Scottsdale travel guide: awe-inspiring adventures in the Sonoran Desert

With 330 days of sunshine a year, this Arizonan city is perfect for a winter getaway

The Sonoran Desert
The Sonoran Desert is overflowing with botanical treasures
(Image credit: Hills Balfour)

California may be known as the sunshine state, but Arizona boasts 330 days of beaming blue skies and sees temperatures in the mid-20s even in winter.

It might not be an obvious choice for a winter getaway, but after a week of hiking, kayaking and horseback riding across the Sonoran Desert, as well as absorbing the unique blend of cultures and eating my body weight in delicious food, I couldn’t recommend this southwest state highly enough for an early-in-the-year escape.

Horse riding across the Sonoran Desert

Horse riding across the Sonoran Desert at sunset is a bucket list experience
(Image credit: Hills Balfour)

What to do

I spent the week in the city of Scottsdale, located to the east of Arizona’s state capital, Phoenix. It’s home to a heady mix of influences, from traditional western cowboy to Mexican (the state borders the country) and American Indian (Arizona has the third largest American Indian population among all the states). And if that’s not enough to dive into, the awe-inspiring landscape that surrounds the city truly sets it apart as a holiday destination.

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There are many ways to explore this extraordinary terrain and horse riding across the Sonoran Desert at sunset was an unforgettable experience. We were led on a four-hour tour by Windwalker Expeditions, a horseback riding company specialising in private rides. Our guides knew their horses well and catered for all levels of experience. While we trotted past the towering cacti and looked out onto the dusky canyon, you could almost hear the click of cowboy spurs and the rattle of carts full of stolen bounty.

Despite the consistent sunshine and nine inches of rainfall annually, the Sonoran Desert is also overflowing with botanical treasures including the creosote (thought to be the oldest living plant in the world), the whip-like ocotillo, the prickly pear (whose fruit is used in skincare products) and, of course, the granddaddy of cacti; the saguaro.

These beauties can be admired by land and by water. We spent a blissful afternoon kayaking along the Lower Salt River, which flows from the mountains of northern Arizona. During the trip, which was led by REI Co-Op, we were treated to sitings of great blue herons, bald eagles and wild horses snacking on river weeds.

Kayaking along the Lower Salt River

A top tourist activity is kayaking along the Lower Salt River, which flows from the mountains of northern Arizona
(Image credit: Hills Balfour)

Hiking is a favourite activity for Scottsdale locals and you can see why: they’re blessed with more than 400 miles of trails, from gentle walks to intense mountain climbs. We enjoyed the scenic (and easy) two-mile Jewel of the Creek loop, as well as the Echo Canyon trail at Camelback Mountain. This path – described as “extremely difficult” – has an elevation of 1,300 feet (higher than the Empire State Building!) and is part-hike, part-mountaineering at certain points, but is well worth the effort.

If that all sounds a bit too athletic, there’s plenty to do that doesn’t demand an increased heart rate. If you’re after a culture fix, a visit to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin West is a must. Designated as a Unesco World Heritage Site in 2019, it was built by the architect and his apprentices in the 1930s using desert rock. The building – which comprises Wright’s personal home, studio and architectural laboratory – is considered one of his greatest masterpieces.

Wherever I am in the world, I like to get my shopping fix – and Scottsdale’s Old Town didn’t disappoint. You could easily spend a day wandering around the interesting mix of boutique clothing, art and souvenir shops, all housed in prairie house-style wooden buildings. The Native Art Market – the only indigenous- owned shop in Old Town – is worth a visit, as is Vintage by Misty for designer gems.

Scottsdale’s Old Town

Scottsdale’s Old Town is packed with boutique clothing, art and souvenir stores
(Image credit: Hills Balfour)

Where to stay

For the first half of my trip, I stayed at the Four Seasons Resort Scottsdale. The former desert ranch is scattered with beautifully designed adobe casitas (clay-coloured structures made from organic materials such as earth and straw) interspersed with Sedona’s otherworldly red rock and iconic saguaro cacti.

Four Seasons, Scottsdale

Four Seasons, Scottsdale, is located in a former desert ranch
(Image credit: Christian Horan)

I stayed in a double deluxe room overlooking the dramatic Pinnacle Peak – a granite summit with a 3,000-foot elevation, which can be explored by walking directly from the property. For star gazers, nightfall at the resort is a delight; the sky glows with planets and stars, and the hotel’s resident astronomer, a Nasa ambassador, takes guests on a cosmic journey through his high-powered telescope.

We were treated to a sunrise yoga and sound bath on our first morning, with resident wellness teacher Christina. She used a range of instruments that mimic the sounds of nature, my jetlag swiftly melting away as the cymbals shook the room into a meditative subconscious state. This experience is not for everyone; depending on how close you lie to the instruments it can be overwhelming, but sound baths have been proven to reduce stress and anxiety.

