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Phoenix

Let there be no mistake, Phoenix is a city in the sun and all the trappings of luxury aren’t going to keep you from breaking a sweat. In Egyptian mythology, the phoenix was a majestic bird that lived in the desert for half a millennium before consuming itself by fire and then rising renewed from the ashes. By these Egyptian standards, this Phoenix still has a good 400 years.

Phoenix has garnered well-earned praise as one of the world’s top five golf destinations. Currently the fifth-largest city in the United States, with over 1.3 million residents and over 3 million in the metropolitan area, Phoenix offers a multitude of cultural and recreational activities.

Greater Phoenix gives visitors the opportunity to enjoy countless activities ranging from museums, galleries, performing arts and fine dining. The climate makes outdoor activities, such as hiking, biking and water recreation a way of life. And this doesn’t consider trips to scenic Arizona destinations like the Grand Canyon, Petrified Forest and Sedona.

Introduction

One of America’s newest and fastest-growing urban centers, Phoenix lies at the northern tip of the Sonoran Desert in the Valley of the Sun, named for its 330+ days of sunshine each year. The largest city in the US Southwest, Phoenix’s greatest attraction is the surrounding land: a vast expanse of untamed desert, mystifying in its stark beauty and yet daunting due to the peril of a lonesome, roasting death. Today, Phoenix is as modern as any American metropolis, with an active arts scene and an economy as brisk as they come. You won’t find the endless diversions of New York or San Francisco, but the area offers a tremendous range of activities, from hiking on some of the country’s most-traveled trails to golfing on championship courses. Southwestern cuisine, which has swept the country, was born here and Phoenix’s first-class resorts have raised the art of pampering to new heights. The White Mountains are a nearby escape, with Old West towns, the stunning Salt River Canyon and more great hiking.

after the recession in the early 1990’s, Phoenix is on a roll. It is right there with the nation’s leaders in job growth and new home construction. Not long ago, downtown was little more than local headquarters for various banks, law firms and accounting practices. Things pretty much shut down after 5:00 p.m.. But the area is starting to come alive with the addition of the Arizona Center entertainment and restaurant complex, America West Arena and the BankOne Ballpark. Symphony Hall and the Herberger Theater Center also are drawing crowds.

Phoenix was founded in the 1870’s on the site of a Native American village that flourished from 700 to 1300 A. D. Much of the Valley of the Sun’s elaborate canal and irrigation system follows the network of canals constructed 800 years earlier by the Hohokam people. Today, metropolitan Phoenix sprawls 3,000 square miles, encompassing Scottsdale, Tempe, Mesa, Chandler, Glendale and a half-dozen smaller communities in Arizona’s Maricopa County.

In the summer, it gets hot. And it’s not always a dry heat, either, especially in July and August, when the monsoons blow in from the Gulf of Mexico. Because it’s cooler in the morning, things get rolling early even as early as 6:00 a.m. to 7:00 a.m.

Phoenix is a very modern city it didn’t really boom until after World War II. Its sprawling area and surging growth make it seem a deceptively bland destination. Even residents have trouble taking full measure of what the metropolis has to offer. However, the balance of old and new becomes more apparent and more intriguing by the year.

History & Culture

As far back as 300 B. C., the desert soil began yielding crops for the Hohokam people because of irrigation. They spent centuries developing a complex system of canals, only to mysteriously abandon them around 1450 A. D. Remnants of these canals can be seen in the Pueblo Grande Museum. More recently, groups of Pima and Maricopa Indians eked out an existence along the Gila and Salt Rivers, but there were no more permanent settlements until the mid-1860’s when the US Army built Fort McDowell northeast of Phoenix. This prompted former soldier and prospector Jack Swilling to reopen Hohokam canals to produce crops for the garrison and led to the establishment of a town in 1870.

