Scottsdale is The Perfect Desert Destination

Cowboys, cacti, and an architectural masterpiece—what’s not to love?

Perched in the Sonoran Desert, Scottsdale, Arizona, has all the makings of a perfect getaway: It’s in a gorgeous setting, it has activities and adventures you can’t find anywhere else, and it has a cultural scene that competes with the best. Did we mention it’s beautiful? Here’s our list of Scottsdale’s must-dos.

Outdoor Adventures

Learn the Ropes

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Enjoy a day of horseback riding in the barren, yet beautiful, desert landscape.

You can’t come to Scottsdale—the “West’s most Western town”—without connecting with your inner cowboy. Arizona Cowboy College will make a ranch hand out of anyone who’s willing to get dirty. Learn roping, penning, sorting, and “all forms of cowboy stuff” in private sessions or a one- or three-day stay. For the real cowboy experience, sign up for a five-day stay. You’ll spend two days at the Scottsdale center, then pack out on horseback for three days on a working ranch. You’ll be up at sunrise and cook your dinner over a campfire—before falling into the best, most well-earned sleep of your life under the desert stars.

Take a Hike

Explore a bit of the starkly beautiful Sonoran Desert from within Scottsdale itself. The moderate, 3.5-mile (over and back) trail at Pinnacle Peak Park—featuring granite monolith Pinnacle Peak—takes you through habitat that’s home to Gila monsters, desert tortoises, javelinas, bobcats, and other desert dwellers. If hiking is a little too horizontal for you, gear up and head to one of the rock climbing routes throughout the park. Park guides lead interpretive tours, full moon hikes, astronomy evenings, and more. Check the schedule to see what’s on offer while you’re in town.

Fly Over The Desert

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A woman leans against her Subaru Crosstrek and enjoys the view of hot air balloons above her.

For the best view of the Sonoran Desert, get up early (or stay out late) for a sunrise or sunset hot-air balloon ride. Float Balloon Tours amps the experience up even further by packaging the rides with a gourmet picnic brunch or candlelit dinner served right where you land. There’s also a professional photographer to help capture your experience—or, if you want to splurge, you can take a private balloon photography workshop. The colorful balloons depart from the Float Balloon Tours warehouse in Phoenix (about 30 minutes from Scottsdale); make reservations in advance.

Urban Activities

Get Architectural

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Frank Lloyd Wright's Arizona accommodations will give visitors lofty inspirations for the design of their own dream homes.

For fans of architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s work, Taliesin West in Scottsdale is worth a pilgrimage. Wright—who would be 150 this year—designed his winter home (and the site of his architectural school) to blend in with the desert landscape and constructed it largely from the volcanic rock of the area. He lived here from 1937 until his death in 1959, with summers spent at his other home, Taliesin, in Wisconsin. Now a national historic landmark, Taliesin West offers tours daily year-round (except Tuesdays and Wednesdays in the summer) and hosts frequent events.

Stroll the Desert

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For anyone who feels there isn't much nature to see in a desert, The Desert Botanical Gardens will convert most of those skeptics.

Here’s your chance to get lost in the desert—safely. The Desert Botanical Garden, the largest in the Southwest, has more than 50,000 plants on display over 140 acres in Papago Park. Five themed trails wind through giant cacti, flowering agave, wildflowers, and other desert flora. Join a garden or bird-watching tour, then grab a bite to eat on the patio at Gertrude’s. If you can, plan your visit around special events, such as the Music in the Garden series (beginning October 6), the Strange Garden Halloween event (October 27-28), or the Chiles and Chocolate Festival (November 10-12).

Mark Time on a Bridge

In the 1990s, Scottsdale Public Art hired noted local architect Paolo Soleri to design a bridge over the Arizona Canal. The result, which took nearly 20 years to achieve, is a striking piece of public art. The Soleri Bridge and Plaza along the Scottsdale Waterfront serves as a pedestrian passage across the canal, but it has a more fantastic purpose as well: A clever design allows the bridge to act as a solar calendar. There’s also a plaza with huge sand-and-concrete totemic panels to check out. Visit on an equinox or solstice to see the bridge’s “calendar” in full effect.

Off the Beaten Path

Get Superstitious

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Spend a night in the Superstition Wilderness Area and relax under the starry patchwork of the night sky.

For the perfect day-turned-evening trip, drive about an hour due east to the Superstition Mountains. This beautiful, rugged range features jagged hoodoos and narrow canyons formed by volcanic eruptions millions of years ago. Spend the afternoon hiking (and looking for lost gold mines) in the Superstition Wilderness Area, then stay on into evening for some of the best stargazing in the country. Lost Dutchman State Park, in the foothills, offers monthly sky-watching events, as well as guided nature hikes and other activities.

Nancy Gupton is a freelance writer, editor, and lover of books, music, and, of course, food. You can follow her on Twitter.