Is Staying Cool the Hot New Thing?

As summer heats up a small but growing number of cities are getting serious about heat mitigation

Scientific studies have documented a dramatic rise in both heat-related and cold-related deaths and there’s general agreement that cities need to adopt comprehensive strategies to maintain public health. One of the studies found the number of deaths caused by high temperatures increased by 74 percent globally between 1980 and 2016. Deaths related to extreme cold increased 31 percent since 1990, another report, the first of its kind, found.

Heat-related deaths and illnesses are preventable, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and yet more than 600 people in the US alone are killed by extreme heat every year. Last year’s extreme heat wave in the Pacific Northwest resulted in an estimated 1,400-plus deaths. In neighboring British Columbia, 619 deaths reported June 25-July 1, 2021 were deemed heat related.

North Mountain Park near Casa Grande, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

But most cities are only at the planning stages or conducting small-scale pilots—if they’re addressing the issue at all. There’s broad acknowledgment that rising temperatures are making urban centers less livable but many cities lack the budget or political support to meaningfully tackle the problem.

A survey by the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy (ACEEE) and the Global Cool Cities Alliance (GCCA) reviewed the urban heat mitigation activities of 26 cities in the U.S. and Canada—representing all of the major climate zones, geographies, and city sizes across North America. They found that heat waves along with other natural disasters and extreme weather have motivated nearly two-thirds of the cities surveyed to initiate urban heat island mitigation strategies.

Organ Pipe National Monument, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The report included case studies on how several cities have responded to urban heat demonstrating the variety of strategies employed. In response to a study that found that Houston’s roofs and pavements can reach 160 degrees F, the city now requires most flat roofs in the city to be reflective. After an extreme heat wave in 2008, Cincinnati lost much of its urban canopy and instituted an aggressive forestry plan. Washington D.C. has instituted a wide suite of programs such as Green Alleys which helps residents manage excess stormwater by replacing pavement with grass and trees and requiring reflective roofs on all new buildings.

More on severe weather: Excessive Heat Warnings: Safety Tips for RVers

Three major U.S. metro areas—Phoenix, Los Angeles, and Miami/Dade County—have established “Chief Heat Officers.”

Desert Botanical Gardens, Phoenix © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cities have been gearing up for this summer’s heat trying in particular to use cooling methods other than air conditioning. They’re installing cooling and misting centers and hydration stations and planting trees for extra shade.

They’re experimenting with high-tech solutions like sealants and reflective coatings for sidewalks, streets, and rooftops.

A growing number of startups are crowding into the market for products to counter “urban heat islands” with experimental (and proven) technologies aimed at absorbing or reflecting surface heat on roads, sidewalks, buildings, and other structures.

Coachella Valley Preserve near Palm Desert, California © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The big picture: Cities have been warming at twice the global average because of the “urban heat island” effect whereby buildings and pavement trap heat that might have otherwise been diffused by foliage.

Low-income people tend to suffer the most since they’re more likely to lack A/C, work outdoors, and live near industrial facilities.

Peralta Trailhead southeast of Phoenix © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Phoenix—one of the hottest U.S. cities—has been proactive in tackling the problem. The temperature climbs above the 100-degree mark daily from the end of May through the middle of September. These blistering hot days are followed up by warm nights with the low temperature sometimes failing to drop below 90.

More on severe weather: Heat Alert: The Hidden Symptoms of Extreme Heat

Its “Cool Pavement Program” which involved painting a gray coating on streets reduced roadway temperatures by 10.5 to 12 degrees, reports Scientific American. Cool pavement is a water-based asphalt treatment that is applied on top of the existing asphalt pavement. It’s made with asphalt, water, an emulsifying agent (soap), mineral fillers, polymers, and recycled materials. It contains no harmful chemicals and is compatible with traditional asphalt.

The city aims to build 100 “cool corridors” by 2030 “in shade-starved zones with high pedestrian traffic,” the Arizona Republic reports.

McDowell Mountain Regional Park east of Phoenix © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cool corridors are approximately one-mile-long walkways, pathways, or trails, adjacent and parallel to city streets that are designed to serve residents who walk, bike, and use transit. Collector or local streets and various pathways also could serve as cool corridors that provide important linkages with cool corridor arterials

Without more trees and other urban cooling features, the Phoenix area stands to lose hundreds more lives and billions of dollars in lost economic production each year by mid-century if the region doesn’t adopt widespread tree planting and cool roof installation, a Nature Conservancy study concluded last year.

Lost Dutchman State Park east of Phoenix © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

“Heat is a really significant issue,” said Anna Bettis who directs TNC’s Healthy Cities Program in Arizona. “It’s the leading weather-related cause of death and the highest rates are in Arizona.”

But, Bettis said, “We do know that bringing nature into the city can help.” That means lots of desert-adapted trees.

More on severe weather: Dust Storms and Haboobs: Safety Tips for RVers

In 2020, according to Maricopa County, 323 people died of heat-related causes. The county has confirmed 252 heat deaths this year and is investigating another 86.

Desert Hot Springs, California © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Among smaller cities, Chelsea, Massachusetts, a low-income neighbor of Boston has a noteworthy pilot involving a single city block. The Cool Block project is loading the area with pretty much every heat-fighting tool in use around the country,” according to WBUR. There are 47 new elm, crabapple, cherry, and hawthorn trees. Sidewalks are being ripped up to add planters, porous pavers, or white concrete. Dark asphalt will be replaced with gray.

