From hiking and mountain biking to hot air balloon rides and rafting trips, here are the most-thrilling ways to get outside in the Greater 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 (which only grow wild in the Sonoran Desert), take guided horseback rides on tribal land, and kayak on scenic lakes, all just minutes from the city.
Best of all, the area promises ideal weather, no matter when you visit. Fall and winter offer pleasant temperatures, while spring brings a burst of colorful wildflowers. And in the summer months, travelers can easily cool off with water activities at Lake Pleasant Regional Park or the Lower Salt River. If you base your stay at the JW Marriott Desert Ridge Resort & Spa, you can golf the two championship courses (one of them designed by Arnold Palmer), play tennis, walk through the botanical garden, rent a bike, savor farm-to-table dining—and top it off with a dip in one of the property’s five pools.
Whether you want to explore by land, air, or water, there’s an adventure waiting for you in this stunning desert landscape. Read on for the most thrilling ways to experience the Greater Phoenix area and spend some quality time in the great outdoors.
Take a (awe-inspiring) hike
Gain a new perspective on the city via hikes like the Mormon Trail in South Mountain Park and Preserve.
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 Dragonfly Trail in the Spur Cross Ranch Conservation Area. There’s also the Blevins Trail in Usery Mountain Regional Park, where you can see quintessential Sonoran Desert scenery, like cacti, ocotillos and the banded ridgeline of nearby Pass Mountain; or the half-mile hike in Papago Park, to the popular Hole-in-the-Rock viewpoint, offers city vistas.
Article continues below advertisement
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); 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; or the Dixie Mountain Loop in the Sonoran Preserve, which ends in a lush riparian area with creek-side cottonwood and willow trees.
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.
Explore by mountain bike
Mountain biking in places including the McDowell Mountains makes for an exhilaratingly active way to see the desert scenery.
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.
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 through the desert offer a sensationally memorable way to see 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.
Go off-road with an ATV tour
You’ll learn about the area’s past—plus see plenty of action—on an ATV tour with Arizona Outdoor Fun.
Article continues below advertisement
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 instead with Desert Wolf Tours, which covers thousands of acres of Sonoran Desert wilderness to teach cowboy history while soaking up the scenery. And if you’d rather ride with a friend, opt for Desert Dog Offroad Adventures, which leads excursions in custom-built, two-seat ATV sand buggies through rock gardens, sandy washes, deep canyons, and technical two track and water crossings. Whichever you choose, you’ll get to cover more ground than on a hike or bike ride—all without breaking a sweat.
Take to the sky with a hot air balloon ride
With the most flyable days per year in the country, Phoenix is home to Hot Air Expeditions among other hot air balloon outfitters.
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.
Log some water time by kayaking or rafting
Arizona’s Upper Salt River features some of the best, most heart-pounding rapids in the West.
Considered the wettest desert in the world, the Sonoran Desert is home to a wide range of water recreation. 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 particularly exciting 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. 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.
Article continues below advertisement
Along the banks of Tempe Town Lake, you’ll find a 25-acre beach park, which features a splash playground for kids, hiking and biking paths, volleyball courts, and, of course, water activities like boating. You can rent equipment on site or hit Riverbound Sports in town for a larger selection of paddleboards and kayaks. About 45 minutes from 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.