After months of scorching heat, fall brings lower temperatures to Scottsdale, turning the Sonoran Desert into a perfect outdoor environment by October. This temperature drop, and the possibility of all the activities it brings, is the reason fall has become my favorite season while living in the Valley of the Sun.
Almost half (43 percent, to be exact) of Scottsdale’s land area is dedicated to outdoor spaces, offering innumerable trails where you can enjoy the gorgeous Sonoran Desert autumn. But hiking in the desert is only one reason visitors flock to Scottsdale in the fall. The pleasant weather offers the city the opportunity to bring cultural and culinary events outdoors.
The following experiences only scratch the surface of the opportunities Scottsdale offers for its residents and visitors in autumn. However, they are some of my favorites.
1. Hiking In The McDowell Sonoran Preserve
The McDowell Sonoran Preserve comprises roughly one-third of Scottsdale’s outdoor spaces, encompassing over 35,500 acres of protected desert wilderness. Over 225 trails crisscross this gorgeous landscape filled with giant saguaros and other cacti, rugged mountains, lush desert plant life, and diverse wildlife.
The main trailhead at Gateway is a hub for various trails heading in all directions, suited for all abilities. Here, you’ll find a wheelchair-accessible boardwalk winding through an impressive array of desert flora, several easy trails through flat terrain, and longer trails with steep areas that take more serious hikers through the McDowell Mountains.
Being the main trailhead of the preserve, the Gateway trailhead gets busy during the beautiful autumn days. However, the protected wilderness area offers many more trailheads, starting all over the valley, some of them so remote that you might find yourself alone.
The Tom’s Thumb trailhead, north of Gateway, is one of my favorites. It opens to several trails, from short and easy hikes through the wilderness to a longer one that eventually connects to the Gateway trailhead. A remote and small trailhead, Tom’s Thumb doesn’t have drinking water, so if you plan on hiking from there, make sure you carry your own.
Another one of my favorites, the Lost Dog Wash trailhead, offers several shorter trails, taking hikers around and across a natural desert wash, one of them ending at an overlook with a perfect view of Taliesin West.
2. Visiting Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin West
The only national historic landmark in Scottsdale, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin West, is a popular destination for visitors of the Valley of the Sun. And fall offers the perfect backdrop for the visit, since tours offered are partially outdoors.
The famous architect built Taliesin West as a winter residence, incorporating elements from the surrounding desert. Wright considered environmental factors in his building at a time when few other architects did. He tested structural ideas and building details, using them to showcase the surrounding desert environment, using natural materials it offered, like sand from the desert washes and stone from the premises.
A visit to this famous landmark offers an insight into the renowned architect’s work, who used it not only as a residence but also as an architectural design studio. This is where Wright designed some of his masterpieces, like the Guggenheim Museum, and where he created his renowned apprenticeship program, the Taliesin Fellowship.
3. Strolling Through Old Town Scottsdale
Though in the center of town, surrounded by buildings, temperatures are higher than out in the open desert, by mid-October the weather is nice enough to enjoy Scottsdale’s Historic Old Town Walking Tour. Among the historic buildings, you’ll step back in time and feel you’re in a wild west town of long ago.
You can book a 90-minute guided tour starting in mid-October, or walk at your own pace (the walk takes about 45 minutes) and enjoy the historic buildings surrounding you.
You’ll walk among buildings dating from the early 1920s, like the Rusty Spur Saloon, one of the best-known buildings in Old Scottsdale, built in 1921 as a bank. Besides the historical buildings, you’ll also walk through a grove of olive trees planted in 1896. You can download a map (PDF) to learn more about the sights and to make sure you don’t miss anything. Or just stroll along and soak in the old-world atmosphere without thinking about which building is what.
4. Catching A Concert At The Scottsdale Quarter
Starting in late September and continuing until mid-November, you can catch a free outdoor live music show during the Fall Concert Series each Saturday between 5 p.m. and 7 p.m. in the Scottsdale Quarter. Besides the concert where local musicians play, you might also see local artists creating art pieces live.
5. Enjoying The Visual Arts During The Weekly Scottsdale Art Walks
For those who prefer the visual arts, Scottsdale offers its weekly Scottsdale Art Walk each Thursday night. And they become more enjoyable as temperatures drop in the fall. Hosted by the members of the Scottsdale Gallery Association, the exclusive events showcase the works of local and national artists.