As cities race to amp up their heat mitigation efforts, some are replacing bare-bones cooling centers with full-service “climate resilience hubs”—offering everything from comfy air conditioning and phone charging to social services and emergency training.

Corkscrew Sanctuary, Florida © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

While “resilience hubs” are meant for everyone and all kinds of climate disasters, they’re particularly aimed at low-income residents who tend to suffer disproportionately as temperatures rise.

Miami-Dade County is at the forefront with its mobile “resilience pod” made from a 40-foot shipping container. It debuted two years ago and offers people a chilled, solar-powered place to gather with Wi-Fi, phone charging, and other solutions including fruit trees for people to plant.

Southern Florida © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tempe, Arizona, has budgeted $2.3 million for EnVision Tempe, a one-stop resource center that’ll have a big walk-in freezer and free ice—plus staffers who can help visitors find a job, GED classes, housing assistance, parenting programs, etc.

Worth Pondering…

“‘Heat, ma’am!’ I said; ‘it was so dreadful here, that I found there was nothing left for it but to take off my flesh and sit in my bones.”

—Sydney Smith

10 of the Hottest Cities in America

It’s summer. It’s hot. That’s what summers do.

Some of the most populated cities across the United States are also some of the hottest places to be during the summer with temperatures regularly climbing above 100 degrees F.

Many cities don’t come close to the extreme heat experienced in Death Valley, California; however, the population in Death Valley is just a small fraction of that of many towns across the country.

Cities are warming at twice the global average because buildings and pavement absorb and trap so much heat. Phoenix, Los Angeles, and Miami have named chief heat officers to find ways to prevent the often deadly impacts of extreme heat. 

From the shores of the Atlantic Ocean to the deserts of the Southwest, here are 10 of the hottest cities across the United States with a population of over 250,000.

Desert Botanical Gardens, Phoenix © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. Phoenix, Arizona

Phoenix is home to over 1.6 million people and regularly experiences some of the highest temperatures of any city across the country. The temperature climbs above the 100-degree mark daily from the end of May through the middle of September. These blistering hot days are followed up by warm nights with the low temperature sometimes failing to drop below 90.

Phoenix recorded its hottest summer ever in 2020 with 50 days at or above 110 degrees and a record 28 nights when the temperature never dropped below 90 degrees. 

Papago Park, Phoenix © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Heat is killing about 300 people per year in Phoenix. 

Phoenix is trying to beat the heat by turning its black asphalt streets gray. A special sealant reflects rather than absorbs the hot desert sun.  

Related: Excessive Heat Warnings: Safety Tips for RVers

America’s hottest city is working to avoid getting even hotter—starting with its streets. As heat waves across the country continue, Phoenix is covering black asphalt roads with a gray sealant that reflects the sun rather than absorbing heat. Mayor Kate Gallego says the sealant which has so far been used on 73 miles of city streets reduces the temperature of asphalt by 10 to 12 degrees.

Phoenix as seen from Hole in the Rock at Papago Park, Phoenix © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In addition to cool pavement the city is creating 100 cool corridors and planting hundreds of trees whose shade can drop the ambient air temperature by about 30 to 40 degrees compared to full sun. Phoenix is also experimenting with reflective roofs and cooling sidewalks. 

Lake Mead National Recreation Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

2. Las Vegas, Nevada

Las Vegas is a popular tourist destination in the southwestern United States but visitors may want to plan to visit areas with air conditioning during the summer months. The city averages over 70 days a year with temperatures in the triple digits and has reached its all-time record high of 117 on several occasions.

People traveling to popular tourist destinations nearby such as Lake Mead National Recreation, Red Rock Canyon, or the Hoover Dam should also expect to encounter extreme heat and should take the proper precautions to stay safe.

Sabino Canyon, Tucson © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3. Tucson, Arizona

Tucson sits on the edge of the Sonoran Desert and is nearly as hot as Phoenix located 100 miles to the northwest. One of Tucson’s hottest summers in recent years occurred in 2013 when the city climbed into the 100s for 39 consecutive days including all of June.

Monsoonal thunderstorms can provide temporary breaks in the extreme summer heat but they can also kick up dust storms called haboobs that can greatly reduce visibility and cause dangerous travel conditions.

Olive grove in the Central Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

4. Riverside, California

While the cool waters of the Pacific Ocean help to limit temperatures along coastal areas of Southern California areas father inland can experience much hotter conditions. Riverside, approximately 50 miles east of downtown Los Angeles has recorded triple-digit heat every month from April through October with an all-time high of 118. This is higher than the record in Las Vegas and just a few degrees shy of the record high in Phoenix.

Related: Dust Storms and Haboobs: Safety Tips for RVers

The Alamo, San Antonio © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

5. San Antonio, Texas

San Antonio is home to more than 1.5 million people and experiences long stretch with temperatures in the 90s during the height of summer. On average, the city reaches the 90-degree mark more than 110 days out of the year as well as several days in the low 100s. August is the hottest month of the year in San Antonio with an average high temperature near 97, one of the highest averages across the entire country among major cities.

