Get out of the cold and discover art and design in the Sonoran Desert
Scottsdale, Arizona is Phoenix’s posh neighbor, dotted with gated communities, resorts, spas and fancy hotels. While Arizona, in general, remains best known for retirees, snowbirds and a particular brand of “Don’t Tread on Me” conservatism, a new generation is taking up residence in the area, drawn there not for golfing but for art, architecture and design. These design nerds are taking note because of the legacy of two giants of architecture—Frank Lloyd Wright and Paolo Soleri. The two rivals represent a yin and yang of design philosophies. Their apprentice compounds—Wright’s fastidious Taliesin West and Soleri’s chaotic Cosanti—are magnets for a revival in interest in the area’s older homes and buildings, especially mid-century projects from the 1940s to ‘60s. Scottsdale’s stuffy reputation is giving way to a second look from a younger generation and winter is the perfect time to explore the new scene. Because Arizona in the summer? No, thank you.
Taliesin West: Frank Lloyd Wright’s Legacy
Frank Lloyd Wright came to Arizona in the 1930s to create a space where he could work in peace and train his apprentices. He built Taliesin West (named in concert with his Wisconsin workshop Taliesin East) in what was then the middle of nowhere 26 miles from Phoenix. Wright and his students built everything at Taliesin West by hand, using materials that could be harvested from the surrounding desert. He invented methods to work with, instead of against, the terrain. “There were simple characteristic silhouettes to go by, tremendous drifts and heaps of sunburned desert rocks were nearby to be used,” Wright said. “We got it all together with the landscape.”
Today Taliesin West still inspires architecture students to discover Wright’s methods, which, in a tradition dating back to its earliest days, once required acolytes to live in a tent in the desert and design and build their own desert shelters to live in. Wright was a madman for order and this National Historic Landmark is a marvel of thoughtful design and building. Not a blade of grass is out of place. The site offers tours daily. 12621 N. Frank Lloyd Wright Blvd., Scottsdale
If Frank Lloyd Wright was a madman for order, Paolo Soleri was just plainly a madman. Although his reputation has recently been tarnished by posthumous allegations of sexual abuse, Soleri’s work remains an important part of design history. The Italian architecture student came to Taliesin West in 1946, to study among Wright’s apprentices. But he did not mesh with the monastic environment. He was also challenging Wright on the national stage, winning exhibitions in New York and making the cover of the Rolling Stone of architecture, Architectural Digest. Claire Carter, the curator at The Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art (7374 E. Second Street, Scottsdale, 480-874-4666), believes the Italian’s splashy success in New York was a threat to Wright’s near-domination of the American architectural scene. “Soleri was brash, cocky and his work was getting notice in important circles,” she says. “I suspect that wasn’t to Mr. Wright’s liking.” Whatever the reason, Soleri left Taliesin for Italy in 1950, where he would design one of his most important buildings, Ceramica Artistica Solimene, a large ceramics factory on the Almafi Coast.
Soleri could not, however, just let things lie. He returned to Arizona in 1956 to establish his own rival school and workshop, which he called Cosanti (6433 E. Doubletree Ranch Rd., Paradise Valley, 480-948-6145). There, apprentices fire Soleri’s Cosanti Bells, elaborate bronze or ceramic wind chimes, to help fund Soleri’s masterwork Arcosanti.
70 miles north of Phoenix, Arcosanti was an ongoing endeavor to build one of Paolo Soleri’s fantastic cities of the future. Soleri thought big and drafted plans for hundreds of cities, published in his book Arcology— a portmanteau of “architecture” and “ecology,” a term he invented. He began construction in 1970 to demonstrate how urban conditions could be improved while minimizing modern sprawl’s destructive impact on the planet. Acolytes still journey to Arcosanti to join intensive five-week-long workshops where they study Soleri’s work, techniques and continue the city’s construction. Tours daily.
