Heading to the desert might sound underwhelming to some adventurers or vacationers. After all, there are usually no large bodies of water, inviting mountains or interesting ecology there. At least on the surface. The sunny wilderness of Greater Phoenix, however, is a glaring exception to this common misconception. There you’ll find all three, especially near the eastern side of mountainous Mesa. And if you challenge your preconceptions further still, you’ll also find world-class golf, rejuvenating resorts, and plenty of fun on wheels.
On a short (and cheap) flight from Allegiant, a friend and I recently put the area to the test. This is what I learned:
Sonoran Desert is the Star of the Show
Although much more barren than other outdoors, I don’t ever think I’ve explored a more personal landscape. By that I’m referring to the fascinating Saguaro (pronounced “sa-wah-ro”) cacti that fill the area (pictured). Unlike towering trees that remain out of reach, these 15-40 foot tall plants watch over you like silent guardians wherever you go. I got up close and personal with them in Tonto National Forest, Usery Mountain Park and Saguaro Lake. They, along with the Dr. Suess-like Ocotillo trees and Cholla bushes, left an indelible impression on me.
Adventure is Out There
What’s the best way to experience this desert? We enjoyed hiking the popular Wind Cave Trail, single-track mountain biking with Arizona Outback Adventures, and renting stand-ups from No Snow Paddleboard. We also booked military-grade ATVs with Green Zebra Adventures. In all honesty, the latter whet our appetite more than it satiated our thirst. But depending on your need for speed, it’s a fun desert loop for slow-rollers.
You’ll also Find Man-made Fun
While there, we played the award-winning Saguaro golf course at We-Ko-Pa. Although it has been a while since I was serious about golf, this memorable, stunning, and punishing course rekindled my love for the sport. In between much of the above, we recharged on the exceptional tennis courts, reasonable room rates, included fitness classes, and sunset dinners at CopperWynd Resort in gorgeous Fountain Hills.
A Wealth of Affordable Options
If expensive golf courses and Palm Springs-like hotels aren’t you’re thing, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better value and landing spot in the area than Residence Inn Mesa. My third time staying in one over the last six months, the fast-growing Marriott imprint is quickly becoming my go-to hotel for overnight adventures. Overall, I was surprised by the affordability of the nation’s sixth largest city in terms of food, hotels and outfitters.
It’s Always Sunny
That is no exaggeration. Which explains why so many people from northern, colder and cloudier latitudes flock and “snowbird” here. If you’re looking for the soul of the American Southwest, start here. Best time to visit: January-March, before summer sets the place on fire.
Off the Grid columnist Blake Snow writes epic stories for fancy publications and Fortune 500 companies. Follow him @blakesnow