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Insider’s Guide to Phoenix and Southern Arizona

With its lively binational culture, biodiverse “sky island” mountains, and wealth of character-rich mining towns, Southern Arizona is an alluring mix of exotic landscapes and Wild West lore.
Photograph by Michael George

Travel back to prehistoric times

Besh Ba Gowah Archeological Park and Museum offers a window into the daily life of the Salado, a prehistoric cultural group living in Tonto Basin between 1225 and 1400. Located a mile southwest of Globe, Besh Ba Gowah consists of partially restored stone ruins and a museum, believed to contain one of the world’s largest collections of Salado artifacts.

Before touring the site’s nearly 800-year-old pueblo, visit the museum to see the pottery, utensils, textiles, jewelry, stone tools, and other archeological finds. Seeing the artifacts first can help you better envision how the Salado might have lived and worked as you walk around the rooms of the ruins. Besh Ba Gowah is also a hotspot for birding. Bring binoculars to watch for commonly seen birds such as the red-tailed hawk, vermilion flycatcher, and curve-billed thrasher.

Photograph by Michael George

Celebrate Arizona’s binational culture

Douglas, Arizona and Agua Prieta, Mexico share a border wall and binational vibe. Cross-cultural artistic collaborations, such as Shared Spaces—a celebration of binational art, dance, music, and sisterhood simultaneously staged on both sides of the border in February 2018—help nourish the natural Agua Prieta-Douglas connection.

Park on the U.S. side and walk through the border crossing to view the open-air mural gallery painted on the Sonoran side of the border wall. Agua Prieta’s retail and restaurant district also is within walking distance, making it easy to stop for a Sonoran seafood lunch—try the camarón y pulpo (shrimp and octopus ceviche) at Rugus la Palpapa—before heading back to Douglas.

Photograph by Michael George

Be serenaded by bird songs at Ramsey Canyon Preserve

Beloved among birders, the 300-acre Ramsey Canyon Preserve is teeming with foliage, nesting sites, and feathered crooners. The peak time for bird songs and breeding is May to July. Take a morning hike to hear the symphony of sounds created by the chorus of resident and migratory birds, such as the Arizona woodpecker, whiskered screech owl, painted redstart, and dusky-capped flycatcher.

The canyon owes its incredible biodiversity to southeastern Arizona’s “sky islands,” isolated mountains serving as stepping stones between Mexico’s subtropical Sierra Madre and the temperate Rocky Mountains. Learn about the science and history of the preserve on a guided walk (offered March to November). Look closely to see how many of 15 resident species of hummingbirds—including beryline, blue-throated, magnificent, and violet-crowned—you can spot.

Photograph by Michael George

See a stunning desert sunset from Hole-in-the-Rock

Elevate your Instagram game with a glowing sunset shot framed by iconic Hole-in-the-Rock. Believed to have been used as an ancient sun dial by the prehistoric Hohokam people, the red sandstone formation is in Papago Park near the Phoenix Zoo. A one-tenth mile trail leads from the parking lot up to the formation’s cavernous main chamber, a popular gathering spot for watching the setting sun sizzle below the horizon.

From the overlook, you can see the park, zoo, nearby lagoons, and, in the distance, the lights and buildings of downtown Phoenix. Step back inside the chamber to frame the sunset view. And, be sure to walk back to your car before 7 p.m., closing time for the park’s gated roadways and parking lots.

Photograph by Michael George

Take a digital detox at Hannagan Meadow Lodge

Power down the electronics and tune into nature at Hannagan Meadow Lodge, located in the eastern Arizona wilderness south of Alpine. Continuously operated since 1926, the original lodge and 10 rustic cabins offer guests a digital-free (no Wi-Fi, TV, or phones) space to embrace the sights, sounds, and serenity of nature. Fall asleep to the mournful howls of free-ranging wolves. Wake up with the rising sun.

Hannagan Meadow’s high-elevation (9,100 feet) setting keeps temperatures comfortably cool in July and August, and produces an average 35 feet of snow late fall to early spring. The lofty location also makes getting to the lodge part of the adventure. Take it slow as you navigate Coronado Trail Scenic Byway’s legendary switchbacks on the 50-mile drive south from Springerville to the lodge.

