12 Breathtaking Outdoor Activities in Phoenix for Adventurous People
By Kay Rodriguez
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Updated November 8, 2022
Surrounded by mountains and stretches of desert, Phoenix is one of the most quickly growing cities in the United States. Aside from sprawling corporate grounds and university campuses, Phoenix is home to a ton of unique outdoor activities. From kayaking in one of many of the metro area’s bodies of water to exploring the various state parks and nature preserves nearby, Phoenix offers a pathway to the outdoors for everyone, regardless of skill level. Curious about different ways to get into nature in the area? Here are some of our favorite outdoor activities in Phoenix.
One of the best ways to get outdoors in the Phoenix area is taking a hike, and there are few hikes more gratifying or exciting than summiting a mountain. Luckily, there are several peaks in the Phoenix area that you can hike up to in just a couple of hours. While there are several options for summit hikes in and around Phoenix, here are a few of our favorites:
Camelback Mountain (2.5 miles) – If you’re an experienced hiker and you only have time for one trail, Camelback Mountain via Echo Canyon is the one we’d recommend. As one of the quintessential hikes in Phoenix, this short trail packs a punch in terms of rock scrambles, steep terrain, and gorgeous views for miles.
Pinnacle Peak (4 miles) – As one of the most popular hikes in Phoenix, Pinnacle Peak Trail is technically not actually a summit hike, but rather a hike alongside the stark rock formation you see upon arrival at the trail head. Regardless, it offers stunning views of nearby boulders and rock formations, as well as Scottsdale’s golf courses and nature areas spread out below.
Tom’s Thumb (4 miles) – As one of the most beloved hikes in Phoenix, Tom’s Thumb Trail takes hikers through the Sonoran Desert to a strange, thumb-shaped rock formation atop a mountain. From the top, you can catch views of the Phoenix skyline, as well as glimpses of the McDowell Mountains and the surrounding rock formations.
Piestewa Peak Summit Trail (2.1 miles) – Piestewa Peak Summit Trail is one of the closest spots for hiking near Phoenix, and a great place for time-crunched hikers wanting a good challenge. As another short, sweet, and strenuous trail, the peak offers steep inclines, some scrambling, and a beautiful rocky outcropping at the top overlooking the city and its surroundings.
When exploring a city, we love hopping on a bike and hitting the local trails. Luckily, for those in Phoenix, you have access to a mecca of bike lanes, trails, and sidewalks where you can explore on wheels. Whether you want to jump on a cruiser and explore the Tempe Town Lake or ride the backcountry trails Phoenix Mountains Preserve on a mountain bike, there’s a place to ride a bike for folks of any skill level.
Here are a few great resources for bike trails in the Phoenix metro area:
Need to rent a bike? You can get any type of bicycle – from cruisers to road bikes to mountain bikes and more – at the REI Adventure Center in Scottsdale.
3. Kayak or tube down the Lower Salt River
Despite being in the desert, Phoenix is home to several beautiful bodies of water to explore. The Lower Salt River, located just outside the city, is one of the wildest waterways you can explore by kayak, SUP, or tube. The river features slow-moving, leisurely waters perfect for paddlers of any age or skill level.
The Lower Salt River serves as a water source for many local species of wildlife. It’s not uncommon to see javelinas, coyotes, and several species of birds hanging out nearby as you explore the river by watercraft. If you go kayaking in the early morning, you can even see wild horses sipping water or grazing on the banks of the river!
We’d strongly recommend booking a guided tour to kayak the Lower Salt River with REI Adventure Center if you’re new to kayaking or to the Lower Salt River. It’s truly one of the best Phoenix outdoor activities to do!
4. Wander the Desert Botanical Garden
Phoenix is home to one of the coolest and most unique botanical gardens, the Desert Botanical Garden. The trails here make for one of the most family-friendly and accessible outdoor activities in Phoenix. Across the garden’s 140 acres, you can learn about the 4,000+ species of plants – including cacti and succulents – that call the desert home. There are also special activities and programs for families to cultivate an interest in plants and horticulture at a young age.
Head to the botanical garden in the late afternoon for the coolest weather and shadiest conditions, and when you’re done, stop by Gertrude’s or the Patio Cafe for a bite to eat featuring fresh, local ingredients.
