Many travelers find themselves in Scottsdale, Arizona for its very non-desert-ish golf courses, vibrant nightlife, pro sporting events, and luxurious resort pools. But this arid escape is a hub for outdoor adventure, too. I recently got a taste of some of the nature-filled, adrenaline-fueled experiences on offer in Scottsdale and found myself surprised and thrilled.
From off-roading through majestic desert landscapes speckled with cacti to crawling the Old Town district bars to soaring through the clear skies in a hot air balloon, Scottsdale and its surrounding areas will satisfy travelers’ craving for adventure. Check out my favorite experiences below.
Desert Dog Outdoor Adventures
If you want to feel like a badass, book a tour with Desert Dog Offroad Adventures. You’ll drive an 800cc 2-seat ATV through the Sonoran Desert, taking in the desolate yet uniquely beautiful scenery while handling your sand buggy like a boss. Your tour guides will lead you on a track through rock gardens (it gets bumpy, but that’s the fun part), sandy washes, canyons, and past cacti and native flora and fauna. The tour lasts about two hours and the starting location is just outside Scottsdale.
This tour was incredibly fun and it’s great for all levels of adventure seekers. I couldn’t help but sing “Ridin'” by Chamillionaire throughout the tour as we were literally “ridin’ dirty” — ATVing our way through the dusty desert landscapes. And you will be covered in dust from head to toe by the end, so wear clothes you don’t mind getting trashed for the day.
Tip: It’s hot out there in the open desert, and you’ll be in direct sunlight for the full two hours. Bring sunglasses and wear plenty of SPF. The Desert Dog team will provide you with a bandana to barricade the dust — it’s a branded bandana, so you can go home with a souvenir. Plus, they’ll provide you with a water bottle and snacks to hold you over.
Book your Desert Dog ATV tour here.
Sunrise Hot Air Balloon Ride
Imagine watching the sun steadily ascending from behind a distant mountain as you overlook the expansive desert floor speckled with green cacti, big boulders, and the occasional Joshua tree. Pretty damn beautiful, right? If that sounds up your alley, book a sunrise tour with Hot Air Expeditions.
There are a few things to keep in mind before booking your balloon ride. For one, you need to be prepared for an early wakeup call. Since most hot air balloon rides happen at sunrise, the team will have to pick you up from your hotel or Airbnb by about 4:30 a.m. I also recommend booking your tour for the first day of your trip, as cancellations are pretty common due to weather conditions. I know from first-hand experience what a bummer it is to wake up at 4 a.m. just to be told that the one travel experience I’ve had on my vision board all year is, in fact, not happening. Sigh.
But if you book your ride at the beginning of your trip and it gets canceled, you’ll have every morning after that to try again (as long as there’s room). And don’t worry, if the weather keeps you from riding at all, you’ll get fully refunded. The bottom line, though, is that the chance of soaring through the sky in a giant balloon and the awe-inspiring views that come with it are worth the early wake-up call and risk of disappointment.
Book your hot air balloon ride here.
Hike the McDowell Sonoran Preserve
There is no shortage of hiking trails in the desert, but if you want to immerse yourself in nature and take the path (slightly) less traveled, make your way to the McDowell Sonoran Preserve. This is a protected, sustainable desert habitat in Scottsdale’s McDowell Mountains and the Sonoran Desert. There are more than 10 trailhead locations and more than 225 miles of trails across 35,500 acres. But the main entrance to the preserve is at the Gateway Trailhead, a 4.5-mile loop with an elevation gain of 650 feet. (Trailhead address: 18333 N. Thompson Peak Pkwy. Scottsdale)
It’s a moderately difficult trail, but hikers of all levels can enjoy the wildflowers and wildlife found throughout the preserve. And if you’d rather go out in the wilderness with an experienced local, you can also opt for a guided hiking tour.
Learn more about trails and safety at the McDowell Sonoran Preserve here.
Wander Through Old Town Scottsdale
Walking through Old Town Scottsdale is an adventure of its own. Whether you’re perusing boutique shops, bar hopping through the bustling nightlife scene, checking out local events, or testing out the diverse selection of restaurants, Old Town offers the ultimate downtown experience but with a more intimate feel. It swaps massive skyscrapers for rustic, western buildings.
Go wine tasting at Merkin Vineyards, a rock & roll-inspired wine room created by Maynard James Keenan, the lead singer of Tool. Search for crystal jewelry and spiritual healing at Earthen Rare. Or opt for a boozy brunch at Farm & Craft, which serves healthy and sustainable food. (You know, to balance out your breakfast cocktail.) You certainly won’t get bored wandering through Old Town, no matter what time of day it is.
Check out more of Old Town Scottsdale here.
Expand Your Palate at The Mission
There’s nothing like a full belly and a strong cocktail to end a day in the desert. Located in the heart of Old Town Scottsdale, The Mission serves modern Latin cuisine. Led by renowned Chef Matt Carter, the menu is a fusion of flavors with influences from Spain, Mexico, Central America, and South America. It’s confusing and utterly satisfying all at once. Of course, you have to order the tableside guac, but The Mission’s dishes go far beyond your typical Mexican-American classics.
I reluctantly trusted my waiter’s recommendation of the Duck Carnitas Empanada, which is filled with duck confit, foie gras, orange habanero glaze, oregano, mushroom, and queso Oaxaca. I know…it’s quite the concoction. This isn’t something I’d normally order but I’m so glad I did. I also tried the Almejas Al Vapor, a Peruvian clam stew of rock shrimp, chorizo, ají amarillo, and roasted corn. You can also enjoy a selection of tacos, traditional entrées, and sides.
Make a reservation at The Mission here.
Wind Down at Royal Palms Resort
After a day full of non-stop adventure, it’s nice to have somewhere serene to wind down and recover. That’s what you’ll find at the Royal Palms Resort & Spa, which was originally a Spanish Colonial Revival villa. The moment I checked into my room, I felt immediately calm thanks to the quiet atmosphere, desert florals, the subtle sound of trickling fountains, and the property’s earthy Mediterranean aesthetic. Coming back here after hours in the sun each day felt like a cleansing exhale.
During your stay, you’ll have to take a dip and lounge by the pool, where you’ll get poolside service, frozen cocktails, and a full menu of appetizers, entrees, and sweets. If you want some major post-adventure relaxation, head to the spa and bask in the healing properties of the desert. You can choose from a variety of massage options, facials, and other body treatments. Royal Palms also offers weekend yoga classes if you need some mindful movement and recovery.