Soaking Up the Sun: A Phoenix Local’s Guide to the Valley of the Sun
Soaking Up the Sun: A Phoenix Local's Guide to the Valley of the Sun - Explore the Desert Botanical Garden's Cactus Collection
With over 50,000 plants spread across 55 acres, the Desert Botanical Garden is a true oasis in the middle of the Sonoran Desert. This living museum is home to one of the world's finest collections of arid-region plants, displaying cacti and succulents from around the globe.
While the garden has plenty of unique flora to offer, the undeniable stars of the show are the towering saguaro cacti. These giant cacti only grow in the Sonoran Desert, with the largest concentration right here in Arizona. Nowhere else on Earth will you find as many mature saguaro specimens in one place. Walking among these towering green giants feels akin to visiting the redwood forests in California. Except here, the trees have no leaves and are covered in wicked spikes!
In addition to the abundant saguaros, the Desert Botanical Garden has a dizzying diversity of other cacti and succulents. There are cute little barrel cacti, bright yellow prickly pears, towering cereus that resemble green candles, and of course plenty of cholla that seem to jump out and grab you when you walk by. The garden curates their cactus collection by continent, with sections for North American deserts, South American deserts, African deserts, and more. This allows you to see how cacti have adapted to thrive in deserts around the world.
Many visitors say the garden’s Australian desert section is a highlight, home to a “forest” of bizarre Dr. Seuss-esque boojum trees. These spiky succulents look like something out of a sci-fi movie. There’s also a lush tropical greenhouse filled with cacti and succulents from tropical regions, which is a nice retreat from the Arizona heat.
Beyond botanical variety, what makes the Desert Botanical Garden special are the mature cacti specimens. Some of the saguaros are over 75 feet tall and estimated to be 150-200 years old! Cacti grow slowly, so the large size of many of the plants here is a testament to the gardens age and excellent care.
Visitors consistently rave about the sheer beauty of walking through the gardens, surrounded by the unique shapes and textures of so many different cacti. Here’s what one recent visitor wrote: “I was absolutely awestruck by the size and variety of cactus at this garden. We were there at peak bloom and the colors were unreal. So many unique plants that I've never seen elsewhere. I learned more about cacti in my 2 hour visit than I have in my whole life!”
While the living cactus collection itself is the main attraction, visitors also appreciate the small museum with exhibits on the evolution and ecology of desert plants. The garden also frequently hosts art exhibitions featuring cactus-inspired works. And several times per week, expert garden guides give free tours focusing on the origins and features of different cacti.
What else is in this post?
- Soaking Up the Sun: A Phoenix Local's Guide to the Valley of the Sun - Explore the Desert Botanical Garden's Cactus Collection
- Soaking Up the Sun: A Phoenix Local's Guide to the Valley of the Sun - Hike Camelback Mountain for Incredible Views
- Soaking Up the Sun: A Phoenix Local's Guide to the Valley of the Sun - See the Taliesin West's Stunning Desert Architecture
- Soaking Up the Sun: A Phoenix Local's Guide to the Valley of the Sun - Eat Your Way Through Downtown Phoenix's Food Scene
- Soaking Up the Sun: A Phoenix Local's Guide to the Valley of the Sun - Escape the Heat at Big Surf Waterpark
- Soaking Up the Sun: A Phoenix Local's Guide to the Valley of the Sun - Take in Sunset at Hole in the Rock in Papago Park
- Soaking Up the Sun: A Phoenix Local's Guide to the Valley of the Sun - Go For a Dip at Tempe Town Lake
- Soaking Up the Sun: A Phoenix Local's Guide to the Valley of the Sun - Don't Miss the Musical Instrument Museum's Global Collection
Soaking Up the Sun: A Phoenix Local's Guide to the Valley of the Sun - Hike Camelback Mountain for Incredible Views
Towering above Phoenix like a desert sentinel, Camelback Mountain offers some of the most spectacular views in the Valley of the Sun. This iconic summit is reminiscent of a camel lying down, and has become the most hiked mountain in the entire state of Arizona. Outdoor enthusiasts flock to Camelback for a challenging yet rewarding hike to the top.
There are two main trails that wind 1,200 feet up the mountain to the summit, Echo Canyon and Cholla. Both provide a fun workout and incredible 360-degree panoramas at the top, but many hikers prefer the Echo Canyon trail. This steeper and more direct route gives you the best mountainscape views as you climb upwards. Don't let the initial staircase intimidate you, just take your time and enjoy the scenery as you ascend. The payoff at the top is absolutely worth it.
