A Sonoran Desert setting, a dizzying array of entertainment choices, and a booming housing market have combined to make Surprise, Arizona, a favorite among both winter visitors and retirees.
Add in a rugged mountain range nearby and a charming name, and the city in the northwestern reaches of the Phoenix metro area has plenty of appeal for tourists and young families as well.
Surprise famously got its name back in the 1930s when town founder Flora Mae Statler said she would be “surprised if the town ever amounted to much.” Decades later, her modest prediction turned out to be a colossal case of underestimation when Surprise began attracting tens of thousands of retirees in the 1990s and 2000s.
Today, Surprise has a population of about 142,000 -- up from 7,200 in 1990 -- making it the 10th-largest city in Arizona.
For the thousands of “snowbirds” who flock to the Phoenix area from November to April each year to escape the snow and ice in the northern United States and Canada, Surprise offers a range of winter and spring pastimes that include everything from pro baseball to hiking to shopping to golf. Here are nine of the best things to do in Surprise.
1. Hike To A Seasonal Waterfall
You will need a bit of luck to see the actual waterfall in the White Tank Mountains, but don’t let that discourage you from checking out the Waterfall Trail.
Water cascading over a steep rock wall in the craggy White Tanks is certainly a sight to see, but it happens only after heavy rainfall (or in the rare event of snowfall in the higher elevations). When I did the hike on a dry, sunny day in early December, I asked a half-dozen other hikers if they had ever seen the waterfall in its full glory, and none had.
Still, the Waterfall Trail is worth the 1.8-mile roundtrip walk. The easy trail begins as a wide concrete path that winds through lovely desert/mountain terrain and ends with a short climb through a rocky section.
Along the way, the trail also passes by a series of boulders that are so rich with prehistoric rock art from the ancient Hohokam People that the area is known as Petroglyph Plaza. For me, the fascinating petroglyphs more than made up for the lack of water in the falls.
Although White Tank Mountain Regional Park is located in the nearby community of Waddell, the mountains rise from the border of Surprise, and the park is just a 15-mile drive away. While you’re in the White Tanks, be sure to check out some of the 30 miles of other trails that range from easy to strenuous. Note that entry to the park requires a fee.
2. Take In Spring Training At Surprise Stadium
Along with many of its sister cities in the Phoenix metro area, Surprise capitalizes on its gorgeous spring weather to offer a taste of Major League Baseball, with a full schedule of Cactus League Spring Training games.
The Surprise Stadium hosts the Kansas City Royals and Texas Rangers and also holds a series of nationally ranked baseball tournaments throughout the year in partnership with accredited sports organizations.
The stadium, which was listed as the number one Spring Training stadium in Arizona by USA Today in 2018, boasts a family-friendly atmosphere, a fun fan experience, and signature foods such as the tamale dog -- a jumbo hotdog placed inside a green chili tamale and topped with salsa and jalapeno relish -- as well as high-heat dogs that feature Sriracha-infused ketchup and Caribe pepper-infused mustard.
3. Cast A Line At Surprise Lake
For a glimpse into the heart of the community, stop by the sprawling Surprise Community Park on a weekend afternoon. You’re likely to find young couples pushing strollers, kids riding bikes, teenagers shooting hoops in the basketball court, and retirees playing pickleball.
In the center of it all is the park’s pretty 5-acre lake, which attracts anglers trying to catch largemouth bass, channel catfish, sunfish, and rainbow trout -- all stocked as sportfish for recreation.
4. Have A Pho Lunch At Saigon Kitchen
Tucked into Surprise’s many shopping centers and outdoor malls is an abundant array of restaurants serving everything from Indian cuisine to Mexican fare to Italian foods.
For something different, check out the popular Saigon Kitchen with its modern take on traditional Vietnamese cuisine. The menu is extensive, but the standout choice appears to be the pho, a rich noodle soup featuring a choice of steak, chicken, shrimp, or short ribs. The generous bowls of flavorful soup come with an attractive presentation of bean sprouts, basil, lime, and jalapenos.