Now that you understand the underpinnings of Scottsdale’s art world, it’s time to enjoy the desert, specifically the Salt River. Yes. A river. The Salt River flows past the cities of Mesa, Tempe and Scottsdale, then south of downtown Phoenix. Birds, river otters and herds of wild horses find their way to the flowing water. Kayak the Salt River with a guided tour from Arizona Outback Adventures (866-455-1601). Or spend a day hiking in the McDowell Sonoran Preserve (18333 N. Thompson Peak Pkwy, Scottsdale, 480-312-7013). For more culture, take a walking or bike tour of the Scottsdale Public Art Program, a diverse collection of artwork from traditional bronzes such as George-Ann Tognoni’s trio of galloping horses to experiential installations like James Turrell’s SkySpace.
Hike Camelback Mountain
No trip to Phoenix is complete without a hike up Camelback Mountain. The 2,706-foot peak looms above the city like a giant kneeling camel, hence the name. It’s pretty tough to keep staring at that peak each day without feeling some primal urge to climb to the top.
There are two hiking trails ascending nearly 1,300 feet to the summit, the 1.4-mile Cholla Trail and the steeper and shorter 1.14-mile Echo Canyon Trail. No matter which you choose, be ready for a steep and scrambly climb to the top. The vertically inclined can enjoy some rock climbing on the Praying Monk, a rounded sandstone formation on Camelback’s northern slope that rises about 100 feet and features several bolted routes and belay anchors.
It typically takes between two and three hours to hike to the top of Camelback Mountain, but don’t let the relatively paltry distance convince you it isn’t a serious undertaking. Unassuming tourists regularly find themselves in peril on the mountain’s rocky flanks, so come prepared.
Scottsdale’s dining scene has mirrored the town’s artistic revival. Take, for example, FnB (7125 E. 5th Ave. #31, 480-284-4777) a haven of local food and growing local wine industry. Helmed by James Beard Award finalist Chef Charleen Badman, known for her collaborations with local farmers, FnB highlights a different Arizona growing region every four weeks. Plus wine. For a marriage of food and architecture (and more wine) try Postino (4821 N. Scottsdale Rd., Scottsdale, 602-428-4444). Postino’s owners find mid-century modern commercial buildings (think banks, post offices) and turn them into restaurants. Also, their happy hour is bananas—$5 glasses of wine and pitchers of beer before 5 p.m. and $20 for bruschetta and a bottle of wine after 8 p.m. For a taste of Old Arizona, visit the margarita heaven The Mission (3815 N. Brown Ave., Scottsdale, 480-636-5005) in Old Town Scottsdale. Try the Malbec-braised short rib and chorizo porchetta. For a truly exciting dining adventure in the Sonoran Desert, Cloth and Flame (480-428-6028) specializes in hot-air balloon rides that deposit you at a fully appointed table amid the Saguaro cacti, in time for a spectacular desert sunset.
At the foot of Camelback Mountain lies Mountain Shadows (5445 E. Lincoln Dr., Scottsdale, 480-624-5400). Once the resort to the stars (think Bob Hope and Lucille Ball), the resort fell into disrepair, but its new heyday has arrived, fastidiously renovated in the now-retro decor. For more throwback, visit the Hermosa Inn (5532 N. Palo Cristi Rd., Paradise Valley, 602-955-8614). Hand-built in the 1930s by cowboy artist Lon Megargee as his residence and studio, this hacienda has 34 guest casitas. If boutique-on-top-of-boutique style is more your bag, consider the Bespoke Inn (3701 N. Marshall Way, Scottsdale, 844-861-6715). Bespoke Inn shares a courtyard with Virtù (480-946-3477), a James Beard-nominated restaurant, and with Bespoke Cycles, which specializes in handmade British city bikes.
ROAD TRIP 1: Cliffs, Caves & Grand Canyons
Start: Peach Springs / End: Kayenta
Postcard-worthy vistas aren’t uncommon in Arizona, but these off-the-beaten-path hidden gems let you explore and enjoy all the grandeur of the landscape without the crowds.
1. Grand Canyon Caverns in Peach Springs
Explore the subterranean realm at Grand Canyon Caverns. A variety of tours are available, both guided and unguided, from short and scenic to deeply claustrophobia-inducing to quite possibly haunted ghost tours. Afterward, dine 200 feet underground at the Grotto Café and ask about sleeping beneath the surface in the master suite.
2. Rock Art Ranch in Winslow
An unassuming working cattle ranch near Winslow is a little off the beaten path but holds a trove of historic art. Tour scores of well-preserved petroglyphs, ancient ruins and a quaint museum of American Indian and pioneer and artifacts.