Once you conquer the summit, you'll enjoy breathtaking views in every direction. To the east sits downtown Phoenix, with its modern skyscrapers glittering against the rugged desert backdrop. Look south to see Tempe Town Lake shimmering below, surrounded by green parks and bike paths. West across Phoenix property sprawls endlessly into the distance, while just north sits Piestewa Peak, Phoenix’s second-highest point.
On clear days you can see 100 miles in any direction, from the Four Peaks wilderness to the skylines of downtown Scottsdale and downtown Mesa. Sunrises and sunsets here are especially stunning, with soft pink and purple hues painting the desert landscape. Even on cloudy days when greater Phoenix disappears from view, you’ll find the panoramic views of cactus-dotted Sonoran Desert wilderness equally impressive.
Reaching the Camelback summit is a badge of honor for Phoenix hikers, with tens of thousands making the trek each year. Here's what one happy hiker wrote about their experience: "The Echo Canyon trail was tough but so worth it! I've lived in Phoenix for years but never hiked Camelback until now - the views blew me away. I felt on top of the world after conquering this iconic summit. Can't wait to come back!"
Soaking Up the Sun: A Phoenix Local's Guide to the Valley of the Sun - See the Taliesin West's Stunning Desert Architecture
Nestled at the foot of the McDowell Mountains lies Frank Lloyd Wright's winter home and school, Taliesin West. This National Historic Landmark offers a window into Wright’s brilliant mind, showcasing stunning desert architecture that seamlessly blends into the Sonoran landscape.
Wright originally established Taliesin West in 1937 as a winter annex to his Wisconsin home, Taliesin. However, he quickly fell in love with the beauty of the desert and decided to make Taliesin West his permanent residence. Here Wright and his apprentices would create and test new architectural ideas, developing the iconic desert masonry style that Taliesin West embodies.
This one-of-a-kind complex utilizes local materials like desert rocks and sand in its construction. The structures incorporate expansive terraces, breezeways, and floor-to-ceiling windows that perfectly frame the surrounding McDowell Mountains. The horizontal lines and natural textures beautifully complement the desert environment.
Inside, Wright’s personal influence shines through in the custom furniture, handwoven textiles, and carefully curated artifacts. The living quarters, drafting studio, and cabaret theater reveal how Wright intertwined art, architecture, and nature in his quest to create democratic spaces.
Seeing Taliesin West in person allows you to experience Wright’s genius three-dimensionally. As one recent visitor described, “Wandering through Taliesin West gave me a whole new appreciation for Frank Lloyd Wright's talent. The harmony between the low horizontal buildings and the desert is incredible. Every view perfectly frames the mountains beyond. Truly an architectural masterpiece!”
The one-hour Insights Tour provides an in-depth look into Wright’s ideology behind Taliesin West's design. Guides share stories that reveal how deeply connected Wright was to the desert landscape. The tour highlights signature elements like the garden room and prow, the clerestory windows in the drafting studio, and Wright’s living quarters.
For a more immersive experience, opt for the two-hour Insights Tour plus a Desert Shelter Walking Tour. The walking tour ventures outdoors into Wright’s “desert camp,” showcasing structures like the one-bedroom desert shelter. This backstage look illuminates how Wright embraced simplistic living and nature’s beauty. As one guest raved, “Every detail large and small embodies Wright’s spirit. This was an architectural wonderland for any Wright fan!”
From March through June, Taliesin West also offers behind-the-scenes Signature Tours that provide rare access to Wright’s private office and bedroom. Witnessing these intimate spaces, untouched since Wright’s death, is a special treat for architecture buffs. As a Signature Tour attendee effused, “Walking through Wright’s dwelling gave me chills and made his brilliance so tangible.”
Soaking Up the Sun: A Phoenix Local's Guide to the Valley of the Sun - Eat Your Way Through Downtown Phoenix's Food Scene
Downtown Phoenix is experiencing a culinary renaissance, with inventive chefs putting a Southwestern spin on diverse global cuisines. From mom-and-pop eateries to James Beard-nominated fine dining, downtown offers an eclectic mix of can’t-miss restaurants. Foodies should plan to spend at least a few days exploring downtown’s dynamic dining scene.
