Routinely ranked as the hottest state in the United States, during summertime Phoenix lives up to its claim to fame. We moved here at the very beginning of March, when it was still at a normal, functionable temperature, and were sadly fooled into thinking “this isn’t bad, what’s the fuss?” I have visited Phoenix more times than I can remember, but I always managed to come during the winter/spring months, never fully understanding the level of heat. Now it’s July, and there are many days that the Devil himself would call the Valley of the Sun too hot. In fact, we are getting conditioned to believe that 105 degrees isn’t “that bad”. 🥴
If you can ignore the blistering heat, or visit during the fall and winter, Phoenix has a lot to offer. It has outdoor recreation with endless hiking trails and a bustling urban city with countless activities. One could easily go hiking in the Superstition Mountains or Phoenix Sonoran Preserve during the day, then bar hopping and dancing in downtown Tempe or Old Town Scottsdale at night. The city is surrounded 360 degrees by desert mountains, offering countless outdoor activities, but there are also many city-bound activities for those who rather not hike.
I labeled this blog Volume 1, because I know that I will accumulate enough material for numerous volumes while living here. I will break this blog down into five categories: OdySea Aquarium, Tempe Town Lake, Phoenix Sonoran Preserve, Phoenix Zoo, and Old Town Scottsdale.
Located in northern Scottsdale, OdySea Aquarium is hands down my favorite aquarium. I’ve been to quite a few, in many states, and this was by far my favorite. It’s wonderfully laid out and uncrowded when we went (which is probably why it was my favorite).
Mere feet off Interstate 101, at 9500 East Vía de Ventura Suite A-100, Scottsdale, AZ 85256, it’s located in an entertainment complex called Arizona Boardwalk. There are a bunch of things to do there, including Butterfly Wonderland, Ripley’s Believe It or Not!, Laster + Mirror Maze, Surprise Your Eyes (an illusion place), Pangaea (learn about dinos), and VR Extreme. There are also multiple dining venues (ice cream, burgers, pizza, etc.) as well as shopping options.
Open seven days a week from 9am to 7pm, admission is a bit steep. For my 4-year-old and myself, the cost came to around $70. It’s $39.95 per adult and $29.95 per child. The child price is for ages 2 to 12. It was worth it, but it’s still kind of pricey. You can prebuy tickets via the website or at the ticket booth. We arrived around 2pm and there was nobody in line. We were able to walk right up and purchase tickets, as well as go right through admission. However, when we were leaving around 5pm, a huuuge line had formed at the ticket booth. We hypothesized that maybe the aquarium was offering “night experiences”. I suspect that we got lucky by going in the middle of the day on a Tuesday and all those people were showing up after work. Just something to note.
There are multiple exhibits to explore, including OdySea Voyager, Aqua Lobby, Rivers of the World, Otter Banks, SeaTrek, Kids’ Cove, Deep Ocean, Bizarre & Beautiful, Reef Jewels, Ocean Art, Touch Pools, and Penguin Point. They also have a sloth that was adorable but asleep. We went to every one of these exhibits, except for the Kids’ Cove and SeaTrek (which you go into literally underwater wearing a diver’s helmet) because it cost extra. We also did not get to experience the otters at the Otter Banks, because they were M.I.A.
While I enjoyed all the exhibits we visited, my favorite was the OdySea Voyager. It looks like a theater, where the entire room rotates four times, bringing you to a different world each time. The first rotation was to a tank of disabled sea creatures, including a stingray with no eyes and a giant sea turtle with a missing forearm. The second had massive groupers and an eel. The third was home to two sea lions that loved to show off, diving and swirling around. And lastly, the fourth is sharks. This exhibit is completely free and something I strongly suggest doing.
The touch pools were great and my daughter’s favorite. As with most touch pools, there are horseshoe crabs, some of which swim by so fast that you can barely get in a pat. Next to the touch pool was the children’s section, cafeteria, and for some reason, two very noisy parrots. Also available for an extra fee are tours and encounters. These include the Virtual Animal Encounters, Penguin Encounter, SeaTrek Diving (mentioned above), Shark Behind the Scenes Tour, and the Sloth Encounter.
Overall, this was one of the best aquariums I have visited. It’s on the smaller side, but that was fine with me. It wasn’t crowded at all; however, that could be due to us visiting on a Tuesday at 1pm. Either way, I highly recommend this aquarium and kids will love it.
