Living in Arizona – Hot and Cold in the Desert

Living in Arizona has its pros and cons, as does any place. When I moved away from Arizona after college, I swore I’d never move back. Thirteen years of life in the desert was enough for me. I wanted cooler weather and a new adventure. But nearly two decades after I departed, I moved back. Are you wondering if a move to Arizona is right for you? I hope sharing my family’s struggles and joys of adjusting to life in Arizona will help you decide.

Prickly pear cactus blossoms in Arizona
Prickly pear cactus blossoms in Arizona (Photo credit: Colleen Lanin)

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My Family’s Move to Arizona

After years of clinging to a California dream, my husband and I finally decided that maybe something better awaited us elsewhere. That’s when we took the plunge and made the move to Arizona with our two kids. 

When we lived in San Diego, I equated our family’s happiness with our big house, fun-loving neighbors, the neighborhood grassy park, and the temperate weather of our beloved adopted hometown.

In our dream home, I’d had the ceilings in our kids’ rooms painted with blue skies and puffy white clouds. I even consulted with four different mural artists to select the very best painter for the project.

I paid thousands of dollars for custom-sewn curtains for the master bedroom and bath, selected with the help of an expensive interior decorator.

Now our walls and ceilings are white. The costly curtains are in a box in the garage. Are they missed? Not much.

My kids jumping into our backyard pool in Scottsdale, Arizona (Photo credit: Colleen Lanin)
My kids jumping into our backyard pool in Scottsdale, Arizona (Photo credit: Colleen Lanin)

Growing Up in Arizona

I miss my San Diego friends, of course. But we have forged a new life for ourselves in Arizona. Sometimes you need to go away to see what you are missing. And sometimes everything has to change while you’re gone, too.

When I grew up in what was then the northern edge of Scottsdale, there wasn’t a whole lot of here, here. My parents’ house was 30 minutes from the nearest grocery store. They still live in the same home but now they have a choice of several grocery options within a few minutes’ drive, along with a multitude of restaurants and a wide variety of shops.

As a kid, there were barely any museums or family-friendly attractions of any sort in the Phoenix area. For fun, my mom used to drop me off at the drugstore, where for hours I’d consider the merits of silver nail polish versus pink.

My family of origin moved to Scottsdale from Minnesota a couple of months before my fourth-grade year. During that first summer, my big brother and I would take our bikes out for a ride every afternoon looking for other kids. All Arizona children, however, were smartly swimming in backyard pools or sitting inside watching TV in the cool air conditioning.

Big excitement came the following year when a car wash opened a few miles from our house. My brother and I rode our banana-seated bicycles to this new wondrous establishment. There we discovered a vending machine stocked with candies and salty snacks.

We rode home to plunder spare change from our mom’s coin stash before returning to the car wash. We bought chocolate bars and munched on them while staring at cars being doused with suds and jostled by whirling giant scrub brushes.

Scottsdale Civic Center Mall
My daughter at the Scottsdale Civic Center Mall (Photo credit: Colleen Lanin)

Rediscovering Arizona

Re-experiencing old favorites here in Scottsdale brings back happy Arizona childhood memories. I get to eat the best-ever chicken taco salad at Ajo Al’s Mexican Café, order mint chocolate chip hot fudge sundaes at the Sugar Bowl, and enjoy other favorite restaurants.

Plus, it’s a joy to bring our kids to MacDonald’s Ranch, where I first discovered my enduring love of horses, and the Scottsdale Civic Center, which I loved to visit as a teen.

Our family has uncovered new treasures like Butterfly Wonderland, filled with hundreds of fluttering beauties. Then there’s the Musical Instrument Museum and its noisy, playful Experience Gallery. Sweetest of all is the Sweet Republic ice cream shop with its astonishingly good frozen treats like brownie ice cream topped with a freshly toasted handmade marshmallow. (Yes, I really like ice cream!)