For breakfast and brunch, Matt’s Big Breakfast has earned a fiercely loyal local following for its creative comfort food made with quality ingredients. Their rockstar dish is the "hog and chick" - sunny-side up eggs perched atop a fluffy pancake. Everything here from the potatoes to the maple chicken sausage is scrumptious. Or check out the original Location on 1st and McKinley for a more intimate vibe.
Lunchtime means a pilgrimage to Barrio Café for mouthwatering ceviche, tender carne asada, and fresh-made tortillas. Chef Silvana Salcido Esparza sources Sonoran ingredients to craft inventive takes on classic Mexican fare. Try the unique Taco Flight, a sampler of four tacos like quail with black truffle huitlacoche. Silvana's scratch-made tortillas are heavenly.
For dinner downtown, you can't go wrong with The Arrogant Butcher or Nobuo at Teeter House. The Butcher impresses with wood-fired cooking techniques applied to the finest Arizona proteins and produce. Order the bone-in filet mignon then thank me later. Nobuo Fukuda melds Japanese and American flavors using seasonal Arizona ingredients. His 10-course omakase tasting menu is unparalleled.
If late-night munchies strike, head straight to Welcome Diner. Their retro 24-hour diner slings gut-busting burgers, milkshakes, and breakfast plates till 3 a.m. on weekends. The corned beef hash and biscuits with country gravy totally hit the spot after a night out.
Food trucks are also an essential part of Phoenix's culinary scene. Find dozens of trucks dishing out everything from Sonoran dogs to Brazilian churrasco every First Friday evening when downtown hosts a giant block party. The Apricot Crumble food truck serves phenomenal apricot chicken salad sandwiches - don't miss it!
Of course, no visit to Phoenix is complete without sampling two quintessential local treats - the chimichanga and the Sonoran hot dog. Try Macayo's famous chimichanga, essentially a deep-fried burrito, then head to Nogales Hot Dogs in the warehouse district for outrageous bacon-wrapped, pinto bean-smothered Sonoran dogs.
Phoenix's downtown dining renaissance shows no signs of slowing down. In just the last few years, over a dozen new restaurants have opened including Otro Cafe's beautiful plant-focused eatery and Mora Italian's trattoria. The downtown Phoenix website keeps an updated list of the latest openings so visitors can stay on top of new dining hotspots.
Based on all the recent rave reviews, now is the perfect time to eat your way through downtown Phoenix. As one delighted diner reported after a weekend of nonstop eating, "Downtown Phoenix has become a legit foodie destination almost overnight! Every meal I had was mindblowing. Can't wait to return and try the other hundred places on my list!"
Soaking Up the Sun: A Phoenix Local's Guide to the Valley of the Sun - Escape the Heat at Big Surf Waterpark
When the triple-digit temperatures arrive in Phoenix each summer, locals know there’s one place to find sweet relief from the oppressive heat - Big Surf Waterpark. This beloved oasis in Tempe provides families with loads of aquatic fun from Memorial Day through Labor Day annually.
Big Surf’s claim to fame is the massive 1.5 million gallon wave pool, capable of generating up to six-foot tall waves every few minutes. When that klaxon horn blares signaling another cycle of waves, kids and adults alike come running to body surf and ride the crashing surf. The power and size of these manmade waves is impressive, almost like swimming in the ocean. Surfers can ride the waves for hours without getting bored.
Thrill-seekers also flock to Big Surf’s beloved slides, like the steep Freefall Speed Slides that send riders careening down 70-foot high chutes in a matter of seconds. These nearly vertical slides provide a big adrenaline rush. The long open Aqua Rush slides are also great for racers who want to see who can achieve the fastest speed.
For junior wave riders, the shallow Little Surf Beach wave pool provides smaller swells for kids under 48 inches tall. This mini surf zone allows little ones to get comfortable with gentle waves while still enjoying refreshing splashes. Parents can relax knowing their young kids are having fun safely here.
In between catching waves, sliders can take a more leisurely dip in the Lost River Delta lazy river. Many reviewers say floating in an inner tube along the tropical-themed river is their favorite Big Surf activity on hot days. The lush landscaping, cascading waterfalls, and flowing current make the Lazy River feel like a Costa Rican jungle.
After working up an appetite in the water, families can grab tasty treats at one of Big Surf’s several snack bars. Refuel with pizza, corn dogs, soft pretzels, and ice cream sundaes near the wave pool and slides. Many visitors say the food prices are very reasonable for an amusement park.
