Even as a growing desert city with a sense of sophistication, Scottsdale, Arizona, keeps a rugged playground. Based in the Sonoran Desert and bordering the McDowell Mountains, this destination puts thrill seekers and nature lovers in close proximity to trails, peaks and even overhead views. Whether for easy pacers or experienced trekkers, here are active suggestions for discovering more of Scottsdale’s natural beauty.
Trail along McDowell Sonoran Preserve
This massive nature preserve provides a great introduction to the desert’s distinctive geology and wildlife. Explore it on foot, bike or horseback along the major trailheads, which can accommodate visitors with various ability levels. The Marcus Landslide Trail is a gentle route following along unique cacti (such as the tree-like saguaro and the fuzzy-looking but best-avoided cholla). Brown’s Ranch Trailhead is well-suited for biking. Better yet, book an excursion with AOA Adventures, which provides expert guided tours through the preserve.
Hike through Pinnacle Peak Park
This park offers a moderate hike leading up, down and through part of the Sonoran Desert. The out-and-back trail, which runs 1.75 miles each way, also has designated areas for rock climbing. The overall scenery is rewarding, with a stunning variety of flora and fauna extending to saguaro and cholla cactuses, and ocotillos, a red-flowering plant. At times it’s possible to spot wildlife ranging from rattlesnakes and Gila monsters to coyotes and javelina.
Get challenged at Camelback Mountain
For high-level hikers, this mountain — named for its silhouette of the animal’s hump — will provide quite the physical challenge. Its two summit trails — Echo Canyon and Cholla — are strenuous, with steep grades in your reach the top. Or opt for one of the less demanding routes that encompass Camelback’s base instead. Rock climbers can also access The Praying Monk, a red sandstone rock formation, on the mountain.
Sprawl out in McDowell Mountain Regional Park
This park in the lower Verde River basin is noted for its 50-plus miles of multi-use trails for hiking, mountain biking and horseback riding, plus various camping sites and a three-loop biking track. Picnickers can bring their baskets to one of two picnic areas.
Take a hot air balloon ride
For a more relaxing way to take in the scenery, opt for an aerial adventure. Excursion companies such as Phoenix’s Hot Air Expeditions cast off on daily sunrise and seasonal sunset flights (weather-permitting) that float along an 8- to 10-mile trek, at heights between 1,000 to 5,000 feet, along the Sonoran Desert. Watch your balloon get ready to go and then climb into its wicker basket to start your upward journey. After landing, riders get treated to a light breakfast or evening meal.
Beyond the great outdoors
The desert scenery in Scottsdale is inviting, but there are plenty of indoor activity options, too. From culinary to cultural, check out these locations for a filling meal or artistic appreciation.
Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art: This small-scale museum centers on contemporary art, architecture and design. Don’t miss the outdoor sculpture garden, where Arizona artist James Turrell’s “Knight Rise” skyspace lets visitors stare up at the oculus in its oval ceiling. Closed Mondays, admission $10, $7 students; 7374 E. Second St., 480-874-4665, smoca.org
Taliesin West: Architect Frank Lloyd Wright bought desert land in the late 1930s to construct a winter residence and workspace, expanding the property up until his death in 1959. Today, the National Historic Landmark and architectural school can be seen via public tours. Tours from $19; 12345 N. Taliesin Drive, 480-627-5340, franklloydwright.org
Cattle Track Arts Compound: Take a tour of this tucked-away artist’s colony, a creative haven since the 1930s that provides the setting for professional artists and crafts persons to further enrich their talents. 6105 N. Cattle Track Road, cattletrack.org
FnB: This farm-to-table eatery dishes out the best of Arizona’s farming community. Lunch and dinner menus change with what’s seasonally available, and the wine program features Arizona-produced labels. 7125 E. Fifth Ave., suite 31, 480-284-4777, fnbrestaurant.com
Regroup Coffee + Bicycles: This coffee bar and bike shop combo pedals out espressos, cold brews, Americanos, lattes, smoothies and seasonal drinks. 4227 N. Brown Ave., 480-648-8309, regroupbicycles.com
Super Chunk Sweets & Treats: The signature treats at this small-batch bakery and cafe include chocolate bacon caramel corn, mesquite chocolate chip cookies and a honey cake soaked with a cinnamon tres leches and layered with honeycomb candy and mascarpone whipped cream. Closed Sunday-Monday; 7120 E. Sixth Ave., #19, 602-736-2383, superchunk.me
AZ/88: This trendy contemporary restaurant and bar near the Scottsdale Civic Center is touted for its martinis, open-floor plan and quirky art. Try house specialties like St. Petersburg Potatoes — chips covered with Scottish smoked salmon. 7353 Scottsdale Mall, 480-994-5576, az88.com
Four Peaks Brewing Co.: This craft brewery’s grill and tap in North Scottsdale offers its mainstay (try the flagship Kilt Lifter, a Scottish-style ale) and seasonal suds. Pair with burgers, pizza, sandwiches or apps like the green chile pork poutine. 15745 N. Hayden Road, 480-991-1795, fourpeaks.com
LDV Wine Gallery: In Downtown Scottsdale, LDV Winery’s tasting room features estate-grown, Rhone-varietal wines from grapes grown in the foothills of southern Arizona’s Chiricahua Mountains. Closed Monday-Tuesday; 6951 E. First St., 480-664-4822, ldvwinery.com
Carlson Creek Vineyard: At this Old Town Scottsdale tasting room, the family-owned Arizona winery and vineyard pours various labels such as its flagship red blend, Rule of Three. Closed Monday-Tuesday; 4142 N. Marshall Way, 480-947-0636, carlsoncreek.com