The Experience Gallery at the Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix (Photo credit: Colleen Lanin)
The Experience Gallery at the Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix (Photo credit: Colleen Lanin)

Sibling Challenges

I was surprised by how much I fell in love with Arizona after my move back. Our kids, however, struggled with the change.

It started even before we arrived in Scottsdale. A week prior to our departure, with our lives scattered among boxes, our 6-year-old asked his big sister to play “puppies.” Uptight about the move, our then 9-year-old refused and stormed off to her room.

I said I’d love to play with him instead. Pretending to be a dog as best I could, I panted, wagged my tail, and barked. But, as a grown person, a few minutes of this play seemed like enough.

I tried to encourage my puppy friend to come get his teeth brushed. My son exhaled a deep, sad sigh and got up from all fours. He said, “I just need to go outside and think a bit.”

I followed our son and found him with his head buried in crossed arms, leaning on the stucco of our balcony. I rubbed his back and said, “What’s going on, bubba, what are you thinking about?”

He said, “I was just thinking about when Sissy and I used to be best friends.”

That marked the end of it. The end of these two kids being the best advocates, friends, and playmates.

Our first year following our move involved more sass, more backtalk, more arguing, and more tears than we’d ever experienced. And there were a lot more arguments between two children who used to love to play puppies and build forts from sofa cushions.

Friends told me, “It’s a lot of change. It takes time. It’s just a phase.”

Both children have adjusted and now feel at home in Arizona. But honestly, their relationship has never been the same. Maybe it was inevitable they would grow apart as they aged. Maybe not.

Scottsdale, Arizona sunset
Appreciating the sunset in Scottsdale, Arizona (Photo credit: Colleen Lanin)

New Schools

Anyone who has ever switched schools knows what a challenge this can be. For our daughter, the first few months in Arizona were particularly tough. She did not pay attention in class and seemed depressed to her teacher.

Thankfully, she pulled out of her funk when she made friends with a few other classmates who were also new to Scottsdale. Getting involved in school choir and a community theater program also helped quite a bit.

As for our son, he was so little that it seemed easier for him to make friends and adjust to first grade in a new school. Then a boy in his class began bullying him. Our normally enthusiastic kid who regularly claimed every day was the “best day of his life” became sullen.

It helped when I began regularly volunteering in his classroom. Plus, a big boon in his self-confidence came when he joined Little League baseball, with his dad as coach and grandpa as assistant coach. It’s so important for kids to feel they have somewhere they belong, especially when they don’t feel accepted at school.

My kids enjoy riding their bicycles to school in Arizona (Photo credit: Colleen Lanin)
My son riding his bicycle to school in Arizona (Photo credit: Colleen Lanin)

Living in Arizona

Several years have passed and we still live in Arizona. We have all settled in and everyone is happy with our decision to make the move. Honestly, our son doesn’t really remember ever living anywhere else.

Despite Southern California’s near-perfect weather, we actually feel more connected to nature in Arizona. That’s due in large part to the state’s abundance of hiking trails and biking paths. I run or hike on these almost daily, finding a desert beauty to which I was immune growing up here.

When the weather in Scottsdale is hot, the whole family loves to splash in our backyard pool. This is a luxury nearly every house and apartment complex shares in the Phoenix area. Plus, we can always escape to Flagstaff in northern Arizona for a dose of green trees and cooler temperatures.

My son and one of his classmates on Lost Dog Wash Trail outdoors in Scottsdale
My son and one of his friends hiking in Scottsdale (Photo credit: Colleen Lanin)

Thankfully, our family no longer feels overwhelmed by the high cost of California living. We enjoy freedom from constant worry about too-high electricity bills and a mortgage we could no longer afford.

In fact, we’ve purchased a house in Scottsdale that we love even more than our former dream home. It’s similar in size and neighborhood to our San Diego house and we bought it for half the price.

Our kids have lots of friends here, and my husband and I have made a few, too. But for us, living near family has been the biggest benefit of life in Arizona. We didn’t realize how lonely it was raising children without the support of our extended family until we made the move.

