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Best Scottsdale Outdoor Activities – Making Lifelong Memories in the Sonoran Desert

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Each year Scottsdale welcomes 9 million vacationers seeking sunshine and memorable fun. In fact, many visitors love Scottsdale so much, they return year after year. Whether you’re coming to Scottsdale for the first time, planning a return visit, considering a move to my gorgeous hometown in Arizona, or you already reside here — this extraordinary city in the Sonoran Desert offers plenty of things to do outside year-round. Make lasting memories with this list of the best Scottsdale outdoor activities!

These Scottsdale outdoor activities will wow you!

These Scottsdale outdoor activities will wow you! (Photo credit: Colleen Lanin)

This story is brought to you in partnership with Experience Scottsdale and their Extraordinary Moments, Lifelong Memories campaign.

1. Hot Air Ballooning Over the Valley of the Sun

Floating above the desert in a hot air balloon is an experience you will long remember. In fact, with 300 days of sunshine per year in Scottsdale, the area offers more flyable days than anywhere else in the country. My husband and I celebrated one Valentine’s Day by embarking on our first balloon flight together. What could be more romantic than floating over the Valley of the Sun with your honey? Of course, family and friend flights (age 5+) would be super fun, too! Choose from shared or private flights with Hot Air Expeditions and Rainbow Ryders.

Rainbow Ryders hot air Balloon flight

Rainbow Ryders hot air balloon flight (Photo credit: Rainbow Ryders Hot Air Balloon Co.)

2. Horseback Trail Rides and Desert Cookouts

Growing up in Scottsdale, I fell in love with horseback riding during my first-ever trail ride, which took place at MacDonald’s Ranch. That led to years of lessons, competitions, and ribbons now tucked away in a box at my childhood home. I bet you’ll fall in love with horseback riding here, too, especially after a trail ride through the desert landscape with a view of mountain peaks in the distance. In addition to guided trail rides, MacDonald’s Ranch also offers pony rides for children plus a free petting zoo and outdoor games like horseshoes and “steer” roping. 

Horseback trail ride at MacDonald's Ranch

Horseback trail ride at MacDonald’s Ranch (Photo courtesy of Experience Scottsdale)

If traveling with a group of eight or more, then book a MacDonald’s Ranch desert cookout along with a hayride, stage coach tour or horseback adventure for a truly unique experience. When I was a college student at Arizona State University in Tempe, the MacDonald’s Ranch cookout was the most memorable activity my business fraternity ever did together. There’s something so incredible about eating outdoors beside a campfire under a starry desert sky, surrounded by nothing but cactus and tumbleweeds.

MacDonald's Ranch in Scottsdale, Arizona

MacDonald’s Ranch (Photo credit: Colleen Lanin)

3. Sonoran Desert Hikes

Desert hiking in Scottsdale is beautiful year-round. Early risers are rewarded in summer with cooler mornings and spectacular sunrise views. In fall, temps begin to drop, allowing hikers to hit the trails any time of day. In winter, visitors revel on snow-free trails while friends in colder climates are stuck indoors or shoveling driveways. The best time of year for a hike in Scottsdale, though, is spring with an array of cactus blossoms adding colorful vibrancy and sweet scents to the Sonoran Desert.

Prickly pear cactus cactus blossoms in Scottsdale in spring

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

The McDowell Sonoran Preserve offers 225 miles of trails of various lengths and levels of difficulty. I suggest heading to Gateway Trailhead and pick which path works best for your crew.

For stunning views of the Valley of the Sun, choose the moderate Lost Dog Wash Trail to Sunset Peak. This hike in and back route will take about 3-3.5 hours or longer with children. This trek is a rite of passage for some Scottsdale kids since it’s a traditional fourth grade local school field trip. As a nature lover, I volunteered to chaperone both my daughter’s and my son’s hikes when it was their turn. Everyone packed a picnic lunch to celebrate our accomplishment at the top of Sunset Peak.

My son and one of his classmates on Lost Dog Wash Trail outdoors in Scottsdale

My son and one of his classmates on Lost Dog Wash Trail (Photo credit: Colleen Lanin)

4. Bicycling in Scottsdale

From mountain biking on desert trails, to easy paved paths, and bike tours — it’s fun to explore Scottsdale on two wheels. Rent bicycles from REI Co-op Experiences or Pedego Scottsdale.