Not long after, Phoenix began to establish itself as an agricultural and transportation center. A trip to Phoenix will show you why. The railway arrived from the Pacific in 1887 and by the time Phoenix became the territorial capital in 1889, it had about 3000 inhabitants. Settlers built many Victorian houses during the 1890’s that stand today as Phoenix’s oldest historical buildings. In 1886, the Arizona Normal School was established in Tempe, later to become Arizona State University. Other villages began to grow; Mesa was founded by Mormon settlers in 1878 and Scottsdale followed a decade later, named after army chaplain Winfield Scott, one of its first settlers.

The lack of water remained a major stumbling block to further growth until 1911, when construction workers finished building the Roosevelt Dam on the Salt River, the first of many large dams to be built in the state. The stage was set for growth and grow Phoenix did.

In 1926, Phoenix’s railway link became transcontinental, enabling people from the East to pour into the state in increasing numbers. Many came for recreation some to relax at the luxurious Arizona Biltmore resort, opened in 1929 and still one of the finest in the West. Others came for their health; the dry desert air was said to cure various respiratory ailments. Many of these visitors stayed.

The combination of recreation and culture has been the valley’s main attraction ever since. Today’s visitors come to golf, ride, swim or simply relax. Many spend a day or two visiting the area’s museums or watch a professional basketball game, in the evening dining in one of the many casual restaurants that serve some of Arizona’s most acclaimed meals. Relaxed sophistication is a hallmark of Phoenix,  and the attractions of Phoenix are endless, where a cowboy hat and jeans are rarely out of place and where ties are seldom required.

The early history of the area is not immediately evident to most visitors, who see a sprawling modern city. The two major causes of this were the advent of air conditioning after WWII and the authorization of the Central Arizona Project in 1968, which allowed the diversion of Colorado River water to Phoenix.

Phoenix was hemmed in by a host of other towns before WWII, but massive growth in the years since has linked these into one huge, still-growing metropolitan area of over 3 million people, since the early 1980’s, thousands and thousands of new residents were arriving each year, making this one of the country’s fastest growing area. Phoenix and the other major cities in the metro area Phoenix combine to cover well over 1000 sq miles in an area locally referred to as ‘The Valley of the Sun.’

Modern buildings have replaced most but not all of the old ones. The valley’s economy continues to be, as always, driven by politics, the surrounding agriculture, transportation and tourism, but the recent growth has brought industry and manufacturing, especially of electrical and computer components, to the economic foreground.

Attractions

A one-stop shop for learning about Southwest Indian tribes’ history, arts and culture, the Heard Museum is touted for quality rather than quantity. Sure, there are thousands of exhibits, but these are so well laid out (in so relatively small a space) that a visit here is much more relaxing than the torturous schleps of most major museums. The Heard’s kachina doll collection is outstanding, as are the audiovisual displays, live demonstrations and bookshop, which has the area’s best albeit priciest selection of Native American arts and crafts. If Southwest Indian history and culture interests you at all, this museum is not to be missed. The Heard is on the northern outskirts of downtown, about 4 miles from the capitol, half a block east of Central Ave on E. Monte Vista Road. Another long-time favorite is the Desert Botanical Garden. It’s beautiful year round, but if you’re visiting in the spring, don’t miss the brilliantly colorful flowering season of March to May. Aficionados of desert flora can stroll among the succulents in this 145 acre garden, which contains thousands of species of plants particularly adapted to the arid landscape. The surrounding Papago Park has picnic areas, jogging, biking and equestrian trails, a city golf course and a children’s fishing pond and also houses the Phoenix Zoo. The garden, park and zoo are 8 miles east of the capitol on N. Galvin Pkwy.

The new Arizona Science Center complex contains a museum with 350 hands-on exhibits that encourage visitors to explore and experiment with computers, bubbles, weather, physics, biology and more. There’s also a five-story giant-screen theater with shows about the American West, NASA and other subjects. A planetarium has star shows every hour. You can relive junior high school at one of the laser light shows that accompany the music of such AOR stalwarts at Pink Floyd and the Doors.

Scottsdale continues development of its Waterfront, a 12-acre development featuring pedestrian shopping and entertainment on the bank of the Arizona Canal at Scottsdale Road and Camelback. The Waterfront will include a beautified canal, distinctive storefronts, shaded pedestrian walkways, indigenous plants and public artwork. Also in the works is a spacious Smithsonian Institution affiliate museum in the former Scottsdale Galleria shopping center at Scottsdale Road and Civic Center Boulevard.

