Phoenix has its buttoned-up business side (it is home to the state capitol, after all). But that doesn’t mean you need an expense account to enjoy everything the greater Phoenix metro has to offer. Scattered across the Valley of the Sun are dozens of museums, regional and state parks, trails, and historic sites. If you’re looking to explore the Phoenix area, these are the fifteen best places to discover.
Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch, Gilbert
Stroll 110 acres of greenery, ranging from marshland and riparian habitats to upland vegetation areas. Over 4.5 miles of trails weave through the park with interpretive panels on wildlife and vegetation throughout. Viewing blinds have been established at various locations near the edge of several ponds. Approximately 298 species of birds have been identified on the site. A floating boardwalk crossing the northern end of the lake allows visitors a close-up view of the fish and ducks on the water. Additional educational areas include an ethnobotanical garden, a paleontology dig site, a hummingbird, and a butterfly garden.
Also at the preserve: the Gilbert Rotary Centennial Observatory where you can see comets, meteors, planets, and the sun Just be sure to check the hours—the trails are generally open from dawn to dusk, but the observatory operates separately.
Papago Park, Phoenix
Looking for great outdoor recreation just minutes from downtown? Take a hike around the red butte formations in Papago Park including the iconic Hole-in-the-Rock Trail, cast a line in seven acres of stocked fishing lagoons, or enjoy a round at Papago Golf Course.
The trails in Papago Park are typically smooth with little elevation gain providing easy access for walking, hiking, mountain biking, or trail running. The park is split into east and west sides by Galvin Parkway.
Desert Botanical Garden, Phoenix
Discover the tranquil beauty of 50,000 desert plants nestled amid the red rocks of the Papago Buttes. The Desert Botanical Garden offers the world’s finest collection of arid plants from deserts of the world in a unique outdoor setting. Stroll through five thematic trails to explore plants, including towering cactus, alluring succulents, and brilliant desert wildflowers.
Enjoy specialized tours, special events, seasonal exhibits, concerts, family activities, Gertrude’s restaurant, Patio Café, and the Garden’s gift and plant shop. It’s pretty dazzling year-round but the flowering spring season is the busiest and most colorful.
Usery Mountain Regional Park
Located on the Valley’s east side, this 3,648-acre park is located at the western end of the Goldfield Mountains adjacent to the Tonto National Forest. The park contains a large variety of plants and animals that call the lower Sonoran Desert home. Along with the most popular feature of the park, the Wind Cave Trail, water seeps from the roof of the alcove to support the hanging gardens of Rock Daisy.
Usery Mountain Regional Park offers a campground with 73 individual sites. Each site has a large parking area to accommodate up to a 45-foot RV with water and electrical hook-ups, a dump station, a picnic table, a barbecue grill, and a fire ring.
Named after the Apache Indians who once used the route, the Apache Trail (AZ 88) links Apache Junction at the eastern edge of the Greater Phoenix area with Theodore Roosevelt Lake through the Superstition Mountains and the Tonto National Forest. The scenic byway was designated in 1998 and is approximately 39 miles long, winding in and out of some of the most awe-inspiring country in Arizona—or for that matter, in the West.
This mostly unpaved road winds past magnificent scenery of twisted igneous mountains with dense forests of saguaro and several deep blue lakes. The road though has been mostly closed since late 2019 because of landslips and other damage associated with the Woodbury Fire. The worst affected is the steepest section just west of Fish Creek; the only part still open to vehicular traffic is the (paved) 18 miles from Apache Junction to Tortilla Flat.
Cave Creek Regional Park
This 2,922-acre park north of Phoenix sits in the upper Sonoran Desert and ranges in elevation from 2,000 feet to 3,060 feet. Cave Creek Regional Park offers over 11-miles of trails for hiking, mountain biking, and horseback riding.
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Park trails range in length from 0.2 miles to 5.8 miles and range in difficulty from easy to difficult. If you are looking for an easy, relatively short hike the Slate Trail is recommended. If you are looking for a longer, more difficult hike, try the 5.8-mile Go John Trail. Cave Creek Regional Park offers a campground with 55 campsites for tent or RV camping. The average site size is 40 feet; however, pull-through sites may accommodate up to a 60-foot RV with water and electrical hookups, a picnic table, a barbecue fire ring, and a nearby dump station.
Wildlife World Zoo, Aquarium & Safari Park, Litchfield Park
Located in the West Valley, Wildlife World Zoo, Aquarium & Safari Park is home to Arizona’s largest collection of exotic animals with 600 different species. Visitors can feed giraffes, parrots, and stingrays. See wildlife on the new Log flume ride, African Safari Train, Australian Boat Ride, Wildlife Skyride, or exotic Merry-Go-Round. Dine with Sharks at Dillon’s Barbecue Restaurant and Flamingo Lounge.