Lake Okeechobee west of Miami © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

6. Miami, Florida

Although the mercury in southern Florida doesn’t climb as high as it does in the southwestern United States during the summer, Miami’s proximity to the tropics can make it feel oppressively hot, especially for those not accustomed to the high humidity levels. Miami has never recorded a temperature of 100 but the strong summer sun paired with the humidity can send the AccuWeather RealFeel temperature over 110 on the hottest afternoons of the year.

Miami is also one of the warmest cities in the country during the winter with afternoon temperatures often climbing near 80.

Gulf Coast south of Houston © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

7. Houston, Texas

Tropical moisture from the Gulf of Mexico has a strong influence on the weather pattern along the coast of Texas including in Houston, the state’s most populated city with over 2 million people. The humidity helps to boost the AccuWeather RealFeel temperature above 100 daily. Moisture from the Gulf also helps to fuel rain and thunderstorms making Houston the wettest among the county’s hottest cities averaging over 100 days a year with rain.

Lake Kaweah east of Fresno © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

8. Fresno, California

Outside of the Mojave Desert and the Colorado Desert, the Central Valley is California’s hottest region with temperatures often reaching the triple digits. This includes Fresno, home to over half a million people. In 2018, the city experienced 30 consecutive days with a temperature at or above the 100-degree mark, the longest stretch in the city’s history.

Related: Heat Alert: The Hidden Symptoms of Extreme Heat

Texas Ranger Museum in Waco, southwest of Dallas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

9. Dallas, Texas

Located farther inland from the Gulf of Mexico than Houston or San Antonio, Dallas can experience some of the hottest weather of all of Texas’ major cities. Being farther away from the source of tropical moisture allows temperatures to be slightly higher than near the coast with daily highs in the mid- to upper 90s from the end of June into early September.

Although the summer heat can be more intense in Dallas than Houston or San Antonio, the city experiences cooler winters with temperatures frequently dipping below freezing.

Disney World © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

10. Orlando, Florida

One of Florida’s hottest cities is also one of its most popular tourist spots with a record-setting 72 million people visiting in 2017. Unlike Miami, temperatures in Orlando can occasionally reach the 100-degree mark with an all-time record high of 103. Overnight temperatures also remain warm as they rarely dip below 60 from June through September.

Orlando also remains warm throughout the winter with afternoon highs in the 70s and overnight lows that rarely drop below 30.

Worth Pondering…

It ain’t the heat, it’s the humility.”

—Yogi Berra

Family-friendly Road Trips Through Arizona: Phoenix and Tucson

To help you plan your family-friendly road trip through Arizona, I’ve put together this list of awesome road trip stops. Keep reading to learn about my favorite spots and campgrounds along the route.

With its vast landscapes and colorful topography, the American Southwest is one of the best regions in the country to take an old-fashioned road trip—in fact, that’s the only way to see most of it. Arizona, specifically, is home to the only Natural Wonder of the World in the U. S., numerous national parks, picturesque state parks, and 21 American Indian tribes. So, what better way to spend spring break this year than packing up the kids for a four family-friendly road trips through Arizona?

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

Since the possibilities for an Arizona road trip are endless, I’ve organized these family-friendly road trips into four paths. Each of these road trip routes includes a selection of my favorite stops. I’ve traveled along each of these paths—most more than once. There is truly something for every member of the family to be enjoyed in each of these road trips.

Usery Mountain Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Earlier articles highlighted Northern Arizona and the Grand Canyon and Sedona and the Verde Valley. Today we drive 115 miles south to Phoenix.

Papago Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Food and culture trails through Phoenix

The capital of Arizona, Phoenix is known for its resorts, golf courses, great food and wine, and fantastic desert views. While road-tripping through Arizona, stop here for some culture and tasty morsels.

Desert Botanical Gardens © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Take in the art of Native Americans at the Heard Museum. Let the kids loose at the Arizona Science Center where STEM exhibits both teach and entertain. Race fans will love the Penske Racing Museum with its amazing collection of cars, trophies, and racing memorabilia chronicling the career of the Penske family one of the most successful race dynasties.

Related Article: Amazing Places to Discover in Phoenix’s East Valley

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

Then, drive about 30 miles northeast of town to visit Taliesin West, Frank Lloyd Wright’s desert sanctuary and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s a stunning museum celebrating the genius of Wright’s architecture and design.

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

After taking in all those amazing places, visitors will have worked up an appetite. Phoenix’s dining scene is rich and varied with something for every taste.

Fountain Hills © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Housed inside a 1950s bank building, the midcentury gem Federal Pizza serves up delicious wood-fired pizza in a relaxed atmosphere that’s perfect for families. Or try modern Mexican fare made with fresh local ingredients at Joyride Taco House with misters on the patio to keep you cool in the hot summer months.

Papago Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Right across the street is Churn, a nostalgic candy and ice cream shop that will make all your kids’ dreams come true with shelves of retro toys and candy, artisan ice cream, and fresh-baked treats. Check out the Instagrammable wall of cassette tapes in the back (and have fun explaining what cassettes are to your kids).

Desert Botanical Gardens © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Filled with sandstone buttes that provide gentle but stimulating hiking trails and photogenic spots like the Hole in the Rock, Papago Park is a scenic wonder only 10 minutes from downtown Phoenix. Home of the Phoenix Zoo and the Desert Botanical Garden, the park also offers many activities including an archery range, golf course, fishing lagoons, and an orienteering course. That little pyramid you’ll see is the tomb of Gov. George Wiley Paul Hunt.

