Gliding over the desert in a hot air balloon, scouting for coyotes as the morning sun makes the mountains glow orange and pink, it’s impossible not to be impressed by the tranquil beauty of Scottsdale, Arizona.
Scottsdale, Arizona is the same driving distance from Austin, Texas as Breckenridge, Colorado.
A tidy 15-hour trek and you can hop on a horse to trot through acres of iconic saguaro cacti. Or, take a two-and-a-half-hour flight to Phoenix and land mere minutes from Desert Botanical Garden—the perfect place to start discovering Arizona’s Sonoran Desert, the greenest desert in the world.
Regardless of how you arrive, I recommend you bump Scottsdale up on your must-visit list. This desert getaway is full of colorful surprises.
Rise and Shine to Experience Scottsdale
The best way to enjoy Scottsdale is to adventure before lunch. Or, if you really want to beat the heat, head out before breakfast. This works well with the time difference—6 am feels like 7—so it’s not hard to get a jump on the day. Grab a cup of coffee and get out the door to explore by horse, on foot or in a hot air balloon.
For a fun western experience, join a professional wrangler on a trail ride through the desert. An hour-long guided ride will lead you across the rugged 1,280-acre MacDonald’s Ranch to see cacti and critters up close, from the safety of your horse. You’ll learn about everything from teddy bear cholla—the jumping cactus—to tarantulas and gain a real appreciation for the unique desert landscape along the way.
To get even closer to nature, strike out on foot to trek the Gateway Trail Loop in the McDowell Sonoran Preserve. This 4.5-mile out and back hike through the Sonoran Desert is moderately difficult, with a 650-foot elevation gain, that allows for a leisurely exploration of the surrounding area. Hike alone, or book a guide from REI to make your time more memorable. If you’re feeling extra adventurous, join a guided mountain bike tour.
Nothing says bucket list adventure like a hot air balloon ride 5,000 feet above the desert. Reserve your spot in a ten-person basket and join a sunrise flight with Hot Air Expeditions. No two flights are ever quite the same—you go where the wind takes you. When you land, enjoy a delightful French breakfast and mimosa to celebrate your safe return.
Relax Poolside to Beat the Heat
Once the Arizona sun is out in full force, it’s time to park yourself by the water and relax with a good book. On my recent trip to Scottsdale, I stayed at two resorts that were glorious afternoon retreats.
An Oasis: The Hyatt Regency
Hyatt Regency Scottsdale Resort offers a vibrant 2.5-acre water playground with pools, misters, jacuzzis, and adults-only hideaways. This sprawling oasis of pools is surrounded by mounds of colorful flowers and tall, skinny palm trees. The spa is also a must-do. Book a private session in the salt room, enjoy a relaxing massage, and while the hours away in the spa’s private outdoor pool, hot tub, steam room and sauna.
Magnificent Garden & More: The Phoenician
The Phoenician boasts a three-tiered complex of pools at the base of Camelback Mountain. Work up a sweat with a stroll through the resort’s magnificent cactus garden of 250 variants of cacti and succulents. Then, cool off in the adults-only pool or head to the new three-story Phoenician Spa for some time by the rooftop pool. Order food poolside, or you can dine outside at Mowry & Cotton for some delicious Modern American cuisine.
Drinks and Eats in Old Town Scottsdale
When the air starts to cool and you’re ready to head out again, it’s only a short drive to Old Town Scottsdale.
Here, you can grab handcrafted cocktails at Outrider Rooftop Lounge, a brand new open-air bar with misters, cozy seating, and sweeping 180-degree panoramic views of the mountains. I recommend ordering the hummus—it’s delicious.
Next, make a reservation to dine at The Mission, where you can make a whole meal of the incredible fresh guac, white bean purée, street corn and tortilla chips.
Then, finish the night with a wine tasting on the outdoor LDV Winery tasting room patio. If the owners of LDV Winery are onsite, be sure to ask their story—it’s a great one! As some of the first license-holders in the state, Peggy Fiandaca and Curt Dunham have been actively involved in the rebirth of the Arizona wine industry in the past two decades.
It’s That Hot
Summer is—surprisingly—a great time to visit Scottsdale. Yes, it’s that hot, but that means there are incredible savings to be found on resorts, events and activities. The Phoenician offers rates starting at just $199 per night with a nightly $50 resort credit, so be sure to check out their current offers.
The Canyon Suites at The Phoenician—the boutique hotel on The Phoenician grounds—has summer rates starting at $285 per night. Also, in the summer of ‘21, you can save $21 on a hot air balloon ride. Check out the It’s That Hot page for more summer deals.
Cover photo courtesy Heidi Gollub
Heidi Gollub is so happy to be out exploring the world again, whether by horse or hot air balloon. She lives in Austin with her five children and can’t wait until they can all travel together again.