Dig into this collection of heart-pounding, eye-widening Arizona experiences like it was your last spring on Earth.
Photography by David Apeji, Eric Cox, Mirelle Inglefield, Kevin Kaminski, Kyle LedeBoer, Ben Moffat, Chris Mortenson and Michael Woodall
Ogle the stars in Portal.
With more than a dozen International Dark Sky cities and places, Arizona is an astronomical jackpot. Though it doesn’t have a formal designation, Portal – an aptly named town of 250 near the Arizona-New Mexico border – might be our premier spot for gazing into the far universe come night. It even has its own telescope-friendly housing community: Arizona Sky Village. Peering into the firmament from Portal, it has been said, you can even see the Milky Way’s shadow.
Sip a beer on the outfield lawn of a Scottsdale spring training game.
Our pick: Salt River Fields at Talking Stick. Lush lawn. Reliably frosty beers. And a hot dog stand called Home Plate Hot Dogs that specializes in regional styles, including a Western dog made from bison and topped with green chile. saltriverfields.com
Brave Styrofoam sushi in Tucson.
The great northern Mexican seafood states of Sonora and Sinaloa have given rise to an unlikely sushi culture – think lumpy circles tight with shrimp, rice and cream cheese, wrapped in crispy panko. Tucson is ground zero for Mexican sushi in Arizona, where the best expressions are found in food trucks like Sushi-lito (facebook.com/sushilitoo) and El Sushi de Papá (facebook.com/elsushidepapalacarreta).
Do this one-of-a-kind yoga/music/sleepover thing at Paolo Soleri’s crib in the desert.
It’s called FORM Arcosanti, and it’s the weirdest, most awesomely offbeat music festival in America. 2020 headliners are TBD. Past acts have included Solange, Beach House and Future Islands. May 15-17. experienceform.com
See an original Arizona dance form.
Think hipping one hoop into motion is hard? Arizona’s own Derrick Suwaima Davis, a seven-time indigenous world champion hoop dancer, artfully controls five. The Hopi and Choctaw grandmaster twists and hops to chanting and percussive music, a fluid, one-man circus of circles. Lucky for us, Davis performs up and down the state.
Watch The Searchers in Monument Valley.
Do you own a projector? Train it on the broadside of your Airstream (airstreamofscottsdale.com) at The View Campground (monumentvalleyview.com/campground) in Monument Valley. Load up the 1956 John Ford-John Wayne classic, which was filmed under the buttes and hoodoos of this national treasure. Now that’s what we call “on location.” navajonationparks.org/tribal-parks/monument-valley
Make a time-lapse movie with one of the nation’s largest sundials.
The rust-brown Carefree sundial, found on Easy Street, has a diameter of 90 feet and points to the North Star. On a sunny spring day, prop your phone steady and capture its time-telling shadow as it sweeps imperceptibly across the ground. carefree.org
Pay homage to the human libido in Tucson.
We tend to lionize virtue. What ever happened to vice? Tucson’s El Tiradito is a century-and-a-half-old shrine to a sinner: 18-year-old sheepherder Juan Oliveras. The low ruins of a brick building stands on the site, the story goes, where Oliveras was murdered in the aftermath of an illicit love affair. Close up, you’ll find a metal-cordoned sconce for offerings. Legend holds that if you light a candle and it burns through sunrise, his spirit may grant you a wish.
Discover the glory of Arizona mead.
In Skull Valley, Superstition Meadery is fermenting some of the best honey wine in the galaxy. Of the 200 styles brewed by Jeff and Jen Hebert, some are stripped down and carry discernable terroir, like Fauna. Others target the flavors of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich or a Hawaiian honeymoon. Head to the meadery’s downtown Prescott tasting room and see why it was Arizona’s lone representative on RateBeer.com’s list of the world’s 100 best breweries. superstitionmeadery.com
Give Kevin Binkley a cooking tip.