Check out this awesome video to see what you can expect at the Desert Botanical Garden:
5. Explore the McDowell Sonoran Preserve by foot
Located in Scottsdale, the McDowell Sonoran Preserve is a large nature preserve that perfectly captures the essence of the Sonoran Desert. From wildlife watching to mountain biking to hiking and more, there are few places better than this preserve for exploring the wild natural spaces of the desert surrounding the Phoenix area.
Within the preserve, you’ll find tons of quintessential Phoenix hiking trails, like Tom’s Thumb and the Lost Dog Wash. You can also hop on a mountain bike here and explore the vast trail system of the preserve that way. The McDowell Sonoran Preserve is open sunrise to sunset every day.
6. Watch for wildlife
Arizona is home to some pretty spectacular desert wildlife, and there are plenty of opportunities to view it first hand in the Phoenix metro area. Wildlife watching is one of out favorite outdoor activities in Phoenix, and is an easy, accessible way to immerse yourself and your family in nature.
The best time of day to go wildlife watching is in the early morning, right before and after sunrise. We’d recommend getting to the outskirts of the city or hopping on a desert trail for the best opportunities to see wildlife. Many of the animals are active during this time because it’s quiet and the air is cool.
The closest official wildlife refuge to Phoenix is Base & Meridian Wildlife Area, but you can spot many species of desert animals anywhere away from major roads or big buildings.
Here are some of the unique species you can view in the Phoenix metro area:
Great horned owl
7. Try your hand at desert foraging (or sample some foraged foods)
In addition to animals, the Sonoran desert is home to a wide variety of plant species because it’s the wettest desert in the world. The extra rainfall and year-round sunshine provide an especially hospitable environment for desert flora of all kinds. Many local food enthusiasts, botanists, and chefs alike wander the desert in search of some of the Sonoran desert’s edible species (spoiler alert: there are tons!).
For those wanting to sample desert foods prepared by professional chefs, we’d recommend checking out the pop up events put on by WILD Arizona Cuisine, hosted by chefs Brett Vibber and Jaren Bates. Bates and Vibber are best known for the use of wild, foraged ingredients from the Sonoran desert in their dishes.
8. View historic petroglyphs
The Phoenix area is a prime spot for seeing all kinds of indigenous petroglyphs. If you’ve never heard of them before, petroglyphs are ancient rock drawings created by chiseling a design onto a large slab of rock. Indigenous groups have created these designs for centuries. Some of Arizona’s petroglyphs are over 7,000 years old!
Here are a few places to view and learn more about these historic petroglyphs in the Phoenix area:
The Superstition Mountains are some of the most iconic peaks in Arizona, and they’re full of opportunities to explore. There’s a reason why these jagged mountains are called the Superstitions is because there are lots of legends surrounding the area. One of the most popular legends is of the Lost Dutchman Gold Mine, which eager gold hunters have been trying to find since the mid-1800s. Today, the area is a popular spot for outdoor enthusiasts looking for challenging, scenic trails in the Phoenix area.
Lost Dutchman State Park is the gateway to the Superstitions, and this is where you’ll start if you want to hike and camp in the area. One of the most popular trails at the park is the Treasure Loop trail, which will give you a wonderful first glimpse at the park over the course of ~2.5 miles. For more avid hikers and backpackers, there are also more strenuous hikes and backpacking routes that you can tackle.
If you want to spend the night in the foothills of the Superstition skyline, the Lost Dutchman Campground is a well-maintained campground in the park. Entry to the park costs $7 on weekdays ($10 on weekends), and campsites start at $25 per night.
To make sure your well prepared for a day of hiking in the Superstition Mountains, check out our complete hiking packing list:
One of Phoenix’s most scenic public parks in Encanto Park, a 222-acre recreation area located just north of downtown. Built in 1935, this park has occupied its prime spot among the concrete buildings of Phoenix for several decades. Here, visitors will find a scenic lake area, lots of grassy fields and trails, golf courses, and several picnic areas to enjoy. There’s also an amusement park for families or those interested in a slightly less conventional outdoor adventure.
A picnic in Encanto Park is one of the best outdoor activities in Phoenix for anyone, regardless of outdoor experience. In the warmer months, we’d recommend heading here in the early morning or as the sun is setting to enjoy some snacks along the waterfront. During the winter, any time of day is suitable for exploring the park. We’d recommend packing a portable cooler with some cold beverages and a few of your favorite hiking snacks for the perfect picnic in this iconic Phoenix park.
