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

From hiking and mountain biking to hot air balloon rides and rafting trips, here are the most-thrilling ways to get outdoors in the Phoenix area

The largest city in the Sonoran Desert—and surrounded on all sides by mountains—Phoenix is a paradise for outdoorsy types. Here, you can hike past towering saguaro cacti, take guided horseback rides on tribal land, and kayak on scenic lakes, all just minutes from the city.

Lake Pleasant Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Best of all, the area promises ideal weather. Fall and winter offer pleasant temperatures while spring brings a burst of colorful wildflowers. And in the summer months, travelers can cool off with water activities at Lake Pleasant Regional Park or the Lower Salt River.

Cave Creek Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Whether you want to explore by land, air, or water, there’s an adventure waiting for you in this stunning Sonoran Desert landscape. Read on for the most thrilling ways to experience the Phoenix area and spend some quality time in the great outdoors.

Related Article: Where It All Began: My Love Affair with the Southwest

Usery Mountain Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Take an (Awe-inspiring) Hike

There’s a scenic trail for every skill level just a short drive in any direction from downtown Phoenix. If you’re looking for something easy follow one of the meandering walking paths through the Desert Botanical Garden, home to 140 acres of local flora, or explore a saguaro forest on the Go John Trail in Cave Creek Regional Park. There’s also the Blevins Trail in Usery Mountain Regional Park where you can see quintessential Sonoran Desert scenery or the half-mile hike in Papago Park to the popular Hole-in-the-Rock viewpoint.

Papago Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For a slightly more strenuous hike, try the Tom’s Thumb Trail in the McDowell Sonoran Preserve which starts with a series of challenging switchbacks and passes upland boulder fields and desert flora on the way to the top. You could also opt for the two-mile Waterfall Trail in White Tank Mountain Regional Park, home to ancient petroglyphs, massive saguaros, and that namesake waterfall (though only after it rains), or the 3.5-mile Hidden Valley via Mormon Trail loop in the South Mountain Park and Preserve which requires squeezing through a crevice called Fat Man’s Pass and some hand-over-hand clambering toward the top.

White Tank Mountains Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

One of the most challenging hikes near Phoenix is the Siphon Draw Trail in Lost Dutchman State Park which starts in an open desert, travels through a basin of smooth, polished rock, and ends in a flat clearing with breathtaking views to the west. Hikers here must be prepared for some hand-over-hand rock faces and rugged, unmarked areas. There’s also the Summit Trail up Piestewa Peak (the second-highest point in the Phoenix Mountains Preserve) and the steep, rocky Echo Canyon Trail up the famous Camelback Mountain.

Related Article: There Is No Winter like a Desert Winter in the Valley of the Sun

Lost Dutchman State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Explore by Mountain Bike

Setting out on two wheels is another great way to discover the Sonoran Desert. 360 Adventures offers mountain-biking tours through the desert on trails selected for your skill level while the REI Co-Op Adventure Center boasts half-and full-day excursions on everything from smooth, groomed flows to big rock drops. If you prefer dirt bikes, opt for Extreme Arizona which features guided trips into the Table Mesa area as well as self-led outings in Tonto National Forest.

Horseback riding at Lost Dutchman State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hit the Trails on Horseback

Playing cowboy with a horseback ride through the desert stimulates the senses with an authentic experience of history. Horseback rides offer a memorable way to enjoy the scenery. Ponderosa Stables has guided tours in South Mountain Park and Preserve where trails wind past magnificent saguaros while the Koli Equestrian Center located in the Gila River Indian Community features excursions led by American Indian wranglers who take you through their tribal lands while teaching you about their history, culture, and surroundings.

Huhugan Heritage Center at Gila River Indian Community © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Go Off-road with an ATV Tour

For an adrenaline-pumping experience, try a guided ATV tour with Arizona Outdoor Fun during which you’ll navigate twisting mountain trails to explore Hohokam Indian ruins, visit a former turquoise mine, and learn about Arizona’s history and wildlife. If driving an authentic, military-grade TomCar UTV is more your speed, go with Desert Wolf Tours which covers thousands of acres of Sonoran Desert wilderness to teach cowboy history while soaking up the scenery. Whichever you choose, you’ll get to cover more ground than on a hike or bike ride—all without breaking a sweat.

Related Article: Arizona Lakes: 6 Sonoran Desert Oases

Tonto National Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Take to the Sky with a Hot Air Balloon Ride

See the desert from a whole new perspective by soaring above the coyotes and jackrabbits in a hot air balloon. Begin on the ground to view the inflation process then take to the sky for an hour during which you’ll float at different elevations to spot local wildlife, plants, and landmarks. Flights with Hot Air Expeditions and Rainbow Ryders take place at sunrise year-round and sunset rides are available in the winter months.

