Amazing Places to Discover in Phoenix’s East Valley

Explore my list of fun things to see and do in the East Valley of Arizona’s largest city

Consider this your introduction to the East Valley of Arizona’s largest city—the essential, can’t miss, make-sure-you-check-out things to see and do in the towns of Gilbert, Mesa, Queen Creek, Apache Junction, and beyond.

Northern shovelers at Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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. 

Ring-necked duck at Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

McDowell Mountain Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Related Article: 15 Amazing Places to Discover in Phoenix

Usery Mountain Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Gambel’s quail at Usery Mountain Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Along 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.

Saguaro Lake © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Saguaro Lake

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. The lake is named for the Saguaro Cactus which stands majestically in the surrounding desert landscape.

Saguaro Lake © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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 exotic Arizona wildlife, towering canyon walls, and dramatic desert vistas. Live music cruises, wine, and live music cruises, and craft beer, and live music cruises are also available.

San Tan Mountains Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Apache Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Apache Trail

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. This mostly unpaved road winds past magnificent scenery of twisted igneous mountains with dense forests of saguaro and several deep blue lakes.

Related Article: What Are You Waiting For? Get Outdoors in the Sonoran Desert NOW!

Apache Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Goldfield Ghost Town © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Goldfield Ghost Town © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Fountain Hills © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fountain Hills

Some cities have a clock that chimes on the hour—Fountain Hills has a fountain (the fourth-tallest in the world) that shoots water 562 feet in the air for 15 minutes on the hour. But there’s much more than that. Jump in on a docent-led art walk around the city and see a large collection of sculptures on public display as the docent explains how each piece was created. Meander some more in the Fountain Hills Desert Botanical Garden where a half-mile trail weaves you past 29 desert plants, interesting rock formations, wildlife, and the abandoned P-Bar Ranch campsite.

Superstition Mountain Museum © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Lost Dutchman State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Related Article: Top 10 Day Trips From Phoenix

Lost Dutchman State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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 weekend of camping and experience native wildlife including mule deer, coyote, javelin, and jackrabbit.

Huhugam Heritage Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Huhugam Heritage Center, Chandler

This modern cultural center highlights the ancestral, historic, and current cultures of the Gila River Indian Community made up of two tribes—the Akimel O’otham and the Pee Posh. The Huhugam Heritage Center was built in 2003 to create a place for community, culture, land, tradition, and spirit: a place to honor and preserve their Him dak (our way of life).

Huhugam Heritage Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Experience its unique and calming architecture. The Center stair-steps up out of the desert, the building silhouettes designed to blend in with the nearby mountain ranges and hills.

Worth Pondering…

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.

—Everett Ruess

The Most Beautiful Places in Arizona (That Aren’t the Grand Canyon)

Half the state looks like it was drawn by Dr. Seuss.

Just over three decades ago we made several stops in Arizona on a cross country journey in an RV. My first reaction was how could anyone choose to live in this big, desolate god-forsaken desert? While camping at Usery Mountain, a Maricopa County Regional Park, I entered into a conversation with the campground host. A full-time RVer originally from Michigan, she had similar sentiments upon seeing Arizona for the first time and within several weeks fell in love with the desert and never left. I, too, fell in love with the Sonoran Desert and its flora and fauna and have returned to Arizona more than a dozen times.

Sedona from Airport Mesa © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Arizona will completely shatter any pessimistic expectations you may harbor. Arizona is an absolute stunner! It’s a state where orange-hued slot canyons and colorful sandstone formations could trick even the most experienced explorer into thinking they’ve wandered off to Mars. Here, ancient deserts seem painted by unseen artists. That canyon? It is indeed grand! But look beyond it and you’ll discover a state whose beauty all but ensures you’ll want to stay for the long haul or return again and again.

Cathedral Rock, Sedona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sedona

I can’t tell you exactly what it was at the time, but something brought me to Arizona… looking back, maybe it was the pull of Sedona’s vortexes. And I’m not the only one feeling the tug of some sort of unknown spiritual energy. Nearly 3 million tourists visit Sedona annually; a figure that’s tripled over the last decade or so. Just a day trip from Phoenix, Sedona is a gem of a town surrounded by forests and red-rock buttes that thrust skyward; all obvious reasons why so many seek out the new-agey Northern Arizona town. Recognized for their powerful energy and scenic views, Bell Rock, Boynton Canyon, Airport Mesa, and Cathedral Rock are said to be the strongest vortexes around the town. What does a vortex feel like, exactly? You’ll have to experience it for yourself in Sedona. 

