Find plenty of sunshine, outdoor adventures and fascinating attractions in the heart of Arizona’s Sonoran Desert
While the rest of North America was enduring the brutal 2014 winter, my husband, Jim, and I spent two glorious weeks in Phoenix, Arizona, where weathermen were reporting record-breaking temperatures in the mid-80s. Warm temperatures and ample outdoor activities are just two of the reasons the nation’s sixth-largest city swells by 300,000 visitors in the winter.
The first few days, we parked our coach at the home of our friends, Judy and Michael White, near Queen Creek, southeast of Phoenix. Three days of driving to get to Arizona made us eager to get out and stretch our legs. As members of a local hiking club, the Whites always have a new hike to show us during our annual visits. This year’s hike was the best yet. White Canyon Wilderness is southeast of Phoenix on Highway 177 between Superior and Kearny. From Highway 177, we drove Battle Axe Road, a dirt road best suited to four-wheel-drive vehicles, to a dead end where the trail into the wilderness starts. We hiked into the canyon on a sometimes smooth, sometimes rocky trail. The canyon walls rose dramatically, with saguaros and cholla cactus seeming to stand sentinel over the valley below. We enjoyed a picnic by a stream where the trail ended before heading back.
If you’d rather admire desert flora in more civilized terrain, the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix has more than 4,000 species and approximately 17,000 individual plants. It’s a lovely facility that we’ve visited several times, but during this visit it was especially appealing due to the “Chihuly in the Garden” exhibit, which ran through May 18. As longtime fans of Dale Chihuly’s blown-glass sculptures, we seek his exhibits whenever we travel. He’s well-known for his colorful large-scale installations, which are included in more than 200 museums and garden collections around the world. At the entrance to the Desert Botanical Garden nestled among native cacti, three tall yucca-like sculptures titled “Desert Towers” are part of the garden’s permanent collection. As we wandered the 140-acre grounds, we encountered 20 other pieces including “Sapphire Star” made from hundreds of long blue-and-clear icicle-shaped pieces, “Sonoran Boat,” an old boat filled with colorful glass squiggles and balloon-like shapes, and “Polyvitro Chandelier,” a large sculpture of multicolored globes hanging in the cactus and succulent galleries. My only regret was that we were not there at night to see the sculptures lit up, especially the “White Tower,” a tall tree-like sculpture with individual branches and the surrounding “Erbium Pink Fiori.” I wondered what it took to assemble this exhibit —12 artists on the installation team arrived 18 days prior to opening day. The glass, tools and other materials were transported in six semitrucks with 53-foot trailers.
One of the many reasons the Whites chose the Phoenix area for a winter home was its close proximity to Rio Salado Sportsman’s Club. After Judy retired, she learned to handle a shotgun. She and Michael are now quite talented at sporting clays and skeet. In addition to numerous pistol and rifle ranges, Rio Salado has a trap facility and a sporting clay course with 12 stations. At the sporting clay stations, shooters can choose between “mild” and “spicy” target presentation. While the rest of my group shattered fast-flying “spicy” clay pigeons, I was able to get a few “mild” ones with patient coaching from Judy.
Whenever we visit the Phoenix area, we head to the San Tan Flat Grill & Saloon in Queen Creek for some delicious food — spicy and mild, savory and sweet. The restaurant, which has indoor and outdoor seating, claims to offer “All the fun of camping … without having to sleep on the ground.” While that may sound like RVing to you and me, at San Tan Flat it means having a campfire by your picnic table in the outdoor dining area. You can order a s’mores kit or bag of marshmallows to complete the experience. Live music tops off the night, with scores of people, young and old, taking to the dance floor.
We spent the rest of our time in the area at Palm Creek Golf & RV Resort in Casa Grande. It’s conveniently located 40 minutes south of Phoenix, and an hour north of Tucson. Residents describe this luxury RV resort as “Disneyland for Adults.” There’s plenty to keep you busy whether you prefer outdoor activities like pickleball or lawn bowling, or indoor activities like quilting, woodcarving or card games. Jim was quite impressed with the wood shop, which is well-equipped with a variety of saws, drills and lathes.
With so many things to choose from in our limited time at Palm Creek, we stuck with an old favorite. We played several rounds of golf at the 18-hole, par-3 course. It was the perfect place to enjoy the game, admire the beautifully landscaped grounds and turn strangers into friends.
