Arizona's capital city, Phoenix, has risen from the mythical ashes of an ancient agricultural Indian village to become a sprawling modern metropolis and the fifth most populous city in the US. Its rapid urban growth has filled what is known as the 'Valley of the Sun', encompassing the neighbouring towns of Scottsdale, Mesa and Tempe as suburbs, and it is one of America's fastest-growing urban centres, claiming to have more five-star hotels than any other city in the US.
With luxurious resorts and spas, glitzy shopping plazas, upmarket restaurants, and superb golf courses, together with over 300 days of sunshine a year, the area has become a popular winter getaway for the rest of the country. However, while some may know Phoenix as a retirement community, it is home to both the University of Phoenix and the University of Arizona, as well as over a dozen other colleges, ensuring a huge student population that keeps Phoenix 'young'.
Phoenix has a number of interesting museums, including the Heard Museum of Native American culture and the Phoenix Art Museum. A scattering of parks, a wide variety of restaurants, and a well-developed arts community makes a vacation in Phoenix an attractive prospect for travellers of all ages.
Phoenix's greatest attraction, however, is its location: the city is surrounded by a vast cactus-studded desert and the magnificent scenery of the Red Rock Country around Sedona, whose landscape of canyons, pinnacles, and red cliffs have been the setting for numerous Wild West films and novels. The Apache Trail is a winding scenic drive that passes through some of the beautiful rugged terrain of central Arizona, passing ghost towns, ancient ruins and the Superstitious Mountains.
Taliesin West was legendary architect Frank Lloyd Wright's winter home and school from 1937 until he died in 1959, aged 91. Today the facility can be visited as the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation with tours providing a general introduction to Wright and his hugely influential theories of architecture. The building has been constructed with the natural stone of the region, a reflection of Wright's philosophy that local materials should be used in design wherever possible. There are a range of tours available to suit your level of interest: for the rookie, a basic introductory tour is recommended, while devotees will want the behind-the-scenes exposé.
If you don't particularly like cacti before your visit, there is a good chance you'll fall in love with them by the time you leave. These Desert Botanical Gardens get high ratings not only for the size and range of the botanical collection - about 21,000 plants, representing 139 species - but also the inventive way for visitors to immerse themselves in the desert. Founded in 1939, the garden provides visitors with a fascinating and colourful introduction to the ethnobotany of the region. A highlight is the Plants and People of the Sonoran Desert Trail which allows you to make your own yucca-fibre brush and grind corn as the Native Americans once did. Over November and December the gardens are lit up at night by beautiful (candles inside small bags) where photographers will find plenty of worthy material!
The Heard Museum is home to America's finest collection of Native American art, making this an essential attraction for visitors looking to gain an understanding of the West's original inhabitants. In total there are more than 39,000 works of cultural and fine art ranging across textiles, katsina dolls, pottery, jewellery, baskets, cradleboards, paintings and sculpture. There are about 10 galleries with dynamic and imaginatively curated exhibitions. Don't miss the annual Guild Indian Fair and Market (March) which includes traditional dance performances along with arts and crafts. The museums signature exhibition is Home: Native People in the Southwest, which uses a variety of media to take visitors on an unforgettable journey through the region and the vibrant arts and cultures of its native peoples.
Located surprisingly close to downtown Phoenix, the Pueblo Grande Museum and Archaeological Park is the site of the remains of a 1,500-year-old Hohokam village. The site is a National Historic Landmark and the largest preserved archaeological site in the region. Mysteriously abandoned around 1450, all that remains of the village is enclosed in a small museum with artefacts and exhibits showing daily life in the settlement. Hiking trails wind around the ruins and replicas themselves, so visitors should come prepared for the hot weather of southern Arizona. The site hosts the Pueblo Grande Indian Market each December, featuring more than 250 local artisans. For those who miss the market, there is a museum shop open year-round.
With its arid climate, Phoenix has been ranked the hottest city in the United States, and one of the hottest in the world. The temperature in Phoenix registers at least 100°F (38°C) or more on an average of 90 days of the year, mostly between June and September, which are the summer months. Most days are sunny and hot, and rainfall is scarce, although there are thunderstorms sometimes between July and September, caused by humid air blowing in from the Gulf of California. Winters bring mild, sunny days, with occasional fog. Snow is rare, but has been recorded; frost is frequent in the winter months.
Phoenix is spread out, and distances between places of interest to visitors tend to be significant; therefore, outside of the downtown area, a rental car is ideal. However, the Valley Metro light rail in Phoenix is one of the busiest light rail systems in the country, and has made getting around much easier for visitors. Stations run right by some of the city's top attractions, such as the Phoenix Art Museum, the Heard Museum, and the Arizona Science Centre. Valley Metro buses access areas the light rail doesn't reach and the rail and bus routes have the same basic fares: tickets can be purchased from vending machines at all stations. There is also a free central city shuttle bus service, called DASH (Downtown Area Shuttle), which is useful for accessing attractions like the state capitol and major shopping malls. Taxis are freely available from local companies but tend to be expensive and are not recommended for travelling long distances.
Phoenix shimmers in the heat of the biologically unique Sonoran desert in central Arizona. For decades people have chosen to travel to Phoenix for the sunshine, and found a modern metropolis with a thriving tourist district, an art neighbourhood packed with galleries, and a number of fascinating natural and historical attractions. The city offers some good sightseeing and a great restaurant scene, but most travellers use Phoenix primarily as a travel hub for excursions into the glorious desert landscapes on the city's doorstep.
