When The New York Times’ once described Scottsdale as being “a desert version of Miami’s South Beach” it forgot to mention that the town is best known for being “The West’s Most Western Town”, too. Scottsdale is only 31 miles long and 11 miles wide, but it has certainly managed to fill that space with some amazing attractions in the form of parks, museums, shopping areas and concert halls, to name but a few. Its population of 230,500, as of 2014, has been keeping busy with all of them, so let’s find out what’s going on!
I’m an Arizona local and have visited Scottsdale several times to explore the city and its surroundings. Here’s a compilation of attractions I think every tourist and local in Scottsdale should see:
1. McDowell Sonoran Preserve
The McDowell Sonoran Preserve is a large, permanently protected, sustainable desert habitat offering some amazing hikes for the whole family. There is a very generous amount of different hikes, too, at various degrees of competency and fitness level. For example, the Gateway Loop is very rocky so remember to wear your hiking boots and bring poles! This one is my favorite since I love a good challenge. If you’re a thrill-seeker like me, you will enjoy this hike. Alternatively, Browns Ranch is a lot easier and a chance to enjoy the desert scenery in greater depth as you won’t have to look down all the time! When I feel like having a peaceful, calming hike, this is what I go for. Other choices are the Bell Pass, the Sunrise, or the Wingate. The list continues! There really is a trail for anyone who wants to get out and enjoy desert nature at its finest.
2. McCormick-Stillman Railroad Park
If the family enjoys mini-train rides, a lovely park with concessions, and model railroading, make sure you stop in at the McCormick-Stillman Railroad Park. Kids (and dads!) of every age will adore the huge 15 in. gauge railroad, Magma Arizona Railroad locomotive, a railroad museum and much, much more. There are hundreds of square feet of meticulously constructed dioramas with every gauge of model train running around, together with interactive buttons that allow you to activate various equipment, sound and light parts! It is my favorite thing to do because it pleases the kid in me. I also recommend going around to explore the generously sized park’s several play areas. Likewise, I recommend trying the carousel and visiting the gift shop to purchase snacks and souvenirs.
3. Butterfly Wonderland
If you’re looking for a casual family place for a fun day out, I suggest you head for Butterfly Wonderland. Its remarkable state of the art facility is home to an incredible glass atrium that provides the perfect tropical rainforest habitat for thousands of butterflies from all over the world that fly around freely. I love this experience so much. Imagine seeing all the colorful butterflies sipping nectar from the just as colorful flowers. It looks magical I feel like I’m watching a moving art piece every time I visit there! There is also an educational “Flight of the Butterflies” 3D movie to see, and of particular interest to the kids, I’m sure, an interactive insect exhibits. There is also a café serving tasty refreshments as well as a gift shop. And don’t forget to bring the zoom camera!
4. Old Town Scottsdale
Take the family for a leisurely stroll through historic Old Town to get a real taste of Scottsdale. The area is conveniently situated downtown, within an easily walkable neighborhood filled to the brim with award winning restaurants, fine art galleries, souvenir outlets, jewelry shops and unusual stores. As you walk past the Little Red Schoolhouse, Cavalliere’s Blacksmith Shop and Rusty Spur Saloon, you’ll easily feel transported back in time. There are some nice cafes around too, if you just want to sit for a while and watch the world go by.
Old Town is perfect for people who loves peace and quiet. If you are like me who needs more to be satisfied, don’t worry. Old Town Scottsdale also has something for us. I love this place after dark. The nightlife here is great – there are celebrity DJs and live bands performing at up scale nightclubs and bars in the Entertainment District!
5. Western Spirit: Scottsdale’s Museum of the West
This fascinating museum, situated in Scottsdale Old Town, covers information about all 19 western states, from Texas to the Dakotas (including Hawaii and Alaska) and is, basically, 35,000 sq. ft. of captivating facts, painting and artifacts for everyone. The museum regularly features changing exhibitions, gallery tours and activities that bring to exciting life its Western heritage. One of the museum’s most current shows (what I consider one of the best) includes the Dazzling Array: The Richard A. Gates Collection of Native American Jewelry. Beautiful necklaces, cuffs, and others made by Larry Golsh, Charles Loloma, and other notable artists are on display. I love how he museum’s helpful staff are happy to answer questions, and there is also a gift shop selling high quality merchandise.