A list of Surprise’s many restaurant choices is available on the Explore Surprise website.
5. Explore The Surprise Women’s Heritage Trail
Ever since Flora Mae Statler founded Surprise, women have played an important role in the town’s development. In 2013, the town launched the Surprise Women’s Heritage Trail to commemorate that role with a self-guided tour to about 15 spots around town where women have made their mark.
The trail includes stops such as the Bi-Centennial Park, for which Statler’s daughter donated the land, and the site of the old Saylor’s Root Beer Stand, where Nellie Saylor is said to have played a critical role in establishing and running the family businesses, including the root beer stand, a skating rink, and a trading post.
6. Try A Local Brew At State 48
With five locations around the Phoenix area, the popular State 48 Brewery has roots in Surprise with its original location featuring a 10-barrel system. Today, State 48’s seasonal and specialty beers are brewed at the Surprise location.
The distinctive steel-sided Surprise brewery also has a full kitchen with a wood-fired pizza oven featuring Neapolitan-style pizza. For a unique flavor combo, try the fig and prosciutto pizza with dried figs, prosciutto di Parma, mozzarella, arugula, and balsamic reduction. Pair it with a local brew like Lost Dutchman golden ale or White Tank wheat.
To take advantage of the sunny winter and spring weather, ask to be seated on State 48’s Surprise spacious outdoor patio. The space is dog-friendly and features high-top tables and games like cornhole and giant Jenga and Connect 4.
7. Play A Round At A Championship Golf Course
The Phoenix metro area is known worldwide as a golfing destination, and Surprise more than holds its own among the communities in the Valley of the Sun with its eight courses, and 61 courses within 20 miles of the community.
The city of Surprise website lists eight nearby courses, including the Arizona Traditions Golf Club and Coyote Lakes Golf Club in Surprise, plus the Cimarron Golf Course and Desert Springs Golf Course in the nearby Sun City Grand community.
8. Unwind At Uptown Alley
Forty lanes of bowling, two stories of laser tag, billiards tables, and a sports theater all await at the Uptown Alley, a mega-entertainment center located near Surprise’s city center.
The alley is known as a spot where families meet up for birthday parties, groups gather for bowling and appetizers, and sports fans get together to take in pro sports games on the 10-foot projections screens.
Along with family fun and league play, the entertainment center offers dining and drinks at its Red Embers Bar and Grill. The lively shopping area around the alley also offers a range of other stores, eateries, and breweries.
9. Take A Day Trip To Wickenburg
While Surprise has the urban entertainment scene covered, small-town Arizona history is just a short drive away in the Western town of Wickenburg.
Located about 35 miles northwest of Surprise along Highway 60, Wickenburg makes the perfect day trip from the West Valley. Billed as the town of “horses, hats, history, and hospitality,” it offers a pleasant contrast to the busy streets of Surprise.
The historic ranching and gold-mining town has roots dating back to the 1860s and 1870s and features a number of reminders of the rough-and-tumble mining days, such as the Jail Tree Walkway and Outlaw Avenue, where a tree and sculpture mark the spot where outlaws were once chained.
The best way to experience Wickenburg is to stroll along its quaint streets and stop for refreshments or shopping at the many open-air cafes and Western-ware stores.
Wickenburg was once known as the “dude ranch capital of the world,” and for those who want to extend their visit beyond a day trip, several of the historic guest ranches remain today, including the Rancho de los Caballeros and the Flying E Ranch.
Winter, with average high temperatures in the 60-degree range, is a great time for a visit to Surprise. Late fall and early spring are also good times to visit, with October, November, March, and April all posting average highs in the 70s and 80s. Like the rest of the Phoenix area, Surprise is hot in the summer, with average highs above the 100-degree mark from June through September. For more inspiration, consider: