Named for its European founder U.S. Army Chaplain Winfield Scott, who purchased the downtown area in the 1880’s for a total of $3.50, Scottsdale, Arizona has since expanded to incorporate upscale residential areas deep in the Sonora Desert, and has gained notoriety as a golf and resort oasis. Just west of Phoenix, Scottsdale prides itself as “The West’s Most Western Town,” promoting its history and heritage between the desert’s looming mountains. Surprisingly, Scottsdale is also known for its nightlife, often being lauded as one of the country’s best destinations for a night on the town. Whether you are a night owl or a nature freak, here are ten of the most unskippable things to do in Scottsdale.
10. McDowell Sonoran Preserve
With the quick expansion of development in the 1980s, residents came together and reserved land that would be immune to further development. The McDowell Sonoran Preserve truly proves wrong the stigma that a desert can sustain no life. Home to hundreds of species of animals and thousands of species of plants, the Sonoran Desert is just as diverse, if not more, than many other climates in the United States. The McDowell Sonoran Preserve, stretching over 30,000 acres, includes a handful of different trails with varying difficulty. Free of charge.
9. Old Town Scottsdale
Old Town also serves as the city’s downtown, rounding up the southern tip of the valley. Home to many buildings originally constructed in the late 19th century, it isn’t hard to see the real “western” influence that the town once had. Including a blacksmith shop, a saloon, an old church, and a turn of the century schoolhouse, the area also boasts ample shopping, dining opportunities and a handful of museums. This is also the area where the city garners its reputation for having an unparalleled nightlife, so be sure to continue exploring after dark.
8. Butterfly Wonderland
Open seven days a week, Butterfly Wonderland has built the worlds largest butterfly atrium, with a glass ceiling and a plethora of plants, so the entire family can enter and observe thousands of butterflies from many different species not only flutter around, but feed, emerge from cocoons, and perhaps even land on you. The remarkable center also features exhibits that showcase desert insects (including scorpions), honeybees, Amazonian rivers, a 3D theatre, and a gift shop and café. Tickets are $27.95 per adult, $19.95 per child.
7. MacDonald’s Ranch
What evokes the old west and the Sonoran desert more than riding a horse? Beginning as a ranch for horse and cattle over 60 years ago, MacDonald’s Ranch is still owned by the same family, but focusing on catering towards the tourism industry, allowing visitors a glimpse into life on a ranch and an opportunity to interact with and ride horses through their 1300 desert acres. Private rides begin at about $85 per person (for an hour), but there are also more romantic moonlight rides that occur, for the same price, around the full moon cycle.
6. Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art
Arizona State’s only permanent collection of mostly modern art, SMoCA is housed in a beautifully-designed structure (an ingeniously renovated movie theatre, in fact) located downtown and reflecting the Sonoran sky. Including four rotating galleries of visual art and architecture from around the globe SMoCA also houses a lounge where events are often held (check their calendar). If you happen to be visiting around sunset, be sure to check out local artist James Turrell’s sculpture-enclosure Knight Rise for a special treatment of the night sky. Admission is $7 for adults, and $5 for students.
5. McCormick-Stillman Railroad Park
If you have kids, the McCormick-Stillman Railroad Park is one of the best tourist attractions in Scottsdale. Established in the 1960s with funding from the city, the country, and businessman Guy Stillman, the park is centered on a nearly half-scale but working Paradise and Pacific railroad, which rides patrons throughout the park daily upon a mile-long track. There is also a massive model train set up, as well as a few playgrounds, and museum exhibits. Admission is based on tickets per ride, but is extremely affordable.
4. Southwest Wildlife Conservation Center
The Southwest Wildlife Conservation Center was founded in the early 1990s with the rescue of a single coyote pup. Since then, the conservation center has blossomed into a 10-acre sanctuary for native animals that were found injured, sick, or otherwise incapacitated. The conservation center provides a cool home for these animals to recuperate before being released back into the wild. Interested guests can book tours of the facilities on the weekends by preregistering and can expect to see grey wolves, mountain lions, black bears and their friends.
3. Taliesin West
Frank Lloyd Wright, possibly the twentieth century’s most recognizable architect, built Taliesin West as his winter vacation home, as well as the center for his architectural school. It was a counterpart to Taliesin East, Wright’s studio in Wisconsin, and was designed entirely with the surrounding desert in mind. Beautiful, impressive, and disorienting, Taliesin West is a true marvel of American Western Architecture, and today serves as the main campus for the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture. It is also open to many sorts of tours, including one geared specifically for kids, beginning at $24 a person.
2. Desert Wolf Tours
The most fun and adventurous of the desert tours given in the area, Desert Wolf Tours incorporates ATVs into their curriculum, allowing of-age customers control over their own vehicle as the groups rips through the Sonoran. The local guides that lead each excursion will be sure to fill you in on the ecology, history and culture if you’re able to hear them over the engines. What makes this tour unique is that you really cover a lot of ground – it is one of the few ways to safely feel as though you are really ‘out there,’ whereas many other tours only skirt the border. Adventures begin at $159 per adult and $99 per child.
1. Day Trip to Sedona
Sedona, perhaps best known for its vibrantly red rocks, is a bit of a hike (2 hour drive) from Flagstaff, but entirely worth the distance in every way imaginable. The landscape is particularly green for Arizona, and yet mottled with enormous red rocks jutting out from the ground and rising for hundreds of feet, each formation being named after its shape’s resemblance. Perhaps the most alluring aspect of Sedona, beyond its energetic arts community strewn throughout, is the fact that climbing on the red rocks is not only allowed, it is relatively safe and encouraged. Climbing Bell rock is highly recommended, as is bringing plenty of water.
Although it may exist deep in the arid scorching valley, it becomes abundantly clear that there is no lack of places to visit in Scottsdale. The looming mountains that rush the sunset, the surprisingly large, iconic Saguaro cacti, and the rugged individualism charm of the locals all combine to make Scottsdale one truly great oasis.