6. Penske Racing Museum
A perfect visit for all car aficionados of the family. Situated within the Penske Automotive Group car dealerships (nestled between Bentley, BMW and Jaguar car dealers) sits Mr Penske’s 9,000 sq ft, two story museum which is open to the public (and free of charge), showcasing an astonishing collection of cars and trophies, as well as some fascinating racing memorabilia. In fact, many of the actual racing cars that have produced signature wins for Penske Racing over the years are on display, enabling the museum-goers to learn about the history of each of these amazing machines. When I entered the museum, I was greeted by the Miller Lite Dodge stock car that Rusty Wallace raced to his 37th and final victory with the team in 2004! For sure, you will love seeing it in person as much as I did.
7. Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts
This center is home every year to more than 1,000 performances, both indoor and outdoor, plus festivals and learning programs. Its educational and outreach programs involve more than 20,000 adults and children each year too. Perhaps that is why the Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts is known best as one of the Western United States performing arts halls. I recommend finding the interesting gift shop selling unusual items on site as well as dining in at least one of the several restaurants offering al fresco dining situated nearby, together with the city’s modern art museum. All in all, a visit here would provide an interesting time for everyone.
8. Southwest Wildlife Conservation Center
The Butterfly Sanctuary is not the only sanctuary on my list. The Southwest Wildlife Conservation Center (SWCC) is also a place in Scottsdale you must visit.
A visit to the SWCC is a marvelous way to get the kids involved in learning all about wild animal rescue. The Conservation Center is neither a zoo nor an animal park; but a sanctuary dedicated to the rescue of wild animals found abandoned, injured or orphaned. Whenever possible, the animals are rehabilitated and then released back into the wild, and those who are not able will instead live out their lives in safety at the sanctuary. The kids will love meeting the residents, with dedicated staff happy to share their knowledge about what the facility is doing. Donations are always appreciated.
9. MacDonald’s Ranch
Spend a family day at MacDonald’s Ranch, Scottsdale’s premier horseback riding stable. There are loads of fun things to do here, from guided horseback rides to hayrides and cowboy cookouts, with the Sonoran Desert acting as the stunning backdrop. Whatever the family’s experience, the ranch’s expert guides make sure that all riders, whatever level, experience no danger. The ranch’s horses are affable and obedient, too. I think you will enjoy a casual ride through the area and have the chance to get to know some of the area’s wildlife and flora and fauna.
10. Arizona Cowboy College
One of my most fun days in Arizona was spent in this place. If you’ve ever fancied being a cowboy or cowgirl for the day, here’s your chance! Arizona Cowboy College has been in business in Scottsdale since 1969 and its senior instructor, Rocco Wachman, was famous over the years for his roles in Country Music Television’s Original Cowboy Series. Well, you couldn’t get more cowboy than that, I don’t think! The courses have been designed in a serious attempt to teach its guests horsemanship skills and ranching techniques, and area always taught with the utmost of patience. This is a lovely family experience and suitable for all ages too.
11. Scottsdale Fashion Square
This luxury shopping center is home to the best names in the business! From Nordstrom and Neiman Marcus to Gucci and Louis Vuitton, this upscale shopping mall is approximately 2 million square feet of opulent retail opportunities. The mall is actually Arizona’s largest and among the top 30 largest malls in the country. I think shopaholics will have a field day here. So get your comfortable walking shoes on! You will also find helpful and courteous staff on hand throughout the shopping center. Though the shops are high-end you might also be lucky enough to pick up a few bargains at some anchor stores such as Macys!
12. Arizona Outdoor Fun
To see Scottsdale and its surrounds through expert eyes, I suggest you take a guided tour. ATV/UTV tours will take you on a desert tour to the stunning Bradshaw Mountains with spectacular view of the desert and all of its stunning colors. As you travel through deep canyons and cross over the Agua Fria River to explore the remaining Indian ruins, you’re bound to feel as one with this beautiful location. Or visit the old silver mining town of Tip Top, settled in 1876 and now deserted. You will also learn how to survive in the desert by eating the cacti meat! It was an unforgettable experience for me. Safety and fun are of upmost importance to the guides.
