The Phoenix area is a great place for visitors to use as a base for exploring central Arizona. It’s close to many destinations that are worth a drive away from the sprawling urban areas. These are some great trips you can enjoy, even if you’re short on time.
Vulture Peak – There’s a mountain straight out of the movies near Wickenburg. It’s called Vulture Peak , and it’s the remains of a volcano. It also has a climb all the way to the peak. Getting to the saddle is pretty easy. It’s a sketchy scramble to get all the way to the top, but you’ll enjoy some amazing views. Watch for rattlesnakes, especially in fall and spring. You may even glimpse a millipede. And yes, there will be vultures. This is spectacular desert scenery. On the way back, you might want to check out the Vulture Mine, a recreation of the mine and city that operated until 1942. It’s a bit touristy, but it’s still fun.
Superior – For a mining town in decline, Superior is an interesting place to visit. First, you have the Boyce Thompson Arboretum and its collection of desert plants from around the world. I usually time my visits to coincide with special events like Australia Day (where I learned how to play and make didgeridoos several years ago). Even if desert plants don’t get you excited, the scenery (including the adjacent Picket Post Mountain and nearby Apache Leap) will. If you have a local friend with a sturdy rock hammer, you can visit some of the abandoned perlite quarries and try digging some Apache tears out of the ground. If you’re lucky, you’ll find some near gem-quality specimens of the black, glossy bits of obsidian.
Pass Mountain Trail – If you’re extra pressed for time, Pass Mountain Trail (in the Usery Mountain Regional Park ) is very close to Mesa and about 35 minutes from central Phoenix. The seven-mile loop offers some stunning scenery, especially on the northeast portion of the trail. Expect banded stripes of layered rock and up-close views of the awesome volcanic caldera that is the Superstition Mountains. It’s rugged going, so bring solid hiking boots, lots of water and a snack. Fees to enter the park start at $6.
Payson – If you’re looking for something more sedate and possibly a bit more green, Payson might be perfect. The drive up Highway 87 is scenic, especially the Mazatzal Mountain. Payson is the typical touristy town, with antique shops and cowboy-themed restaurants and saloons. It’s the sort of place where espresso shops are popping up to give a cultured feel, while most of the town tries to cling to a Western image. There are plenty of hiking trails, but a lot of what happens here will be loafing around and checking out the shops. Hey, not everybody wants to get hot and dirty. But if you do, rockhounding is also a popular activity.
Casa Grande Ruins National Park – Can you believe it? People lived in Arizona long before the air conditioner’s inception. And you can get a good idea of what it was like by stopping in Coolidge, somewhere in the dusty expanse between Phoenix and Tucson. There, you’ll see a stunning example of the past: the remains of a four-story adobe structure that housed members of the Hohokam civilization. It’s been abandoned since the 1400s, according to the park’s website. In the 1930s, the U.S. government constructed a ramada over the structure to reduce erosion.