At the very pinnacle of Phoenix dining, you will find Kevin Binkley cooking epic 25-course meals for diners willing to part with several Benjamins. The magic unfolds in his eponymous restaurant, Binkley’s – a converted Osborn Road row house, where meals take diverse global cues and the rhythm of a dinner party. The last leg of dinner consists of courses in the dining room – at the back of the house, adjoining the kitchen. At any point during the meal, you can politely enter his kitchen. Watch the cook. Help him plate. If you’re feeling devilish, offer him a cooking tip. Oh, the irony! binkleysrestaurant.com
Hike to the top of Flatiron Mountain.
In Lost Dutchman State Park, the Siphon Draw Trailhead wends and rises 5.5 miles to Flatiron Peak. To get to the top, you’ll have to churn up hellish switchbacks. At the top, on a wedge-shaped formation of the Superstitions that looks freakishly like a clothing iron, the views will stupefy you. fs.usda.gov
Search for political art in The Painted Desert.
General medicine practitioner Chip Thomas took up street art in his 50s while treating uranium-contaminated patients on the Navajo Nation. Today, he is Jetsonorama, an artist whose fearless work swirls across rural walls not only in the open high desert, but on urban edifices from Flagstaff to Mexico City. jetsonorama.net
Prospect for gold in the Bradshaw Mountains.
Through the Bureau of Land Management, you can – provided you’ve made a “discovery” – stake a claim for prospecting on public land. Or with the owner’s permission, you can prospect in washes and dry creek beds on private land you suspect to hold ore. A good place to haul your gold pan and metal detector is the Bradshaw Mountains, where lodes have been mined in the past – and where noncommercial prospectors are still active in places like Lynx Creek. bradshawmountains.com
Clock a sub-42-minute time at Pat’s Run in Tempe.
Some cities have iconic marathons. Arguably, the prime organized run you can do in metro Phoenix is the 4.2-mile Pat’s Run, a race honoring the memory of veteran and late Arizona State University and Arizona Cardinals gridiron legend Pat Tillman. A fitting way to tip your proverbial cap to No. 42: Shoot to cross the finish line in less than 42 minutes. This year’s run takes place on April 18. pattillmanfoundation.org/pats-run
Ride the robot Bull at The Buffalo Chip.
Barbecue. Live music. Cheap well drinks. A sprawling backyard with patrons rocking cowboy boots – a few with dirty spurs – complete the vibe. But the best thing about The Buffalo Chip? A metal bleacher seat for Wednesday or Friday night bull riding – cruel to the bulls and a little violent, to be sure, but a true taste of the West. buffalochipsaloon.com
Hit the slopes in the southernmost ski resort in the United States.
That would be Mt. Lemmon Ski Valley, near our good friend Tucson. Season typically ends in late March. visitmountlemmon.com
Close down the smallest bar in Arizona.
The Silver King Hotel houses, on its second floor, a bar long enough for just four stools. There’s another seating area, but only for two. Somehow, Room 4 Bar finds space for live music. Don’t stool up expecting high-flying mixology, but do expect a good time. silverkinghotel-bisbee.com/room-4-bar-silver-king-hotel
Spend a night at Castle Hot Springs.
Kick back and feel the past and present pour into one on the northern edge of the Sonoran Desert. Back in business after a 42-year hiatus (and estimated $80 million renovation), this historical hot springs retreat is arguably the most transportive manmade place in Arizona: a remote, lush, spring-fed oasis wedged between two gorgeously rugged desert mountains. Tour the on-site farm, dine on the all-inclusive chef’s menu, hike and horseback ride, and soak in the resort’s three mineral-rich hot spring pools. By the end of day one, you’ll be in a different headspace and amazed you’re only a 45-minute drive from Phoenix. $800-$1,600/night. castlehotsprings.com
Have your portrait painted by a local star artist.
Like our friend, James Beard Award-nominated chef Silvana Salcido Esparza, sitting here for artist Abe Zucca (Instagram: @abe_zucca_art) at his studio in Phoenix. It’s her “running for office” pose.
Savor a few days in the high desert’s culinary Rivendell.