We’re closer in proximity and relationship with my Arizona-dwelling parents and brother than ever. My brother and I had grown apart after years of living in different states and we rarely spoke. But now, we live just around the corner from him and his wife, and they’ve become our best friends. In fact, my husband was my brother’s best man at their wedding a few years ago.

The benefits of life in Arizona far outweigh any cons for our family. We only wish we would have made the move a few years earlier!

Collecting pumpkins with Grandma Ellen at Old MacDonald's Ranch (Photo credit: Colleen Lanin)
Collecting pumpkins with my mom and kids at MacDonald’s Ranch (Photo credit: Travel Mamas)

Learn More About Arizona

If you’re considering visiting or living in Arizona, then take a look at the best kid-friendly activities in Scottsdale and Phoenix!

Concerned about Arizona’s summer heat? Soothe your worries with this list of things to do in Scottsdale in summer.

For cooler weather and small-town vibes, take a look at this array of things to do in Prescott.

Those seeking a quirky desert destination should check out this guide to Jerome, Arizona’s biggest ghost town.

Living in Arizona - Adjusting to Life in the Desert

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  1. Hi! I came across your blog while trying to find out how other San Diegans’ feel about a transplant to the Phoenix area. My husband and I have two kids (5.5 yr and 7 mo.) We have considered moving out of the sd area several times in the last 3 years, but could never commit. I would become overwhelmed with the fact my beach loving son, would no longer be a beach boy. I crave the elements of the ocean, BUT i am realizing that the beach is just a beach and moving would give us the freedoms we crave even more. We don’t have family in Arizona, but thankfully a few friends.

    Anyways, almost 4 years later, how do you feel about the move now? Any regrets? Do you find yourself missing San Diego a lot? IF, everything goes right, we will find ourselves in Gilbert/Chandler before school starts for my son in AUG. I am also curious how things worked out as far as finding a rental, was that something you guys were able to secure before the move?

    1. Hi Gen –

      We’ve been in Arizona for 4.5 years and are quite content here. I honestly don’t find myself missing San Diego or the beach much at all. I love San Diego and the beach, but we have gotten into our own routine and life here. Instead of a beach day, we love splashing in our backyard pool. Instead of walks along the beach, we go for desert hikes.

      As far as finding a rental home, I used the Trulia app to find a place here. I had my parents go look at a few properties for us before we got here and they gave us the thumbs up for the house we rented for our first four years here. For the first couple of weeks after our move, we lived with my parents while we waited for moving trucks, etc. Now we’ve purchased a house…so we’re obviously committed to living here for at least a few more years!

      Best wishes with your move! I hope you love your new life in Arizona!

  2. Hi Travel mama! I am moving to Scottsdale in April, but I am worried about my skin and sinuses and low humidity? Do you get acclimated to the dryness? I’d hate to suffer for the next four years as I attend a doctorate program there.

    1. Hi Kay – It is very dry indeed in Arizona. Everyone in my family sleeps with a humidifier in our bedrooms at night to keep from becoming too dried out at night. Here’s the air cleaner/humidifier I recommend to people considering a move to Arizona (or for living anywhere, really) : I am also sure to apply lip balm before bed every night so my lips don’t get too dry. I love Pacifica body butter to keep the skin on my body from becoming too dry as well. We’ve actually had a lot of rain lately (winter monsoon season) but this is a desert after all. Using a humidifier, lip balm and good lotion will help you with the transition. Best wishes with your move to Arizona!