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

There are several good reasons for paying a visit to the Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch, a 110-acre park in Gilbert. The astounding variety of cacti, probably varieties than you ever knew existed, is itself worth stopping by for. But there are also many other species of plant and animal life in and around this artificial wetland created with reclaimed water. You can view fish, birds, reptiles, and mammals of many different kinds on a pleasant little hiking trail. It’s an especially excellent place for bird watching. The picnic and playground areas are imaginatively and artistically designed and laid out.

Related Article: Top 10 Day Trips From Phoenix

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

Another family-friendly adventure is Schnepf Farms, an organic farm where you can pick your own fruits and vegetables. With 300 acres, Schnepf Farms is the perfect place to enjoy fresh air and naturally grown, pesticide-free produce (peppers, cucumbers, kale, and green onions, among others). They are especially known for their peaches with picking season usually in May.

Queen Creek Olive Mill © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If you’re into clean eating, check out the Queen Creek Olive Mill. You can tour the grounds and learn how to make extra virgin olive oil, the best uses for it in the kitchen and why it’s so healthy.

Presidio-Old Pima County Courthouse © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Eat your way through Tucson plus a dose of nature

Tucson is another Arizona destination worth repeat visits with history, culture, and outdoor activities galore. Plus, its food game is beyond your wildest expectations. Tucson is a UNESCO City of Gastronomy, named in 2015 (the first in the U.S.). Tucson gave us the Sonoran dog—a bacon-wrapped street dog forged in nearby Sonora and packed into a bun filled with burrito toppings.

Old Presidio © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tucson’s designation acknowledges that the chefs and residents of Tucson value the role food has historically played in the city. Many local chefs use ingredients that the Indigenous people of the area have used for thousands of years.

Tucson © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Whatever else is on the agenda, save time to explore an area the city has designated “The Best 23 Miles of Mexican Food.” Start along Tucson’s 12th Avenue for an authentic taste of the Best 23 Miles and work your way from there. From street food to taquerias to fine dining, the Mexican food scene in Tucson is often described as the best outside of Mexico.

Related Article: A Southern Gem: 14 Reasons to Visit Tucson

Arizona-Sonoran Desert Museum © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Laying claim to being the oldest Mexican restaurant in the U.S. is El Charro, with a menu offering a mix of traditional dishes and Mexican favorites. This colorful eatery was established in 1922 by Monica Flin (credited with inventing the chimichanga) and has been in continuous operation by the same family ever since.

Tucson Mountain Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

At the historic Hotel Congress, the more than 100-year-old lobby restaurant Cup Cafe is something of a local legend. The food here is dependable and tasty — from French dip sandwiches with an interesting Southwest flavor twist to gargantuan breakfast-for-lunch omelets. For dessert, an old-fashioned spiraling glass display case shows guests a variety of sweet, homemade treats.

But this funky little town is chockablock with art, drawing from indigenous cultures, trippy desert landscape, and the fact that heat and desolation can really bring out the weirdness in people.

Tucson Museum of Art © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Home to the University of Arizona, the city nurtures a vibrant downtown arts scene with the contemporary Tucson Museum of Art forming the backbone of a flourishing community of painters, glass-blowers, and jewelers. When the heat drops at night, that same downtown comes alive with bars, breweries, and upscale restaurants embracing the uniquely Tucson convergence of Mexican and Arizona influences, a dose of green chiles, open-faced quesadillas (cheese crisps), and those exquisite hot dogs.

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

Tucson also happens to host one of the country’s biggest annual gem and mineral shows each winter when the city is taken over by rockhounds from around the world.

Arizona-Sonoran Desert Museum © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

View a great variety of plants and animals of the Sonoran Desert at Arizona-Sonoran Desert Museum. Two miles of paths lead through 21 acres of displays. Live demonstrations and tours daily. The museum is a zoo, natural history museum, and botanical garden all rolled into one.

Sabino Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A desert oasis, Sabino Canyon Recreation Area is a hiker’s paradise. Tucked in a canyon in the Santa Catalina Mountains in the Coronado Forest, it is easily accessible from Tucson. Ride the narrated shuttle bus and you can get off and back on at any of the stops for a picnic, hike, or a walk back. Trails off the main road explore the canyon or lead into the high country.

Related Article: Why Tucson Is Your Next Great Outdoor Adventure

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The West is full of beautiful national parks but one of the most iconic symbols of the Old West is the saguaro cactus—and Saguaro National Park is full of them. These majestic plants are only found in this part of the U.S. and can live to be as much as 200 years old and grow up to 60 feet tall. Learn about cacti in the gardens on the east and west sides of the visitor center and take in beautiful sunsets on the Tanque Verde Ridge Trail (a half-mile hike) from the Javelina Rocks pullout on the east or from the Gates Pass on the west side.

Tucson/Lazydays KOA © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Places to stay along this route

With so much to explore, you may want to book a campground or RV park along the route. Here are some recommendations for places to rest your weary heads:

Worth Pondering…

The saguaro cactus is the Sonoran Desert’s singular icon, the largest native living thing that exists here, and it appears to be a stunningly robust presence in a harsh land.