Tempe Town Lake
Built in August 1997, Tempe Town Lake caused its first flood barely two years later in June 1999 when a portion of the dam built to contain the water for the lake collapsed on the west side. These caused massive amounts of water to flood the Salt River and empty the lake. However, all ended well, and the lake officially opened in November of 1999. It’s 2 miles (3.2km) long, 1,200ft (370m) wide, with a surface area of 224 acres. It’s pretty good sized.
The beach portion of the park surrounding Tempe Town Lake is called Tempe Beach Park, and is located at 80 W Rio Salado Pkwy, Tempe, AZ 85281. It was built decades earlier in 1931 and was completely renovated in 1999 when Tempe Town Lake was being built. Here is where you will find most activities for Tempe Town Lake. These include paddle boards and kayaks, stand-up paddle board yoga, biking, running along the beach, electric scooters, fishing, basketball hoops, and enjoying public art. Just like the lakes in Prescott, swimming is prohibited in Tempe Town Lake. The real reason is most likely due to the cleanliness of the water, with a pH balance barely inside the “safe for swimming” range. The lake’s pH is 8.4, with the highest on the scale being 9.0. According to Linda Taunt, deputy director of ADEQ’s water quality division, “It can bother your eyes, your ears, your nose, mucus membrane… So, it’s not like it’s going to kill you, but it can be very uncomfortable.”
However, I’ve seen a more spicey reason given on the interwebz. Allegedly the Hohokam people used the area of Tempe Town Lake for human sacrificin’ back in the day, and supposedly even city officials believe if someone swims in the lake they take the “swim of death”. So, believe what you will.
Honestly, they might be onto something because the thing about Tempe Town Lake… it appears to attract death. At least 5 deceased individuals have been pulled from the lake on separate occasions since 2011, and at least one mass tragedy occurred in 2015 when a father drove a van into the lake, killing all 5 of his family on board. So, at least 10 people have died in/at the lake. Just an FYI.
I went to Tempe Town Lake for a work outing, where we rented electric scooters and jetted around the lake. The scooters are incredibly fun but also incredibly dangerous! I feel like you should have to take a 2-hour driving course to ride one, because they go so freaking fast. People whiz around and could easily ram into some poor, unsuspecting stranger. I fortunately never wiped out, but one of my coworkers did. She was luckily okay, but it was easy to see how someone could do some major damage to themselves, or someone else. You also cannot take them past a certain point, as they begin to lose power. The scooter will start slowing down and won’t accelerate. That’s how you know you’re out of range. Also, it is kinda pricey. We rode around for about 45 minutes, and I ended being charged $35.
Nonetheless, scootering around Tempe Town Lake is a ton of fun and the sunsets are amazing!
Phoenix Sonoran Preserve
Of all the preserves and parks in Phoenix, the Phoenix Sonoran Preserve is by far the closest to our house. It’s around 3 miles away and super accessible. The only problem has been the scorching Phoenix summer heat, which has kept us from exploring this massive preserve more thoroughly. We were able to get in our maiden voyage right before the temperatures went from “mild” to “inferno”.
This preserve is enormous, encompassing more than 9,600 acres. There are three main trailheads (Desert Vista, Desert Hills, and Apache Wash), which splinter out and offer 36 miles of trails to explore. To access these different trailheads, you must enter the preserve from different locations. I will list these locations at the end of the section.
The preserve is open 7 days a week, with parking and entrance hours from 5am to 7pm, and the trail hours are from 5am to 11pm. I assume this is to offer a chance for night hiking and star gazing, although it would scare the heck out of me to be out there at nighttime. I salute you, brave Night Hikers.
We went at the very end of March, when the weather is much more tolerable, probably around 89 degrees. It was fine at first, but then began to get toasty the longer we hiked. You are quite literally in the middle of the desert, so cover from trees is nonexistent. You are completely out in the open, in the middle of the trail, so make sure to wear a hat and sunscreen, and bring lots of water!