11. Paddle through Canyon Lake
If you’re looking for the ultimate water sports destination in the Phoenix area, Canyon Lake is our pick. This massive man-made lake, created by the Mormon Flat Dam, is home to ~950 acres of recreation space for boating, paddling, diving, swimming, and more. There are also several campsites along the lake, like the Tortilla Flat Campground, where you can spend the night under the stars.
While Canyon Lake is home to tons of Phoenix outdoor activities you can try, with our favorite being kayaking through some of the outskirts of the lake, through gorges and rock formations along the lakeside. By kayak, you can explore some of the quieter areas of the lake that aren’t accessible to larger motor vehicles.
12. Go stargazing
Outdoor activities in Phoenix don’t stop when the sun goes down – this desert oasis is home to ample opportunities for stargazing and seeing what the night sky has to offer. Dry conditions, minimal cloud cover, and wide open viewing spaces make Arizona an excellent spot for seekers of the night sky. While the Phoenix downtown area and its immediate surroundings do give off a lot of light pollution, dark skies are just a short drive away from the city’s bright sidewalks.
Here are some of the best places to see the stars in and around Phoenix:
Fountain Hills – In 2018, Fountain Hills was awarded a Dark Sky Community distinction for minimizing its light pollution. Because of its efforts to protect the ability to view the night sky, it’s one of the absolute best places for stargazing near Phoenix.
Lake Pleasant – This large lake and recreation area is the perfect spot near Phoenix to catch a clear night sky. At less than an hour from downtown Phoenix, Lake Pleasant offers open night sky viewing areas in a peaceful park environment.
North Scottsdale – If you’re visiting the Phoenix area and want to stay somewhere where you can see the stars, North Scottsdale offers some of the best areas for watching the night sky. Far removed from the bright lights of downtown Phoenix, this area is quiet, tranquil, and dark, perfect for an evening outdoors. We’d recommend Boulders Resort and the Four Seasons Resort for anyone wanting to stay in this area of the city.
Sedona – If you want to go all-out on a stargazing adventure, we’d recommend making the drive to nearby Sedona, which is one of just a handful of Dark Sky Communities in the world (in addition to Fountain Hills!).
We know, we know…this isn’t actually an outdoor activity in Phoenix. However, its an awesome, bucket-list worthy day trip that starts off from the Phoenix metro area. While adventures in the air can be a bit pricey, the stunning views of Arizona’s most spectacular natural landscapes from a bird’s eye view can’t be beat. Perfect for a special occasion or simply a bucket list adventure, a scenic flight is an incredibly special way to embrace the outdoors in Arizona.
The easiest way to organize a trip like this is through a third-party tour operator. On a full day scenic trip with REI Adventures, you can spend a day flying over Sedona, Flagstaff, and the Grand Canyon, followed by a hike along the South Rim. REI organizes everything for you, from pickup to lunch to drop-off, making this wonderful once-in-a-lifetime opportunity a breeze to plan.
What to Bring
Durable shoes – Although any pair of sneakers will usually work for these outdoor activities, we’d strongly recommend wearing shoes meant for hiking. If you prefer a more robust shoe, hiking boots are our go to (see our recommendations for men and women). Trail runners are also a fantastic option for those wanting a more versatile, lightweight, breathable shoe.
Sunglasses – You’ll need to protect your eyes while doing outdoor activities in Phoenix because there is so much direct sun. Any pair of UV-filtering glasses works great, but we’d recommend investing in a polarized pair of sunglasses and Croakies to make sure your shades don’t fall off on the trails or in the water.
Sunscreen – Sunburn is common in Arizona because of the lack of shade, so be sure to pack your favorite sunscreen for your adventures! We love Sun Bum for all things outdoors.
Water bottle – In the hot Arizona sun, having a constant source of water is critical. We’d recommend an insulated water bottle like a Hydro Flask so you can carry ice cold water with you all day long.
Many of the activities in this article were covered through a collaboration with the Arizona Office of Tourism. Our team was not otherwise compensated for the content included in this article, and all opinions and observations are solely our own.
Urban Outdoors is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.
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