Mission San Xavier del Bac © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mission San Xavier del Bac

Located just 10 miles from Downtown Tucson, this stunningly beautiful mission was founded in 1692 and built in 1700 which makes it the oldest intact European structure in the state of Arizona and the best example of Spanish Colonial architecture in the country. Referred to as The White Dove of the Desert, the church’s interior is brimming with original statuary and detailed mural paintings that portray motifs influenced by both the Spanish and Tohono O’odham people. The style is truly unique to Arizona and is a must-stop when passing through Tucson or nearby Saguaro National Park.

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Monument Valley 

Since the 1930s, Monument Valley’s iconic desert landscape has been featured in dozens of movies and western-style films. With its tower-like red sandstone bluffs and long-stretched highway, Monument Valley’s panoramic scenery is essentially the picture of the American Southwest. Parts of the area including Hunts Mesa and Mystery Valley are only accessible by guided tour. However, road-trippers can drive through the park on a dirt road that winds 17-miles. A trip through the park takes about two to three hours from start to finish. Monument Valley also made our list of Most Beautiful Places in Utah.

Bisbee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bisbee

Bisbee’s reputation for being a little eccentric isn’t exactly a lie. The town has been nicknamed “Mayberry on Acid.” Hell, they even printed it on t-shirts. Nestled in Southeastern Arizona’s Mule Mountains and just 10-miles north of the Mexico Border, this mining town turned arts colony provides travelers an offbeat experience against a backdrop of historic mines, psychedelic art displays, and staircases leading to houses on stilts. What made Bisbee so… Bisbee? After a lucrative and long-running mining boom, creative souls from near and far found a home in the sleepy desert town. And there is certainly no denying that the creative influence remains very, very strong today in this underrated small town.

Painted Desert © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Painted Desert

Millions of years in the making and spanning more than 953,000 acres from Grand Canyon National Park to Petrified National Forest, the aptly named Painted Desert is a living canvas featuring a palate of red, pink, and lavender. The unique landscape consists of innumerable impressive formations and features created by volcanic eruptions, floods, and earthquakes. About 25 miles east of Holbrook is Petrified Forest National Park. It takes some imagination to see it, but this area of what we know call Painted Desert was flourishing with vegetation and trees some 200 million years ago before volcanic lava basically destroyed everything in its path. The petrified wood, made mostly of quartz, is all that’s left today. 

Lake Powell © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Page

For the uninitiated, Page looks like nothing more than a desolate spot on the map near the state-line crossing into Utah. Look a little closer. Antelope Canyon and Horseshoe Bend, local secrets for years, have become some of the most photographed natural attractions in the Southwest (thanks to Instagram). A quick hike will get you to the Horseshoe Bend overlook where you can get a bird’s eye view of the Colorado River and horseshoe-shaped meander below. And in a state with no shortage of unique geological formations, some of the most puzzling and fascinating is to be found at Antelope Canyon. Guided tours are required, but the supernatural beauty of it all is definitely worth it. And a short drive to simmering Lake Powell and the stunning Glen Canyon National Recreation Area.

Fountain Hills © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fountain Hills

The Fountain Hills fountain is one of those strange sights that only seems to make sense in Arizona. There’s something especially impressive about a fountain that reaches a height of 330 feet, in the middle of the desert—even if it is man-made. The spray cranks up to 560 feet high on special occasions (like St. Patrick’s Day and Fourth of July), but it’s a captivating sight anytime, and it’s available for your viewing pleasure for 15 minutes every hour, on the hour, from 9 am to 9 pm every day.

Hole in the Rock at Papago Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Phoenix

One of the first things you’ll learn about this state is that it’s beloved for its colorful sunsets, and one of the most quintessential ways to watch an Arizona sunset is by viewing it through the famous “Hole-in-the-Rock” at Papago Park, a naturally-formed opening in the red butte. In addition to its beauty, the park also holds historical significance—it was the home of ancient Hohokam Indians, served as a prisoner camp during World War II, and some areas of the park are still used for Arizona National Guard training today.

Worth Pondering…

To my mind these live oak-dotted hills fat with side oats grama, these pine-clad mesas spangled with flowers, these lazy trout streams burbling along under great sycamores and cottonwoods, come near to being the cream of creation.

—Aldo Leopold, 1937