Just east of Phoenix, Scottsdale is its own concoction of arts, history and nature. It may be famous for golf and sunshine, but travelers quickly learn that there’s much more to this town. From its Old Town to the national forests that envelope the city, Scottsdale has something for everyone.
The history of Scottsdale can be seen firsthand as you wander around the city. It harbors 19th century architecture and museums that take you on a trip back to the Old West. Delighting visitors, next door you’ll find modern restaurants and art galleries that unlock the city’s burgeoning creative scene.
Beyond the downtown area, the Sonoran Desert quickly makes its presence felt. Just minutes away from the busy streets are vast valleys of cacti, red rock and mountains that promise memorable views.
Wander Through Old Town Scottsdale
If there’s one place to start your time in Scottsdale, it’s the resplendent Old Town. This, despite the area also being the city’s downtown core. Visitors can expect a vibrant mix of modern amenities strewn between historic buildings that take you back to the days of the Old West.
This delightful cocktail of culture, architecture and history encapsulates what Scottsdale is all about. The best bit? You can do it all on foot. If you’re visiting in the cooler months, you’ll have no trouble getting around the Old Town’s nine neighborhoods to discover some of the city’s best gourmet restaurants, art galleries, lively shopping and nightlife. Doing so will help you get your bearings and develop an understanding of Scottsdale’s personality in a single day.
Along the way you’ll wander by the American Indian Art Gallery, an array of public art and the Scottsdale Center of the Performing Arts. For a break, stop by Old Town Tortilla Factory for a feed or any of the breweries or wineries that make up the Scottsdale Wine Trail.
Such is the collection of attractions, Old Town is the perfect place to stay during your time in Scottsdale.
Trek the Scottsdale Wine Trail
When the low hanging light begins to paint the Arizona sky, one of the best things to do in Scottsdale is to trek the downtown wine trail. There are six wineries along the trail which bring you down East Stetson Avenue and North Marshall Way across five blocks. They all come with their own tastings and unique flavors, so each experience is not like the other.
We suggest beginning at Aridus Wine Company and making your way north. At your first stop, make sure to pick up your Scottsdale Wine Trail passport, which will give you handy discounts at each destination. After Aridus, begin the short walk to Carlson Creek and Arizona Stronghold Vineyards. Head into their tasting rooms to discover award-winning wines in the heart of the city’s historic-slash-entertainment district. Pair your wines with some culinary delights before ticking off the next three wineries, which are all within steps of each other.
Of course, you can do it all over multiple days. This will give you plenty of time to appreciate each winery’s distinct flavor profile while enjoying the rest of the sights around Old Town Scottsdale.
Go For a Real Hike
With some time spent in the city’s core, it’s time to discover the incredible natural world around Scottsdale, Arizona. The spectacular Sonoran Desert envelopes the city, along with Phoenix and Tempe, providing travelers with memorable hikes to jagged peaks and desert flora that make for picturesque photography.
There are many wonderful hikes around town and you’ll find many more below, but to begin head to Pinnacle Peak. As the name suggests, the peak rises out of the desert floor with a purpose, creating a captivating sight for hikers. Thankfully, the hike isn’t too difficult. It’s four miles round trip with minimal ascent and is rated as moderate.
The trail brings you around the peak and what elevation you do gain provides you with colorful views of the desert and nearby Camelback and McDowell mountains. Along the way, wander by classic Sonoran plant life, with cacti and shrubs staggered among the light brown boulders.
You’ll find this trek within Pinnacle Peak Park, roughly 30 minutes from downtown.
Your time in Scottsdale promises to be full of adventure, from desert hiking to road trips. But don’t forget to treat yourself. After all, this is a vacation. If there’s one thing the Arizonan city does well, it’s spas. Travelers will have an envious selection of luxurious facilities to choose from that will have them feeling invigorated whenever the body and mind grow tired.
Depending on where you’re staying, you could choose between the Boulder, the Phoenician and the Biltmore. But for the cream of the crop, book an appointment at Aji Spa. You’ll find this spa house in the Gila River Indian Community at the Sheraton Wild Horse Pass Resort. Don’t worry, you don’t have to stay here to enjoy all the fun. Although it won’t hurt.
On arrival, you’ll be treated within a state-of-the-art facility enveloped by gorgeous architecture that puts a human spin on the desert landscape. Some treatments include an 80-minute indigenous water experience, an ACHK massage, Pima rituals and a Swedish massage. Pick your poison and be ready to feel born again.
Take a Hot Air Balloon Ride
Without having to take a single step on a hiking trail, you can enjoy the best views of Scottsdale and the unforgettable Sonoran Desert. But in order to do so, you’ll need to set the alarm for an early start. But don’t worry, this hot air balloon ride will make the lack of sleep more than worth it.
