A huge thank you to Tempe Tourism for hosting my stay. All thoughts and opinions are my own.
2020 Update: This trip was taken in February, 2020. If you are visiting Tempe, please know that there is currently a county-wide mandate that requires masks to be worn at all times, except when eating and drinking. Stay safe & enjoy your time in Arizona!
Most travelers think of the Grand Canyon, Havasupai, Horseshoe Bend, or Monument Valley when asked to name Arizona’s most incredible desert destinations. So much so, that it’s entirely understandable why Northern Arizona has made such a name for itself.
But unlike some of Arizona’s next-door neighbors, like California and Utah perhaps, you actually don’t need to drive for hours and hours outside of the city to seek out other-worldly desert terrain. In fact, in Arizona, the Sonoran Desert is right at your front door.
So, that’s how I arrived in Tempe. I’ve been to the Phoenix area a couple of times before, but never to Tempe, Phoenix’s youthful and lively next-door neighbor. And while many might expect a college town feel (Tempe is home to Arizona State University, one of the largest schools in the nation with a whopping 70K+ student population), I’d be willing to bet not as many people would expect Tempe to be a gateway town for the ultimate desert escape. Except for you, of course, because you’re reading this post!
Here are 5 things you should know about, and do, in Tempe, Arizona if you’re on the hunt for the ultimate urban desert escape – from glimpsing wild horses to surrounding yourself with saguaros (and so, so much in between).
5 Things to Do in Tempe, Arizona For the Ultimate Urban Desert Escape
1. Explore the Town by E-Bike
One of the coolest things about Tempe is its proximity to nature. In fact, the city is surrounded by it. What’s more, Tempe is actually a surprisingly bike-friendly city, with 175 miles of bike paths within Tempe’s 40 square miles. Using these bike paths, you can easily zip from downtown, to Tempe Town Lake, to Papago Park and back. Tempe Town Lake is worth a dedicated stop of its own if you’re into paddle-boarding or kayaking. Papago Park is easily one of the most beautiful and accessible desert areas near Tempe, with 1,500 acres of lagoons, picnic areas, hiking paths, biking trails, and beautiful 360º vistas of the Phoenix area.
TIP: To see the most of Tempe in a short amount of time, try an e-bike tour with Tempe E-Bike Tours. These bikes allow you to pedal normally if you want to, or use ‘pedal assist’ and acceleration features if you want to cruise down a bike path or get help going up a steep hill. A tour of Tempe will allow you to see downtown, Tempe Town Lake, Papago Park, and more in just 2-3 hours.
2. Hike a Butte
Confession: I had to Google the word ‘butte’ when I first visited Arizona. Because here, you’ll find a whole lotta buttes! In Tempe, there’s Hayden Butte, also known locally as ‘A’ Mountain (thanks to its location next to the campus of Arizona State University). It’s quite literally in the middle of downtown, and it only takes 15 minutes to get to the top, so you could take a hike in the morning and still have plenty of time to make it to brunch! Another series of buttes can be found at Papago Park (pictured above), where you’ll also find a network of hiking and biking trails that can be used to explore. Papago Park is home to the famous ‘Hole in the Rock’ – a butte with a large hole that you can climb through, offering a great panoramic view of Tempe and Phoenix.
TIP: Hayden Butte offers the very best view of the city of Tempe. To get the most dramatic scenery, try hiking the butte early, just before sunrise. Fortunately, it only takes 10-15 minutes to get to the top of Hayden Butte, so you’ll be able to soak in sunrise views and make it back down in no time for some coffee, breakfast, or extra Zzz’s.
3. Glimpse Wild Horses on a Private Horseback Ride
Just 30 minutes outside of Tempe, Maricopa County opens out into wide-open plains, desert brush, and far-off rolling hills that create intense watercolor landscapes when the sun dips behind the mountains at dusk. To best witness this in person, go on a private sunset horseback ride on the Gila River Indian Community Reservation, at KOLI Equestrian Center. You’ll be able to experience prime Sonoran desert views and ride right through the heart of Wild Horse Pass, where – you guessed it – your chances of glimpsing a herd of wild horses in their natural habitat is incredibly high. In addition to wild horses, this terrain is home to coyotes, jackrabbits, and other wildlife you might also get to see along the way. Oh, and at the end of the sunset ride, you get to take in the last light of the day with an ice cold margarita. Name a more perfect day. Go on, I’ll wait.
TIP: You won’t be allowed to bring any big bags or purses on the ride, so if you want to carry a camera or easily access your phone, bring a strap. My recommendation is that you should DEFINITELY plan to bring some sort of camera, because when else do you ever get to see a herd of wild horses like, ever?
4. Visit One of the Most Beautiful Botanical Gardens in the World
The only problem with the beautiful, vast desert landscapes in Arizona is that they’re… well… vast. So my favorite stop in Tempe is hands-down, without a doubt, the Desert Botanical Garden, because you get to see everything that makes the Sonoran desert such an incredibly surreal, magical environment, all in one place! I’ve been to many botanical gardens, but the Desert Botanical Garden is one of my favorites because of my obsession with saguaro cacti, which are endemic to the Sonoran area and can’t be found anywhere else in the world. Here, you’ll find more than 50,000 plant displays across 140 acres – from wildflowers and desert shrubs to prickly pear and of course, all the saguaro cacti. The Garden is a treasure trove of information, beautiful surroundings, and incredible opportunities for photos and vistas unlike anything you might have seen before.
TIP: Sometimes, the botanical garden has special events, evening exhibits, or temporary art installations that can impact entrance cost of opening hours. I highly recommend checking out their site before you go to plan your visit!
5. Hit the Road
Tempe is a great home base for exploring Arizona. 4 different freeways actually intersect here, and its central location means that some of Arizona’s most mesmerizing landmarks and sights can be explored within a short drive from Tempe. For instance –
Phoenix: 15-minute drive
Sedona: 2-hour drive
Flagstaff: 2.5-hour drive
Grand Canyon National Park: 4-hour drive
Petrified Forest National Park: 4-hour drive
TIP: To make your road trip even more epic, consider renting a camper van in Tempe so you can spend your night under the stars. While I was in Tempe, I rented a camper van from Boho Camper Vans and spent the night in Sedona. Hands down one of the coolest road trips I’ve ever taken (not to mention all the fun, fascinating desert stops you can make along the way!).
Have you ever been to Tempe, or are you planning to go? What are you most excited to do or experience? Tell me in the comments below!