If you’re more of a traditionalist, the hotel’s extensive spa offers an array of skin and body treatments inspired by the desert. I enjoyed a delicious Nepal massage, where the masseuse applied warm cactus gel using cactus paddles placed directly on my skin. Boris Johnson stayed at the hotel a week before our visit in November, so our guide told us, and if the former prime minister found calming solace here… well, anyone can.

With its sumptuous spa, well-designed interiors and fabulous pools, the Four Seasons is certainly luxurious, but the welcoming warmth of all the staff – not to mention log fires in all the rooms – gives the hotel a feeling of cosy relaxation.

Patio of Four Seasons, Scottsdale

Guests can absorb the views from the stunning patio of the Four Seasons
(Image credit: Hills Balfour)

This is extended to the dining; there is a fabulous contemporary Spanish steakhouse called Talavera, and I loved Proof, the hotel’s American canteen which serves up homely comfort fare for breakfast, lunch and dinner. The pumpkin pancakes were the best I’ve ever had, and the nostalgic interior, complete with a soda fountain, gives you the full Americana experience.

For the latter part of the stay, we nestled into Mountain Shadows – so-called because of the iconic Camelback and Mummy Mountains that loom close. Artists have flocked to Arizona for decades for the otherworldly light, and this boutique resort invites it to come flooding in; the lobby, restaurant and rooms all have floor-to-ceiling windows offering incredible views. The resort is located in Paradise Valley, known as the Beverly Hills of Scottsdale, and has been home to many celebrities from Stevie Nicks to Steven Spielberg, and is a favourite A-list getaway (Beyoncé and Jay-Z spent their honeymoon here).

Mountain Shadows pool

Mountain Shadows is a beautifully designed hotel
(Image credit: Hills Balfour)

The hotel is beautifully designed; modern, but with a nod to its 50s beginnings (the resort’s original site opened in 1959 and was visited by the likes of Elizabeth Taylor). The food is excellent; we enjoyed a delicious dinner at Heath ’61 headed by chef Charles Wiley and the breakfast menu has something for everyone. Although it was cooler than the dizzying summer temperatures, we still enjoyed a communal sunset yoga on the main lawn and relaxed poolside for many enjoyable hours.

Where to eat and drink

Southwestern food has influences from Spanish, Mexican and American Indian cuisine and the distinctive flavours can be found in many outstanding restaurants across Scottsdale. Bryan’s Black Mountain Barbecue – run by the award-winning chef Bryan Dooley – is a great spot for getting your BBQ fix. We enjoyed mouthwatering beef brisket, pork ribs, pulled pork and pulled squash, as well as the best cornbread I’ve ever tasted.

The Americano is the perfect setting for a fun, foodie Saturday night. The Italian-inspired steakhouse does what it says on the tin, offering everything from freshly made pasta to Mediterranean seafood and – of course – a selection of fine steaks, including American Wagyu beef. The cocktails are illustrative of a restaurant that celebrates the pursuit of a good time – I loved the “Versace on the Floor” (coconut, honey chilli infused vodka and basil-olive oil foam), and the menu was so irresistible that I ordered a starter and two main courses (when in Arizona!).

We followed this with cocktails at Platform 18, a bar that takes you on a journey through the Rocky Mountains without you having to leave Scottsdale. It’s situated in a Pullman-inspired train carriage, and the windows (TV screens playing out the scenery) transport you to another time. Not recommended for those prone to travel-sickness but I had a lot of fun.

Platform 18 is a bar located in a Pullman-inspired train carriage

Platform 18 is a bar located in a Pullman-inspired train carriage
(Image credit: Grace Stufkosky)

For a more down-to-earth dining experience, FnB is a must. Run by chef Charleen Badman, who was the recipient of the James Beard Foundation’s 2019 Best Chef award, the restaurant is known for its interesting twists on locally sourced, seasonal vegetables. It also showcases local wine carefully curated by the co-owner, who selects a different growing region every month.

The Mission has long been an institution in Scottsdale for its modern Latin cuisine served up in the fabulously designed restaurant (including a marble bar, chandeliers and an entire wall made from Himalayan rock salt). The exciting menu more than lives up to the gorgeous interior; the guacamole, created by the chef at your table, was out of this world and the tacos were bursting with flavour. I also loved the Faroe Islands salmon from the Spanish griddle, served with smoked Peruvian potatoes and pineapple cooked in brown butter.

It was probably good for my waistline that we didn’t spend more than a week in Scottsdale, but I could have easily stayed another fortnight joyfully gorging and exploring more of this spectacular state.

Alexandra Genova was a guest of Mountain Shadows and Four Seasons, Scottsdale. A signature deluxe room at Mountain Shadows on a room-only basis starts from $577 (£465) per night; A deluxe casita room at Four Seasons, Scottsdale on a room-only basis starts from $855 (£689) per night;

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