Photograph by Michael George

Explore the Southwest’s largest and oldest botanical garden

Boyce Thompson Arboretum State Park is a natural wonderland filled with more than 3,900 species of plants from the world’s deserts. Rejuvenate the senses on a quiet, contemplative walk through the 392-acre oasis, founded in 1924 by copper-mining magnate and philanthropist William Boyce Thompson. Nature paths and trails lead to signature sights, such as the Hummingbird-Butterfly Garden, Cactus Succulent Garden, and the 40-foot tall Chinese pistachio trees—the photogenic stars of the arboretum’s “Arizona’s Fall Foliage Finale,” typically held on Thanksgiving weekend.

Plan to spend a couple of hours wandering the more than three miles of trails. Before your visit, check the arboretum calendar for upcoming programs and events, such as photography workshops, bird walks, geology tours, festivals, and Sunday guided tours along the 1.5-mile main trail.

Photograph by Michael George

Buy handmade American Indian art, crafts, and jewelry

Browse the vast collection of original works by Native American artists at Globe’s ginormous Pickle Barrel Trading Post. Housed in the former Old Dominion Commercial Co. Warehouse built in 1905, the 8,000-square-foot trading post is chockablock with katsina dolls, pottery, turquoise and silver jewelry, baskets, leather accessories, wood carvings, and other one-of-a-kind pieces by Apache, Hopi, Navajo, and other tribal artists.

While the selection of Native American-made items is impressive, it’s only part of the Pickle Barrel experience. Plan to spend an hour or more wandering around the cavernous warehouse, where seemingly every available wall, floor, and shelf space is filled with unique finds, such as hand-crafted items from Mexico; locally-mined copper ore, malachite, and other mineral specimens; and vintage clocks, toys, and railroad collectibles.

Photograph by Michael George

Indulge in a chef-curated Japanese culinary journey

Housed in an 1899 brick cottage, Nobuo at Teeter House is the cozy izakaya (Japanese-style tavern) where James Beard Award-winning chef Nobuo Fukuda performs his culinary magic. Part of the Arizona food scene for more than 30 years, Fukuda is legendary for his imaginative take on modern Japanese cuisine. Treat your taste buds to Nobuo’s shareable small plates, such as Tokyo-style okonomiyaki—a savory seafood-and-pork belly pancake topped with sweet okonomi sauce, tangy Japanese mayo, seaweed, and shaved bonito (dried tuna).

For an extra-special treat, make reservations well in advance for the house-specialty omakase, a multi-course meal personally curated by Fukuda. Depending on the season, omakase courses could include sashimi spoons; shabu-shabu (Japanese hot pot) served with Wagyu beef, mushrooms, and cabbage; and melt-in-your-mouth white peppercorn cheesecake topped with berries and fresh figs.

Photograph by Michael George

Feed the senses at Canyon Ranch

Celebrating 40 years as a luxury wellness spa, Canyon Ranch Tucson offers busy adults a much-needed timeout from the 24/7 grind. A wide-ranging menu of healthy living and pampering options—everything from acupuncture to Watsu water massage—allows you to curate a personalized wellness experience. Or, book a bundled stay, such as the five-day Mindful Living Package combining stress management, spiritual wellness, nutrition, and mind-body fitness.

Guests also can choose from the daily menu of more than 35 activities (ranging from mellow sunrise yoga to high-intensity interval training), and can spin, soak, exercise, and relax in the resort’s 80,000-square-foot spa. If you have a full week to devote to transformational change, consider one of the themed retreats at Canyon Ranch Tucson’s Life Enhancement Center. The innovative spa-within-a-spa hosts intensive, group-oriented programs designed to help participants achieve specific goals, such as reaching a healthy weight or boosting brain power.

Photograph by Michael George

Photograph a street frozen in time

Turn down Bisbee’s Erie Street and you’ll swear you’re back in the 1950s. Long-closed stores with recently painted facades, an old-school Greyhound bus, and classic cars parked along the curb give the street a retro, movie-set feel. The restored marquee on the Lowell Theatre and a bright Lowell mural are telltale signs that Erie Street once was part of Lowell, Arizona, a former copper-mining town.

Local preservationists created—and continue to restore—this quirky, one-block slice of Americana to keep Lowell’s history alive. While only a few businesses, such as the Bisbee Breakfast Club and the bare-bones Lowell Gym, are open, Erie Street’s Instagrammable backdrops are reason enough to make the trip down memory lane.