What really makes Big Surf stand out are all the bonus amenities like a FlowRider surf simulator, 18-hole mini golf course, go karts, batting cages, and video arcade. With so many activities included beyond standard water slides, guests never run out of things to do during a long summer day. As one TripAdvisor reviewer commented, “You could easily spend 6-8 hours here and not get bored! So much fun for families or teenagers.”
When the Arizona temps turn brutal, Big Surf is the perfect place for Phoenix residents to cool down in the comfort of 3-foot deep wave pools. As one happy customer reported, “Nothing beats escaping 110-degree heat by playing in the crashing waves and racing down waterslides all day long! We had a blast and left with smiles despite being exhausted."
Soaking Up the Sun: A Phoenix Local's Guide to the Valley of the Sun - Take in Sunset at Hole in the Rock in Papago Park
One of the best ways to wrap up a day exploring the Sonoran Desert is watching the sun dip below the horizon from Hole in the Rock in Papago Park. This red sandstone outcropping offers panoramic views east across Tempe and Scottsdale, making it one of the most popular spots in Phoenix for sunset photos.
Hole in the Rock is located inside Papago Park, which covers more than 1,500 acres of desert landscape at the foot of the Phoenix Mountains Preserve. The park contains a mix of walking paths, rolling hills dotted with saguaro cacti, and sandstone rock formations that reveal the geologic history of the Valley.
While the entire park is scenic, most visitors make a beeline for Hole in the Rock to catch the Technicolor sunsets. The hike is short but steep, less than a quarter-mile up rocky switchbacks to reach the natural sandstone opening. While you can drive almost to the base, hiking the short trail at sunset adds to the experience.
As you climb upwards, the views expand in every direction across Papago's cactus gardens. Once at the rock's narrow summit, you can walk completely through the hole and onto the ledges on the far side. Here unobstructed panoramas open up, so have your cameras ready.
In the hours before sunset, the atmosphere is relaxed with photographers and families settling in to wait for the show. As sunset nears, the crowds grow in anticipation. When the sun dips closer to the horizon, brilliant reds, oranges, pinks, purples and blues start flooding the sky. Visitors “ooh” and “ahh” as the colors intensify.
The sunsets consistently impress, but many say the views looking back at the Phoenix skyline as the city lights begin twinkling are equally incredible. Night falls fast once the sun disappears over the horizon.
Despite the crowds, visitors rave about the Hole in the Rock sunset experience. As one Tripadvisor user shared, “Watching the sunset from Papago Park was the highlight of our trip to Phoenix! The views blew me away - 360 degrees of sheer beauty. Ten outta ten sunsets here!”
Another reviewer gushed "I don't think I've ever seen such vibrant sunset colors before. We got there early to claim the perfect rocky perch and stayed until dusk fell across the valley. Absolutely magical!”
Beyond Hole in the Rock, there’s much more to see across Papago’s desert parkland. Follow hiking trails past a fish pond up to the Old Zoo, the small abandoned zoo built in the 1930s. Or walk over to a reproduction of an ancient Hohokam village to get a window into indigenous life centuries ago. There’s also a decent Frisbee golf course, picnic ramadas, and a military tank museum.
Soaking Up the Sun: A Phoenix Local's Guide to the Valley of the Sun - Go For a Dip at Tempe Town Lake
Nestled in the heart of Tempe, Town Lake offers desert dwellers a refreshing oasis to beat the heat. This two-mile long human-made lake provides ample opportunities for swimming, stand up paddleboarding, kayaking, and other aquatic fun right in the center of the city.
Town Lake fills a section of the dry Salt River bed, impounded by inflatable dams at both ends to maintain water levels year-round. Tempe carefully engineered the lake ecosystem in 1999 to support wildlife while still allowing people to recreate on and along the water. And locals have certainly embraced the chance to get out on the urban lake.
On sweltering summer days when temperatures exceed 110 degrees, Town Lake sees thousands flock to its shoreline paths, parks and beaches. Visitors dip their toes into the cool water, launch kayaks and paddleboards, or go for a swim along designated swimming areas. Tempe Beach Park on the north shore even provides a “swim playscape” with climbing walls, obstacles, bubbles, and geysers in the water. Kids can spend hours playing and splashing here.