Last year, Valley kitchen veteran James Porter opened an ambitious culinary getaway in Prescott National Forest: Terra Farm + Manor. Guests stay for one night or many. Porter not only cooks meals, but teaches you how to cook, and a revolving cast of food and beverage experts provide varying themes. The expansive Terra property contains guesthouses and a central manor, all rich woods and smoky leathers, channeling a sort of fantastic Wild West vibe. Porter will steadily expand the resort’s scope over the coming years: farm, vineyard, livestock program, garden, orchard and outdoor wealth of wood-fired cooking vessels. We peppered the maestro with a few questions about his immersive food retreat.
Q: What is Terra Farm + Manor?
A: It’s a 100-acre, off-the-grid, epicurean getaway that uses traditional and state-of-the-art equipment. Wood-oven grills. Fire pits. French ovens. Outdoor rotisseries. It’s a blend of traditional plus elegant and rarefied.
Q: What’s new in 2020?
A: We’re about to utilize our Ibérico pigs and Wagyu. We’ll be using them throughout the season… dry-aging, making salumi and sausage, snout-to-tail cooking.
Q: Will the farm have a spring crop?
A: Definitely. We’ll have all kinds of spring vegetables, wildflowers and honeybees. An animal farm, if you will.
Q: How’s the vineyard coming along?
A: We’re planting our vineyard in the spring. We’re doing Viognier and Carignan.
Q: What’s it like being totally immersed in nature?
A: It’s always a worrisome process. But Mother Nature surprises you after you have a lot of patience, and you’re just blown away.
Behold the night-blooming cereus flower.
Our desert is home to wondrous flowers: high blooms atop saguaro, orange globemallows, amber petals exploding from prickly pear. But the rarest of all – the proverbial snow leopard of desert flora in the Sonoran – is the cereus. Its petals are pale purple, arranged in a starburst. The flower blooms at night, usually just once each summer, and you’ll find clusters in synchronous bloom at Tohono Chul, a botanical garden south of Tucson. tohonochul.org
Kayak the Verde River with a Bottle of Verde Valley wine.
Before it thins for the summer, the Verde River is a rain-swollen haven for swimmers and small watercraft. Grab a chilled bottle of Mourvèdre or Barbera from the likes of Page Springs Cellars or Caduceus Cellars, a kayak and a friend, and enjoy two unexpected pleasures of Arizona at once: water and wine. azstateparks.com/verde-river
Check into Talking Stick Resort… and don’t come out.
Celebrating its 10th anniversary, Talking Stick Resort could be Arizona’s top self-contained playspace. Consider the embarrassment of pastimes at your disposal once you walk through the door.
• Three live-music and entertainment venues. Spring shows include Air Supply (March 13), famously deadpan comic Steven Wright (March 21) and boomer-riffic crooner Engelbert Humperdinck (March 28).
• One of the Valley’s most underrated restaurants in Orange Sky. Killer wine program, exalting views.
• The only place in the Valley you can get a deep-tissue massage 200 feet in the air: The Spa at Talking Stick, (pictured), with 14th-floor views of the Superstition Mountains.
• The Valley’s biggest poker room, plus slots and table games, if that’s your jam.
• Talking Stick Golf Club, which landed on Golf magazine’s Top 100 Resorts in North America list.
• Shuttle service to OdySea Aquarium, Topgolf and other destinations within the greater Talking Stick Entertainment District – but no one will blame you if you just stay put.
Get fancy and go glamping.
Some people like to rough it with campfire beans, jerky and a drafty tent. Others like to luxuriate in a cozy room with fizzy wine, a leather couch and organic bath products. You can opt for the latter within striking distance of the Grand Canyon’s South Rim through outfitter Under Canvas. Another “glamping” experience worth a look is provided by Shash Diné, near Page, a “5-billion star hotel” of canvas tents, covered sheepherder wagons and cabins on Navajo land. undercanvas.com; shashdine.com
Taste the elusive, sunset-red Two Wash Ranch pepper egg.
