Thanks to the Grand Canyon—the most widely known white-water-rafting spot in the world and also one of the world’s premier backpacking destinations—Arizona is known for active, adventure-oriented vacations. For others, it’s synonymous with winter golf and tennis.
With its wide range of climates, Arizona offers good biking somewhere in the state every month of the year. In winter, there’s road biking around Phoenix and Tucson, while from spring to fall, the southeastern corner of the state offers fun routes. In summer, mountain bikers head to the Sedona area, the White Mountains (in eastern Arizona), and Kaibab National Forest (between Flagstaff and Grand Canyon National Park). There’s also excellent mountain biking at several Phoenix parks, and Tucson is one of the most bicycle-friendly cities in the country.
Backroads (www.backroads.com; tel. 800/462-2848 or 510/527-1555) offers a variety of multiday multisport trips visiting southern Utah and the Grand Canyon, Sedona, and the Tucson desert. Sojourn Bicycling & Active Vacations (www.gosojourn.com; tel. 800/730-4771) offers weeklong bike tours of the Sonoran Desert near Tucson, Prescott, and Sedona. Western Spirit Cycling Adventures (www.westernspirit.com; tel. 800/845-2453) has a number of interesting mountain-bike excursions, including trips to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. Arizona Outback Adventures (www.aoa-adventures.com; tel. 866/455-1601) does a variety of mountain-bike treks, including a 3-day trip in the Sonoran Desert.
By far the most memorable place for a flat-water kayak tour is Lake Powell, where Hidden Canyon Kayak (www.lakepowellhiddenkayak.com; tel. 928/660-1836) offers half-day to multiday tours. Guided kayak trips are also offered by Kayak Powell (www.kayaklakepowell.com; tel. 928/660-0778).
Casting a Line in Arizona
Large and small lakes around the state offer excellent fishing for warm-water game fish such as largemouth, smallmouth, and striped bass. There’s good trout fishing in the lakes atop the Mogollon Rim and in the White Mountains; the easily accessible section of the Colorado River between Glen Canyon Dam and Lees Ferry, just upstream from the Grand Canyon, is among the country’s most fabled stretches of trout water. To buy fishing licenses online, contact the Arizona Game and Fish Department (www.azgfd.com); the fee is $55 for non-residents. If you’re planning to fish on an Indian reservation, you’ll need to get a special permit from the reservation.
For many of Arizona’s winter visitors, golf is the main attraction. The state’s hundreds of golf courses range from easy public courses to PGA championship links. In Phoenix and Tucson, greens fees are higher in winter, generally ranging from about $150 to $250 for 18 holes at resort courses, including a golf cart. In summer, fees drop to less than half in some cases, a lot more in others. Almost all resorts offer special golf packages as well. If you’re visiting in winter, reserve golf slots as far in advance as possible. You can book tee times online at your favorite course, or poke around on Golf Now (www.golfnow.com) or Tee Off (www.teeoff.com) for deals. For municipal courses in Phoenix, which are quite good, go to www.phoenix.gov/parks/golf.
Arizona offers some of the most fascinating and challenging hiking in the country. All across the state’s lowland deserts, parks and other public lands are laced with trails that lead past saguaro cacti, to the tops of desert peaks, and deep into rugged canyons. The state also has vast forests, many in protected wilderness areas, with miles of hiking trails. See specific day-hike recommendations throughout this book.
The state’s two most unforgettable overnight backpack trips are the hike down to Phantom Ranch at the bottom of the Grand Canyon and the hike into Havasu Canyon, a side canyon of the Grand Canyon. A third popular backpacking trip is through Paria Canyon, a narrow slot canyon that originates in Utah and terminates in Arizona at Lees Ferry. There are also many overnight opportunities in the San Francisco Peaks north of Flagstaff and in the White Mountains of eastern Arizona. Guided backpacking trips of different durations and difficulty levels are offered by the Grand Canyon Field Institute (www.grandcanyon.org/fieldinstitute; tel. 800/858-2808 or 928/638-2481) and by Discovery Treks (www.discoverytreks.com; tel. 480/247-9266). Also check out multiday hiking and biking trips organized by Backroads (www.backroads.com; tel. 800/462-2848 or 510/527-1555).
All over Arizona there are stables where you can climb into the saddle of a sure-footed trail horse and ride off . . . well, if not into the sunset, certainly into some scenery you might never have seen before. Among the more scenic spots for riding are Grand Canyon National Park, Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park, Canyon de Chelly National Monument, the red-rock country around Sedona, Phoenix’s South Mountain Park and Superstition Mountains, and the Santa Catalina foothills outside Tucson. The famous mule rides down into the Grand Canyon require advance booking many months ahead. Both 1- and 2-day trips are offered; for reservations and information, contact Grand Canyon National Park Lodges (www.grandcanyonlodges.com; tel. 888/297-2757). If you haven’t booked ahead, it's worth calling the last-minute reservations phone number (tel. 928/638-2631), or stopping by the transportation desk at Bright Angel Lodge, 9 Village Loop Dr. in Grand Canyon Village. Spaces sometimes open up with sudden cancellations.
Want to kick it up a notch? At Arizona Cowboy College, at Scottsdale’s Lorill Equestrian Center, 30208 N. 152nd St. (www.cowboycollege.com; tel. 480/471-3151), you can literally learn the ropes, as well as how to brand a calf and how to say “Git along little doggie!” like a real cowboy.
For much of the year, the desert has the perfect environment for hot-air ballooning—cool, still air and wide-open spaces. Dozens of ballooning companies operate across the state; most are in Phoenix and Tucson, but several others operate near Sedona, which is by far the most picturesque spot in the state for a balloon ride.
