Take it from a former Phoenix native here: The famous dry heat is a wonderful thing, but it is also something to be dealt with carefully. Rather like a caged tiger. To get the most out of any Phoenix trip, you've got to plan around the heat, especially if you are traveling in the summer months. Technically, the summer months in Phoenix are...well, everything but December. Try to travel at times other than the hottest ones (June, July, and August) if you can, and bring your summer clothes year round! There is so much to enjoy and experience in this wonderful city. Phoenix is huge and sprawling, and it has quite a few smaller cities nearby, like Scottsdale, that are practically a part of the bigger city itself. Here are my picks for a great time in the beautiful Phoenix area.
A trip here has absolutely got to include the Desert Botanical Gardens. It is located inside Papago Park, surrounded by the amazing rocky red buttes. The gardens house a remarkably large range of desert flora and fauna, spread over about 50 acres. Some of the desert plants and flowers will really surprise visitors with their incredible beauty and uniqueness. The gardens offer a whole education on cactus varieties, many of which are quite lovely. Most of times I've been here I have spotted some desert wildlife, especially on early morning visits. Jackrabbits, hummingbirds, and desert tortoises put in frequent appearances, and seem shy but somehow not too frightened of the humans tromping about their home. The Dale Chihuly Glass Sculptures scattered all about the gardens are simply spectacular and add even more unique beauty to this rocky desertscape. The butterfly pavilion is my favorite part: The butterflies flit all around you, sometimes even landing on your arms or head, as they sip nectar from the riots of colorful flowers. There is plenty of seating in the butterfly pavilion, and there are thankfully some misters which help alleviate the worst of the heat. Don't forget to bring a few bottles of water along, and try to visit first thing in the morning or at dusk when the weather will feel nicer and you can spend more time exploring in comfort.
There are several notable museums in the Phoenix area, and you will have a great time at any of them. I always like to recommend that visitors see the museums that are especially evocative of the Phoenix area, and one of the best of these is the Heard Museum. This is the best museum for Native American art in the entire United States, and it is a fascinating art display as well as an education on Native American history. The beautiful clay pots, jewelry, baskets, and art are all really interesting, but the thing that always really intrigues me about this place is the rich history. Each tribe has a story, and the history is heartbreaking and uplifting in turns. The boarding school exhibit on the second floor is especially touching and interesting, as it tells the story of the Native American children who were taken from their families and sent to boarding schools to be "Americanized". This is easily a several hours long trip, and if you make lunch at the excellent little Arcadia Gardens cafe part of the day you could easily spend the day here. Another one of my favorite Phoenix museums is the Arizona Mining & Mineral Museum. This is such a fun place! The displays are all gem and mineral related, and I guarantee that anybody from kids to adults will have a blast here. The florescent rock display is especially fun, as is the "dinner table". Every single thing on this table display, food to plates, is made from rocks and minerals. At the end of the trip you even get to pick a couple of rocks out of a giant wheelbarrow to take home with you. This is also one of the best low-cost fun deals in Phoenix: Just two bucks admission, and kids get in free.
Camelback mountain is my favorite place in the whole area. This is the highest mountain in Phoenix, and it is located right in the middle of the city. I love this place because you can be in the middle of one of the busiest cities in the U.S. one moment, and then following an adventurous hike, you are in a place of absolute serenity and views beyond compare. This is a hike best undertaken by those who are in reasonable physical shape (not the best choice for the elderly or kids under about 8 or so). It takes at least an hour to hike to the top, but you can take it as slow as you like. It usually takes me under two hours, up and down, and that is with stopping for plenty of photos and scenery watching. You'll find plateaus to rest along the way, and handrails that can help your progression. Almost anyone can make it to the first plateau, where the sunrise and sunset views are just beautiful. However, at the top you'll get views...well, there really are not words. You'll see Papago Park, much of Phoenix, and the city of Scottsdale laid out before you in a stunning vista. Of course this is a hike best done very early or very late: The sun is just too much to contend with hiking Camelback in mid-day. Remember water and some type of high energy snacks, but most of all you'll want your camera.
Phoenix residents are justifiably proud of this amazing city. Visitors here will find that there is so much more than just desert and cactus here. If you visit once, you will most definitely want to return.
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