Even though Palm Creek had enough going on to keep us entertained for our entire stay, we pulled ourselves away to check out attractions in Casa Grande and Phoenix. We visited the Casa Grande Ruins National Monument, an ancient Sonoran Desert people’s farming community. Archaeologists have discovered evidence that these people also developed wide-scale irrigation and extensive trade connections that lasted over a thousand years. Hundreds of miles of canals were dug by hand. Casa Grande (Spanish for “big house”) is named for the largest structure on the site, a four-story building that may have been abandoned by 1450. The purpose of this structure, the largest prehistoric structure ever built in North America, remains a mystery, but certain features give clues about its use. Windows and doorways align with the sun or moon at significant times of the year, such as a major lunar standstill, which occurs every 18.6 years. Casa Grande may have served as an astronomical observatory and calendar, much like Stonehenge in England. In 1932, a steel roof was built over Casa Grande to preserve and protect it. In 2006, two new residents, a pair of nesting great horned owls, moved into the big house and have called it home to this day. Their movements were the only things that could have distracted us from our guide’s fascinating talk about Casa Grande.
From Casa Grande’s ancient mysteries, we went to Casa Grande Mountain Park, which, according to MTBikeAZ.com, is “the best-kept secret outside of Phoenix.” Saguaros, prickly pear cacti and creosote bushes dot the hillside in the 1,025-acre park in the Sonoran Desert scrub region. A network of hiking and biking trails can be accessed from two trailheads. On this day, it appeared the mountain had kept its secret. We saw only a handful of other mountain bikers and hikers. The trail we followed was moderately difficult, which means Jim rode all of it and I walked my bike a few times.
There’s nothing secret about the Musical Instrument Museum. We decided to visit after seeing it was Phoenix’s No. 1 attraction on TripAdvisor. My expectations were low, not in the facility, but in my ability to appreciate it. I like music, but I don’t sing or play an instrument. This is a museum even the least musically inclined people can enjoy. There are huge rooms devoted to each continent. Each country’s display has a flat-screen TV, surrounded by instruments and sometimes costumes. When you stand in front of the screen, audio automatically comes through wireless headsets. The presentations varied from musicians playing the instruments to dancers performing native dances to skilled craftsmen making instruments. I appreciated the ingenuity of the visionary founder of the Recycled Orchestra in Paraguay who made instruments from recycled trash and of the Filipinos who made tubas, trombones, and other “brass” instruments from bamboo and rattan. Beyond the Geographical Galleries, the permanent displays in the Artist Gallery include one of the 2,008 drums used in the opening ceremonies of the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing and a colorful Steinway piano designed by Chihuly for the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. In the Experience Gallery, guests are encouraged to strum a harp, bang a gong and create eerie music on a theremin. A theremin is an electronic musical instrument with two metal antennas that sense the position of the thereminist’s hands. We waved our hands over the theremin — no touching required — to generate a sound sure to invoke a ghost in a haunted house. The five hours we spent there flew by. We wished we’d allotted more time to it. It’s my new favorite museum. If you are a true music fan, get a two-day pass, and be sure to wear comfortable shoes.
Think floral if you want to dress to please the residents of Butterfly Wonderland in Scottsdale. We started our visit to the largest butterfly pavilion in North America at the 3-D Theater where we learned about the migration of the monarch butterfly from Canada, across the U.S., to their winter sanctuaries in Mexico. Our next stop was the Butterfly Emergence Gallery where we saw butterflies freeing themselves from their chrysalises and testing their wings to take flight. When we entered the Conservatory — a 10,000-square-foot atrium — thousands of butterflies fluttered about. These graceful creatures seem equally content to land on colorful flowers, orange slices or gentle people. Much to 6-year-old Nancy Elbayoumi’s delight, a butterfly fed on the flowers in her hair for a good portion of her visit. Jim stood still when a blue morpho, a beautiful iridescent blue butterfly native to South America, landed on his shoulder. Soon three others, all different species, clustered near the first. Outside the Conservatory, there’s a Live Ant Colony, a Honey Bee Extravaganza, and a Rivers of the Amazon Aquatic Life exhibit with several aquariums and a Touch Tank where you can touch spotted stingrays.
After spending two weeks in Phoenix and Casa Grande, we had only scratched the surface of the area’s attractions. There are so many other great things to see and do, and we haven’t yet caught spring training for the 15 Major League Baseball teams in the Cactus League. The sights and sounds of Phoenix offer plenty of reasons for us to go back.
For More Information
Casa Grande Ruins National Monument
Casa Grande Mountain
Desert Botanical Garden
480-481-8188 | www.dbg.org
Musical Instrument Museum
480-478-6000 | www.mim.org
Palm Creek Golf & RV Resort
888-310-2203 | www.palmcreekgolf.com
Rio Salado Sportsman’s Club
480-984-9610 | www.riosaladosportsmans.com
San Tan Flat
480-882-2995 | www.santanflat.com