We arrived at the parking lot around 10am, and there was ample parking available. There are bathrooms at the parking lot, as well as information and fire danger warning signs. We began our hike and rarely saw anybody. We passed about 3 or 4 different sets of hikers and one man going extremely fast on a bicycle the whole time we were out there. We hiked 2 miles, in and out, although the trail we took does not have to be an “out and back” trail. It can be made into a loop, as there are numerous trails (remember, 36 of ‘em) splintering off in different directions. It really boils down to how long you want to hike. These trails are clearly marked by markers, plus you can scan a QR code at certain points that pulls up a screen on your phone telling you which trail you’re on and how long that trail is (yay, technology!).
We chose the Desert Vista Trailhead, mainly by pure chance. We ended up on the Desert Tortoise Trail, which is 1.12 miles long. Once you make it to the end, you can go either left or right; however, we did neither. We had mutually agreed on 2ish miles because Kristi is pretty much a hiking novice, especially in the desert heat. We decided to turn back and just take the trail out.
I enjoyed hiking at the Phoenix Sonoran Preserve, mainly because of the peace and quiet it offered. Perhaps because of its northern location, it is a hidden gem among hiking aficionados. There are countless hiking locations throughout Phoenix, and many are way more crowded, like Echo Canyon Recreation Area (Camelback Rock), Phoenix Mountain Preserve (Piestewa Peak,) and South Mountain Preserve (Dobbins Lookout). While these locations do have their advantages (they offer incredible views of Phoenix and the Valley that many northern hiking locations do not), sometimes you pay for it in people. So, pick your poison!
P.S. As we were walking back, I came upon a yellow Easter egg nestled against a rock, right off the trail. I knew it wasn’t there on our way up because it was positioned in such a way that you were supposed to see it coming up the trail (like if coming from the parking lot). By chance, I happened to look down and behind me when walking past and saw it. I immediately thought “that’s really odd” and stopped to pick it up. I shook it and could hear something rattling around inside. After cautiously opening the plastic egg, I found an awesome inspirational charm inside! I loved it. As we walked further, Kristi came upon her own egg, which had the exact same charm inside. We walked past 2 more eggs, obviously leaving them, so they could be found and enjoyed by other hikers. We were fairly certain that a group of elderly women we had passed earlier were the sweet souls behind the eggs, because they were the only group we passed before turning back and finding them. So, unless we happened to miss all those brightly colored eggs on our way up, thank you to those kind ladies!
Apache Wash – 1600 E. Sonoran Desert Dr.
Desert Hills – 705 W. Carefree Hwy.
Desert Vista – 1900 W. Desert Vista Tr.
Out of these 5 entries, the Phoenix Zoo is, by far, my least favorite. In fact, looking back, I don’t reminisce fondly about many zoos. I find zoos crowded, expensive, and usually, hot. It doesn’t matter if it’s San Diego, Saint Louis, Big Bear Alpine, San Antonio, or Phoenix; I’ve been to all of these, and they were all the same. The only zoo I’ve visited that wasn’t overly crowded and unbearable was Mesker Park Zoo in Evansville, Indiana, and my guess is that was solely due to the fact that it’s not well-known and rather small.
However, I continue to visit zoos for my daughter, because, of course, she loves seeing all the “anumuls”. We visited the Phoenix Zoo at the end of March, trying to squeeze in a visit before the blistering heat arrived. We went on a Sunday, because that was Kristi’s day off and my daughter wasn’t at preschool. Unfortunately, we paid dearly for going on a weekend, because -surprise – it was unbelievably crowded. Also, the parking lot is super confusing because when you first funnel in, you are led to believe you are in a smallish lot with one-way rows for parking. We drove around aimlessly for about 10 minutes trying to find a spot, engaging in the Great Parking Lot War with other drivers, where we all battle for a single spot. We almost gave up and left before just happening to stumble upon a much larger parking lot with two-way lanes. This lot was only about 50% full. There were no signs pointing us to this larger parking lot, and the only way to get there was to go through the smaller parking lot. So, if you never figured out it was there, you’d be left circling the drain in the small, front lot.
This bigger lot is not any closer to the entrance, so you still must walk quite a bit. We arrived around 11am and immediately joined a huge migration of humans towards the entrance. We had preordered our tickets online, something I strongly suggest you do. There was a separate, side entrance for preordered tickets and we waltzed right through (it was technically the “school bus entrance”). The line to buy tickets and go in the front gate was long and moving very slowly.
