Home to Arizona State University, Tempe not only appeals to scholars and academics but nature lovers and outdoor enthusiasts as well. Being situated along the Salt River, home to Tempe Town Lake, and surrounded by numerous different parks and preserves seems to give Tempe an oasis-like feel. Its unique location offers visitors a wide range of outdoor activities to choose from. And best of all, they don't even have to leave the immediate city to enjoy them! Looking for a challenging hike, a leisurely bike ride along the water, or a simple stroll through a historic downtown? Tempe has got it all and more.
Yes, there is water in the desert! Tempe Town Lake is a two-mile long manmade lake along the Salt River. And while you can’t swim in the lake (unless you're competing in an organized triathlon), other water activities such as fishing and boating are permitted. There are all sorts of boat rentals to take advantage of, from kayaks to electric pontoons to charming swan, duck, and dragon pedal boats. But water adventures aren’t the only thing to do here—you can run, bike, or walk the five-mile path surrounding the lake. There are also public art installations located around the lake to admire. And being so close to Downtown Tempe, you can take your pick from dozens of shops, restaurants, and taverns nearby.
If all this outdoor adventuring has made you hungry, then swing by Tempe Marketplace. Not your average outdoor shopping center, Tempe Marketplace offers over 100 dining and shopping options for every preference. There are plenty of well-known chains, as well as locally-owned favorites like Barrio Queen (order the tableside guacamole!). In addition to restaurants, there are plenty of stores, a movie theater, a splash pad, and outdoor fireplaces to cozy up next to during chilly evenings. They also host live music performances at the District Stage on Fridays and Saturdays. It’s a great place to hang out with friends, including your four-legged furry friends!
If you’re flying into Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, you may spot the mountain with a giant “A” on top. Officially known as Hayden Butte—but always called “A” Mountain by the locals—this is one of the most popular and recognizable outdoor areas in Tempe. Located in downtown near the Arizona State University Tempe Campus, the 60-foot tall gold “A” is not only a symbol for the school but a popular hike for both locals and visitors. The one mile trail leading up the butte offers sweeping views of the surrounding city. It’s also a great place to see ancient petroglyphs from the indigenous people who used to call Tempe home.
Yes, Arizona State University is a college campus, but you don’t have to be a student to explore some of its best attractions. The general public is welcome in places such as the Skyspace, a public art piece designed by James Turrell and inspired by Hohokam pit houses. Or visit the contemporary art exhibits at the ASU Art Museum, which is home to the largest collection of Cuban art and is a great way to spend an afternoon. More into music and theater? Stop by ASU Gammage, the performing arts center designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and one of the largest university-based performing arts centers in the world. They host theater, dance, music, and popular Broadway shows like Hamilton and Wicked throughout the year, so there’s always something to experience.
If you're looking to continue your outdoor adventuring into the evening, look no further than Downtown Tempe. Commonly referred to as "Mill Ave" by locals, this part of Tempe is packed with a wide variety of restaurants, bars, shops, public art, and theaters. Rent a bike from The Bicycle Cellar and cruise down the adorable tree-lined streets. Enjoy some award-winning al fresco dining at House of Tricks or Pedal Haus Brewery. Test your ping-pong and cornhole skills at Culinary Dropout's outdoor patio. Or take your pick from more than 1,000 board games at Snakes & Lattes. Parking around Mill Ave is actually quite easy (there are 21 different parking lots and garages) but figuring out what to do and where to go first might be challenging...
This urban desert preserve is the perfect place to explore nature in the middle of the city. Papago Park is full of hiking trails through the sandstone rock formations, including the famous Hole in the Rock hike. Following the short dirt trail to the wind-eroded butte—aptly named Hole in the Rock—rewards visitors with stunning views of the rest of the park and the surrounding metro area. But it’s not just about the hiking here. This 1,500-acre park also contains multiple lagoons, picnic areas, and miles of biking and walking trails. It’s also home to the Desert Botanical Garden and the Phoenix Zoo, making it an incredible three-in-one stop for visitors and locals alike.
The desert may look brown and barren from a distance, but it’s actually full of life and teeming with colorful plants. But rather than wandering into the middle of nowhere to see for yourself, you can view over 50,000 desert plant species at the Desert Botanical Garden. Visitors can explore five different thematic trails through the park and see just how diverse the desert really is. There are also tours, workshops, and all sorts of events from live music in the garden to classes on cooking and art. And if you happen to visit in winter, be sure to stop by in the evenings for Las Noches de las Luminarias, when the Desert Botanical Garden is extra enchanting and lit with thousands of paper bag lanterns.
Complete your dive into the local flora and fauna with a stop at the Phoenix Zoo. Located on 125 acres in Papago Park, the zoo is home to over 3,000 animals. Visitors can stroll among the four themed trails: the Africa Trail, the Tropics Trail, the Arizona Trail, and the Children’s Trail—each with their own distinct set of animals. There are plenty of outdoor cafes, shops, and the Safari Train, which takes visitors on guided tours around the zoo. If getting up close and personal with animals is on your list, the giraffe encounter, camel rides, and Stingray Bay are not to be missed. But it’s not all just about viewing cute creatures, the Phoenix Zoo has always been involved in animal conservation and focuses on animal rescue and rehabilitation, sanctuary, and reintroduction efforts.
Just because Tempe is part of a major metropolitan area doesn't mean you can't get outside and experience the great outdoors—and this road trip proves that. Plus, with 300 sunny days per year and average temperatures than range from 55 degrees to 87 degrees, Tempe is truly an ideal place for year-round urban adventuring.
Banner Photo Credit: BCFC
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