—Larry Cheek, Cheek, Born Survivor

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

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

Discover a Desert Oasis at San Tan Mountain Regional Park

Neighboring Queen Creek to the South, San Tan Mountain Regional Park is a 10,000+ acres of Sonoran Desert beauty ranging in elevation from about 1,400 feet to over 2,500 feet

Consisting of over 10,000 acres, the southeast Valley park is a fine example of the lower Sonoran Desert. The park ranges in elevation from about 1,400 feet to over 2,500 feet. Goldmine Mountain is located in the northern area, with a spectacular San Tan Mountain escarpment in the southern portion of the park. The vegetation changes from creosote flats to dense saguaro forests. Various types of wildlife may be observed, including reptiles, birds, and mammals.

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

San Tan Mountain Regional Park also has a Visitor’s Center. Don’t forget to stop by the Visitor’s Center to pick up educational tidbits, purchase souvenir items, visit with park staff, and see the wildlife exhibits or tortoise habitat. Restroom facilities are available and additional amenities are slated for future development. ​

The San Tan Mountain Regional Park is placed at the crossroads of diverse communities, regions, and cultures. The park is in demand to meet the needs of a regional area extending south from central Maricopa County and the East Valley of metropolitan Phoenix, into northern Pinal County.

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

Located just south of the Maricopa/Pinal County line near the Town of Queen Creek, the San Tan Mountain Regional Park has been used for decades for various recreation activities such as hiking, equestrian riding, and wildlife photography. The park is rich with unique historical, cultural, and biological resources. This master plan seeks to provide programmed recreation activities that meet the needs of the existing users, future park visitors, and the growing East Valley population while protecting the park’s natural, Sonoran Desert mountain environment.

Related Article: Pristine Sonoran Desert Camping

Currently, the park consists of 10, 200 acres south of Hunt Highway in Pinal County. Restroom facilities and water are available at the San Tan visitor center. 

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

San Tan Mountain Park Hiking Trails

San Tan Mountain Regional 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.

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

If you are looking for an easy, relatively short hike, the Moonlight Trail is the perfect choice as it provides a scenic and a rather mild hike for all to enjoy. If you are looking for a longer more difficult hike, try the 5.1-mile San Tan Trail. This trail winds you through the Broken Lands and Central Valley portions of the park to the top of the Goldmine Mountains. In addition to its length, some may consider certain areas of the San Tan Trail difficult due to washes, soft soil, and slick or rocky mountain slopes. Use extreme caution in these areas. Another visitor favorite is the Malpais Hills Trail as it displays a unique perspective of Rock Peak and the Malpais Hills.

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

The trails within the San Tan Mountain Regional Park are popular because they offer a unique perspective of the lower Sonoran Desert with wildlife, plant life, and scenic mountain views.

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

All trails are multi-use unless otherwise designated. All trail users are encouraged to practice proper trail etiquette. Always remember to carry plenty of water and let someone know where you are going. Heavy sole shoes are a must as well as sunscreen and a large-brimmed hat (I recommend a Tilley hat).

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

​San Tan Mountain Park Picnic Areas

Enjoy the beauty of the Sonoran Desert while taking in a picnic at one of several picnic tables located near the San Tan visitor center, Nathan Martens Memorial, or San Tan trail-heads. Restroom facilities are accessible at the San Tan visitor center. Picnic tables are limited and available on a first-come, first-served basis. Additional picnic areas are slated for future development.​ 

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

​San Tan Mountain Park Programs

To register for a Park program, please call the San Tan office at 602-506-2930 x7.

Mountain Bike Ride, Saturday, February 12, 2022, 9:00 am-11:00 am

This is a 2-hour group ride on moderate terrain.

Roll up to the main trailhead 10-minutes prior to start time and meet with the San Tan Shredders. All abilities are welcome to join in the fun. The trail ride is about 2 hours. Quote of the day: “No matter how slow you go, you’re still faster than a couch potato!” Bring your helmet (required), plenty of water, and an extra inner tube in case of a flat. Limit 10 riders per group.

Related Article: 15 Amazing Places to Discover in Phoenix

Wildflowers at San Tan Mountain Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Get Ready for Wildflowers, Thursday, February 17, 2022, 10:30 am-11:30 am

Learn about common desert wildflowers that can be found at San Tan during an easy, ranger-led stroll.

Join the ranger on an easy stroll to look for indications that wildflowers are on the way. Learn about some of our desert’s common blooms such as filaree, lupine, bladderpod, Mexican poppy, and more and tips on how to identify what you see. Also learn about the Maricopa County Eco-Blitz species of the month, the Black-Throated Sparrow. These birds might be seen hopping around on the ground near sprouting flowers as they forage for seeds and insects.

Limit 10 participants. Meet at the Main Entrance Trailhead map kiosk/picnic table.

Wildfloers at San Tan Mountain Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

San Tan Mountain Regional Park

From central Phoenix, take I-10 east to US 60 east. Exit Ellsworth Road south to Hunt Highway. Travel east on Hunt Highway to Thompson Road south. Turn west on Phillips Road to the San Tan Mountain Regional Park entrance. 

Admission: $7 per vehicle.

Read Next: Where It All Began: My Love Affair with the Southwest

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

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

15 Amazing Places to Discover in Phoenix

Explore my list of fun things to see and do in the Phoenix metro area

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 © 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. 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. 

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.

Papago Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Papago Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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 © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Related: Absolutely Best Road Trip from Phoenix to the Grand Canyon

Desert Botanical Garden © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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 © 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. 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 © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

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. 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.