After rising before the sun, make your way to the launch site, where you can even help with inflating the balloon. After, hop inside the sturdy basking and begin your rise towards the heavens. Around the same time, the morning sun will pop up from behind the horizon, creating a spectacular array of light and shade.
Take in the distant mountains that create silhouettes across the desert floor with the bright orange colors splashing against the skyscrapers in Scottsdale and neighboring Phoenix. The views continue to grow in grandeur until you can see across Arizona, with your pilot pointing out major sights as you go.
After touching back down, celebrate with your traveling crew and pilot over a glass of champagne. You’ll also receive a flight certificate!
Check Out the McDowell Sonoran Preserve
Covering an expansive 30,000 acres, the McDowell Sonoran Preserve is your gateway to the brilliant Sonoran Desert. In the eastern side of Scottsdale, the preserve offers over 100 miles of trails that take you deep into the desert, leaving the big smoke behind.
In the cooler months, you could spend all day exploring the McDowell Sonoran Preserve. The variety of trails offers something for everyone. There are short hikes to viewpoints that are perfect for sunset. While others stretch for many miles into the mountains, up jagged ridges to epic summits.
There are six trailheads within the preserve, each providing detailed maps. The top hike in the park is Tom’s Thumb, a 4.6 mile trek that sweeps you up from the valley floor to stunning east and north facing views.
But you won’t be restricted to just hiking, either. The preserve has horse riding and mountain biking trails. You can also enjoy this self-guided e-bike tour of McDowell Mountain. This is a leisurely way of exploring the park’s flatter trails while barely raising a sweat. Pick and choose your route, with easy access to the preserve from the bike shop.
Venture Into the Old West
At Western Spirit: Scottsdale’s Museum of the West, you can take a journey into the past, to an era that’s been romanticized for decades. Visitors will be able to explore life during the 19th and early 20th century that marked the beginning of Scottsdale’s modern day story.
The range of artifacts does an excellent job of placing you in the moment when much of the west was undeveloped and open land. It doesn’t just focus on this part of the US. Instead, in runs up the entire western part of the United States, while also including Mexico and parts of Canada. You’ll be able to learn all about the legends of the West who have grown to become almost mythical figures in our 21st century stories. Alongside them, you’ll explore Native American exhibits that dive into an ancient culture with pottery, handcrafts and textiles on display.
We recommend signing up for a guided tour in order to make the most of the experience. The guide will help you see beyond each display and information board and provide an in-depth explanation of each part of history in the Old West.
Spend a Day at Papago Park
Not far from Scottsdale is a park so rich in activity, culture and nature that it’s akin to New York’s Central Park or San Diego’s Balboa Park. It’s not a place to enjoy a mere picnic or take the puppy for a walk. There’s enough to do here to fill out an entirely separate list, and thus, you should give yourself plenty of time to see all the sights.
In Papago Park, you’ll find the impressive Desert Botanical Garden, memorable hikes and biking trails, lagoons where you can fish or relax on the banks, along with a golf course and the beloved Phoenix Zoo. The botanical garden is worthy of its own spot in our guide to the best things to do in Scottsdale, but the rest you can experience on a single, amazing day.
Start early with a hike to Hole in the Rock. The short and sweet hike is only 0.3 miles long but brings you to one of the most popular local viewpoints. After your quick ascent, you’ll arrive at a natural “chamber” that looks exactly like its name suggests. From your viewpoint, you’ll look out towards the lagoons and Phoenix beyond with the rock framing the vista.
After a rest along the lagoon, which used to be a fish hatchery during the Great Depression, head to the Phoenix Zoo. Join a safari to explore the 125-acre zoo home to 3,000 animals from around the world.
Fall in Love With the Desert Botanical Garden
I’ve always been a bit of a desert buff, having lived in my fair share of dry, arid environments. But if you haven’t yet fallen in love with desert landscapes, then be prepared to do so at Papago Park’s Desert Botanical Garden. Forget your classic botanical garden with lush vegetation and towering palms. Here, you’ll discover the stunning yet rugged plant life that thrives in some of the world’s harshest conditions.
The Desert Botanical Garden is a prismatic buffet of flora that will provide you with a unique insight into four deserts in Southwestern USA, including the Sonoran and Mojave deserts. Discover thousands of plants, trees, and blooming wildflowers that transform what is otherwise a red rocky haven into a stunning desert world. Over 400 of these plants are also rare of endangered. Many are found within the Sonoran Desert and are vital to the survival of bighorn sheep, mountain lions and mule deer.
After wandering the many paths, dine at Gertrude’s for some mouthwatering farm-to-table cuisine.
Visit Taliesin West
Home to the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, Taliesin West celebrates and immortalizes the legacy of the famous architect. It was here that Frank Lloyd Wright would vacation during the winter and today, students of the School of Architecture switch between this campus and the Taliesin in Wisconsin during the summer and winter.
