Float down the Lower Salt River in an inner tube. You’ll get gorgeous views of the Tonto National Forest, northeast of Mesa, with its cliffs, mountains and desert. Go early in the morning to catch grazing cattle, wild horses and herons. Later, the river takes on a festive ambiance. Best way to go is to take advantage of the rental tubes and shuttle service provided by Salt River Recreation.
Hike South Mountain Park. At more than 16,000 acres, the sprawling desert preserve is considered the largest municipal park in the nation. Choose from 51 miles of multi-use trails, ranging from the 14.3-mile-long National Trail that winds along the mountain’s spine to the easy two-mile Bajada Trail. To learn more about the desert, stop by the park’s environmental education center.
Go clubbing. Metro Phoenix boasts some 200 golf courses, including municipal, public, resort and private courses. Some are nine holes in a city park, while others are spectacularly challenging, in settings where you’re teeing off from atop a cliff. You’ll also find courses designed by the big guns: Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Robert Trent Jones.
Make like a cowboy by checking into one of Wickenburg’s classic guest ranches, where you can saddle up for a day-long ride or just amble along a wash for an hour or two. The guest ranches range from old adobe compounds to upscale retreats with a spa. Look for programs that include cowboy poetry readings, roping lessons, skeet shooting and birding.
Attend some of Scottsdale’s signature winter events. Daydream or buy stellar collector cars at the Barrett-Jackson Auction Company. Admire the pageantry of the Scottsdale Arabian Horse Show.
Drive the hair-raising twists and turns of the Apache Trail. The 41.5-mile long Scenic Byway winds past the Lost Dutchman State Park in Apache Junction, then hugs the lakes of the Salt River, including Canyon, Apache and Roosevelt lakes. Along the way, check out Roosevelt Dam and the ancient Salado ruins at Tonto National Monument.
Go for a boat ride in the desert. Northeast of Apache Junction, the Dolly Steamboat takes you through the back channels of Canyon Lake, surrounded by russet cliffs and saguaro cactus. Keep your eyes peeled for bighorn sheep, eagles, vultures and deer that inhabit the rocky shores, and listen as the captain reels out tales of the surrounding Superstition Mountains.
Ponder the engineering know-how of the ancient Hohokam people at Casa Grande Ruins National Monument in Coolidge. Scientists still don’t know the exact reason the four-story, 11-room mud structure was built, but its fun to think about the possibilities – a watchtower, perhaps, or an astronomical observatory. Save time to see the museum inside the visitors’ center.
Let your inner photographer loose with a tour of central Arizona’s best known architectural landmark, Taliesin West, in Scottsdale. Frank Lloyd Wright’s architectural community dates back to 1937 and is lush with photogenic rock walls and cantilevered rooflines that blend seamlessly into the desert setting.
Think about the power of water in the desert as you gaze at the world’s tallest fountain in Fountain Hills. The 560-foot-tall geyser sprays forth for 15 minutes at the top of the hour during daylight hours. While you’re waiting for the show, picnic, stroll, try your wrist at disc golf or turn the kids loose in the playground at the pleasant, grassy park surrounding the lake.