10 Best Outdoor Activities in Phoenix: Exploring the City's Great Oudoors

Phoenix offers many outdoor escapes, including the Camelback Mountain Echo Canyon Recreation Area, a local landmark and hiking destination. There are two primary trails, the Echo Canyon Trail and the Cholla Trail, with the former being more challenging. Both trails offer spectacular city and desert views, however. 

For an urban escape, head to Tempe Beach Park and Town Lake in downtown Tempe. Whether you're looking for a picnic spot, a nice place to go on an urban bike ride, or a place for a paddle-boating adventure, head to this sprawling city park. 

Another popular destination for outdoor enthusiasts is South Mountain Park, which is the largest municipal park in the United States, and one of the largest urban parks in North America. Don't let the word "urban" throw you off, though. The park is a genuine escape from the concrete and freeways of the city, while still remaining thoroughly accessible. There are 51 miles of trails for horseback riding, hiking and mountain biking for all ability levels, as well as scenic roads full of steep curves and sweeping views. 

In the northwest Valley, Lake Pleasant Regional Park is a haven for lovers of the outdoors, offering covered picnic areas, boating, swimming, hiking and fishing. There is a marina available for boat rentals, and a restaurant and bar overlooking the water. 


The Japanese Friendship Garden (Ro Ho En, in Japanese) is a traditional Japanese strolling garden and tea house. The garden is tucked away on 3.5-acres in downtown Phoenix. The garden features stone footbridges, hand-picked rocks, traditional lanterns, and more than 50 varieties of plants. Many of the flora on display was specially imported from Japan. Visitors can enjoy the serenity of walking alongside flowing streams, a 12-foot waterfall and a Koi pond with more than 300 colorful Koi fish. The garden also regularly hosts traditional tea ceremonies. The garden, which has been open since 2002, is open from October through May.

Less than an hour's drive east of Phoenix, this refreshing lake is a favorite with locals. An oasis in the desert, it's a great place to cruise, ski, sail, swim or picnic. An onsite restaurant serves up food when you're hungry, and camping areas and fishing sites allow you to settle down for long-term recreation. Along the banks you'll find trails for hiking and exploring. You can even schedule a ride on the Dolly Steamboat and look out across gorgeous vistas of water and mountains. A great escape for the weekend or the afternoon. Advanced reservations for the Dolly Steamboat are recommended during holiday weekends.

McDowell Mountain Regional Park, part of the Maricopa County parks system, offers spectacular views of the Sonoran Desert. The park is tucked away in the lower Verde River basin and features more than 21,000 acres of pristine desert to enjoy in the northeast valley. The park boasts hiking and horseback riding trails, camping sites and a bike course. For hikers, the park offers more than 40 miles of hiking trails, ranging in length from a half-mile to more than 15 miles. McDowell Mountain Regional Park also has 76 individual sites for tent or RV camping. The park also has three tracks for competitive bicyclists totaling more than 15 miles.

Usery Mountain Regional Park

Easily accessible from Mesa, this 3400-acre urban park is quite popular with outdoor enthusiasts, who enjoy everything from bicycling and hiking to archery and camping. There are 29 miles of trails of varying distances (from about 0.2 to 7.1 miles), and the elevation ranges from 1700-2750 feet. A leisurely walk down one of the easier trails may reward you with sightings of gila monsters, desert tortoises, rattlesnakes, roadrunners, cactus wrens, turkey vultures and a host of cacti and other plants. The county parks department even offers public stargazing evenings here, complete with telescope. If you are looking for an easy, relatively short hike, the Merkle Trail is a good bet.

Lake Pleasant Regional Park is tucked away in the far northwest valley. The park, which is part of the Maricopa County parks system, is a dream for recreation lovers. The park offers numerous outdoor activities, including boating, fishing, swimming, hiking, picnicking and wildlife viewing. There are two group picnic areas that can be reserved for office team building parties, birthday parties and even weddings. The picnic areas have ramadas with lights, cement slabs, large grills, electrical outlets and plenty of parking. There is also an on-site restaurant, Dillons, and a marina offering boat rentals. In the springtime, the park is a great place to view desert wildflowers in bloom.

This desert park, dotted with red rock and weather-sculpted buttes, is located near the Phoenix Zoo and the Desert Botanical Gardens on the border between Phoenix, Tempe and Scottsdale. A network of trails runs through the grounds, and fishing lagoons punctuate the landscape. Ramadas (covered picnic shelters) provide a perfect place to take in the views and can be reserved with a call. The area is ranger-patrolled for safety. Located at East Van Buren Street and North Galvin Parkway, the red sandstone buttes at Papago Park are a must-see during your next Phoenix visit. Bring a camera to capture these otherwordly works of nature.

The Dreamy Draw Recreation Area, located in north Phoenix at the side of Piestewa Peak, is a scenic city park with hiking trails and picnic areas. This is the place to go to get away from city traffic, without having to leave the city. The serene desert park is filled with typical lower Sonoran desert flora like saguaros, golden barrel cacti, creosote, ocotillos and other desert trees and shrubs. Wildlife spotted in this area include jackrabbit, cottontail rabbit, ground squirrel, kit fox and more than 50 types of birds. Most hiking trails at Dreamy Draw are easy to moderate, and picnic areas can accommodate 200 people. To get to the park, drive east along Northern Avenue to the parking lot located under Piestewa Freeway. The park can be accessed by foot or bicycle along a paved trail that starts just south of Shea Boulevard and 40th Street.

A maze of well-maintained hiking trails crisscrosses one of the largest municipal parks in the world. For a spectacular view, drive to Dobbins Lookout Point and gaze at the city from 1200 feet. Then, trek to Happy Valley via a trail through South Mountain Park. The place is magnificent, especially in springtime when the terrain is knee-deep with wildflowers. Free maps are available at the entrance, but no glass containers are permitted on the premises. If you want to drive to the top, arrive no later than 9pm. This is one of the largest municipal city parks in the country, so make sure to bring plenty of water, especially if you're planning a visit during the summer months.

Tempe Beach Park and Town Lake

A reclamation of the waters of the Salt River, this manmade lake was officially opened in November, 1999. The two-mile long body of water is confined by means of inflatable rubber dams and offers plenty of opportunities for recreation in the Tempe area. Sailing and cruising attract area residents, as do the bike paths and picnic areas in the 25 acre park that surrounds the lake. Children love the Splash Playground, and there are bike and boat rentals available. Several annual celebrations are held in the park, as well as concerts in the amphitheater. Pedal boat, kayak, and electric boat rentals are available.

One of the most popular hiking trails in the valley is the Echo Canyon trail at Camelback Mountain. The Echo Canyon Recreation Area is made up of layered sandstone and comprises the "head" of Camelback Mountain. Prepare to catch of glimpse at some of the smaller animals of the Sonoran Desert, including cottontail rabbits, snakes, lizards, Harris antelope squirrels as well as a variety of birds. Rattlesnakes are also common on the trail. Native desert flora include saguaro, barrel, hedgehog, pincushion, jumping cholla, christmas, staghorn, cholla and prickly pear cacti. The Echo Canyon trails were recently upgraded with new restrooms and drinking fountains.


Meet Patricia Escarcega

Patricia Escarcega works as a writer and editor in Phoenix.