  3. This article was wonderful and the comments are equally helpful! We live in NorCal and are recent Empty-Nesters as our last kid joined the Navy. He’s stationed at Port Hueneme in SoCal but will be overseas a lot. We have acreage here with a pool on which we were to built our retirement home, but permits, fees, and taxes and future fees and taxes are forcing us to reconsider building. We are heartbroken. Since my best friend, Michelle, lives in AZ now, we are going to look in the Scottsdale, Chino Valley area for some acreage for the horses, dogs, and us. We’ve traveled through the area of Sedona, Flagstaff, and Phoenix area so it’s not alien to us. Im just worried about missing my mountains, trees, and lakes, as well as being 1.5 hours from my ocean. Must have Ocean. It will be an adjustment for sure, but the prospect of retiring and having money to travel or visit family n friends frequently is appealing. Thank you for the article and thanks to all the contributing commenters.

    1. Maria – I can understand why you’d feel heartbroken about giving up on your dream home in your dream destination. You do get A LOT more for your money in Arizona, though. North Scottsdale is one of the most expensive areas in the state and we just bought a similar house to what we had in San Diego for literally half the price. You’ll get even more for your money if you look outside of Scottsdale. And, there’s no need to miss the mountains since we have those here! Not only can you enjoy the view of the mountains & hiking the mountain trails here in the Valley, but also you can drive to see leafy and pine trees and lakes in Sedona, Flagstaff, Prescott and beyond. Plus, although we don’t have ocean here, almost everyone owns a pool or at least has a community pool that they can enjoy. We literally go in our pool 5+ days per week in summer here and it’s something that we really love about living in Arizona. Good luck in making your choice and know that you can be happy wherever you land!

  4. Thank you for your post! I found it comforting as I am a San Diego native and just moved here to Phoenix with my husband 6y/o son and 5 month old daughter. My son is going through the same emotions as your kids did. We moved here in January and every time I tell someone I’m from San Diego they always say the same thing… “just wait for summer.. hahah”. Any tips you can give a newbie with kids for surviving our first summer?


    1. Your kids will adjust, Desi. It just takes time. Hang in there! As for summer, plan to spend a lot of time in the pool – whether you have one in the backyard or you will be visiting a community pool. Water parks are plentiful here, so make use of those too. My family loves Glow Putt minigolf in North Scottsdale – a great way to play in the cool air conditioning in summer. Also, plan to travel in summer if you can! You need not do long or far trips, either. Prescott, Flagstaff and other AZ destinations are much cooler than the Phoenix Area and will provide a welcome reprieve from the heat. Hope that helps!

  5. Hello,
    I am very interested in moving to Arizona, however I have a phobia of rattlesnakes. I was told that there are rattlesnakes everywhere in Arizona, including in the toilet.

    1. Hi Samuel ~ LOL! I’ve NEVER heard of someone in Arizona finding a rattlesnake in their toilet! I don’t know how it would get in the toilet since they are not aquatic animals. I have only seen 2 rattle snakes since moving here 3 years ago. One was alive in a neighbor’s yard (and quietly moving away from the humans who had gathered to take a look) and another was dead in the road. They are shy animals who would rather not see you too. I saw the same number of rattlesnakes living in San Diego, CA (granted, over a longer period of time). They like to hide under rocks to stay cool and are most active in spring and fall when temperatures are moderate, especially at dawn & dusk. They hibernate in winter and they hate the heat in summer. You are most likely to see a rattlesnake when hiking the many beautiful desert trails here. If you stick to more crowded trails and/or paved trails, you should be pretty safe. Be careful stepping on large rocks under which a snake could be hiding. Otherwise, you should be good to go. I totally understand your fear of rattlesnakes, but I don’t think it should deter you from moving here. The closer you are to the mountains/open desert, the more likely you are to see bobcats, mountain lions, scorpions and rattlesnakes. The closer you are to the city center, the less likely you are to see wildlife. Good luck with your move!

  6. Hi Colleen! I am wondering about acclimating to the extreme heat . I’m from Pasadena California where we have a variety of heat. It does get pretty hot at home. I’m visiting Arizona now with seriously considering affordable housing, starting a family away from a liberal drenched state, and just having affordable living. I’m wondering how long it will take to get use to the summer heat?

