Three Days In: The Valley of the Sun

Kerrick James

Late winter and early spring in and around Phoenix, Ariz., means Cactus League baseball, and, if the rains have been kind, sumptuous wildflower displays. Yet, there’s so much more to experience in the Sonoran Desert—from the world’s largest instrument museum to paddling a kayak past wild horses; cruising single-track saguaro trails to hot air ballooning; and even Hummer backroad tours to fill up your warm desert days and nights. As a longtime Phoenician, here are a few of my favorite things to do and see every spring, all within 40 miles of my front door.

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Balloons and baseball

Start your Valley of the Sun soiree by watching the sunrise from a hot air balloon in north Phoenix with Hot Air Expeditions, the nation’s largest balloon company. The earth from above is a sight I never tire of, and you can see wildlife from their ultra-quiet balloons. I’ve drifted above coyote that didn’t know I was 200 feet overhead, and seeing the early sun paint the ridges and distant peaks orange and gold is priceless. Every flight is unique, the wind deciding your path, and offering clear views of Lake Pleasant.

Our veteran pilot is John Bagwell, and I appreciate his sly humor and rich balloon lore as we soar and drift, silent as the wind, watching other balloons in a 360-degree live theatre. Today is cloudless, and when suddenly we drift into a balloon’s shadow, John quips, “We’re in a ballooner eclipse!” Briefly, so we are.

After a soft, precise landing, the flight crew seats our six fliers at a linen-covered table in the desert, where we nibble on quiche, croissants, cheese, and fruit from the AAA Three Diamond-rated restaurant Vincent’s on Camelback, and wash it down with glass flutes of champagne and mimosas. If there’s a better reason than ballooning to wake up early, I’ve yet to find it. Peaceful and tasteful in every way, and luckily, you’ve saved some appetite for ballpark cuisine.

After ballooning, there’s plenty of time to refresh before heading over to Salt River Fields at Talking Stick, in Scottsdale. Here, our Colorado Rockies share a gorgeous state-of-the-art baseball park with the Arizona Diamondbacks. With seating for 11,000, there’s not a bad seat in the house.

Spring comes early in Arizona, not on the calendar, but surely on the field. As soon as pitchers and catchers show up in mid-February, I can smell the scent of fresh-cut grass and ballpark brats wafting through the air. Spring Training games begin on Feb. 22, and run through March 24, 2020. Most games start at 1:10 p.m., under the glorious sunshine, against the Diamondbacks, Chicago Cubs, Cleveland Indians, Los Angeles Angels, Los Angeles Dodgers, Oakland A’s, Texas Rangers, San Diego Padres, and San Francisco Giants. Temperatures typically hover in the 70s–80s—perfect shorts and beer weather to watch the veterans get loose and the rookies strive to make the team.

It’s all about “The Show”—getting to the majors—yet here, the atmosphere is relaxed, and fans can freely chat with the ballplayers, who willingly sign autographs for young and old alike. The scenic backdrop of jagged desert peaks is arresting, and with the crack of the bat, the mystique of the grand-old game is reborn. When you’re hungry, you’ll find plenty of ballpark fare options. My favorite is the Beach House Nachos, but the Sonoran Dog is a classic as well. Play ball!

After the games, you might be a bit thirsty, and who doesn’t love a good dive bar? Yes, Scottsdale is famous for quality bars with gorgeous architecture and upscale ambience, yet the modest Coach House has thrived in Old Town Scottsdale since 1959. It’s our oldest tavern and still owned by the founding family. It’s as close to a dive bar as you’ll find in Scottsdale.

During Spring Training, you can belly up to the bar with other Cactus League fans, way before and long after games, as the Coach House is open from 6 a.m. to 2 a.m. This allows quality time to talk baseball past and present, and rehydrate after the last out. Hot Tip: Every Sunday from 2 to 5 p.m. they offer free barbecue if you buy just one drink.


Music and mountains

The Musical Instrument Museum, aka the MIM, has more than 7,000 instruments on display, including this Octobass cello. © Kerrick James

In 2010, Phoenix was gifted with a world-class treasure, the MIM, or Musical Instrument Museum. This melodious cornucopia preserves and showcases nearly 14,000 instruments, from more than 200 countries. The benefactor’s $250 million gift bought a spacious 200,000 sq. ft. structure evoking the American Southwest, and containing galleries dedicated to wildly creative instruments from around the globe.

The scope and scale of the collection is mind-boggling, more than one can sample in a full day, so dive in by donning their “Auto-Connect” headsets and follow your eyes and ears. Many displays feature vintage videos showing musicians, from disparate cultures, playing their homegrown instruments. MIM is an indescribable pleasure, so arrive early to beat the crowd (it opens at 9 a.m.), and when hunger strikes, you can have a healthy lunch at their café. MIM is well worth the $20 adult ticket, and a great choice for that rare rainy day.