Outside the oeuvre of Dr. Seuss, most eggs have a yellow or orange center. Poultry mastermind Dave Jordan of Two Wash Ranch has squashed this basic truth, coaxing his chickens into laying eggs with lush red yolks. How? By feeding them red peppers. These eggs are rare, scarce, a hard find. But if you haunt the right Instagram handles and/or show up to the right restaurant at the right time, you might strike scarlet gold. Jordan’s crimson eggs have been used at FnB, Virtù and Cotton & Copper (pictured), where they grace chef Tamara Stanger’s ridiculously good rabbit and elk lasagna, and magnificent mesquite-glazed chicken. Happy hunting.
Rule the Scottsdale pool scene. Bring a celebrity impersonator.
Life feels brief and bright in the chlorinated embrace of a Scottsdale day club. Hotel Valley Ho (pictured), the W and Maya Day Club are your best (read: most decadent) bets. To up the ante, bring a Justin Timblerlake lookalike (instagram @justintimberlakelookalike). Everyone will want to be your friend. mayaclubaz.com; marriott.com; hotelvalleyho.com
Wait in line at Barrio Bread in Tucson.
Former garage baker Don Guerra is churning out some of the most interesting bread in the Southwest, using a fancy Italian oven. This gentle Jedi of flour, water and heat has a deep bag of baking techniques, calling on studied natural leavening, styles like focaccia and Cubano, and a host of local and ancient grains (einkorn and Khorasan). Hot out of the oven and especially pleasing after a quick wait in line, they easily belong in the Southwestern baked goods hall of fame. barriobread.com
Summit the highest point in Arizona.
Near Flagstaff, an oblong stretch of the San Francisco Peaks ramps to a round-ish apex known as Humphrey’s Peak, which at 12,633 feet is the highest point in the state. From the base at 7,000 feeet, a long, leg-melting hike will bring you to Arizona’s airy zenith and its exalting views.
Raft the Grand Canyon.
One of the great vantages for seeing the Canyon is from the middle of the rushing Colorado River. Rivers & Oceans offers a two-day, $782 rafting trip piloted by Hualapai guides. Yes, you paddle whitewater on a pontoon raft. And sandwiched between the two days of rafting, you camp out by the river. The brief odyssey begins and ends in Peach Springs. riversandoceans.com/grand-canyon
Take a vacation from your iPhone in paradise.
Pause your work life and press play on the important part by absconding for a faraway bed-and-breakfast weekend. Check into a place like Aravaipa Farms Orchard and Inn, located about 100 miles southeast of the Valley in the lush, blessedly remote Aravaipa Canyon Wilderness. Here, you’ll be fully immersed in Mother Nature. Fresh fruit comes from the orchard, vegetables from the garden. Florid colors swirl through bedrooms, and cheese plates are delivered directly to them. Beyond the property, hiking, birding and wildlife are all close. What isn’t close: cell service. Though Wi-Fi is provided if you absolutely need to plug in. aravaipafarms.com
Go to cowboy school in Scottsdale.
In 2020, there are still cowboys in far northeast Scottsdale, living on ranches with animals and handmade fences and wood-fired smokers. And at Arizona Cowboy College, made popular early this millennium though the reality TV show Cowboy U, you can join them. The program offers an experiential taste of the Old West – everything from horseback riding lessons to five-day on-site immersions that steep you in cooking, roping, trail riding and a litany of other activities rooted in a past era of metro Phoenix. Just come ready. Longtime ranch hands Lori Bridwell and Rocco Wachman won’t be taking it easy on you. cowboycollege.com
See the Havasupai waterfalls by hook or by crook. Or helicopter.
If your best side is outside, you have an ambitious hike on your bucket list. The most obvious – and spectacular! – option is the 10-mile trek to Havasu Canyon in northwestern Arizona, where turquoise pools and eerily idyllic, Avatar-like waterfalls await. The rub: Getting camping passes from the Havasupai Tribe has become roughly as competitive as scoring Beatles reunion tickets, with spots for the whole season selling out within hours of going on sale in February. One solution: Pay $85 each way to helicopter from the trailhead to the town of Supai, and make a day trip of it. You’ll still get a nice hike – and can Instagram the falls to your heart’s content.