Lodgings That Float
With the Colorado River turned into a string of long lakes, houseboat vacations are a natural in Arizona, allowing vacationers to move about the lake to fish, hike, and swim. Rentals are available on Lake Powell, Lake Mead, and Lake Mohave; the canyon scenery of Lake Powell makes it the hands-down best spot for a houseboat vacation. Make reservations well in advance for a summer trip. No prior experience (or license) is necessary, and plenty of hands-on instruction is provided before you leave the marina.
Although Arizona is better known as a desert state, it also has snow-capped mountains and even a few ski areas. The biggest and best are Arizona Snowbowl (www.arizonasnowbowl.com; tel. 928/779-1951), outside Flagstaff, and Sunrise Park Resort (www.sunriseskipark.com; tel. 855/735-7669), on the White Mountain Apache Reservation in far east central Arizona, a good 3 1/2 hours east of Phoenix. Snowbowl is more popular—it’s easier to get there from Phoenix, and there are good restaurants and hotels in Flagstaff, a half-hour away. Snowbowl has more vertical feet of skiing, but Sunrise offers almost twice as many runs. Both ski areas offer rentals and lessons.
When it’s a good snow year, Tucsonans head up to Mount Lemmon Ski Valley (www.skithelemmon.com; tel. 520/576-1321), the southernmost ski area in the U.S. Snows here aren’t as reliable as they are farther north, so call first to make sure the ski area is operating.
During snow-blessed winters, cross-country skiers can find plenty of snow-covered forest roads outside Flagstaff, at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, in the White Mountains around Greer and Alpine, and on Mount Lemmon outside Tucson.
After golf, tennis is probably the most popular winter sport in the desert, and resorts all over Arizona have tennis courts. Keep in mind that some resorts require you to wear traditional tennis attire and don’t include court time in the room rates. No courts anywhere in the state can match the views you’ll have at Enchantment Resort, outside Sedona. Other tennis-oriented resorts include, in the Phoenix/Scottsdale area, the Phoenician, the Fairmont Scottsdale, the Arizona Grand Resort, and the Pointe Hilton Tapatio Cliffs Resort; and, in Tucson, the Lodge at Ventana Canyon, the Hilton Tucson El Conquistador Golf & Tennis Resort, the Westin La Paloma Resort & Spa, the Westward Look Resort, and the Omni Tucson National Resort.
Rafting the Grand Canyon is the dream of nearly every white-water enthusiast—if it’s one of yours as well, plan well ahead. Companies and trips are limited, and they tend to fill up early. For 1-day rafting trips on the Colorado below the main section of the Grand Canyon, contact Hualapai River Runners (www.grandcanyonwest.com; tel. 888/868-9378). For rafting trips through the Grand Canyon lasting from 4 to 15 days, contact Grand Canyon Whitewater (www.grandcanyonwhitewater.com; tel. 800/343-3121).
Rafting trips are also available on the upper Salt River east of Phoenix, although some years there’s just not enough water in the river to support them. If it’s raftable, you can do trips of varying lengths with Mild to Wild Rafting (www.mild2wildrafting.com; (tel. 970/247-4789), Wilderness Aware Rafting (www.inaraft.com; tel. 800/462-7238), and Canyon Rio Rafting (www.canyonrio.com; tel. 800/272-3353).
Staying Healthy in the Desert
If you’ve never been to the desert, be sure to prepare yourself for this harsh environment. No matter what time of year it is, the desert sun is strong and bright. Use sunscreen when outdoors, particularly up in the mountains, where the altitude makes sunburn more likely. But you can also get badly burned playing in the pool or tubing down the Salt River. The bright sun also makes sunglasses a necessity. In the desert, even when you don’t feel hot, the dry air steals moisture from your body, so drink plenty of fluids. At the Grand Canyon, remember that a cool spring day at the rim can turn into three-digit temps at the bottom.
Bugs & Other Wildlife—Rattlesnakes are common, but your chances of meeting one are slight—they tend not to come out in the heat of the day. Still, never stick your hand into holes among rocks in the desert, and keep an eye on where you're stepping when you're out tramping around. Everything from snakes to bobcats to coyotes have been seen in housing developments and resorts near the mountain parks, and even far into town. Arizona is also home to the Gila monster, a large black-and-orange poisonous lizard, but they are less common than rattlesnakes. The tarantula has developed a nasty reputation, but the tiny black widow spider is more likely to cause illness. Scorpions are another danger of the desert. Be extra careful when turning over rocks or logs that might harbor either black widows or scorpions, particularly at night.
Respiratory & Desert Illnesses—Valley fever, a fungal infection of the lungs, is common in the desert Southwest, although it generally affects only long-term residents. The fungus is carried by dust storms and winds blowing across farms and construction sites. Symptoms include fever, chest pain, fatigue, headaches, and rashes. If you plan to do any camping or backcountry travel in the Four Corners region, be aware of hantavirus, an often-fatal disease spread by mice. Symptoms include fatigue, fever, and muscle aches; if you develop any such symptoms within 1 to 5 weeks of traveling through the Four Corners, see a doctor.
High-Altitude Hazards—Both the South Rim of the Grand Canyon and the canyon gateway city of Flagstaff are at around 7,000 feet (2,133 meters) in elevation; the North Rim of the Grand Canyon is at 8,000 feet (2,438 meters). While these elevations are generally not high enough to cause altitude sickness, they can cause shortness of breath after even moderate exercise. Take it slow, and remember that if you hike down into the Grand Canyon, you'll really feel the elevation when you start hiking back out.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.