Apache Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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 © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Related: Top 10 Day Trips From Phoenix

Cave Creek Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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 © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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 © 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 © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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 © 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.

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. Saguaro Lake has more than 22 miles of shoreline creating a great environment for boating, kayaking, sailing, skiing, jet skiing, fishing, and camping. 

Saguaro Lake © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Related: When you need to get out of the Phoenix Heat, Cool off with These Getaways

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.

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

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

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 Mountains Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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 © 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.

Superstition Mountain Museum © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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 © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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 Pleasant Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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 © 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.

Read Next: A Southern Gem: 14 Reasons to Visit Tucson

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

Why Arizona is the Ultimate Road Trip Destination

Busy cities and desolate washes, low deserts to high pine-filled mountains, black lava flows to red rocks and pastel deserts, ancient ruins to thriving modern Native American communities

Driving around Arizona, the sixth largest state in the US, it’s easy to feel like you’ve been transported into the middle of nowhere, or even onto another planet—in one moment you’re surrounded by rocky red buttes, the next saguaro-speckled desert-scapes and then, ponderosa forests.

Canyon de Chelly National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Arizona is what road-trip daydreams are made of. But this is a destination that also richly rewards those who linger a little and set off on foot to explore spectacular hiking trails and quirky desert towns.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A trip to the Grand Canyon in the northwest of the state is an adventure no traveler can forget. The Colorado River snakes through a vast gorge that plummets to depths of more than 5,200 feet and is 18 miles across at its widest.

Related: 7 Serene Arizona Lakes for Water-related Activities

Navajos herding sheep in Canyon de Chelly © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sheer cliffs rise on either side of a flat-bottomed, sandy ravine, an area created much the way uplift and water formed the Grand Canyon. Though only a fraction of the Grand Canyon’s size and majesty, Canyon de Chelly offers more than a rugged landscape. Native Americans have worked and lived there for thousands of years and today Navajo people still call it home. Canyon de Chelly’s blend of landscape and cultural heritage allows a glimpse at an area originally inhabited 4,000 years ago and which still sustains people today.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Petrified Forest National Park is a surprising land of scenic wonders and fascinating science. The park contains one of the world’s largest and most colorful concentrations of petrified wood, multi-hued badlands of the Chinle Formation, portions of the Painted Desert, historic structures, archeological sites, and displays of 225-million-year-old fossils.

Verde Valley between Cottonwood and Sedona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Located in the ‘heart’ of Arizona, the Verde Valley is ideally situated above the heat of the desert and below the cold of Arizona’s high country. The Spanish word verde means “green” so the name may seem like a misnomer for arid Arizona. The valley encompasses red rock formations and lush canyons fed by the Verde River.

Related: What Makes Arizona Such a Hotspot for Snowbirds?

Old Town Cottonwood © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In the shadows of Mingus Mountain and in the heart of the Verde Valley, Cottonwood offers a distinctive historic district lined with shops and restaurants on its Main Street. History is alive in nearby Clarkdale whose homes and buildings still reflect its early copper smelting heritage. Four specialized museums focus on Native American cultures, international copper art, and local railroad and town history.

Peralta Canyon trail head © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Ninety minutes south explore the Superstitions Wilderness Area with dramatic views along the Peralta Canyon Trail and the Pass Mountain Trail. The Peralta Canyon Trail is one of the most popular hikes in the Superstition Wilderness outside of Phoenix and for good reason. This hike is one of the gateways into the 160,000-acre wilderness and offers spectacular scenery for the day hiker.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tucson is home to the nation’s largest cacti. The giant saguaro is the universal symbol of the American West. These majestic plants found only in a small portion of the United States are protected by Saguaro National Park to the east and west of Tucson. Here you have an opportunity to see these enormous cacti silhouetted by the beauty of a magnificent desert sunset.

Related: Arizona’s Coolest Small Towns Are Filled with Cowboys, Wine, and Mysticism

Arizona-Sonoran Desert Museum © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Although it’s called a museum, the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum—about 15 miles west of downtown Tucson—is more of a zoo. In fact, 85 percent of what you’ll experience is outdoors (so dress accordingly). The facility’s 98 acres host 230 animal species—including prairie dogs, coyotes, and a mountain lion—and 1,200 local plant species (totaling 56,000 individual plants). Walking through the museum’s trails, visitors get acquainted with desert life.

Presidio Old Town Tucson © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

And as well as the outdoor splendors, Arizona has many ways to reward you for a day’s adventure, with luxurious resorts/ spas, top restaurants, and an increasingly exciting wine scene.

Related: The Ultimate Guide to Arizona State Parks

Worth Pondering…

The trip across Arizona is just one oasis after another. You can just throw anything out and it will grow there.

—Will Rogers

Arizona’s Coolest Small Towns Are Filled with Cowboys, Wine, and Mysticism

It’s a state of friendly burros, cosmic vortexes, and living history

In its not-so-ancient past, Arizona’s dusty desert expanses were home to Indigenous tribes, headstrong cowboys, and hopeful miners looking to strike gold. But despite its Old Western roots and relatively recent statehood, Arizona has become one of the country’s fastest-growing states with its capital of Phoenix firmly planted as the United States’ fifth largest city attracting nearly 50 million tourists each year to trek the Grand Canyon, see a Spring Training game, or party at the Phoenix Open.