The campus is constantly evolving to bring some of the buildings back to their glory days while remaining a working school for students. Visitors will have to sign up to tour Taliesin West, however, your guides are what make the experience. On your tour, you’ll learn about Wright, the history of the school and the stories behind every fascinating building.
As you wander around campus, you’ll spot students working away at the drafting tables employing the philosophies of Frank Lloyd Wright in their works. You’ll then discover the charming desert dwellings designed by the students, in which they live during their time on campus.
Enjoy a Cruise on the Dolly Steamboat
The man-made Canyon Lake is one of the biggest bodies of water around Scottsdale. On the water’s edge, the mountains rise up sharply, creating captivating scenery for those on the lake. The best way to experience this at a leisurely pace is to sign up for a Dolly Steamboat cruise.
The steamboat first made its way around Canyon Lake in 1983 and, over time, has created three different tours for you to experience. The first is the Scenic Nature Cruise, where you’ll venture deep into the lake to regions you can’t reach on foot. Be sure to keep an eye out for desert bighorn sheep.
The second is the Twilight Dinner Cruise, a great option for date night. This tour lasts an hour longer, with plenty of time to enjoy your meal and a drink while basking in the beautiful scenery. The third cruise departs late at night and runs from January to May. This showcases Arizona’s spectacular night sky well away from light pollution.
If you’re short on time, sign up for this Dolly Steamboat day trip that combines your time on Canyon Lake with a trip along the Apache Trail to the historic town of Tortilla Flat.
Go Rafting or Kayaking
After a day on the Dolly Steamboat, you’ll be inspired to experience more of the lakes and rivers around Scottsdale. In the Tonto National Forest, the Lower Salt River is the perfect way to cool off, take in the beautiful scenery and enjoy time with friends and family.
The Salt River has a nice mix of rapids and calm waters. This means your itinerary can be tailored depending on your experience and love of thrills. If you just want to relax, you can go tubing with Salt River Tubing and Recreation. These trips last from 2 to 6 hours with the current doing all the hard work. There are also several spots you can stop along the way, including to cliff jump.
Another option is a kayak tour. Over the course of three hours, paddle along the river, admiring the green riverbanks that quickly switch to towering red rock canyons.
If you’re traveling with a large group, trade your kayak for a raft on this half-day adventure. The family-friendly rafting trip takes you along a simple Class I river with lots of wildlife and balmy waters.
See the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art
The history around Scottsdale, especially in the Old Town, is immediately noticeable. But the town also has a rich art scene with SMoCA or the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art being the best example. The downtown museum has a fantastic collection of recent art that explores contemporary issues and modern events.
The museum boasts four galleries that showcase a different side to contemporary art. Among them is a focus on architecture and designs, with both featuring creators from around the world. SMoCA is also a great place to visit to get to know the local talent around Scottsdale and wider Arizona.. The museum doesn’t sky away from showcasing regional artists, so you’re guaranteed to see some unique perspectives.
The Museum of Contemporary Art complements its permanent collection with a steady calendar of traveling exhibitions. There is around one per month, so you’ll always have something new to explore. Alongside the art, the museum also has areas dedicated to the performing arts, music, film and literature. If you love your art, be sure to sign up for a guided tour.
Visit the Penske Racing Museum
Around 20 minutes north of Scottsdale, the Penske Racing Museum boasts an incredible collection of cars and racing memorabilia. The museum celebrates and preserves the legacy of one of the most successful motor sport teams in the world. Since beginning in 1965, Team Penske secured over 40 championships while crossing the line first over 500 times.
If you know your auto racing, the museum will be a trip down memory lane as you wander by 20 historic cars, dozens of engines and rows of trophies. The exhibits explore the story of the perennially successful team, from its humble beginnings to first race victories and the many touring circuits they’ve been involved with.
Even if you aren’t a big race fan, the sheer volume of the museum will blow you away. Covering two stories, it’s hard not to get swept up in the history and success as you gaze upon triumphant cars that have raced around the world. If you visit on the third Saturday of the month, you can even wander around while enjoying a free cup of coffee.
Adventure Through Tonto National Forest
As the 7th biggest park of its kind in the United States, there’s plenty to see and do in the Tonto National Forest. Arizona is an adventure paradise and Tonto lives up to the state’s lofty reputation.
Just northeast of Scottsdale, the national forest runs from the Mogollon Rim all the way to the Fort Apache Reservation. In between are scenic drives, thrilling mountain bike trails and a seemingly endless array of hikes.
Along with the Apache Trail Scenic Byway (below) there is the Desert to Tall Pines road trip that spans 67 miles from the valley floor up to the heavens, where you’ll soon find yourself among ponderosa pines and saguaros. The highlight being the views from the top of McFadden Peak.
