Scottsdale, Arizona, is perfect for your outdoor activity-focused getaway. Gorgeous weather, wide-open dessert, unique craggy outcrops, fun places to visit, and sunshine for days make getting outside almost a requirement. You will discover the beautiful landscape from various vistas. Activities like golfing, horseback riding, hot air ballooning, hiking, and even outdoor dining offer a unique perspective for interacting with the Sonoran Desert.
Exploring outdoor activities during your visit to Scottsdale will rank high on your list of the best things you experienced during your stay.
Some information in this piece was obtained during a sponsored press trip, but all recommendations are my own.
Golfing in the scenic Scottsdale area is a challenging treat for seasoned golfers and a pleasure for newbies to the sport. Golf courses dot the landscape and many are accessible without a club membership.
At the Camelback Golf Club, you have the option of playing two 18-hole golf courses. The Ambient Course and the Padre Course feature panoramic views of the mountains as backdrops and the wide-open course waiting for your next shot. With gently rolling fairways and meticulously manicured greens, both courses offer challenging play. The natural areas surrounding the course are home to a wide array of birdlife including quail, hummingbirds, and other colorful feathered creatures.
When you have finished your desert round, stop for a refreshing beverage on the deck of the Acacia, where you can review your game and enjoy your favorite libation.
At the Boulders Club, you can play a round on their beautiful public course, though a second course is a private, members-only course. The views from the surrounding boulders, unique rock formations, create a fascinating backdrop to the wide green fairways and tightly clipped greens. The golf courses at the Boulders Resort will challenge your game while enveloping you in the beauty of the Arizona landscape.
After your round, stop at the Grill Kitchen & Bar where you can enjoy a nibble and a brew on the deck overlooking the course.
2. Sunrise Hot Air Balloon Ride
“Would you like to ride in my beautiful balloon?” queried the 5th Dimension in 1967. Watching the sun come up at 3,000 feet in an open-air balloon basket is an adventure that will challenge your thoughts about heights and reward you with stunning desert views.
The hot air balloon team sets out very early to determine the best lift-off location while your driver winds their way through the streets to rendezvous at the chosen lift-off site. Crews work quickly to unroll and inflate balloons, as many groups will lift off from the same, perfectly selected space. Soon a riot of color is streaking the brightening morning sky as the balloons gain shape and slowly become upright. It is a breathtaking sight to see a cadre of balloons and baskets lift off and float away.
Hot Air Expeditions will take you soaring above the picturesque Arizona Sonoran Desert. The sensation of floating high above the gorgeous desert scenery is like floating on a soft wave. In the desert, you can see for miles and the view on the horizon is spectacular. As the captain works with the wind currents to navigate you across the rugged terrain, you can enjoy the giddy energy bubbling up inside you. When you land, a champagne breakfast, set up courtesy of the balloon chasers, awaits.
Whether you join a group tour or book a private passage, experiencing a lofty ride across the Scottsdale area is an experience that will recall the rest of your life.
3. Night Sky Gazing
When you get away from the city, the completely enveloping darkness of the night sky is the perfect spot to view the stars. When examining the desert sky with a professional astronomer and a high-powered telescope, the view is breathtaking.
The Boulders Resort and Spa is located in a Scottsdale community that encourages environmentally friendly practices and prohibits light pollution, making it the perfect spot for viewing celestial bodies. The Boulders embraces keeping nighttime light to a minimum. The resort does not use night lighting at the pools, tennis courts, and public ways. Guest casitas have special flashlights that will guide them through the resort at night ensuring the light pollution is kept to a minimum.
4. Desert Garden
The Desert Botanical Gardens in Phoenix will surprise you with the beauty of the arid, desert landscape. Vibrant, brightly colored flowers pop against the green/brown desert garden. Meander through trails like the Desert Nature Loop Trail, the Desert Wildflower Loop Trail, and the Desert Discovery Loop Trail. Strolling through the garden trails is one of the best outdoor activities that require very little energy. The goal of your visit to the garden is to simply be among the interesting plant life.
The Plants and People of the Sonoran Desert Loop Trail explores the relationship between Native American people and the regional plants. Desert plants provided food, medicine, and building material. The trail explores the relationships between people and their environment. Feel the temperature change as you enter a shelter, marvel at rustic kitchens and corrals, learn about the medicinal use of plants as you explore the desert life of the local native Americans.
If you plan your visit for a Saturday morning, have brunch at Gertrude’s Restaurant just inside the front gate. The Sonoran Benedict is an amped-up classic, with green chili shredded pork and smothered in a unique green chili hollandaise sauce.
5. Hiking The Desert
The Scottsdale and Phoenix area is filled with hiking opportunities. Trails for all abilities offer hikers gorgeous views, interesting desert plants, and a great excuse to exercise.
