It’s not exactly a well-kept secret. Hundreds of thousands of baseball spring-training fans already know it. Winter-weary residents of Northern Arizona know it. And sun-seeking spring-breakers from throughout the Midwest know it: Phoenix, Arizona in the springtime is hard to beat.
Unlike other parts of the country, where March and April can be a slushy, windy slog, Phoenix is at its best in the spring (in my opinion), with its warm breezes, sunny skies, and blooming wildflowers.
So, it was with anticipation that I looked ahead to a Saturday trip to the Valley of the Sun in early March. To take full advantage of the season, I decided to put together a little itinerary of some of my favorite activities – hiking, sightseeing, eating, and shopping. In my mind, the perfect Phoenix day!
There are myriad choices when it comes to hiking in the Phoenix area. Mountains crisscross the metropolitan area, and hikers flock to the prominent peaks. While I love the Superstition Mountains, it’s a bit of a haul to get to that beautiful area in the East Valley, and I didn’t have a whole day to hike. So, I opted for Camelback Mountain – the most prominent of the Phoenix peaks, with its rocky ridges that resemble the back of the camel. The mountain is visible from pretty much everywhere in the valley, and while I’m driving the freeways of Phoenix, I always marvel at its rugged beauty. In my mind, hiking to the summit of Camelback is the quintessential Phoenix hike.
But with that comes a downside: The crowds. With temperatures in the mid-70s that Saturday morning, hundreds of people were out on the Cholla Trail – one of two routes available to get to the summit. I got to the trailhead at about 10:30 a.m., and quickly realized the extent of the congestion when I saw cars trolling up and down the street for a parking spot. I ended up parking nearly a mile from the trailhead on Invergordon Road. The stroll along the sidewalk was shady and pleasant, though, so it wasn’t a problem.
The last time I hiked the Cholla Trail was on a weekday, so I was bit shocked by the magnitude of the crowd. Kids, parents, young adults, tourists, locals, runners, dogs and their owners – they were all out on the trail that day. The numbers thinned out a bit near the summit, but there were still lines of people waiting to navigate some of the narrow, rocky passes.
Despite the congestion, though, it’s a great hike. I love how the whole Valley of the Sun opens up before you as you ascend the rocky passes. Even though the Cholla Trail is only about 2.8 miles round-trip, it climbs a substantial 1,300 feet in elevation. And much of that climb is over steep, rough rocks. As the online descriptions warn, the top one-third of the hike is more of a rock-climb than a hike. I saw many hikers, young and old, stopping to catch their breath repeatedly on the top section.
But the summit makes it all worth it, with its breathtaking views of Phoenix and its surrounding communities. By early March, the various cacti are also starting to bloom, which adds vivid color to the landscape. I especially love the spiny ocotillos, with their pretty orange blooms. Be warned, though – coming down Camelback Mountain can be as taxing as going up. The steep drops and high stairs make the climb down precarious, so allow plenty of time for the descent.
The Cholla Trail is located off Invergordon in Paradise Valley. There really is no trailhead parking, but there is plenty of on-street parking available. Another option for Camelback is the steeper Echo Canyon Trail, which is slightly shorter in distance, but gets you to the same summit area.
Even though saguaro, ocotillos, and agave cacti are plentiful all over the Phoenix area, to get a concentrated dose of the beautiful desert plant life, there’s no better place than the Desert Botanical Garden – a sprawling 140-acre oasis, complete with cacti, wildflowers, humming birds, and butterflies. An added bonus this year is the Bruce Munro Sonoran Light Show, a lovely exhibit that plays off the desert landscape perfectly with its thousands of colorful lights.
I had seen the photos of the watertower display, and I couldn’t wait to experience the pinks, blues, purples, reds, and greens of the majestic pillars. It certainly didn’t disappoint. Wandering through the 58 glowing towers, with the sun setting over the rugged Phoenix mountains in the background was a truly amazing moment for me.
But perhaps even more epic was the Munro Field of Light – a display featuring 30,000 light globes that covered the ground for literally as far as the eye could see. I was taken aback when I saw the nearby Garden Butte glowing with lights, and as I walked up the gentle incline to the top of the display, the gently changing colors of the strings of globes took my breath away.
I had arrived at the garden just as the sun was going down and was able to see the various cactus displays in the dusk light, which added another dimension to my visit.
Word has apparently spread, and the evening showing of the Munro display was packed with people. A sign at the entrance announced that the evening showing was sold out, and I was glad I had purchased my $25 ticket online a few days before my visit. I was told that 2,500 tickets were available, and that the event regularly sold out on the weekends.
It you’re in Phoenix anytime until May 8, the Bruce Munro show is a don’t-miss event. The garden is located at 1201 N. Galvin Parkway in Phoenix.
I actually didn’t have time to do much shopping on this trip, but I did make a quick stop at the Apple store at the Scottsdale Quarter, a beautiful outdoor mall off Scottsdale Road.
I have often marveled at the lovely landscaping at the mall, with its stately palm trees bordered by vibrantly pink bougainvillea. Malls don’t get much prettier than this!
For several years, I’ve been intending to check out the venerable Pizzeria Bianco, the downtown Phoenix eatery made famous for its wood-fired pizza. Since I didn’t want to drive all the way to downtown Phoenix on this visit, I decided to visit the restaurant’s branch in Scottsdale at the Town and Country shopping center, at 20th Street and Camelback.
I got there in the middle of the afternoon, so I was seated right away on the comfortable little patio. I chose the Rosa pizza, which features an interesting blend of red onions, pistachios, Parmesan cheese, and rosemary. It came out piping hot, with a slightly blackened crust – just how I like it. The pizza is definitely the star of the show, and I would recommend sticking with it. The salad I ordered was nothing special, but the Rosa Pizza – definitely worth the trip.
Overall, my day in Phoenix turned out to be lovely – nearly perfect, I would say!