3. Apache Death Cave on route 66 between Flagstaff and Winslow
In 1878 amid a series of bloody skirmishes between Apache Indians and Navajo, Apache warriors hid with their horses in this cavern to avoid detection. Once discovered, 42 Apache warriors were killed in the cave as retribution for raids on surrounding Navajo camps. The area is considered cursed.
4. Vermillion Cliffs National Monument in Marble Canyon
The Wave—the famed sweeping, smooth sandstone formation—is undoubtedly blowing up your social media feed, but with 280,000 acres in the Vermillion Cliffs National Monument there’s plenty more to see that doesn’t require permits or a lottery system. Stunning red rocks, California condors and plenty of solitude are waiting.
5. Shash Dine Eco Retreat in Page
Billed as a “Five Billion Star Hotel” because of the unobscured views of the night sky, the Shash Dine Eco Retreat is glamping at its finest. Luxurious outdoor accommodations mean you won’t be roughing it, and easy access to Lake Powell and Horseshoe Bend is the cherry on top.
6. Arizona Hot Spring Trail in Willow Beach
With a five-mile round trip hike, the Arizona Hot Spring Trail typically isn’t very crowded or particularly arduous. Hike up a rocky arroyo near Lake Mead to the banks of the Colorado where a large natural hot spring awaits.
7. Dome Stargazing House in Williams
A clear top tented dome in the desert is a truly unique place to experience dark skies and uninterrupted star gazing. Heated sheets, warm showers and fire pits will keep you warm on chilly desert nights so you can enjoy nature’s light show each evening.
8. Mystery Valley near Kayenta
Mystery Valley is a stunning yet seldom-visited place on Navajo land. To access the magnificent landscape, you’ll need to hire a Diné guide, who will show you the area and teach you about its history, from the nearby Monument Valley Visitor Center.
9. North Rim of the Grand Canyon
Though it’s closed right now—at over 8,000 feet elevation, there’s frequently snow during the winter months—the North Rim of the Grand Canyon is remarkable and worth the visit. Hike the North Kaibab Trail and stay and in the historic Grand Canyon Lodge or at a campsite with the best view imaginable.
ROAD TRIP 2: Old West, Wilderness & Wine
Start: Benson / End: Willcox
Travel through Cochise County to experience the history of the cinematic American West. Explore natural wonders, visit historic sites like Tombstone and even throw in a bit of wine tasting.
Visit the “living cave” of the Kartchner Caverns State Park where water has carved caverns through the limestone. The Throne Room contains one of the world’s largest stalactites, a 58-foot-tall column called Kubla Kahn. The spectacular speleotherms throughout the formation are still growing. Cabins and camping are available to enjoy the dark skies at night.
An 1880s mining camp was transformed into an artist community in Bisbee. Board a tram to see the inner workings of the 1,500-foot-deep Queen Mine before visiting the Sam Poe Gallery or getting a craft beer from myriad artisans along “Brewery Gulch.”
3. Sierra Vista
Known as the hummingbird capital of the United States, Sierra Vista is home to the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area. Along with a wealth of hummingbirds, more than 300 other species are common to the area. After birding, head north to the Cochise Stronghold in the Dragoon Mountains. Apache Chief Cochise once used the rugged terrain as a natural fortress, and now it’s a paradise for rock climbers.
Visit the famed town of legendary lawman Wyatt Earp, including the site of the infamous gun battle at the OK Corral to “walk where they fell.”. Movie and American history rarely meet in such proximity.
Welcome to Arizona’s wine capital. 75% of the grapes in the state are grown in the vineyards surrounding Willcox. The annual Arizona Wine Festival graces the area, but, even outside festival dates, there are plenty of tasting rooms like the one at Aridus Wine Company.
6. Fairbank and Gleeson
Journey back in time with a visit to a couple of old West Ghost Towns. Fairbank was the transport hub and supply depot for Tombstone, where the old schoolhouse has been reimagined into a visitor center and bookstore. Just 25 miles to the east is Gleeson, where little more than a restored jailhouse and deteriorating relics remain.
