Last Updated on July 2, 2021 by Janet Frost
The Valley of the Sun, is how Greater Phoenix loves to be remembered. When you land in the heart of Phoenix, you immediately recognize it as a vast valley. The Phoenix Mountain complex, a small range of random peaks (under 2000 feet of elevation) run straight through the middle of the city. Ringing the outer edges of The Valley are even larger ranges; Superstition Mountains, Usury Mountains, San Tan Mountains, McDowell Mountains and White Tank Mountains, to name a few. As for the sun, the Greater Phoenix area enjoys an average of 296 sunny days per year.
Let’s Go! Learn How to Spend 3 Days in the Valley of the Sun…
Travel Tips for the Valley of the Sun
Here are a few important travel tips for Phoenix and the surrounding area. Contrary to popular belief, Phoenix does have seasons. January and February are considered winter, with cool temps, anywhere from 40s to 70s. Spring (March and April) is of course the peak time to visit, with temps cool at night and warm by noon. By mid-May temps can rise to 100+ and summer is upon us. August and September are unique in the Southwest with searing temps and threatening monsoons. Fall makes a fleeting appearance between Thanksgiving and New Years.
All that being said, Arizona and the Greater Phoenix Area is a beautiful sunny playground year round. In the hot summer months you need to plan the outdoor adventures early in the morning and explore the cool museums and chill restaurants during the heat of the day. DO NOT underestimate the strength of Arizona’s sun. Even in the winter the sun is intense. Valley of the Sun residents never leave home without sunscreen, a hat and plenty of water! Follow their lead.
For this 3 Day Itinerary I have included an outdoor adventure early in the morning and indoor museums for mid-day. This schedule is necessary in summer but works well at anytime of the year. I will share some extra ideas for other seasons at the end of the post.
Day 1 in the Valley of the Sun
Breakfast and Outdoor Adventure
We are going to start the visit to the desert at the informative Desert Botanical Gardens. This 140-acre outdoor museum has over 4,000 species of desert plants. A morning spent wandering their short trails will help you recognize what you are seeing on the rest of your desert adventures. The vast array of cacti, agave, yucca and flowers amaze first time visitors to the Sonoran Desert. The Gardens are open 9am-5pm during the cooler season, September-May, and 7am-8pm during the summer months, May-September. I recommend planning to visit either early morning or late evening.
The Ranch House, just 3 miles north of the Gardens, offers a quintessential Southwest breakfast with simple diner atmosphere. It opens at 6am, so you can stop in before or after your visit to the Gardens.
Let’s Go! Learn more at the Desert Botanical Garden
Lunch and Culture
The Ancient Peoples and modern Native Americans culture is an integral part of The Valley of the Sun. As a matter of fact, there is evidence of indigenous desert dwellers all across Arizona. In the Phoenix area, the Ancient Sonoran-Desert Dwellers were predominately “canal builders” with communities along the Gila and Salt rivers. Archeological research shows that much of today’s canal system (developed by highly-educated civil engineers) lies directly over the original native waterways. A visit to the Pueblo Grande Museum, a small outdoor interpretive trail, gives you a look back into one of these prehistoric villages.
After the introduction to Native culture at Pueblo Grande, we are going to head to the wonderful Heard Museum for an in depth look at Native American Art. I love this museum. It is packed with folk art and modern art by Southwest Native Americans across the generations. Take your time because there is a lot to see. Pottery, baskets, textiles, jewelry, Kachina dolls and sculpture are beautifully displayed and annotated.
The Museum does have its own cafe if you choose to grab lunch there. However, just half a mile down the road is the trendy restaurant, Switch. They call themselves a “Neighborhood Joint”, which sounds like a comfort food diner. But Switch takes that vibe and elevates it with urban chic décor and extra jazzy flavors in each dish.
Dinner and a View
To finish out the day of Native American culture try the vibrant Tash for small plates and craft cocktails, or the very posh Orange Sky restaurant. Both are located on the top of the Talking Stick Casino with amazing views of the Valley of the Sun. The Salt River Pima/Maricopa Indian Community, which owns Talking Stick Casino and Resort, is a dynamic tribe that celebrates its ancient culture while embracing its modern urban setting. As you make your way through the Casino to the sublime penthouse dining, you will enjoy a beautifully curated gallery of contemporary Native American art.
Day 2 in the Valley of the Sun
Brunch and Outdoor Adventure
Up and at ’em! Time for another romp in the desert. Today we are going to explore the McDowell Mountains. Scottsdale’s McDowell Sonoran Preserve protects this precious and diverse geography. With an array of popular desert trails and educational facilities the Preserve is a gem. The Preserve offers 30,580 acres of Sonoran Desert, and over 225+ miles of trails.
As with many trails in Arizona, most of the trails in the McDowells are shared by hikers, bikers and equestrians. Be sure to acquaint yourself with the yielding rules before you start out. Below I have circled a couple of my favorites.
The Gateway is a where I recommend you start your explorations of the McDowell Mountains. This trailhead has plenty of parking, restrooms, and a delightful Bajada Nature Trail that introduces you to the flora and fauna of the Sonoran Desert. Many popular trails branch off from this starting point, so you can choose your level of adventure.
The Sunrise Trail is another choice, it is a perfect 4-mile hike to start the day. It is rocky and fairly steep, so come prepared. Plenty of water, sturdy hiking shoes, and I like hiking poles. The vistas from the summit are spectacular!
