PHOENIX -- With cactus and strip malls obstructing the views at times, visitors could easily write Phoenix off as a place where water and culture are scarce. But this metropolis – which includes upscale Scottsdale and college town Tempe – is a nature lover’s oasis with pristine peaks and the vast Sonoran desert.
As for the urban landscape, it’s more than just golf courses crowded with retirees. In central Phoenix, which predates Arizona’s 100 years of statehood, you can find historic homes and classic bungalows. Brightly colored murals around town show how much the Hispanic community has influenced the city.
Now that snowbirds are finding their way here to escape colder climates, here are five free ways to heat things up in Phoenix:
• Camelback Mountain hike: One of the most popular views is from the top of this red, sandstone landmark situated between Phoenix and Scottsdale. Trekking to the top, 2,704 feet above sea level, isn’t for the faint of heart. Fortunately, there are less exhaustive trails at the base. Considered one of the best hiking cities, Phoenix has several other peaks that don’t cost a cent to climb: http://phoenix.gov/parks/trails/index.html.
• First Friday Art Walk: Downtown Phoenix takes on another life the first Friday evening of each month. This walk started out in 1994 with galleries and other venues staying open later to showcase local artists, but in recent years has snowballed into a people-watching phenomenon. Art aficionados, skater-boys, and teens looking like they just came from Comic-Con deluge Roosevelt Street in the Roosevelt Row neighborhood. Artists selling anything from T-shirts to Day of the Dead figurines are stationed along the sidewalks. http://phoenix.gov/parks/culture/index.html.
• Tempe Town Lake: This 2.5-mile man-made lake that provides flood control for Tempe is also a haven for cycling, jogging and other activities. Feel free to skate or stroll the 12-foot paths that lie on either side of the lake. On any given day, you can spot people kayaking, sailing and even dragon-boat racing on the water.
• Rio Salado Audubon Center: The Rio Salado Audubon Center is nestled in a 600-acre preserve along the Salt River just a couple of miles south of downtown. The park is home to at least 200 different species of birds and other wildlife including coyotes and jackrabbits. Take a walk or bicycle ride along the 16 miles of riding trails. Indoors are interactive and photo displays to peruse. Parents looking to amuse their children can choose from numerous free activities after-school and on weekends. You can also toast Mother Nature at a monthly Birds ’n Beer talk. http://riosalado.audubon.org/.
• Historic neighborhoods tour: In 1996, a coalition of city residents led by Gerry and Marge McCue sought to dispel the myth that downtown Phoenix wasn’t safe and had no decent housing. Their grassroots effort culminated in a handy guide to 34 historic neighborhoods. You won’t find any cookie-cutter rows on these tree-lined streets. Each one is a showcase of past architectural trends. The styles range from Tudor to American Colonial and craftsman. Make sure any self-guided tour includes a stop at Encanto Park, home of the Phoenix’s first public pool and golf course. Call the McCues to arrange to pick up a map: 602-253-5579.