For the beginning hiker, Granite Mountain Loop in the McDowell Sonoran Preserve is an easy 5.1-mile loop that has hard-packed, well-used trails. The views are spectacular, which you usually don’t find on an easy-rated hike. Be prepared to share the trail with mountain bikers; it is a great trail for beginner bikers to hone their skills.
The Gateway Loop Trail in the McDowell Sonoran Preserve is a good solid hike requiring some trekking prowess. The 4.4-mile loop traverses somewhat rocky terrain. You want to get an early start for this hike; it becomes very hot when hiking in the full day sun.
Experienced hikers will love trekking the Camelback Mountain via Echo Canyon Trail. Located in the Echo Canyon Recreation Area, the 2.5-mile out-and-back trail offers hikers challenging climbs and rewards of breathtaking panoramic views. This is a strenuous climb requiring scrambling and sure-footed steps, and should only be undertaken by experienced and prepared hikers.
You should always take safety precautions when hiking, and serious safety precautions when hiking in the desert. Download your trail map before you hike, take plenty of water, and dress appropriately. Check out REI’s Day Hiking Checklist. It is a comprehensive list that can make your visit safe and enjoyable.
6. Horseback Riding
Saguaro Lake Guest Ranch in Mesa is a true cowboy ranch on the banks of the Salt River. With views of Bulldog Cliffs in the background, you can explore Arizona’s Sonoran Desert on horseback. With wrangler trail guides by your side, you can explore the desert, crossing river banks, cresting ridges, and discovering the beauty that is tucked away from the main routes.
Horseback riding through this unique landscape is a fun way to explore the natural surroundings. First-time riders will feel completely at ease under the watchful eye of the ranch’s staff as they traverse well-traveled trails that the horses know extremely well. Experienced equestrians will enjoy the relaxing ride through the stunning desert.
7. Biking Mountain Trails
Ready, set, ride! Mountain biking is a great way to explore your surrounding area. Beginner and advanced riders will enjoy trekking through the Sonoran Desert on trails through The Valley of the Sun, the McDowell Sonoran Preserve, and the Black Canyon Trail. As you coast by giant saguaro cacti dotting the picturesque landscape, you are immersed in the beauty of the desert. Exploring environmentally can be a challenge, but by accessing well-used trails, you can immerse yourself in the desert landscape without upsetting the natural balance of nature.
At the REI co-op Adventure Center, you can join in full- or half-day, expert-guided or self-guided mountain bike tours. With state-of-the-art mountain biking equipment, expert destination guides, and trails for all rider levels, you will love exploring this fascinating landscape.
Exploring the desert in an ATV, UTV, or Hummer gives you a completely unique view of the Scottsdale area landscape. As you zip along well-traveled pathways, the exhilaration of commanding your own off-road vehicle is thrilling. If you prefer to explore in a less hands-on style, sit back and relax in a Hummer tour. You will be amazed at the rustic beauty of the desert when viewed from the seat of your own personal all-terrain vehicle.
Stellar Adventures offers an amazing menu of desert tour options. Whether you drive your own off-road toy or leave the driving to the professionals, you will love the views. You can enjoy a guided tour through the desert, a desert hummer tour with a craft beer theme, a local wine theme, or even a nighttime stargazing tour.
9. Outdoor Dining
One of Scottsdale’s best outdoor activities is outdoor dining. The weather is so agreeable and the foodie culture is strong but doesn’t take itself too seriously. Outdoor dining in Scottsdale can be a nod to the Old West or a stroll through gourmet cuisine with many stops in between.
Tucked in the iconic, mid-century modern Hotel Valley Ho is Zuzu, a delightful restaurant with a throw-back vibe. The outdoor patio is nearly poolside and is surrounded by towering palm trees, lush vegetation, and edged with the wrap-around hotel design. Dining at Zuzu is an indulgent experience where you will enjoy the delightfully plated, expertly prepared cuisine. If you go for breakfast, order their famous donut plate; it’s the perfect opportunity to play with your food.
Enjoy delicious Mexican-inspired cuisine on the outdoor patio surrounded by cooling pool-lined walkways. Rita’s Cantina & Bar is set in the heart of the JW Marriott Camelback Inn Resort where you are surrounded by 1930s-inspired casitas, lush gardens, and festive drinks and plates. Rita’s is the perfect spot to sip a namesake margarita while nibbling on chips and salsa. Happy hour never tasted so good. Enjoy live music Thursday through Saturday while soaking up the south-of-the-border atmosphere.
Pro Tip: Stay at the JW Marriott Resort Scottsdale Camelback Inn Resort & Spa, which offers guests world-class luxury, challenging golf, delicious dining, an amazing spa, and wonderful dining all wrapped up in the gorgeous Sonoran Desert atmosphere. Visit Experience Scottsdale for ideas about all the great activities you can explore during your getaway.