Scottsdale, AZ Getaway: The Desert Is Calling

Whether you’re flying in a hot-air balloon or dining alfresco, in Scottsdale, Arizona, time spent in the desert is a must.



The Superstition Mountains, just east of Scottsdale, are beautiful any time of day, but particularly at sunset

Megan Padilla

Orlando and Scottsdale are both known for their idyllic winter weather. But if you’re looking for a complete change of scenery, Scottsdale has one thing Orlando doesn’t: the desert. The upscale destination on the outskirts of Phoenix is known for golf, wellness, shopping, dining, art and architecture, but it’s the rejuvenating power of the desert that can send you home with longer-lasting feel-goods than even the best massage.

The Sonoran Desert in which Scottsdale is situated is the lushest on the planet—surprisingly green and dense with life. The basin-and-range topography that defines the Valley of the Sun features dramatic stone outcrops that were birthed during a long-ago volcanic period. The best way to appreciate the terrain is up close.


Arizona Outback Adventures provides all the gear you’ll need (even children’s bikes) for two-wheel exploring. (COURTESY OF EXPERIENCE SCOTTSDALE)

Start your visit with a hike or mountain bike ride with Arizona Outback Adventures (aoa-adventures.com and click on “tours” for options). Guides supply everything you’ll need (except a camera), as well as a solid introduction to the desert, its geography, history and inhabitants. Morning hikes allow you to beat the heat and observe the rugged landscape bathed in the golden light of the rising sun.

The well-groomed trails at McDowell Sonoran Preserve accommodate both hikers and bikers. Those on foot can take a path that follows the curves of the land. Along the way, it’s not unusual to catch sight of a Gila woodpecker darting in and out of the home it’s built inside a saguaro cactus. Weekend warriors might choose the heart-pounding climb to the summit of Brown’s Mountain for a hawk’s-eye view of the desert valley below.

Another, less strenuous, way to see the desert expanse is via hot-air balloon. Flights are weather-dependent, but with 330 sunny days a year and few of them impacted by storms and high winds, Arizona offers bucket-list seekers a (nearly) sure thing. Hot Air Expeditions is a family owned company that has been flying for some 27 years. It’s almost as thrilling to watch the crew fill the colorful balloon with fiery-hot air from an open flame as it is to lift off untethered and gently float up, up and away. From your effortless perch in a wicker basket, you’ll see wide-open desert and maybe some wildlife such as quail, jackrabbits or even a javelina (also called a skunk pig). Morning flights land for an alfresco breakfast served with a glass of bubbly—an homage to the first manned hot-air balloon flight in France in 1783. (Flights start at $179 per person; hotairexpeditions.com).

Perhaps the most visceral way to experience the desert is on horseback. In the hands of an experienced guide from Fort McDowell Adventures’ ranch on the Yavapai Reservation, a trail ride becomes an immersive dive into a surprising array of desert landscapes (fortmcdowelladventures.com, starting at $65 per person). You’ll clip-clop past saguaros that tower overhead with prickly, far-reaching “arms,” impressive considering it takes this giant cactus 10 years to establish its first inch. As horses brush up against creosote bushes, the air is scented with oils that smell of camphor, citrus and pine. Then the trail drops down to a river crossing, where the adventure really begins.

The Verde River is wider and faster than you might expect and deep enough to cool the horses’ bellies as they gingerly navigate the rocky bottom. The horses climb the steep riverbank, where salt cedars, lofty cottonwoods and sycamores form a new ecosystem. You might see a mated pair of bald eagles perched in a tree, or wild horses darting through mesquite groves like phantoms. On the ride back to the ranch, at the top of a short, steep path, are two rocks imprinted with petroglyphs believed to be 800 years old.


It’s worth waking up before sunrise to experience the peaceful sensation of flying in a hot-air balloon over the expansive desert landscape. (MEGAN PADILLA)

Dining in the desert, beyond cell phone towers and city lights, is the best way to wrap up your adventure. That is, if you can get a ticket to the communal table of a Cloth and Flame pop-up dinner (all-inclusive $135 per person, clothandflame.com). A van whisks you out of Scottsdale and heads deep into the desert, bouncing down a dirt road as it picks its way around potholes.

Once you’ve arrived, a blood-orange Paloma (a tequila-based cocktail) is offered. It’s a salubrious beginning as late-day light spills watercolor hues across the base of the Superstition Mountains. Appetizers are served while buffalo ribeye steaks and potatoes are grilled over an open flame.

That sense of being jettisoned into a desert wilderness is exactly what Cloth and Flame co-founder Matt Cooley was going for. “The desert opens people up to the idea of a new experience,” he says. As predicted: Strangers meet, conversation flows, the stars light up the desert sky and an unforgettable experience is born.


PLAN YOUR TRIP

Intrigued by the desert? Experiencescottsdale.com offers comprehensive travel planning for every interest. Keep in mind: Summer months are three-digit hot.

Art in the City
While Old Town Scottsdale is packed with restaurants, shops and bars, its sidewalks, corners and plazas are filled with art—more than 100 pieces to be precise. Canal Convergence, which takes place each year at the Scottsdale Waterfront, is a massive outdoor event featuring art exhibitions and performances. scottsdalepublicart.org

Sunset Sanctuary
When staying at the new Mountain Shadows Resort, an ode to modern design with a nod to its 1959 predecessor, hitch a complimentary ride in their Tesla for sunset cocktails at their sister property, Sanctuary Camelback Mountain. Arrive at the start of happy hour for a ringside seat to nature’s stunning show. mountainshadows.com

Outdoors at the Andaz
Every room at the Andaz Scottsdale is within a casita on the 22-acre property at the base of Camelback Mountain. Settle in for live music during happy hour on the patio of the Weft & Warp Art Bar + Kitchen, where the smoked-applewood Mercury Mirage whisky cocktail will definitely have you feeling mellow. scottsdale.andaz.hyatt.com

Garden Oasis
If your time for a wilderness outing is limited, be sure to visit the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix (it’s a 15-minute drive from the airport). Five different trails feature various aspects of desert gardens. Especially surprising are the 1,400 (of the world’s 1,800) cactus specimens that are designated as part of a National Collection. dbg.org

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