Brunch at Hash Kitchen
Hash Kitchen warns us: “Don’t Drink on an Empty Stomach”. They offer the perfect solution with their Bloody Mary Bar and some of the best brunch food I have ever encountered. There are five locations in the Valley of the Sun, but the one closest (3 miles) after our hiking is Hash Kitchen North Scottsdale on Frank Lloyd Wright Blvd.
While we are on Frank Lloyd Wright Blvd, we really must visit Taliesin West for our first culture experience of the afternoon. Taliesin West was Frank Lloyd Wright’s beloved winter home. Built in 1937, it served as his “desert laboratory”. This UNESCO World Heritage site and National Historic Landmark is nestled into the desert foothills of the McDowell Mountains.
The initial Taliesin, in Wisconsin, was his home, studio, school, and 800-acre agricultural estate. Wright built Taliesin on his favorite boyhood hill in the Wisconsin River valley homesteaded by his Welsh grandparents.
Heading to the west side of Scottsdale, we find the Scottsdale Museum of the West. There are many western museums spread across the Southwest, but I find this one special. This Scottsdale museum is packed with beautiful art and artifacts of the West experience. Compared to the Heard Museum, the Museum of the West is not limited to Native American but also cowboy and pioneer culture.
Dinner and Chillin’
Wow! Another busy day exploring the Valley of the Sun. Tonight we are going to dine and chill at the Postino Wine Cafe in Scottsdale. This is one of my favorite experiences in the Phoenix area. There are several locations but since our day has been spent in Scottsdale we can finish the night out at there Scottsdale location. This fun spot is known for pairing nice bottles of wine with bruschetta boards.
Day 3 in the Valley of the Sun
Breakfast and Outdoor Adventure
The first day of our visit to the Valley of the Sun was in Phoenix, Day 2 was spent exploring Scottsdale. This last day, we are heading to Gilbert Gilbert is in the southeastern corner of the Greater Phoenix area. Originally a thriving farming community, today Gilbert is an energetic suburb finding a balance between its heritage and its future.
Our outdoor adventure today will be at the Gilbert Riparian Water Ranch. Gilbert city planners wanted to create an innovative and unique way to combine water resource development with wildlife habitat. The Ranch has 110 acres, 70 of which make up 7 water recharge basins/ponds. This is an oasis for multitudes of local and migrating birds.
Even if you are not a birdwatcher, wandering the paths around the ponds is a great way to start the day. Water after all, is a scarce commodity in the Sonoran Desert.
For breakfast, I suggest you head to the Heritage District of Gilbert. This is their restored downtown strip that offers many dining choices. Snooze a well-known breakfast chain is one option, or the local and historic Liberty Market is another.
Lunch and Culture
We are going to switch up our routine for this afternoon. Because your visit to the Valley of the Sun is coming to a close, I suggest some chill time. You can continue to explore charming Gilbert and venture a little further south to Queen Creek Olive Mill. Other options are a round of golf, the most popular activity in the Valley of the Sun, or the second favorite, chillin’ at the pool.
Golf can be found in a variety of styles. To stay within our culture theme, you could play at the Talking Stick Golf Club, owned by the Salt River Pima/Maricopa Nation. The club offers two beautiful 18 hole courses at reasonable fees. A course with an incredible desert setting is the very popular Boulders Club. Finally, if the weather is prohibitive, try the trendy Topgolf. The Valley of the Sun offers three locations: Gilbert to the south, Glendale to the north and Scottsdale on the Salt River Pima/Maricopa Indian Community, next to Talking Stick Casino and Resort.
Dinner and Games
For dinner we are going to continue our chill and relaxed day. Culinary Dropout is one of my favorites for good food, great drinks and hanging with friends. The cavernous setting is filled with backyard-style games, such as bag toss, and shuffle board tables. Their food offers amazing versions of everyone’s comfort food. Since we spent much of the day in Gilbert, I recommend finishing the day at the Gilbert location of Culinary Dropout.
Let’s Go! Learn Things in Gilbert, AZ: 10 Reasons to Visit Gilbert
Making recommendations for lodging can be tricky. It depends on your price point and which activities you want to be close to. There is a plethora lodging options in the Valley of the Sun from exorbitant luxury to reasonably priced chain hotels. Scottsdale is popular for its central location to most activities in the Valley of the Sun.
Here are a few of my favorite splurges:
- Andaz Scottsdale Resort and Bungalows is a surprisingly peaceful property nestled in the heart of Scottsdale.
- The Phoenician is a luxury spa and resort that is truly paradise
- Talking Stick Resort and Casino on the Salt River Pima/Maricopa Indian Community
All of the familiar chains such as Holiday Inn Express, Marriott Courtyard and Doubletree are available all across the region. You will find that rates are lower in the outlying suburbs such as Goodyear, Surprise, Mesa or Gilbert.
Seasonal Special Events in the Valley of the Sun
As we mentioned at the beginning, Spring (February-April) is the most active season for the Valley of the Sun. Here are a few ideas:
- Baseball’s Cactus League Spring Training 2/21-4/4 2022
- Renaissance Festival 2/5-4/3 2022
- Desert Botanical Gardens Luminarias a gorgeous light festival in November and December
- Arizona Beer Week, discover craft breweries throughout the state during the month of February
- Arizona Restaurant Week happens in the spring, May and fall, September.
- Red Mountain Powwow in early November on the Salt River Pima/Maricopa Indian Community
- Wickenburg Bluegrass Festival in November and Gold Rush Days in February.