For hikers, the Bob Bear Trail is a rewarding challenge. It covers 8.3 miles and 1,500 feet of elevation gain, with plenty of views on the way to Fossil Springs. Another option is the shorter, 2.8-mile Blue Wash Trail.
But to experience Tonto National Forest a different way, explore the park off road in a hummer.
Drive the Apache Trail Scenic Byway
Epic road trips are found in abundance in Arizona, so it won’t shock you that there’s an amazing one right on your doorstep. The Apache Trail Scenic Byway is an unforgettable way to experience the desert without having to take a single footstep. The addition of a/c also doesn’t hurt.
The scenic byway has a rich history that dates back centuries when Apache Native Americans formed the trail to make their way through the Superstition Mountains. Later, it was used for stagecoaches and today, you can drive from one end to the other, passing through the Tonto National Forest along a gorgeous 40-mile journey.
You can do the drive non-stop, end to end. The winding nature of the drive makes it as fun as it is scenic. Be warned, some sections are unpaved. However, all reliable cars can make it across. But with so many interesting sites along the way, don’t be afraid to stop and smell the roses.
Along the Apache Trail is the Goldfields Ghost Town, a reconstruction of the town from the 1890s. It’s complete with period actors, gunfights and panning for gold. Be sure to also stop at Tortilla Flat, where you’ll find old school saloons and general stores.
Take the Kids to McCormick-Stillman Railroad Park
For a fun family day out, or even a cute picnic, make your way to McCormick-Stillman Railroad Park. Boasting mini-train rides, a 1950s carousel, museums and playgrounds, there is fun to be had for the entire crew.
The lively park is in central Scottsdale, making it a breeze to reach. Upon arrival, have your pick of all the above activities. But your time here should begin at any one of the many railroads and checking out the model trains.
The open-air mini train departs close to the entrance on a regular schedule and takes visitors all the way around the park. This is a great way to get your bearings before exploring the huge railway building. Inside, you’ll discover an abundance of miniature railways that you can operate with your own hands.
Later, walk over to the Railway Museum, where you can learn about the history of the railroads in the United States while getting up close to historic steam trains and rail cars. Once you’re all trained-out, head to the grassy picnic area with plenty of shade for some lunch while the young ones run amok on the playgrounds.
Become a Cowboy or Cowgirl
If you’ve been watching Yellowstone and fancy yourself as the next Rip or Teeter, then you can learn all that it takes at the Arizona Cowboy College. Led by the famous Rocco Wachman, you can unleash your inner cowboy or cowgirl as you learn a variety of horsemanship skills and ranching techniques.
The unique experience is hands on and one you won’t find anywhere else in Cowboy Country. The college runs a number of different classes that range from private experiences and kids’ lessons to multi-day experiences that will quickly get you up to speed.
Arizona Cowboy College welcomes all riders regardless of skills with each class tailored to your previous experience. Depending on what you’re interested in, you can also focus on specific skills like roping or penning. If you choose a multi-day class, you’ll have all your meals covered and at night you’ll head rest up in the bunkhouse, likely without all the commotion and Walker singing and playing guitar.
Take a Day Trip to Sedona
Sedona is just two hours north of Scottsdale, so if you find yourself with a day free, then you can do a lot worse than checking out the sights around the hiking paradise of Sedona. About 90 minutes into your two-hour road trip, turn off I-17 to explore the Montezuma Castle National Monument. This is a cliffside dwelling that was built around 900 years ago.
Soon after, you’ll make it to Bell Rock and Cathedral Rock, which are two of the most spectacular red rock formations around Sedona. Both come with short hikes that bring you up close to natural landmarks. As you continue to drive along the scenic Highway 179, you’ll have magical views of many buttes and canyons, but be sure to also stop at the Chapel of Holy Cross.
From there, spend some time exploring the artsy town of Sedona, including the Tlaquepaque Arts Village. Once you’re ready for more adventures, wander along the relatively shady West Fork Trail before catching the sunset at on the Airport Mesa Loop.
Sample the Wines on the Verde Valley Wine Trail
If you’re all hiked out, we don’t blame you. After checking out all the local parks around Scottsdale, forgo the hikes around Sedona and treat yourself with a trip along the Verde Valley Wine Trail.
The trail features over 20 wineries spread across the elegant valley and along the Verde River with red rock buttes and canyons rising in all directions. The trail allows you to experience the best of the local scenery while indulging in some exceptional local wines. Just be sure to get your hands on a passport so you can tick them off as you go.
On this wine tasting tour, you can forego all the driving and simply enjoy the wine and views. Along the way, you’ll stop by three local wineries with visits to tasting rooms and cellars with lunch included.