Within the city, popular tourist sights include the Heard Museum, the Desert Botanical Garden, the Phoenix Children's Museum, St Mary's Basilica, the Musical Instrument Museum, and Taliesin West, the former home and school of renowned architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Travellers are spoilt for choice when it comes to excursions out of Phoenix: Camelback Mountain, South Mountain Park, Piestewa Peak, and many other scenic spots lure hikers and photographers just beyond the city. Many people choose to travel farther afield on a day trip to famous attractions like the Grand Canyon, Lake Mead and Hoover Dam.
Golfers are very well catered for on a Phoenix holiday with scenic courses to take a swing at, and there are numerous spas and health resorts for those who enjoy pampering. Hikers enjoy excursions to the surrounding mountains.
A mile deep, 277 miles (446km) long, and up to 18 miles (29km) wide, the breath-taking grandeur of the Grand Canyon is so impressive that words simply cannot do it justice. One of the great natural wonders of the world, it was formed by the cutting action of the Colorado River over millions of years. The hard rock formations survive as great cliffs, pinnacles and buttes, and the different layers of rock span a range of colours: from purple, fiery-red and pastel-pink, to yellow, brown, grey and soft tones of blue.
Whether by foot or on horseback, from a plane or helicopter, aboard a raft down the mighty Colorado River or by merely gazing in awe from the rim, the canyon's seemingly infinite depths can be experienced in a variety of ways and is a sight not to be missed however one chooses to see it. The park receives hordes of visitors from around the world, who never fail to be transfixed by the sculpted rock shapes, the shifting colours that change with the light, and a tiny glimpse of the Colorado River far below.
The Grand Canyon National Park comprises two separate areas: the South Rim and the more remote North Rim. Separated by the 10-mile (16km) width of the canyon, it is a 215-mile (346km) drive from one Visitor Centre to the other. The South Rim is the most accessible and has more facilities, and as a result it attracts the bulk of visitors to its boundaries. The North Rim is higher in elevation, wetter, with thicker surrounding forests, is more remote, and is cut off by snowfall from October to May. Many people, however, prefer its comparative peacefulness and less-crowded lookouts.
Grand Canyon West has recently opened the Grand Canyon Skywalk, a glass-bottomed, horseshoe shaped deck that juts almost 70 feet (21m) from the canyon's rim. It gives visitors the sensation of being suspended amid the canyon's towering red rock walls above a faint sliver of Colorado River flowing 4,000 feet (1,219m) below. There is an additional charge for the Skywalk, which is not for those with a fear of heights. Another great way to tour the Grand Canyon is on the Grand Canyon Railway, a vintage steam train that winds its way around the area.
Both rims have numerous drives and walkways along the edge with various scenic viewpoints, and some hiking trails into the canyon where one can overnight at Phantom Ranch on the canyon floor. The impact of more than four million visitors a year to the South Rim, especially during the busy summer months, is one of overcrowding and traffic congestion; but seeing for oneself one of the most spectacular examples of natural erosion in the world more than makes up for any inconvenience.
There are also several educational and cultural attractions at the Grand Canyon, including the Tusayan Museum and Ruin (near Desert View), the Yavapai Museum of Geology, and the Verkamps Visitors Center.
The 1.5-million acre Lake Mead Recreation Area was created in 1936 as part of Roosevelt's New Deal programme. A popular excursion from Las Vegas or even Phoenix, Lake Mead is a haven for outdoor recreation like boating, swimming, canoeing, fishing, waterskiing, and even scuba diving. Lake cruises are also a popular activity. Five marinas ring the lake, ranging from small family-owned operations like Hemingway Harbor to large resorts like Forever Resorts at Callville Bay. The rest of the shoreline of Lake Mead is made up of rocky coves and sandy beaches good for sunbathing. Land-based activities like camping and hiking are available in the surrounding area.
The Alan Bible Visitor Center, also known as the Lake Mead Visitor Center, provides information about activities and resources at Lake Mead. There are also some educational exhibits, including a garden of cactus plants native to the Mojave Desert.
Lake Mead is formed by the giant Hoover Dam, a popular tourist attraction. Attracting nearly 3,000 people each day, Hoover Dam is an engineering marvel, standing 726 feet (221m) tall and 1,244 feet (379m) wide. The enormous dam supplies 90 percent of Las Vegas' water, and visitors can take guided tours of the facility.
Located in the northeastern corner of Arizona, Petrified Forest National Park was designated a national monument in 1906. The trees within the park are over 225 million years old, and have over that period transformed into brilliantly-coloured minerals, the world's largest concentration of petrified wood. Aside from the trees, there is a variety of wildlife to see in the park, including bobcats, coyotes, owls, porcupines, mule deer, and various desert lizards and rodents. There are several trails leading to popular sites in the park, making it a great place for desert hiking. Visitors should be aware that it is illegal to remove petrified wood from Petrified Forest National Park.
Kingman is a nostalgic tourist destination in Arizona. Located in the northeastern corner of the state, between the Grand Canyon and Las Vegas, the city is a popular fuelling stop between the two destinations; however, Kingman is most famous for having been a major stop along the celebrated Route 66. There are a few old buildings and museums dedicated to this era, including the aptly named Route 66 Museum, and though most of the road has been replaced by Interstate I-40, the longest remaining stretch runs from Kingman to Ash Fork. There are some good restaurants and bars in Kingman and wonderful hiking can be enjoyed in the area.