If all of the new facilities start to get overwhelming, pay a visit to the “Old Town” area of downtown: Some of the oldest residences in the city are found there. Half a dozen blocks near Scottsdale’s chamber of commerce constitute “Old Town”‘ a cluster of early 20th century buildings and some more recently styled to look like those of the Old West. Not quite the dusty streets of Sam Peckinpah, you can still mosey past saloons and dodge imaginary bullets, but the real killers these days are Scottsdale’s prices. One of the area’s true fossils is the ‘Little Red School House,’ built in 1909 and now housing the Scottsdale Historical Museum. It hosts exhibits on the area’s early days.

Nearby, the Scottsdale Center for the Arts is home to some decent contemporary art galleries and a sculpture garden and plays host to various performing artists. Old Town is in central Scottsdale, 9 miles northeast of downtown Phoenix.

Frank Lloyd Wright America’s most famous 20th century architect lived, designed and taught in Scottsdale at Taliesin West. Set on 600 acres (240ha) of desert, Taliesin West is a working example of Wright’s organic architecture, which uses natural forms to shape most structures. Wright moved here in 1927 and didn’t finish building for 30 years. Today, the natural rock, wood and canvas structures continue to be both living quarters and a teaching establishment. Hour long guided tours are given daily. Taliesin West is about 10 miles (16km) northeast of Phoenix.

If fountains are your thing take a trip to Fountain Hills. The town’s name is derived from its landmark fountain. The attraction, the “world’s tallest fountain,” shoots out water 560 feet into the air from a lagoon in the center of 32-acre Fountain Park. Its status is even recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records. Built by the Swiss, the landmark is visible for miles (watch for it when flying into Phoenix’s Sky Harbor airport) and is reminiscent of Switzerland’s jet fountain on Lake Lucerne.

Recreation

Covering 25 square miles, Phoenix South Mountain Park is the largest city park in the US, providing over 40 miles of trails for hiking and mountain biking. There are also good views and scores of Indian petroglyphs to admire. The park is on one of the lower ranges surrounding the valley, with South Mountain topping the landscape at 2690 feet. It’s situated about 8 miles south of downtown Phoenix. Just in case you’d doubt the valley’s cowpoke roots, there are almost 40 horseback riding outfits listed in the Phoenix yellow pages. Short rides, often combined with a country breakfast or barbecue cookout, are popular activities and overnight packing trips can be arranged. And if riding the range doesn’t sate the desperado in you, drop by the local shooting and archery ranges for a whiff of gunsmoke and quiverful of release.

One great way to chill out in summer is inner tubing down the Salt River, which cuts through Phoenix just south of downtown. Several companies will give you information, rent tubes and provide shuttles to good places to begin your float. Tubing season is mid-April through September and weekends draw crowds of people bent on cooling off and partying on.

Dozens of companies offer hot-air balloon flights over the valley. Flights usually lift off in the calm morning air, drift for about an hour and top off with a traditional champagne brunch. Fine weather and splendid terrain make it nearly impossible to resist outdoor recreation.

And because we share the desert with critters and some of them bite, remember the desert rule of thumb: Don’t put your hand where the eye can’t see. When hiking at sunset or in the spring, it’s a good idea to walk heavily to warn snakes of your approach they’ll take off.

When To Go

The best time to visit Phoenix is from October through April, Phoenix enjoys mild weather and plenty of cultural events. Autumn is the best time to visit, weather-wise, though early Spring has all the best festivals. Those hardy souls who brave a visit in summer can witness the mercury riding above 100 degrees F for weeks on end, commonly climbing well over 110 degrees F in midsummer. Late Summer is also monsoon season, when late afternoon thunderstorms blast the area and flash flooding becomes a concern for hikers.

During the hottest spells, nobody does much of anything during daylight hours in Phoenix, but the city is still a haven for vacationers.


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