    Warm regards,

    1. Hi Kristin – I’m not sure you ever get used to the heat. You just learn to spend a lot of time in air conditioning or a swimming pool. My advice is to live somewhere with a pool – either in your backyard or a community pool you can use. Good luck with your decision!

  7. You mention high electric bills in Ca. so does that mean it doesnt cost a fortune to run the a/c in Arizona all summer? What are the pros and cons of living in Az. versus just north of San Diego,Temecula is where I am currently? How do I find out the facts? The house seem really nice for the money.

    1. Hi Debbie – Our house was 1,500 square feet larger in San Diego than it is in Scottsdale, so that plays a role in our lower electric/gas bills here. Still, we were paying $600+ per month in the summer for electricity in San Diego, rarely running the a/c. Here we have a pool and run the a/c allllll day and night and we pay maybe $200 – $250 per month in summer. I have never lived in Temecula (and have only visited once for dinner maaaaany years ago), so I can’t really compare and contrast the two places for you. I would say that compared to San Diego, the Phoenix area is MUCH more affordable. Politically, most people are republicans here, whereas there were more democrats in San Diego. Most people are friendly and fairly easy to get to know in Scottsdale. In summer, not surprisingly, people tend to get cranky in the Valley of the Sun, with car crashes and all types of crime going up. I try to get out of Arizona as much as possible June – September. The schools rank really poorly – 48th in the nation – in Arizona. It really depends on where you live, though, because my kids’ schools in North Scottsdale are very good. The kids are a bit rougher/more sassy here, though. There is less to do in the Phoenix Area for kids since San Diego has SO MUCH to offer. But still, there are lots of water parks and museums. I love the plentiful hiking and biking trails here too. Good luck with your decision!

  8. You have a really profound way of looking at things. We’re weeks away from a big move ourselves (moving to phoenix/scottsdale) and I’m mortified by the sheer amount of pessimism that I run across online when researching apartments, areas, etc…I was initially excited about the prospect but the more I read that the phoenix area is full of unhappy people who long to live in southern california the more my enthusiasm wanes. I’d like to recapture that early exuberance but would really like to hear from anyone who lives there in order to determine if there is much validity to what I’m reading on the blogs? Or if the vocal minority is simply louder…

    1. Hi Stephen – Recent pessimism might be due to the summer heat! It’s sort of like asking a Minnesotan if they love their state in the midst of a blizzard. Spring, winter and fall are lovely and temperaments settle as the temperatures cool! I loved living in Southern California but have no desire to move back. I like having more money in my bank in Arizona and Cali is just a road trip away (about 6 hours from Phoenix to San Diego). Many people who live in AZ vacation often in California but most of the people I know here, really enjoy Arizona life and aren’t clamoring to move away. I hope that helps! Good luck in making your decision!

  9. Thanks for the write up…moving to area this summer from Portland or. Would appreciate any tips on best areas to look for a home. We have 2 daughters and are planning a research trip soon. I have been looking at the Scottsdale, Tempe, central Phoenix area, and chandler. Any insight to the differences on each area. In Portland we are definitely used to great food and a unique artsy vibe. Thanks!!

    1. Hi Nicole – I lived in Tempe during college. It’s got a cute little downtown (Mill Avenue) with a young, fun vibe. Tempe is home to the massive Arizona State University so college students making up much of the population. I live in Scottsdale, which is a suburb of Phoenix but is quite large itself with many different neighborhoods, each with its own feeling. You might want to look at living near Old Town Scottsdale, which is full of art galleries and is near the Civic Center grassy park and outdoor sculptures. Be sure to check out Thursday night Art Walks in Old Town when all of the galleries remain open in the evening. Honestly, I don’t spend much time in Phoenix beyond going to see sporting or cultural events (like the Nutcracker) downtown because the drive is far and we have so many restaurants and things to do in Scottsdale, so I don’t know what it’s like to live there. But I do have a high school girlfriend who lives in Phoenix and she says her neighbors tend to be more liberal (like Portland) than what you’ll find in Scottsdale. Phoenix is a very republican state, so it may be difficult to find an artsy vibe like what you may be used to in Portland. Some of my husband’s family lives in Chandler but we haven’t explored it much – it feels more like a standard suburb to me. Of course, I prefer Scottsdale because that’s where I live! I’m not sure if that helps…let me know if you have any other questions and I’ll do my best to help out!

