The Valley of the Sun is a sprawling, often congested place, and if you're unfamiliar with the area, you may be surprised at how great the distances between attractions are. If map reading and urban navigation are not your strong points, consider taking a guided tour. If you want a different sort of perspective on the area, consider a jeep tour, hot-air balloon ride, or a flight in a glider.
If you'd like to get a quick overview of Phoenix and Scottsdale, there are a couple of local tour companies I recommend. Open Road Tours (tel. 800/766-7117 or 602/997-6474; www.openroadtours.com) does a half-day tour of the Valley's highlights, with an hour for shopping in Old Town Scottsdale. These tours cost $59 for adults and $39 for children 11 and under. This company also offers day-long tours to Tucson, Sedona, and the Grand Canyon. Detours (tel. 866/438-6877; www.detoursaz.com) also offers half-day tours of the Valley, and these tours, which cost $75 for adults and $40 for children 12 and under, include lunch at a local restaurant.
The thermals that form above the mountains in the Phoenix area make this an ideal place for flying sailplanes (gliders). On the south side of the Valley at the Estrella Sailport, Arizona Soaring, 22548 N. Sailport Way, Maricopa (tel. 520/568-2318; www.azsoaring.com), offers sailplane rides, with a basic 20-minute flight going for $105. An aerobatic flight with loops, rolls, and inverted flying costs $160. To reach the airstrip, take I-10 E to exit 164 (Queen Creek Rd.), go west on Queen Creek Road (which becomes Maricopa Rd. [Ariz. 347]) for 15 miles, turn right on Ariz. 238, and continue 6 1/2 miles. On the north side of the Valley, there's Turf Soaring School, 8700 W. Carefree Hwy., Peoria (tel. 602/439-3621; www.turfsoaring.com), which charges $109 for a basic flight and $159 for a deluxe aerobatic flight. Reservations are a good idea at either place.
Ever wanted to be a fighter pilot? Well, at Fighter Combat International (tel. 866/359-4273; www.fightercombat.com) you can find out if you've got the right stuff. This company, which operates out of the Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport in Mesa, offers a variety of exciting aerobatic flights, including mock dogfights. Best of all, on some flights, you get to learn how to do loops, rolls, spins, and other aerobatic moves. Flights start at $485; for a mock air-combat mission, you'll have to shell out $795.
Hot-Air Balloon Rides
The still morning air of the Valley of the Sun is perfect for hot-air ballooning, and because of the stiff competition, prices are among the lowest in the country. Over the Rainbow (tel. 602/225-5666; www.letsgoballooning.com) charges only $165 for a 1- to 1 1/2-hour flight, while Adventures Out West (tel. 800/755-0935 or 480/991-3666; www.adventuresoutwest.com) charges $185 to $205 (or $205-$225 with transportation from your Scottsdale hotel) for a 1-hour flight. Check websites for discounted rates.
After spending a few days in Scottsdale, you'll likely start wondering where the desert is. Well, it's out there, and the easiest way to explore it is to book a jeep tour. Most hotels and resorts work with particular companies, so start by asking your concierge. Alternatively, you can contact one of the following companies. Most will pick you up at your hotel, take you off through the desert, and maybe let you pan for gold or shoot a six-gun. Depending on how many people are in your party and where you're staying, expect to pay between $65 to $100 per person for a 3-hour tour. Companies include Arizona Desert Mountain Jeep Tours (tel. 800/567-3619; www.azdesertmountain.com) and Southwest Desert Adventures (tel. 877/962-6620 or 480/962-6620; www.arizonabound.com).
If you want to really impress your friends when you get home, you'll need to try something a little different. How about a Hummer tour? Contact Desert Storm Hummer Tours (tel. 480/922-0020; www.dshummer.com), which charges $100 for a 4-hour tour ($75 for children 16 and under). This company also offers night tours ($125 for adults and $100 for children) that let you spot wildlife with night-vision equipment. Alternatively, there's Stellar Adventures (tel. 877/878-3552 or 602/402-0584; www.stellaradventures.com), which charges $135 for a basic 4-hour tour ($95 for children 10 and under) and $165 for its advanced tour.
If rumbling through the desert on a guided Hummer tour still isn't rugged enough for you, then you might be a candidate for driving yourself through the desert. A couple of companies in the area do tours in Tomcars, which, like the Hummer, were originally developed for military uses. Tomcars are little open-sided buggies that let you get covered with desert dust as you four-wheel past cactus and creosote bushes. If this sounds like your kind of outing, contact Desert Wolf Tours (tel. 877/613-9653; www.desertwolftours.com), which charges $145 for a half-day tour ($87 for children under 12), or Green Zebra Adventures (tel. 866/703-2622 or 480/629-6262; www.gogreenzebra.com), which charges $129 for a half-day tour ($59 for children under 12). Full-day, sunset, and night tours are also offered by Desert Wolf Tours.
If you're short on time but want to at least see the Grand Canyon, book an air tour in a small plane. Westwind Scenic Air Tours, 732 W. Deer Valley Rd., Phoenix (tel. 888/869-0866 or 480/991-5557; www.westwindairservice.com), charges $349 to $599 (per person) for its Grand Canyon tours, $259 to $350 (per person) for its Sedona tours, and $599 (per person) for its Monument Valley tour. This company flies out of the Deer Valley Airport in the northwest part of the Valley. Flights last 3 to 7 hours for Grand Canyon tours, 1 1/2 to 5 hours for Sedona tours, and 8 hours for Monument Valley tours.
Want to get a taste for the Scottsdale dining scene? Take a food tour with Arizona Food Tours (tel. 800/979-3370 or 212/209-3370; www.arizonafoodtours.com) and you'll wander the streets of Old Town Scottsdale visiting local restaurants and tasting some of their most popular dishes.