Photograph by Michael George

Tune into the world’s only global musical instrument museum

Groove to a global symphony of sound at the Musical Instrument Museum (MIM) in Phoenix. Over 6,800 instruments from around the world are displayed at the highly interactive museum. In the museum’s signature Geographic Galleries, slip on a headset and watch the high-resolution video screens to hear and see dozens of global instruments—from an Appalachian dulcimer to a Zimbabwe mbira (thumb piano)—being played by native artists.

Play your own song on a harp, drum, or one of the other instruments waiting to be brought to life in the hands-on Experience Gallery. See guitars played by Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, and other music legends in the Artist Gallery. To catch one of the more than 250 concerts staged each year in the MIM Music Theater, check the Upcoming Concerts calendar.

Photograph by Michael George

Follow in the footsteps of a legendary rancher and sheriff

Cowboy up at the Slaughter Ranch Museum. Located near the U.S.-Mexico border, the National Historic Landmark is a living time capsule of Arizona’s pioneering territorial days. The site covers 131 acres of the sprawling San Bernardino Ranch owned by “Texas John” Slaughter, a Confederate soldier-turned-cattle baron who served as Cochise County Sheriff from 1887 to 1890. An adjacent section of Slaughter’s original ranch is preserved as the San Bernardino National Wildlife Refuge.

To learn about Slaughter’s colorful life and the ranch’s equally colorful history (including raids by Pancho Villa during the Mexican Revolution), tour the restored adobe ranch house and an assortment of stone outbuildings. From there, walk the land, which remains little changed from its Wild West past, when Slaughter raised cattle, arrested outlaws and rustlers, and helped tame a lawless frontier.

Photograph by Michael George

Taste Arizona's amazing take on Central Texas-style barbecue

Phoenix barbecue royalty Scott and Bekke Holme honed their wood-smoked meat chops on the Kansas City Barbecue Society competitive circuit before opening their first Little Miss BBQ in 2014. Four years and countless pounds of fatty brisket and loaves of white bread (to sop up the saucy goodness) later, the couple opened a second Phoenix location.

Whichever Little Miss BBQ you choose, arrive well before the doors open at 11 a.m. The Holmes’ melt-in-your-mouth chopped brisket, pulled pork, house-made sausage, and other barbecued meats regularly sell out before the 4 p.m. closing time. Dine-in meals are served on cafeteria trays lined with pink butcher paper. Plates include two house-made sides (try the Jalapeno Cheddar Grits), and every order comes with enticing aromas emanating from the wood-fired smokers.

Photograph by Michael George

Visit an inhabited ghost town

Founded as a copper-mining hub in the late 1800s, the neighboring inhabited ghost towns of Globe-Miami retain the historic look and feel of the Old West. Many of the original miner’s cottages are intact and the Globe Downtown Historic District boasts a treasure trove of brick buildings constructed in the early 1900s. One architectural gem in the Globe collection is the Italian Renaissance-style Gila County Courthouse, built in 1906 and restored and reopened as the Cobre Valley Center for the Arts.

Visit the center to purchase original works by local artists. Shop for vintage finds at the Globe Antique Mall. If you dare, time your Globe visit to join the monthly paranormal investigation session or monthly public tour at the haunted 1910 Gila County Sheriff’s Office and Jail, connected via catwalk to the Cobre Valley Center for the Arts.

Photograph by Michael George

Go birding in in a biodiversity hotspot

Perched in the Chiricahua Mountains—the largest of southeastern Arizona’s incredibly biodiverse sky islands—the Southwestern Research Station is one of the planet’s top spots for birding. Nature buffs flock to the biological field station (a satellite research/education center and outdoor laboratory of the American Museum of Natural History) to see the dazzling array of migratory birds from Central and South America, and a wide variety of hummingbirds.

Primarily a science facility, the station has a nature-themed shop and is open to day visitors who want to hike the surrounding trails, watch the hummingbird-feeder action, or attend a scheduled seminar or workshop. To spend more time, join one of the station’s immensely popular Spring Migration or Monsoon Birding package tours. Or, book individual accommodations March to mid-June, September to October, or November to February.

Photograph by Michael George