Avid swimmers particularly enjoy the chance to swim laps across the lake’s 1-mile span between the pedestrian bridges, or simply go for an open water swim along the perimeter. The lake temperature hovers in the 80s during summer, making it pleasant for swimming yet still refreshing. Lifeguards keep a close eye from guard stands and boats along the shoreline for safety.
The dedicated Elmore Pedestrian Bridge crossing the lake’s midsection makes it easy for swimmers to go back and forth across the water. Or use it to access the small island in the lake’s center that serves as a fun mid-swim rest stop. Locals love challenging themselves to swim the entire lake loop.
Beyond swimming, Town Lake encourages residents to experience the water via kayaking, stand up paddleboarding, or pedal boating. Multiple locations like Tempe Beach and Boat Rentals offer hourly rentals of all sorts of boats, paddleboards and kayaks for beginner to advanced paddlers. Take an easy pedal along the shoreline admiring desert views, or paddle out to the center of the lake for serene exploring. Gliding across the water provides a unique vantage point of the Tempe skyline.
At night, the scene on Town Lake transforms into one of the city’s hottest spots for drinks with a view. Locals head to lakefront bars and restaurants like Tempe Tavern and The Dhaba for sunset happy hours on the patio. Order a cocktail and watch the sky glow pink over the water as the lights of downtown Tempe slowly flicker on. It feels worlds away from the big city hustle and bustle.
Eventually the nightlife ramps up with lake cruise boats, stand up paddleboarders lit up with glow sticks, and lakeside concerts rocking late into the evening. The energy is electric, especially on weekends and for special events like the 4th of July when fireworks reflect off the lake. Visitors consistently rave about the fun, vibrant ambiance Tempe Town Lake offers day or night.
As one Tripadvisor reviewer exclaimed after a long day spent kayaking and swimming, “I can't believe this oasis exists right in the heart of Tempe! Town Lake brought out my inner waterbug. We had so much fun paddling, swimming, and checking out the downtown views across the waterfront. The lake scene totally refreshed us.”
Another visitor who came to Tempe Town Lake to escape the dry Arizona heat wrote, “Jumping into the lake's cool waters with the desert sun blazing down felt like instant bliss. We swam for hours, then caught a stunning orange sunset over the water at Tempe Tavern - perfection!”
Soaking Up the Sun: A Phoenix Local's Guide to the Valley of the Sun - Don't Miss the Musical Instrument Museum's Global Collection
Music connects humanity worldwide through a shared emotional language that transcends cultures. At the globally-renowned Musical Instrument Museum (MIM), Phoenix visitors can embark on a fascinating global musical journey to experience instruments from every country on Earth.
MIM’s permanent exhibit features over 6,800 musical instruments and objects in beautifully curated geographical galleries that showcase musical traditions from Africa, Asia, Europe, the Americas, and more. You’ll see everything from delicate Chinese zithers to giant Balinese gamelan gongs to flashy Liberian masquerade costumes.
While museums typically prohibit touching artifacts, MIM cleverly provides replicas of many instruments that guests can pick up and play. Families delight in twisting the pegs of a sitar, plucking an Ethiopian krar’s strings, or tapping rhythms on a Brazilian pandeiro. This interactive element allows you to appreciate instruments’ craftsmanship and sound up close.
What makes MIM’s global collection particularly exceptional are the on-site recordings performed by native musicians. Instead of just reading about how a Vietnamese dan tranh zither sounds, you can listen to it being played authentically. MIM even integrates video clips so you can watch the instruments being played skillfully in regional folk ensembles.
Beyond sheer breadth, what wows visitors about MIM’s global galleries is gaining new perspectives about world cultures through music. As one Tripadvisor user shared: “Seeing how music is profoundly woven into daily life worldwide was eye-opening. I loved seeing instruments like sitars that symbolize spiritual devotion in India, or mbira thumb pianos used in African healing rituals.”
Another reviewer echoed: “I had no idea every culture relied so heavily on musical storytelling to pass on history and values. MIM’s exhibits gave me a deeper appreciation for music’s role connecting our shared humanity.”
To further explore global music, visitors rave about the museum’s special exhibits highlighting genres like jazz or artists like the Beatles. Recent special exhibits dove deep into traditions like Mariachi music and the Banjo’s African roots. Check MIM’s calendar for the latest topical exhibits.
Daily live music performances also allow guests to experience instruments played firsthand. The MIM Music Theater hosts gifted musicians from around the world who demonstrate their region’s instruments and musical forms. Visitors consistently rank these live global music jams as the best part of the museum.