Riding the trails on a mountain bike is one way to explore McDowell Mountain Regional Park. © Kerrick James

After being immersed in all things musical, you might need some fresh air. Drive out to McDowell Mountain Regional Park and walk among the Mexican gold poppies and lupines, flourishing by the golden granite boulders. You’ll find a wide variety of trails here, from easy to difficult, short hikes to all-day jaunts. Bring water and snacks, and a good sun hat, and find a place to watch the sun setting behind the backlit saguaros.

My favorite restaurant in Scottsdale, closer to my home, is the AAA Three Diamond-rated restaurant, The Mission. Their modern Latin cuisine is imaginative, scrumptious, and a perfect after-hike repast. Their Roasted Pork Shoulder Tacos, with hand-pressed corn tortillas, and pineapple habanero glaze, are Southwest comfort food. After dinner, you can stroll Scottsdale’s Old Town, eyeing the public art displays and a host of galleries.


Recreation and relaxation

Kayakers float by the wild horses of the Salt River in Tonto National Forest. © Kerrick James

Today is a day for active light adventures and relaxation, with an array of options to suit anyone’s energy level.

For those who want to tap into their adrenaline reserves without overexertion, try riding through the rocky Sonoran Desert back roads in a Hummer H1—the military-inspired, go-anywhere 4WD. On this rough-and-tumble ride along, our driver, Mitch, from Stellar Adventures, is an ex-Marine with a wicked-fun sense of humor. He took a group of us on their Advanced Stage 1 Tour, where we wet-crossed the Agua Fria River, clung to steep rutted slopes, and crept through sand and over ledges that would rip out the guts from street SUVs. We started early and were gifted with a cameo of a red-tailed hawk perched on the arm of a saguaro cactus. Stellar Adventures also offers UTV (Utility Terrain Vehicle) sunset tours, and less-bouncy trips than ours, but I distinctly recall giggling as we bounced in the air, even while wearing seat belts!

For those wanting a quieter way to explore, take a ride through history on horseback with Windwalker Expeditions. Only in Arizona can saguaro groves be found in a national forest, and riding an Arabian horse beneath the soaring cactus is simply unforgettable. Windwalker Expeditions offers only guided, custom horseback rides, and if you’re skilled and experienced, you can trot, canter, or gallop at will. With more than 1,000 miles of permitted trails in the Tonto National Forest, make a day of it, and listen as cowboy painter and poet Milton Joseph weaves tales of the native peoples, U. S. Cavalry, and Hollywood royalty, who made movies here in the heyday of horse operas. Windwalker has the best horses I’ve ever ridden, so bring your cowboy boots and Western hat.

Want to stay cool in the desert? Try kayaking the Salt River with REI Co-op. We met our guides in Scottsdale, and rode 20 minutes to the river’s put-in point.  Soon, we were solo stroking in inflatable kayaks, called duckies. They’re very stable and easy to paddle. We relaxed as a light current pushed us below stands of saguaros just above the clear river, with sheer volcanic cliffs towering to the south. Rounding a bend, we saw a band of wild horses dining on river plants, and as we slowly drifted by, we admired the new foals at mum’s side gazing back at us—curious and wary. This adventure is mostly a float, with a few places where the riverbed drops and the current picks up. We paddled through small waves and watched as Red Mountain anchors the western horizon, glowing in the late afternoon sun. Red-tailed hawks circled above, searching for sustenance, and way too soon, our time on the water was over, but we experienced the lifeline of the Sonoran Desert through the prism of water.

The Spa at the AAA Five Diamond-rated Phoenician Resort offers a wealth of relaxation services. © Kerrick James

Finally, after three days of exploring the desert world, you deserve a little rest and relaxation, so schedule a massage or treatment at the AAA Five Diamond-rated Phoenician Resort and Spa. Treat yourself to a deliriously decadent spa experience—you don’t even have to be a guest to enjoy their aromatherapy. If you are a guest, you have complimentary access to their huge Fitness Center, as well as a daily yoga class.

Opened in 1988, to introduce a European flair to the desert, the Phoenician was redesigned in 2016, and offers 645 suites, including four Presidential Suites. Their location on the shoulder of Camelback Mountain is prime, just nine miles from Sky Harbor International airport, and mere minutes from downtown Phoenix and Old Town Scottsdale. The European accent lingers, as their famous Afternoon Tea (daily from 2 to 4 p.m.) might make you want to extend your late winter/early spring idyll for one last day, in Phoenix and the Valley of the Sun.

More “Three Days In”

Watch your inbox for more things to do in Phoenix in the next EnCompass Exclusive e-newsletter—a monthly email that provides exclusive content you won’t find in the print edition. Plus, keep an eye out for the next series of “Three Days In” in the May-June 2020 edition of EnCompass.

Kerrick James is a frequent contributor to EnCompass, a global expert on travel photography, and the 2020 SATW Travel Photographer of the Year.