Celebrated in the Old Town Scottsdale Art District, the Scottsdale Art Walk started in 1975. A free event, it allows visitors to enjoy the festive area at their own pace, wander into several art galleries and enjoy the outdoor art pieces, dramatic statues, tree-covered courtyards, shops and restaurants, and street performances.
6. Learning About Desert Wildlife At The Southwest Wildlife Conservation Center
Fall is also a great time to visit the Southwest Wildlife Conservation Center in North Scottsdale, my favorite part of town.
The center, operating since 1994, rescues and rehabilitates injured, orphaned, abandoned, or displaced local wildlife. Most often, they rehabilitate the rescued animals and return them to the wild.
However, the sanctuary also has a few permanent residents, animals that would not survive if released back into the wild. For them, the conservation center offers a lifelong sanctuary.
The center also contributes to the recovery of an endangered species, the Mexican grey wolf. They are an accredited holding facility for this rare wolf, participating as a member of the Mexican wolf Species Survival Plan. If you tour late in the day and stay around sunset, you can hear these gorgeous animals sing; the way they can hold a note in perfect unison will amaze you. When I first heard it, I felt it was some of the best music I’ve heard in my life.
You need to book a tour to visit the Southwest Wildlife Conservation Center. When touring the sanctuary, you’ll learn more about the amazing wildlife living in the desert surrounding the Scottsdale area.
7. Enjoying Traditional Fall Activities At MacDonald’s Farm Pumpkin Patch
Just because Scottsdale is in the desert doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy traditional fall activities involving a pumpkin patch here. Starting October 1, 2022, MacDonald’s Ranch in North Scottsdale opens its annual pumpkin patch, offering Arizona-grown pumpkins and plenty of fall activities.
The farm activities are set up for children and adults alike. Kids will find pony rides, pedal cars, a petting zoo, a hay-bale maze, and gold panning, while adults can search for that perfect pumpkin and enjoy barbeque meals sold on the premises.
8. Dining Outdoors
Autumn is also the perfect time for outdoor dining in Scottsdale, and the city offers plenty of opportunities for it. The city’s most popular restaurants offer patio dining options, often with breathtaking mountain views. You can watch the sunset over Camelback Mountain at elements or the McDowell Mountains at Cielo.
Besides patio dining, fall also brings Arizona Restaurant Week to Scottsdale, held between September 16 and 25 in 2022. The event features well-known restaurants from all over the state, from hometown favorites to the most famous chefs, offering their menus at great prices in Scottsdale during the week.
9. Shopping Outdoors At The Old Town Farmers Market
Open for the season starting on October 1, 2022, the Old Town Scottsdale Farmers Market offers a great outdoor place to shop for fresh produce and specialty food while enjoying the mild Scottsdale autumn weather.
Held for the 14th consecutive year, the family-and pet-friendly market offers fare from over 100 local growers, farmers, and specialty food producers. Besides a large variety of produce and seasonal specialties, you’ll also find pre-made food items, like freshly baked artisan bread, tamales, cheeses, and jams.
Bonus Fall Activities In The Valley Of The Sun
The Greater Phoenix area, also called the Valley of the Sun for obvious reasons (the sun shines here 330 days a year), offers more outdoor activities in the fall, so close to Scottsdale proper, it seems to be part of it.
Visitors to Scottsdale can enjoy the fall weather while learning about the desert flora at the Phoenix Botanical Garden. The trails in the garden offer an insight not only into the Sonoran Desert but also into many other deserts in the world. Visitors can also learn about the Native people of the Sonoran Desert and how they have lived here for centuries. They can learn about gardening in the desert and even visit a butterfly garden.
Next door, the Phoenix Zoo offers a close-up look at animals from the Sonoran Desert and around the world. Besides teaching visitors about the animals, the Phoenix Zoo is also involved in the conservation of species from around the globe. While enjoying the outdoors and the pleasant autumn weather in the area, visitors can also see the Salt River wild horses when stopping for a hike at one of the recreation sites along the Salt River. The best spots to see these wild horses include the Coon Bluff Recreation Area.