.
4. Appreciate The Public Art
Speaking of public art, it abounds in the Valley of the Sun. As you drive Interstates 10 and 17, you’ll see desert motifs in the rocky slopes near the shoulder and petroglyph-inspired animals carved into the walls that line the freeway and overpasses.
In Scottsdale, about 30 minutes northeast of downtown Phoenix, you’ll find more public art installations than you can shake a paintbrush at, from flowing fountains to contemporary sculptures. Listen to the calming water as the Copper Falls installation runs into the canal. Or take refuge in theHummingbird Sanctuary,featuring five 16-foot-tall steel flowers with vines cascading down the sides. And no trip to Scottsdale would be complete without a selfie at Robert Indiana’s iconic Love statue.
You can navigate Scottsdale’s permanent public artwork with ease with this online resource. Or, dive deeper into Scottsdale’s fine art scene on the ArtWalk. Offered eight times a year, the walk includes live music, wine tastings, and other special activities designed to showcase the area’s artists and galleries.
Vibrant murals all around the Phoenix area reflect its history and culture with big, broad strokes and short bursts of spray paint. In the college town of Tempe, check out the postcard-like Get Together Tempe greeting painted on the west wall of the Social Hall, a bar and restaurant at the corner of South McClintock and East University. Or pose next to the giant saguaro cactus at the boutique Tempest Hotel within walking distance of ASU. Let 2020 Artsline featured artist Jayarr remind you that you are amazing outside his studio at Laird and Beck, and celebrate musical legends who left us too soon at the Tempe Marketplace.
5. Cheer For The Home Team
Arizona is one of my favorite places to escape the brutally cold Midwest winters, especially in March when I can cheer on the Kansas City Royals at Spring Training in Surprise, Arizona. But there are plenty of other options if you weren’t “raised Royal.” The MLB Cactus League also includes the Brewers, Cubs, Diamondbacks, Padres, and 10 other teams that welcome you out to the ballpark.
Pro Tip: Whether you cheer for the Grapefruit League or the Cactus League, read this before planning an MLB Spring Training trip.
6. Discover The Local Flora At The Desert Botanical Garden
If you haven’t spent much time in the American Southwest, it might be difficult to imagine a botanical garden in such an arid location. Unlike the lush gardens in other climates, the greenery at the 55-acre Desert Botanical Garden consists of a variety of cacti and desert trees, and bursts of color are provided by their blooms along with other native plants. The bright flowers on the yucca plants and the delicate pink balls that adorn the fairy dusters attract hummingbirds. In the spring, you’ll also find the delicate blooms of wild poppies lining the crushed rock paths.
7. Dine Al Fresco
Whether consumed on a sunny patio or by a roaring fire as the temperatures drop, food always tastes better outside. And one of the many wonderful things about Phoenix is that you can dine al fresco nearly year-round. While almost every park and restaurant has an outdoor eating option in Phoenix, these favorites stand out from the pack.
For picnic tables with water views, head to Riverview Park in Mesa. You can even pack a rod and reel and catch your own trout, bass, or bluegill to fry up for your meal. Built around a large fishing lagoon, Encanto Park is another beautiful destination for a picnic.
If you’d rather leave the cooking to someone else, San Tan Flat offers the fun of camping without having to sleep on the ground. Enjoy a beautiful Phoenix evening under the stars while roasting marshmallows over a campfire and enjoying live music and dancing. There’s also a full dinner menu featuring juicy burgers, filling steaks, and scrumptious desserts.
One of my all-time favorite places to eat outdoors in Phoenix is the Queen Creek Olive Mill in the southeastern suburb of Queen Creek. During the day, the large outdoor area is shaded by olive trees. At night, twinkle lights provide an elegant ambience that perfectly complements the locally sourced, made-from-scratch antipasto boards, bruschetta, fire-roasted pizzas, and filling pasta entrees.
From scenic hiking trails to delicious meals al fresco, there are plenty of wonderful things to do outdoors in the expansive Phoenix metropolitan area!