Desert Dreamscape: Vacation guide for Phoenix

It’s no secret that we love the beach. Our vacations often find us close to big water, but a decade ago, we explored Phoenix on a weekend getaway. The desert surprised us and we knew Arizona was a place we wanted to revisit. Since that first trip, we’ve returned to the Phoenix area several times and now share our travel guide to this breathtaking region.

Where to stay

Choosing a homebase depends largely on what you have planned and how long you’ll be in the area. We usually stay in the far northern suburbs of Phoenix. But, we’ve also stayed in Sedona. Sedona is amazing in its own right and serves as the perfect place to stay for a night or two if you want to explore the Grand Canyon. Unless the trip will last a week or more, we recommend staying in the Phoenix area and perhaps making Sedona a day trip. On a weeklong trip, there is enough time to split nights between Phoenix and Sedona, which we suggest for those wishing to visit the Grand Canyon (it’s a really long drive from Phoenix!). And that’s about all we’ll say about the Grand Canyon in this post, mostly because we think it is too far to comfortably see from Phoenix in a day trip. Stay tuned for a future post with more details on Sedona and the Grand Canyon.

The northern suburbs are slightly less developed compared to other areas of Phoenix as of this article’s posting, but more housing developments are built everyday it seems. Still, this area offers proximity to hiking trails and vistas filled with saguaro and other cacti. There are also opportunities to go horseback riding nearby. This area provides easy access for a Sedona day trip.

Scottsdale and other nearer suburbs provide many luxury resort options. These areas are also closer to the Sky Harbor airport. We think this area is perfect for a weekend getaway, where time is short. Scottsdale has better access to less tourist focused attractions, in addition to the cultural activities in downtown Phoenix like the Desert Botanical Garden and the Art Museum. There’s hiking at the famous Camelback Mountain.

When to visit

Our trips to Arizona have occurred in January, late May, September, and December. January and December is our favorite time to visit, but be aware that it can be chilly, especially at higher elevations. We loved the brilliant sunshine and blue skies that gave way to chilly evenings. The temperatures were certainly warmer during the May and September visits, but not unbearable. We experienced more cloudy and rainy days in September, which was our annual celebration for my finishing grad school. On the May visit, midday would become quite hot and was usually a time we’d look to be indoors. For those looking to escape the cloudy, gray winters of the Midwest, we highly recommend December through February. Southerners on the other hand might enjoy a spring or fall respite from humidity. Arizona does experience a rainy season, though, so keep an eye out for that when planning a trip.

What to do

Phoenix offers a myriad of things to do. The opportunities to explore, both indoors and out, are what draws us back to Arizona. Phoenix and the surrounding area will likely require the use of a car. The possible exception to this is a weekend getaway in Scottsdale. In our experience, rental cars are affordable and Phoenix is a city made for driving.

Our preferred lodging in the Phoenix area is adjacent to an area trail network. This is perfect for easy, casual hiking. I also use it for running. Hiking is one of our favorite things to do in the Phoenix area because it is so different from our home. Just plan ahead, pack water and be prepared. Hiking in the desert is accessible and there are trails of varying difficulties. We have hiked at Westwing Mountain several times.

Phoenix has numerous cultural attractions. The Desert Botanical Garden is stunning. We visited during the annual holiday event, Las Noches de la Luminarias. This was incredible. We consider this a must-do at least once. We might not visit the garden at ordinary times, but loved this special event. The Art Museum offers free admission on certain days and times, and we took advantage of that. The building is a work of art in itself in downtown Phoenix and we suggest a visit to any art aficionado. One of our favorite aspects of the Art Museum (in addition to its lovely courtyard) was the fashion collection. The Art Museum features some impressive exhibitions and we were lucky enough to see Kehinde Wiley‘s work there before he created the official portraits of the Obamas. Another amazing place to visit is the Musical Instrument Museum. This place thoroughly impressed us. Plan to take your time because this museum has a lot to see. Families will love it, too, because there is an interactive room where instruments are available to play.

Phoenix is the perfect place to try a hot air balloon ride. We used the linked company and had a great experience, but that is not a sponsored or affiliate link. We recommend their special sunset or sunrise rides. I was a little apprehensive at first, but the actual experience turned out to be exhilarating and fun! A hot air balloon is more similar to an airplane than the observation deck of a skyscraper in terms of how the height appears.

On the rental car note, Phoenix is perfect for day trips. Particularly on trips lasting five nights or more, we suggest at least one day trip. Our ideal day trip takes us the slow way to Sedona, although Tucson is another option (but we haven’t done that yet). One stop along the way to Sedona is Montezuma Castle. These ancient cliff dwellings are impressive and are set along a river, making for a contemplative atmosphere. On the day we visited, our admission to Montezuma Castle included admission to Tuzigoot National Monument. Although we likely wouldn’t have visited Tuzigoot without the free admission offer, we loved it. These sorts of serendipitous experiences are one of our favorite parts of travel. At Tuzigoot, we were able to walk inside some of the structures and the views are amazing. Another suggested stop on a Sedona day trip is the ghost town of Jerome. We made this our final stop of the day and enjoyed a beer on top of the mountain. Jerome even merits its own day trip–with hiking, a state park, ghost tours, home tours and plenty of dining.

As we mentioned above, Sedona is a destination all its own. But, for those who are content with just a taste, it makes for a fun stop on a day trip. On all but the shortest trips to Arizona, we try to squeeze in a visit to Sedona. The town captured our hearts with its stunning vistas long ago and it truly does seem to contain some magic. Sedona offers more tremendous hiking, better than the Phoenix area. On one December visit, we planned a hike and picnic lunch at Red Rock State Park. For those looking for a more urban experience, downtown Sedona offers anything from great shopping to spiritual experiences of all sorts. Downtown Sedona has many restaurant options–from the quirky to the fine, so dining out is a great option too. When driving into Sedona, be sure to stop at a few of the scenic overlooks. We promise the scenery will take your breath away. There is much more to do in and around Sedona, but I’ll save that for another post.

So, when are we going?

Writing this vacation guide to Phoenix makes me want to go back! It’s one of those destinations where we can mix in a few old favorite activities with some new experiences to make for almost infinite rediscovery.

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