YOU’D HAVE THOUGHT Phoenix might have grown up by now. It is, after all, the sixth-largest city in the U.S., a sprawling economic powerhouse. The population stands now at about 1.5 million, up from 100,000 in 1950. Yet this exuberant expanse of a suburb has at least three distinct “downtowns” and loses three residents for every five people who move in. Although a gawky adolescent in many ways, there’s still something liberating about the place. You can be anyone in Phoenix—or no one at all. Perhaps that’s why it keeps drawing immigrants and real-estate agents and people with dreams—anyone with a need to reinvent himself.
Author Peter Aleshire Photography Dave Lauridsen
DAY THREE / This is terrible. Day three already, but you prepare to make the most of it by starting early with breakfast at Wright’s at the Biltmore. Then, you head out for something distinctively
Western: a trail ride in the nation’s largest municipally owned park. For more than 20 years, Ponderosa Stables and South Mountain Stables have rented horses for trotting along 40 miles of trails in the 18,500-acre South Mountain Park, which dominates the city’s southern horizon. (Note that the stables shut down in May and anytime temperatures hit 100.)
The stables provide rides by the hour, so, after a quick jaunt, you’re off to Papago Park and the Desert Botanical Garden, with 50 acres of outdoor exhibits and one of the world’s premier collections of desert plants. That includes 139 rare and endangered plant species, which help draw 300,000 visitors annually. Follow meandering trails that showcase desert plants, among them the distinctive saguaro, whose flowers lure bats and doves and whose accordion pleats can expand to store tons of water to carry it through years of drought.
Just down the road, visit the privately owned Phoenix Zoo. Sprawled out over 125 acres, the zoo is home to 1,200 animals, many representing endangered and threatened species. It has also played a role in conservation efforts, with breeding programs for endangered Mexican gray wolves and thick-billed parrots. Check out the exhibits that showcase desert species.
Overlooking the zoo stands Hunt’s Tomb, the odd pyramidal resting place of Arizona’s first governor, George Wiley Paul Hunt. A populist opportunist, Hunt served seven terms. During one stint out of power, he was ambassador to Siam, whence he wrote thousands of postcards to constituents to secure his re-election in 1922. His tomb now provides a view of the city that has grown beyond even his fevered dreams. Hang around for sunset, accompanied by the roar of the lions in the zoo below.
Time to eat. Head to downtown Tempe for a wonderful, reasonably priced steak dinner at the historic Monti’s la Casa Vieja on Mill Avenue. The restaurant’s whose thick adobe walls were laid down by Tempe founder Charles Trumbull Hayden in 1871. Today, it’s famous for steaks, ribs, baskets of rosemary-scented Roman bread, and intermittent ghost sightings.
For nightlife, Mill Avenue offers an array of clubs, bars, and coffeehouses springing from its location just down the street from 50,000-student Arizona State University. However, consider instead a drive to downtown Phoenix and Char’s Has the Blues, consistently rated the best blues bar in town. The live bands are top-quality, and the action on the small dance floor is constant.
That’s it. Three days. You’ve experienced the best that Phoenix has to offer, and though you’re not out of city—and certainly not out of day trips—you’re simply out of time. But who really has time anymore? Certainly not Phoenix, in a hurry to become, well, whatever.
Peter Aleshire is a former editor of Arizona Highways magazine and the author of 12 books, several about traveling the Southwest and four about the Apache Wars.
Phoenix residents are smug about their weather in October, and it does rate an A-plus. The chance of sun during the month is 88 percent, and high temperatures plummet from the mid-90s to the lower 80s by Halloween. Through April, the place is paradise; then comes May, when temperatures rise into the 90s and sometimes the 100s, followed by rainless June, the hottest month of the year, when temperatures can easily top 115. July and August remain hot, with the mitigation of the summer monsoon season. But in elevated Sedona, summer highs remain in the 80s and 90s, with wonderful evenings.
Weather information is provided by The Weather Channel. For more Phoenix climatological details, visit weather.com.
Although Phoenix has started construction on a bare-bones public-transit system, you really need a car to get around. The things worth seeing are scattered across the valley, so a taxi cab is impractical. It’s best to rent a car, and if you’re going to Sedona, consider a vehicle with high clearance, such as an SUV.
A Arizona Science Center (azscience.org) Excellent interactive exhibits
B Golfland Sunsplash Water Park (mesa.golfland.com) Waterslides, miniature golf, and other games
C Lost Dutchman State Park (pr.state.az.us; click on “state parks” and “list”) Rich in superstition, dotted with cliff dwellings and caves
D Mesa Southwest Museum (cityofmesa.org/swmuseum) A natural-history museum with dinosaur exhibits, gold panning, and a native village
E Mystery Castle (Tel: 602-268-1581) A fascinating house built from auto parts and other salvaged materials
F Phoenix Art Museum (phxart.org) A hands-on children’s section