  10. I too said this same phrase when I graduated from ASU with my now husband..and we did move to beautiful Colorado Springs into our dream home. We have everything we have ever wanted. We live in a beautiful historic neighborhood in a cute little yellow bungalow. And now we are expecting our first child and all I want it to be back in AZ, back with my friends and family…and I actually day dream about all the time. Housing is cheaper, there is a ton of kid friendly things to do there and could raise my kids with families I’ve know and grown up with. I wouldn’t be surprised if we end back up in Gilbert in a years time.

    1. Heather – It’s funny how the prospect of parenting reminds us of the importance of family and home. As young adults so many of us want to break free from our families of origin to go find ourselves and our place in the world. And then when we start our own families, we realize that our place in the world may just be in the place we started, surrounded by those people who gave us the courage and knowledge to leave. Best wishes in making your decision about a possible to move to Arizona and congratulations on joining the wonderful and wacky world of parenting!

  11. I was on google looking for recent pheonix transplants from my home state of Minnesota and I stumbled upon your blog. I have lived in MI and then MN for my entire 27 yrs. I haaaaate winter. MN winter can last for half a year, and we stay indoors the entire time. Needless to say, I have dreamed of moving to somewhere warm. I have never even traveled to a warmer state and have no idea what to expect. My parents have decided to take an early retirement and moved the the pheonix suburbs. This has now sparked my mind and set me off into looking for a new place to call home. I look forward to hearing more about your kids adjustment and your journey in Az.

    1. Mallory – I have lived in Minnesota for 8 years of my life and was born in Michigan, so I can relate to wanting to escape the snow! The heat here can be equally tiresome, but at least it’s easier to manage (no shoveling, no scraping the car windows, no driving in blizzards, etc.). A year and a half later, my family has settled in to life in Arizona pretty well. Thankfully the kids are off of school in the summer, making it easier to escape the heat by traveling. Good luck in making a decision about your move!

  12. My husband was offered a job in Gilbert Arizona. We have three children. My biggest worry is my 13 year old daughter. We have not told the kids yet, because we wanted to make sure it is 100% go before we break the news. We have lived in Oregon our entire lives. I have no idea what to expect or even what do tell the kids about what to look forward to. It’s good to know that there are other families who struggle. I heard there are scorpians there!! Yikes. I am excited about a new adventure for our family but not sure where to start to look for schools and everything else. Ugh. Lots to do.

    1. Hi Crystal – I find that the worry over whether to move and preparing for the move, is more difficult than the actual move or the aftermath from the move. Your kids can look forward to less rain, warmer winters, swimming (almost all houses/apartments have private pools or community pools, and even if yours doesn’t, there are plenty of public aquatic centers), waterparks, desert hikes (if they enjoy nature), delicious Mexican food, and tons of shopping opportunities…depending on their interests. If your kids are into sports or music or art, you can assure them that they can continue to pursue their passions here. School districts are open in Phoenix, which means that your kids can go to the school of your choice, rather than being limited by your neighborhood. We chose a few neighborhoods that received good ratings on Trulia in terms of low crime and good schools and looked for houses there. Then we just signed up for the school in the neighborhood where we found our rental home. Now school is just a three and a half-minute walk away! It will all come together. Enjoy your new Arizona adventure!

  13. I just love Arizona! Our family has vacationed there several times and now my oldest daughter is a freshman at ASU. She says she is never moving back to Chicago. I guess only time will tell.

  14. You and your family are adjusting well to your new home. Walking the McDowell Mt. preserve is always available and very relaxing, too.