13. Singh Farms
For a Saturday morning family treat, drop by Singh Farms to indulge in some delicious fresh produce such as home baked whole grain breads and organic fruit and vegetables, all loving grown and tended within this lush farm. Just east of the 101 freeway in Scottsdale, it’s an easy find. The farm is very popular with locals (including myself), who have been known to refer to it as “an oasis in the desert”. Some of the mouth watering fresh goodies include tasty muffins, cinnamon buns and all types of preserves too. Enjoy watching the pizza being made as you sip on some of their tasty kale and bean soup.
14. Octane Raceway
Here is another attraction for adrenaline junkies like me. Have a fast and fun time at Octane Raceway, the only full time indoor and outdoor racing track in North America! The raceway’s 1/3mile track is a great choice for some competitive kart racing action for sure! If you’ve never experienced the thrill of this before, now is the time to enjoy speeding around in Octane Raceway’s 45+ mph karts. The family is sure to love it and, best of all, you are allowed a generous amount of lap time around the course too. The karts are fully adjustable to all body sizes and if there are any beginners in the family, there is also a safety video to watch.
15. Let you putting skills shine at Glow Putt!
I think playing mini golf is a fun activity to pass time. But I know something even better: playing mini golf at Glow Putt Mini Golf. It is an indoor safari jungle themed miniature golf course that glows in the dark! And don’t be concerned that no one will be able to see your hole in one accomplishment – the 18 hole course is lit up with special UV lighting, and even the golf balls glow brightly every time they pass through one of the custom made charges. The course’s layout will keep all the family happy whatever skill level they are and the kids will have the time of their lives working through the course. Also, if anybody gets that illusive hole in one, they receive a prize at the end!
16. Xeriscape Garden
I believe a trip in the desert without seeing an oasis is an incomplete trip. Thus, I recommend going to the Xeriscape Garden. If Buckeye has Desert Botanical Garden, Scottsdale has this. This fascinating garden is one of Scottsdale’s hidden secret desert oases. Packed with cacti, desert trees and colorful succulents, plenty of shady areas to walk within and interesting trails to climb, this is a lovely spot for the adults to chill, as well as super for kids to burn off some energy! The Xeiscape Garden’s message can be found within its over scaled and rusty steel water vessel; a symbol of abundance in an arid climate. Designed by landscape architect Christine Ten Eyck and inscribed with the reminder “The frog does not drink up the pond in which he lives”, the message was eagerly embraced by homeowners and encouraged by conservationists and city water utilities.
17. Odysea Mirror Maze
This is a brainy attraction that stretched my imagination, and it will do the same to yours! Hosting a cleverly constructed mirror maze as well as laser maze game, you will be kept busy trying to work out how to find the real path of escape as you make your way across a rickety bridge that overlooks a Central American rainforest, with the sounds of the jungle all around you. Will you be able to discover your truth path, and find your escape out of it? As you travel through a morass of jungle, false passages and even an ancient Mayan Temple there’ll be plenty of stories to relate after this fun experience.
18. Cosanti Originals
Suppose you are an art buff or an artsy person. I suggest you check out the Cosanti Originals. I’m confident it will give you inspiration.
The word “Cosanti” derives from two Italian words, ‘cosa and ‘anti’ which, when put together, literally mean ‘before (or against) things’. As you learn more about the owner and artist Paolo Soleri’s sculpture studios, you will see that Soleri’s anti-materialist stance is prominent throughout the building. Soleri and his students began work on the experimental buildings of Cosanti in the mid 1950’s, later to be designated an Arizona Historic Site. This landmark foundry is full of interesting features and a treat to watch the family working their magic on the renowned founding bells.
19. Taliesin West
This is Frank Lloyd Wright’s world famous home and architectural laboratory. Built in 1937 by the famous architect himself, it is now a National Historic Landmark. Constructed from the actual sand and stone of the surrounding Sonoran desert that sit at the foothills of the McDowell Mountains, it really is a magnificent attraction for those interested in architecture, fans of Frank Lloyd Wright himself, or just as an engaging and relevant experience for the family. You have the choice of taking the 90 minute tour conducted by well trained, knowledgeable guides, or by making your own way through the house. I recommend opting for the former first, then the latter on your next visit. The gift shop is well worth a visit too, with generously stocked artistic gifts for family & friends of all ages.