ROAD TRIP 3: Route 66 Recon
Start: Lake Havasu / End: Flagstaff
Travel the original mother road. Route 66 is the iconic pathway of American lore where freedom, history and the open road unfold ahead of you.
1. Lake Havasu and London Bridge
Start your Route 66 journey in a boat, not a car. A sunset charter up the Topock Gorge aboard the “Serenity Now” with Lake Havasu Boat Tours will provide unforgettable views. While visiting, check out the Lake Havasu Museum and a recreation of the London Bridge.
From Lake Havasu, head to the former gold-mining town of Oatman. Experience the past with authentic staged old-west gunfights, and keep an eye out for the wild burrows roaming through the area. Stay at the historic Oatman Hotel.
3. Peach Springs to Raft the Grand Canyon
Hop into the water by joining the Hualapai River Runners for a day of whitewater rafting in the Grand Canyon. American Indian guides will take the helm, sharing insight and the history of the people who call the Grand Canyon Home.
4. Seligman for a stop at Delgadillo’s Snow Cap
Enjoy a hefty dose of nostalgia with your burger and malt from Delgadillo’s Snow Cap. The drive-in diner is straight out of a sentimental road trip fever dream. Head just a few doors down to the museum owned by Angel Delgadillo, the “Guardian Angel of Route 66,” to see the preserved artifacts of the mother road’s history.
5. South Rim of the Grand Canyon by Train
You’ve seen it by raft, now see it by rail. Take in the views from the legendary Grand Canyon Railway before staying at the famous El Tovar Hotel in the national park.
Point the car to Flagstaff, where the main drag is Route 66. Learn the history of the areaat the museum of Northern Arizona before touring the Lowell Observatory where Pluto was discovered in 1930. Stay for the night to enjoy the dark skies before turning in at the Weatherford Hotel, famed for hosting presidents, gunslingers and everyone in between.
ROAD TRIP 4: Art Halls, Golf Balls & Cacti Tall
Start: Phoenix / End: Saguaro National Park
From avant-garde artistic culture to iconic natural wonders to impossibly lush golf courses amid an arid landscape, you’ll find a little bit of everything on this tour of Arizona’s center and south.
1. See Art in Phoenix
Start your tour of Phoenix’s art scene with a visit to the Phoenix Art Museum. Then enjoy a new kind of immersive experience at the Van Gogh Exhibition, where massive moving projections of the artist’s most iconic works from “Starry Night” to “Sun Flowers” captivate audiences.
2. Golf in Scottsdale
The unceremoniously named Waste Management Phoenix Open is a fan favorite with notoriously raucous and fun crowds. You can play the very same course at TPC Scottsdale where legends of the game have walked the fairways or any of the area’s 200 some other public courses.
3. Visit the Pima Air and Space Museum in Tucson
The Pima Air and Space Museum in Tucson is one of the largest non-government-funded museums in the world with more than 300 aircraft spread over 80 acres. See World War II relics like the B-29 Superfortress “Sentimental Journey” and modern marvels like the world’s fastest manned aircraft, a Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird. The museum is adjacent to the Davis Monthan Air Force Base, which is home to the famed “graveyard of planes.”
4. Colossal Cave Mountain Park in Vail
Just south of Tucson in the town of Vail (no relation to Colorado) is an expansive cave system. The caverns of Colossal Cave Mountain Park were used as homes by Native Americans as early as 900 A.D. and more recently served as hideouts for old west train robbers. These days, they’re a tourist attraction where you can take guided or unguided tours through the caves. Stay and camp among the mesquite trees in Posta Quemada Canyon.
5. Kitt Peak National Observatory west in Tucson
During daytime visits to Kitt Peak Observatory, you can tour the massive optical telescopes and hike to panoramic mountaintops. In the evening you can enjoy incredible stargazing with the naked eye or sign up for telescope viewing programs to see the celestial bodies in space like never before.
6. Saguaro National Park
The giant saguaro cactus is pretty much the most universal symbol of the American West despite only growing in a few select locations. The largest cacti in the country are plentiful along the 165 miles of hiking trails. The park is refreshingly less developed than many others. Wilderness camping is available in the Rincon Mountain district for more adventurous visitors.
For more travel ideas, head to visitarizona.com.
Read more of our 2021 Road Trip Series.