Arizona’s small towns are wildly different, yet it’s here that Arizona’s legendary past meets its bright future as ancient civilizations and experimental communities coexist. From ghost towns and gunfight reenactment sites to vortex centers, the unconventional can be explored in the state’s least-populated cities. Arizona has always been prime road-trip country—and these are the towns that deserve a spot on any itinerary.

Jerome © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Jerome 

A scenic hillside village in Verde Valley, Jerome was once a vibrant copper-mining town. Today, it’s famous for its rampant ghost stories, many of which revolve around historic hospital-turned inn―Jerome Grand Inn. While the city’s decline in residents following the mining rush earned it a reputation as a “ghost town,” it’s really anything but. Its popularity as a tourist destination has grown in recent years and it’s now home to eateries like the Haunted Hamburger, art galleries, and, of course, ghost tours for more adventurous visitors. It’s also growing as an Arizona wine hotspot thanks to spots like Caduceus Cellars.

Route 66 near Winslow © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Winslow

Winslow was notably immortalized in The Eagles’ hit song “Take it Easy,” but the northeastern town of roughly 10,000 has deep roots in Arizona history beyond rock. It began as a railroad hub before reinventing itself as a tourist stop along the iconic Route 66. Today, a visit to Winslow isn’t complete without paying homage to the aforementioned Standin’ on the Corner Park and statue commemorating the song reference, souvenir shopping at the Western-themed Arizona 66 Trading Company, or strolling through the Old Trails Museum. For something more adventurous, hit the nearby Meteor Crater site, the haunted Apache Death Cave, and several ancient Native American ruins.

Bisbee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bisbee 

Nestled among rolling hills just 11 miles from the Mexican border, Bisbee is another mining town-turned-tourist destination—but its knack for kitsch and bright colors easily makes it a favorite eclectic desert town. Its free-spirited nature and unusual architecture have even earned it the moniker “Mayberry on Acid.” Bisbee has been gaining popularity with Arizona locals and out-of-state tourists alike since the’ 90s thanks to its array of art galleries, antique shops, and one-of-a-kind boutiques. However, it’s also worth going back in time to the town’s roots by checking out sites like the Queen Mine—where visitors can don a miner’s outfit and head 1,500 feet underground—and the Mining & Historical Museum.

Tombstone © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tombstone 

Like many other Old West relics, Tombstone which refers to itself as “the town too tough to die” predates Arizona’s statehood having carried the spirit of the Wild West for approximately 150 years. It’s so well preserved that the ghost of Wyatt Earp could roll in and feel like nothing has changed. And, you can safely relive the town’s rowdy roots with daily gunfight reenactments, a trip to the former bar and brothel at The Bird Cage Theater, or an illuminating trek through the Goodenough Mine that skyrocketed the town to Southern Arizona fame.

Old Town Cottonwood © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cottonwood

Jerome may be emerging as a mini wine destination but nearby Cottonwood is the capital of Verde Valley’s fast-growing wine scene. Home to Arizona Stronghold Vineyards, colorful and quirky Old Town Cottonwood has established itself as an off-the-beaten-path food and drink destination thanks to places like Merkin Vineyards Tasting Room. Its proximity to the hiking trails of Coconino National Forest offers an added bonus. Here, you can eat and sip wine then walk it off in one of the most gorgeous patches of forest in the US.

Oatman © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Oatman

There is perhaps no better small-town welcoming committee than a group of friendly donkeys. Such is the case in Oatman where visitors will see the wild burros that freely roam the streets. The oldest continuously-inhabited mining settlement in Arizona, the town has stayed (relatively) populated thanks to its desirable location on Route 66—which it pays hearty homage to with a main street full of themed souvenir shops. It’s also notably home to the Oatman Hotel where actor Clark Gable and starlet Carole Lombard are rumored to have stayed after getting hitched in the nearby town of Kingman. 

Sedona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sedona 

While Sedona’s popularity with tourists has been on a steep incline, it still has a relatively small year-round population which clears it for a spot on this list. It’s a must-visit thanks to its stunning red rocks and outdoor activities, a culinary scene that’s blossomed thanks to restaurants like the award-winning Mariposa, and the legendary mystical properties that have earned it a reputation as an energy vortex. And if you’re feeling really daring, you can even slide down the town’s 80-foot long natural water slide at Slide Rock State Park.

Prescott © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Prescott

As Arizona’s original capital, this haven in the pine forests between Phoenix and Flagstaff has more than earned its spot among Arizona’s most captivating towns. While it retains a bit of Western charm like many of the state’s other small towns, it also offers a unique, laid-back atmosphere featuring events like art fairs at the Courthouse Plaza and shows at the historic Elks Theatre. It’s also the perfect town if you’re in the mood to explore a great beer scene. Hit the ever popular Prescott Brewing Company or The Palace, an iconic saloon that’s been slinging drinks since 1877. Plus, just a few miles away from downtown, visitors can enjoy all kinds of outdoor activities—from fishing to kayaking—at scenic Watson Lake and Lynx Lake.