Chill with ghosts in Jerome’s Grand Hotel.
Once upon a time, the spooky tale goes, a dude got pancaked by the old-school elevator in this now-infamous Jerome hotel. Supposedly, his disembodied spirit and other shady apparitions lurk in the old corridors and rooms of this regal, Spanish-style structure, built in 1926. Room 32 is where you’ll find the elevator-crushed man. Be polite. Offer him a drink. jeromegrandhotel.net
Walk across Devil’s Bridge in Sedona.
And excuse us while you kiss the sky.
Score Arizona rum. Make a daiquiri near the West Rim.
Desert Diamond Distillery’s Gold Miner Agave Rum is a dark rum sweetened with agave. You can order it online or, ideally, grab it from the Kingman distillery and enjoy it in nature. Oh look, the West Rim is close! Take a bottle – along with limes, agave nectar and ice – to a rustic Hualapai Ranch cabin porch, a great spot for easy mixing and sipping after a long day. desertdiamonddistillery.com
Eat Navajo-Churro sheep at The Turquoise Room in Winslow.
In the signature restaurant of La Posada, one of the coolest hotels in the Southwest, you can taste the meat of a rare, shaggy, curly-horned Navajo delicacy. Born in an English fishing village, James Beard Award-nominated chef John Sharpe has a remarkable facility for Southwestern ingredients, like piki bread and chicos (indigenous corn cooked in earthen pits), which lace his deeply place-specific menu. theturquoiseroom.net
Spend a late afternoon poolside below the rocks at Enchantment Resort in Sedona.
Put your hands/feet on the Four Corners.
Utah, Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico. Your arm, your arm, your leg, your leg. Overdone? Maybe. Still amazing? Yep.
Cruise 16th Street in Phoenix for a five-stop Mexican food crawl.
1. Sit at a folding table outside of Tacos y Mariscos El Sinaloa for a fiery aguachile tostada.
2. Slide into Mariscos Ensenada for smoked marlin tacos and a Mexican lager.
3. Grab a torta ahogada or fried turkey tail sandwich from TEG Torta Shop, spooning like crazy from the chilled salsa bar.
4. Lick a quick paleta down to the stick at Realeza Michoacana (lime, tamarind and guava are all stellar flavors).
5. Nurse a high-end, slow-sipping tequila nightcap at Barrio Cafe.
Tour Taliesin West at night.
Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation’s Southwestern HQ offers tours of the property by moonlight. A different facet of the late architect’s former studio, school and part-time residence seems to show through the sunset hour and darkness. You can more clearly envision the lost nocturnal world of late-night drafting sessions, living room cocktails and movies in the subterranean theater with weirdly fantastic acoustics. It may sound odd, but night is the time to see Wright’s Arizona masterwork. franklloydwright.org/taliesin-west
Tour a 1,000-year-old condo.
Behold Montezuma National Monument, a 20-room high-rise apartment carved into a Camp Verde limestone cliff by the ancient Sinagua people. It’s an easy visit – just a 1/3-mile hike off the I-17. nps.gov/moca
Commune with Arizona’s frontier past at an abandoned trading post.
Arizona’s nearly 300 ghost towns are home to a welter of abandoned structures. One of the most unique architectural skeletons is Ella’s Trading Post, which lore tells us was built from old wooden poles by a circus clown. Today, it’s intact but abandoned. Pull off Route 66 near Joseph City to sit by its fading flanks and try to imagine the great recent past of our young state.
Comb the forest for funky fungi with Arizona Mushroom Society.
When the seasons and rain are right, the high-elevation northern forests of Arizona can be a mushroom wonderland. Picking them with knowledgeable professionals can result in all kinds of unexpected finds, like boletes, lobster mushrooms and chanterelles. arizonamushroomsociety.org
Savor a Sonoran Prince from Arizona Wilderness Brewing Company.