Along the Salt River east of Phoenix © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Explore the Waterways

On Phoenix’s eastern edge you’ll find the Lower Salt River where you can indulge in stand-up paddleboarding, kayaking, and rafting tours to spot wild horses and eagles along the shore. On the upper part of the river, Arizona Rafting leads whitewater rafting experiences from March through May which include a hot fajita lunch, complimentary wet suit rentals, and some of the best rapids between California and Colorado.

Saguaro Lake © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For something less intense, consider a tour with Salt River Tubing in Tonto National Forest during which you’ll mosey down mountain-stream waters at a pace that makes enjoying a floating picnic possible.

Along the Bush Highway east of Phoenix © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

About 45 minutes northwest of downtown Phoenix, you’ll even find Lake Pleasant Regional Park one of the area’s most scenic water recreation areas. The 1,000-acre lake has rentals available on-site, as well as opportunities for swimming, fishing, camping, hiking, picnicking, and more.

Read Next: Top 10 Day Trips From Phoenix

Worth Pondering…

This was as the desert should be, this was the desert of the picture books, with the land unrolled to the farthest distant horizon hills, with saguaros standing sentinel in their strange chessboard pattern, towering supinely above the fans of ocotillo and brushy mesquite.

—Dorothy B. Hughes

Guide to Adventure Activities in National Parks

The following list represents the most popular adventure activities offered in national parks with tips on where you can do each one

The national parks are a treasure—beautiful, wild, and full of wonders to see. But there’s more to experience than taking in gorgeous scenery from your vehicle or lookout points. National parks are natural playgrounds, full of possible adventures.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The most famous offerings of the National Park Service are the 61 headliner national parks, including Arches, Great Smoky Mountains, and Grand Canyon. But there are 419 National Park Service sites across the country that also includes national monuments, national seashores, national recreation areas, national battlefields, and national memorials.

Coronado National Memorial © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Let’s kick it up a notch (or two) and check out more adventurous activities you can enjoy in sites administered by the National Park Service and pair them up with superb parks for the experience.

Related: Least-Visited National Park Service Sites and Why Each Is Worth a Visit

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hiking

The Narrows at Zion National Park (Utah)

It’s hard to find a national park that doesn’t have some good hiking opportunities, but The Narrows at Zion National Park take adventurous hiking to a new level. Why is it so memorable?

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

First of all, you’re hiking through a cold, shallow river, the Virgin. (There might be times of the year, such as early spring, when the trail is closed because of high water. And always check the weather forecast—flash floods are a real danger here.) And then you’re hiking through canyon walls that can be up to 1,000 feet high but only 20 to 30 feet wide in spots. Definitely chilling and thrilling.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Another adventurous option: Lassen Volcanic National Park (California)

The name of the park says it all—volcanic!

Related: Why America Needs More National Parks

Bicycling

Canyonlands National Park (Island in the Sky Unit) © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Canyonlands National Park (Utah)

Canyonlands is famous for its mountain biking terrain, particularly for the 100-mile White Rim Road at Island in the Sky. This road loops around and below the Island in the Sky mesa top and provides expansive views of the surrounding area. Bicycle trips usually take three to four days.

Canyonlands National Park (Needles Unit) © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Elephant Hill Road at Needles is one of the most technical roads in Utah. You’ll experience steep grades, loose rock, and stair-step drops.

New River Gorge National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Another adventurous option: New River Gorge National River (West Virginia)

The beautiful landscapes and the variety of difficult to less challenging bike routes make the New River Gorge among the most popular destinations for mountain biking trips in the eastern U.S.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Horseback riding

Great Smoky Mountains National Park (Tennessee and North Carolina):

Guided horseback rides are available at four concession horseback riding stables in the park from mid-March through late November. Or bring your own to explore 550 miles of hiking trails open to horses. Five drive-in horse camps provide ready access to backcountry horse trails in the park.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Another adventurous option: Theodore Roosevelt National Park (North Dakota)

If it’s named after our rough ‘n’ tumble 26th president, you know it has to be an adventure. Find out why the Badlands are so good for riders.

Related: National Park Programs that Enhance Your Visit

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Rock climbing

Joshua Tree National Park (California)

Best known for its cacti where two distinctive desert types meet, Joshua Tree is also a superb place to do some rock climbing. The park offers challenges for all ability levels with more than 8,000 climbing routes, 2,000 boulder problems, and hundreds of natural gaps to choose from. It is truly a world-class climbing destination.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If you are learning to climb or are looking to expand your climbing skills, a guided day or class could be of interest to you. When hiring a climbing guide, make sure that they are permitted to work in Joshua Tree National Park.

Related: National Park Facts: The Biggest, Smallest, Oldest, Newest, Most Visited, and More…

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Another adventurous option: Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks (California)

Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks are great places to climb. One can enjoy an endless variety of climbs from easy to extremely challenging-without the crowds and pressure of more famous climbing areas. Outstanding routes in the parks include the Obelisk and Grand Sentinel. Most climbs require at least a day’s hike in.

Worth Pondering…

Adventure is worthwhile.

―Aesop