McDowell Mountain Regional Park
Nestled in the lower Verde River basin, the 21,099-acre park is a desert jewel in the northeast Valley. Elevations in the park rise to 3,000 feet along the western boundary at the base of the McDowell Mountains. Visitors enjoy a full program schedule, over 50 miles of multi-use trails, and spectacular views of the surrounding mountain ranges.
McDowell Mountain Regional Park offers 76 individual sites for tent or RV camping. Each site has a large parking area to accommodate up to a 45-foot RV with water and electrical hook-ups, a dump station, a picnic table, and a barbecue fire ring.
Goldfield Ghost Town
Established in 1893, Goldfield was a mining town with saloons, a boarding house, general store, blacksmith shop, brewery, meat market, and a schoolhouse. The grade of ore dropped at the end of the 1890s and the town was all but deserted. The town came back to life from 1910 to 1926.
Today, visitors can tour the historic Mammoth Gold Mine, visit the Goldfield Museum, pan for gold, take a ride on Arizona’s only narrow gauge train, explore the shops and historic building, eat at the Mammoth Steakhouse and Saloon, and witness an old west gunfight performed by the Goldfield Gunfighters.
Saguaro Lake was formed by the Stewart Mountain Dam which was completed in 1930. It was the last of the reservoirs to be built on the Salt River. Saguaro Lake has more than 22 miles of shoreline creating a great environment for boating, kayaking, sailing, skiing, jet skiing, fishing, and camping.
Discover canyon-walled Saguaro Lake aboard The Desert Belle. Relax in air-conditioned comfort on one of her 80 minute narrated cruises and see Arizona wildlife, towering canyon walls, and dramatic desert vistas. Live music cruises, wine, and live music cruises, craft beer, and live music cruises are also available.
Lost Dutchman State Park
Named after the fabled lost gold mine, Lost Dutchman State Park is located in the Sonoran Desert at the base of the Superstition Mountains 40 miles east of Phoenix. Several trails lead from the park into the Superstition Mountain Wilderness and surrounding Tonto National Forest.
Take a stroll along the Native Plant Trail or hike the challenging Siphon Draw Trail to the top of the Flatiron. Depending on the year’s rainfall, you might be treated to a carpet of desert wildflowers in the spring but there are plenty of beautiful desert plants to see year-round. Enjoy a week of camping and experience native wildlife including mule deer, coyote, javelin, and jackrabbit.
White Tank Mountains Regional Park
Nearly 30,000 acres make this the largest regional park in Maricopa County. Most of the park is made up of the rugged and beautiful White Tank Mountains on the Valley’s west side. The range, deeply serrated with ridges and canyons, rises sharply from its base to peak at over 4,000 feet.
White Tank Mountain Regional Park offers approximately 30 miles of shared-use trails ranging in length from 0.9 miles to 7.9 miles and difficulty from easy to strenuous. The park offers 40 individual sites for tent or RV camping. Most sites have a large parking area to accommodate up to a 45-foot RV with water and electrical hook-ups, a picnic table, a barbecue grill, a fire ring, and a nearby dump station.
Superstition Mountain Museum
Hikers, horseback riders, photographers, and tourists come to enjoy the beauty and wonder of the Superstition Mountains now preserved in the Superstition Wilderness Area.
But, many are curious about the history and mystery of this intriguing area and visit the museum comprised of a central 4,900-square-foot exhibit hall and Museum Shop and numerous outdoor structures and exhibitions including the Apacheland Barn and the Elvis Chapel, the last surviving structures from Apacheland Movie Ranch, a huge 20-stamp gold mill, a mountain man camp, Western storefronts, and a labeled Nature Walk.
Lake Pleasant Regional Park
One of the most scenic water recreation areas in the Valley of the Sun, this northwest Valley park is a recreationist’s dream. Lake Pleasant is a water reservoir and is part of the Central Arizona Project waterway system bringing water from the Lower Colorado River into central and southern Arizona.
Lake water levels can fluctuate throughout the course of the year with the water typically reaching its highest level in the spring (March/April) and its lowest in the fall (October/November). This 23,362-acre park offers many activities, such as camping, boating, fishing, swimming, hiking, picnicking, and wildlife viewing.
San Tan Mountain Regional Park
Consisting of over 10,000 acres, the southeast Valley park is a fine example of the lower Sonoran Desert. San Tan Mountain Regional Park ranges in elevation from about 1,400 feet to over 2,500 feet. The park offers over eight miles of trails for hiking, mountain biking, and horseback riding. Park trails range in length from 1.1 miles to over 5 miles and range in difficulty from easy to strenuous.
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Alone in the open desert,
I have made up songs of wild, poignant rejoicing and transcendent melancholy.
The world has seemed more beautiful to me than ever before.
I have loved the red rocks, the twisted trees, the sand blowing in the wind, the slow, sunny clouds crossing the sky, the shafts of moonlight on my bed at night.
I have seemed to be at one with the world.