In an underrated beer state where strange brews abound, Arizona Wilderness makes the strangest. Among the delightful abominations poured by owners Jonathan Buford, Patrick Ware and co.: various beer-wine hybrids, a barrel-aged cantaloupe gose, old bruins racy with sycamore bark and a generally awesome variety of mind-expanding, grain-based libations. Come spring, regulars await the arrival of Sonoran Prince. This beer is a mixed-culture sour – meaning wild and tart –bursting with unspeakably juicy ripe peach flavor. For last year’s batch, Wilderness used more than a ton of Schnepf Farms peaches. This spring’s batch is sure to be just as electric. azwbeer.com
Track down an experimental Caduceus Cellars special-release vintage.
This boutique winery based in Jerome – helmed, like Merkins Vineyards of Cottonwood, by Maynard James Keenan of Tool – does radical things with grape juice. Think fermentation catalyzed not by controlled yeasts, but by microbes naturally floating in the air (meaning natural wines). Think barrel-aged, Port-emulating wines. Think Nebbiolo rosé. Arizona wine is young and has room to grow down many new pathways, and Caduceus continues to choose the road less traveled. caduceus.org
Read Alberto Álvaro RÍos in Nogales, preferably within sight of the border wall.
Arizona’s first poet laureate grew up in Nogales – recounted in his memoir, Capirotada – where he traveled back and forth across the border. Like many people who lived and live in the town, his family resided on both sides: Mexico and Arizona. Giving this quick read some time while in Nogales is fun because it’s always eye-opening to read books where their action unfolds. In this case, you’ll gain a mind-altering dose of perspective on many things.
Feel the beautiful fire of a chiltepin three different ways.
The only pepper native to what is now the United States grows in the southern half of Arizona. The chiltepin, an orb that looks like a tiny cranberry when ripe, packs a wallop of heat and a wild flare of bright flavor. Enjoy the burn these three ways:
1. Head to Ghost Ranch, where chef Rene Andrade has been known to crumble the peppers into everything from ceviche to cookies.
2. Douse your tacos at The Mission with chef Matt Carter’s house-made chiltepin hot sauce.
3. Use them freely at home: flaked over scrambled eggs (or boiled as shown), stirred into tomato sauce, crushed over dark chocolate cake or ice cream.
Rent the owner’s suite at Celebrity Theatre. Take the whole office to see Hall & Oates.
Across from the runway where the artists, comedians and performers emerge to take center stage, Celebrity Theatre has a private suite that can hold nearly 50 people. It boasts prime views, a private bartender, a bathroom… and its own security guard. Hey, you never know. Debbie from accounting can get pretty wild. Price varies by show. celebritytheatre.com
See the neon bursts of springtime poppies along State Route 70.
As winter slips into spring, where State Route 70 passes through Peridot and the San Carlos Apache Nation, an explosion of orange and yellow poppies blooms. If you’re driving these southeastern parts of Arizona this time of year, be sure to slow down and swivel your head.
Create a garden of heirloom Sonoran crops from Native Seeds/SEARCH.
This Tucson-based nonprofit has some 2,000 arid-climate seeds stashed in its seed bank. Of these, some 500 can be purchased. Try your hand at sowing the seeds of the Magdalena big cheese squash, jack bean, Kori Sitakame chile or dragon carrot. They’re better adapted to our dry environment, less generic and more like the quirky friend you want to take to a party. nativeseeds.org
Get out of your car and watch a sunset on the roadside.
There’s a reason Arizona license plates depict purple mountains with a spreading yellow sunset – here, “golden hour” plays second fiddle to the sunsets that follow. When the setting sun casts its sublime light show over the land, consider parking your car to watch. There’s a great spot for this on a stretch of North Cave Creek Road, near Jomax Road, but you can probably think of your own.
See the Valley from above. Waaaaay above.
Via hot air balloon service Rainbow Ryders. Champagne + experienced pilot + 50,000 cubic feet of superheated air = unforgettable good time. rainbowryders.com