The side entrance brings you immediately to the tigers and elephants, and to a huge pond with birds and monkeys. This was our introduction to the zoo. We began to wander, trying to follow the signs and trails, but it was confusing. There were so many ways to walk throughout the exhibits, which sounds awesome in theory, but is very confusing in practice. We kept getting turned around and some paths even led to dead ends. We weren’t given a paper map due to Covid, so we had to try to navigate via a map on my phone. It’s hard to see where you are going on a small device with the sun glaring down.
Located at 455 N Galvin Pkwy, Phoenix, AZ 85008, it has really weird hours. It’s open Monday through Saturday from 7am to only 1pm. I’m unsure if this is due to Covid or if it’s their normal hours. I’d suggest checking before you visit because those hours are just so strange to me.
We saw many animals, including countless species of birds, elephants, leopards, crocodiles, zebras, monkeys, giant tortoises, and giraffes. We also visited the “farm” area, which is set up to resemble a farm and is for the kiddos. There are food options at the zoo, but we chose to eat somewhere closer to home. We didn’t spend a ton of time at this zoo; maybe a few hours, so I would like to give it another shot. However, next time, it’ll be on a weekday!
Old Town Scottsdale
Probably the most popular neighborhood in Scottsdale, Old Town is fun. Considered the “heart of Scottsdale”, it’s a vibrant area with nice restaurants, posh stores as well as souvenir shops, and public art installations. I first visited Old Town in March 2019, for my friend’s wedding rehearsal dinner, and we ate at The Mission. It’s a very upscale Mexican restaurant, where guacamole cost $14 a bowl and I saw Frankie Muniz (Malcom in the Middle) and Alan Bersten (Dancing With The Stars) there that night. So, this is the type of restaurants typical of this area.
This time we came to Old Town because friends visiting from out of state wanted to see the area. We parked in a parking garage and walked around Old Town A) looking for stores to go into, and B) trying to spontaneously figure out where to eat. But alas, all the stores in Old Town closed super early. Some even closed at 3pm! It was Monday evening, around 7pm, so it was rather odd that these stores would close so early. Not a single one was open, which was a bummer, because a few looked interesting. My suggestion is to look up all the stores in Old Town, find their hours, and plan accordingly, because who knew that they would all be shut down by 7pm on a Monday.
We kept walking, trying to figure out where to eat, running into long wait time after long wait time. We eventually found P.F. Chang’s, which is “alright”, in my opinion. It’s not bad food, but I’d prefer a more mom-and-pop Chinese food joint any day. Nonetheless, I don’t mind eating there once in a while. It’s located at 7135 E Camelback Rd Ste 101, Scottsdale, AZ 85251, right by the waterfront, and open 7 days a week from 11am to 10pm, and until 11pm on Friday and Saturday. It can be rather pricey, and will probably require a reservation during the weekend, but we didn’t need one that Monday evening.
After dinner, we checked out the art installation right in front of P.F. Chang’s, called “The Doors”, which is described as “a life-sized kaleidoscope sculpture”. It was created by artist Donald Lipski, and is comprised of 3 massive, 28ft tall doors made from Brazilian wood, all leaning against one another. Inside is a little hole you can stand in, completely encompassed by reflective steel all around, which causes a kaleidoscope effect (from sunlight during the day and LED lights at night). Its totally free to check out and impossible to miss.
So, what are some fun things to do in Old Town? There are 3 self-guided walking tours: Public Art Walking Tour, which explores 10 “amazing Scottsdale Public Art installations”; Historic Scottsdale Walking Tour, which is a 60-minute tour exploring Scottsdale’s history starting in the late 1800’s; and Coffee, Wine & Ale Trail, which is a map/guide to “sipping and savoring your way through the heart of Scottsdale”. There are countless art galleries, including the American Indiana Art Gallery, Crazy Horse Gallery, and Knox Artifacts Gallery (but seriously, there are a ton more – make sure to check out the website https://www.experiencescottsdale.com/old-town/ for a comprehensive list). And there is fine dining, a ton of bars and nightclubs, high-end shopping (with some typical souvenir shops thrown in), and lastly, a ton of super pricey spas and “wellness centers”.
I hope Volume 1 was helpful to anyone thinking about or actively planning a visit to Phoenix. Please stay tuned for Volume’s 2 and 3 (and possibly more)!!!