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

A Hiker’s Paradise: White Tank Mountain Regional Park

A top notch location in the greater Phoenix area for a hike in the desert with thirty miles of trails that range anywhere from as short as a mile to several of them exceeding five miles or more

Nearly 30,000 acres makes White Tank Mountain the largest regional park in Maricopa County. Most of the park is made up of the rugged and beautiful White Tank Mountains on the Valleys west side. The range, deeply serrated with ridges and canyons rises sharply from its base to peak at over 4,000 feet. Infrequent heavy rains cause flash floodwaters to plunge through the canyons and pour onto the plain. These torrential flows pouring down chutes and dropping off ledges have scoured out a series of depressions, or tanks, in the white granite rock below, thus giving the mountains their name.

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

White Tank Mountain History

Eleven archeological sites occupied during the time period A.D. 500-1100 were located within the boundaries of White Tank Mountain Regional Park. All of these sites can be attributed to the Hohokam Indians. The White Tanks were apparently abandoned by the Hohokam about A.D. 1100. There is no further indication of human occupation until the historic period when the Western Yavapai controlled the area.

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

Ruggedness of terrain and scarcity of water restricted the sites to large canyons leading out of the mountains. In these canyons, the sites include seven villages varying from 1 to 75 acres in area, a rock shelter in the face of a steep cliff overlooking the white tanks, and several shard areas. Several of the villages appear to have been occupied for long periods by sizeable populations while the shard areas may represent temporary camps of hunters and gatherers.

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

Most of the sites in the area are concentrated around the White Tanks themselves. The Tanks probably held water the year-round and thereby drew people to the region. Petroglyphs on rocks indicate the Indians were more than transients. Pottery shards along the Agua Fria and Hassayampa signify the presence of villages and the likelihood that an Indian trail connected the streams with the White Tank long before Europeans came into the area. The discovery of possible agricultural terraces or check dams indicates that farming may have been carried on in the various canyons of the White Tank Mountains by utilizing seasonal runoff and rain water.

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

About the Petroglyphs

Ancient Arizonans pecked hundreds of figures and symbols on the rock faces of the White Tank Mountains. Some may approach 10,000 years old. All have withstood sun, rain, and vandals for 700 or 800 years or more.

The Black Rock Trail circles through a Hohokam village site though the pit houses and trash mounds are hidden to all but the trained eye of an archeologist. The largest group of rock-art panels is along the Waterfall Canyon Trail at “Petroglyph Plaza”. Another big group is near the entrance to the box canyon that gives the trail its name.

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

A rock drawing was serious business to its maker. While no one can say precisely what most of them “mean”, we know they had important functions in the lives of their makers. They were not simply stone-age graffiti. The symbols recorded events and marked locations. They were a magical way to control nature so rain would fall or mountain sheep would let themselves be caught. Some served as trail markers and maps. Others represented religious concepts.

Do not try to make “tombstone rubbings” of the petroglyphs. It does not work and you will erode the dark areas making the petroglyph dimmer. Look at and photograph these figures and symbols of history but do not touch the petroglyphs as skin oils can also damage them. 

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

White Tank Mountain Hiking Trails

White Tank Mountain Regional Park offers approximately 30 miles of excellent shared-use trails ranging in length from 0.9 mile to 7.9 miles and difficulty from easy to strenuous. Overnight backpacking with a permit is allowed in established backcountry campsites. Day hikes can provide some breathtaking views of the mountains and panoramas of the Valley below. Horseback and mountain bike riders are welcome although caution is stressed as some of the trails may be extremely difficult.

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

In addition, there are 2.5 miles of pedestrian-only trails. These include two short trails that are hard-surfaced and barrier free. Waterfall Trail is barrier-free for 5/10 of a mile. The handicap accessible portion now ends about 1/10 of a mile past Petroglyph Plaza. The short loop of Black Rock Trail which is about ½ mile long begins at Ramada 4.

All trails are multi-use unless otherwise designated. All trail users are encouraged to practice proper trail etiquette. Always remember to carry plenty of water and let someone know where you are going.​ Heavy sole shoes are a must as well as sunscreen, and a large-brimmed hat (I recommend a Tilley hat).

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

White Tank Mountain Picnic Areas

White Tank Mountain Regional Park offers 240 picnic tables with grills, 80 of which have a small cover. Eleven Group Picnic Sites are available for large groups. These ramadas can be reserved for a fee in four-hour increments. If not marked as reserved, they are available on a first-come, first-served basis.

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

White Tank Mountain Camping

White Tank Mountain Regional Park offers 40 individual sites for RV camping. Most sites have a large parking area to accommodate up to a 45-foot RV and offer water and electrical hook-ups, a picnic table, a barbecue grill, a fire ring, and nearby dump station. All restrooms offer flush toilets and showers. All sites in the campground may be reserved online at maricopacountyparks.org.

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

White Tank Mountain Regional Park

Directions: White Tank Mountain Regional Park is located at the very west end of Olive Ave about 15 miles west of the 101 (Agua Fria Highway).

NORTH: Take Highway 303 south and exit at PEORIA AVE. Turn right from the off-ramp and travel west for 1 mile on Peoria Ave to Cotton Lane. Turn left (south) onto Cotton Lane until you get to Olive Ave. Turn right (west) on Olive Ave and continue 4 miles to the park gate.

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

SOUTH: Take Highway 303 north and exit at NORTHERN AVE. Turn left (west) at the light and off-ramp onto Northern Ave, traveling west for 1 mile to Cotton Lane. Turn right (north) onto Cotton lane and travel 1 mile to Olive Ave. Turn left (west) onto Olive Ave and continue for 4 miles to the park gate.

Admission: $7 per vehicle.

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

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