Get out of the city and into nature on a mountain bike. Newbies are best off booking a guided tour with experts like 360 Adventures or REI. My mountain biking brother, Mike, recommends the trails at McDowell Sonoran Preserve. For intermediate riders he says, “If you want a trail with lots of ups and downs and awesome opportunities to catch some air, the Sport Loop is super fun!”

Scottsdale outdoor activities abound in the MacDowell Mountain Preserve

Scottsdale outdoor activities abound in the McDowell Mountain Preserve (Photo credit: harrybeugelink@gmail.com, Depositphotos.com)

For a less intimidating adventure, you can’t go wrong with a bike ride on Indian Bend Wash Greenbelt. This lovely 22-mile multi-use trail stretches all the way from Scottsdale’s WestWorld event center to Tempe Town Lake in neighboring college town Tempe. Lined by grass and mostly tucked away from traffic, this is a bucolic paved path for bikers. Don’t be surprised if you see horseback riders making use of Indian Bend Wash, either. My son and I delighted in seeing a pony club out for a trot with their ponies and carts during one of our rides.

Cover a lot of ground with ease during an e-bike tour. Choose a Greenbelt Tour or a Paved Path Desert Tour with 360 Adventures.

Bicycling Indian Bend Wash Greenbelt outdoors in Scottsdale, AZ

Bicycling Indian Bend Wash Greenbelt (Photo credit: Colleen Lanin)

5. Chaparral Park Playtime

Chaparral Park has a little bit of everything for outdoor play. The Indian Bend Wash Trail wanders right through this pretty green space. Bike or walk around the park’s 10-acre lake, which is stocked for anglers. On weekends, find sports fields and courts filled with locals playing baseball, basketball, and volleyball. Children of all abilities will love playing on the wheelchair-accessible playground here. If that weren’t enough, the Chaparral Aquatic Center boasts a zero-entry pool, splash pad, lap swimming, and a high dive.

Scottsdale outdoor activities at wheelchair-accessible playground at Chaparral Park

Wheelchair-accessible playground at Chaparral Park (Photo credit: Richard N Horne, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons)

6. Spring Training and Regular Season Baseball

Spring means the start of baseball season in Scottsdale. Fifteen Major League Baseball teams call Arizona their spring training home including the Arizona Diamondbacks and San Francisco Giants. Games are played at 10 different locations throughout the Valley, including Scottsdale Stadium and Salt River Fields at Talking Stick in Scottsdale. Families may want to buy affordable lawn seats to let kids run around and play during the game. (Bring a beach blanket or hotel towels to sit on!) Serious fans of the game, though, will want to invest in assigned seats for a better view and more shade. Just like at regular season games, concessions are available for your munching pleasure. 

The home team Arizona Diamondbacks play regular MLB season home games in Phoenix at Chase Field. Its impressive retractable roof was the first of its kind built over a natural grass field (which was replaced with synthetic turf in 2019). Often, evening games will start out covered, and then the roof will magically open as temperatures drop.

Cactus League spring training outdoors at Salt River Fields in Scottsdale, Arizona

Cactus League spring training at Salt River Fields (Photo credit: SaltRiverFields.com)

7. Golfing Options for All

The Scottsdale area boasts over 200 golf courses. Of course, spring is the most beautiful time of year to hit the links in Scottsdale with ideal temperatures in the 70s and 80s Fahrenheit. Budget seekers, however, will appreciate discount pricing on world-class courses in summer in Scottsdale.

Every February, golf lovers flock to the Valley to attend the Waste Management Phoenix Open. One of the most prestigious golf tournaments in the world, the Phoenix Open takes place at the Tournament Players Club (TPC) Scottsdale. This 36-hole course is open to the public and offers private lessons for adults and kids alike. 

Waste Management Phoenix Open in Scottsdale

Waste Management Phoenix Open (Photo credit: Scott McGinty for Experience Scottsdale)

For a golf-themed night out on the town, reserve a bay at Topgolf Scottsdale. Here you and your travel partners can dine and drink while hitting micro-chipped golf balls at giant dartboard-like targets on an outfield. My sister-in-law celebrated a memorable milestone birthday here by reserving a bunch of bays for friends and family. 

Even little ones and those intimidated by the big courses can get in on the golfing fun in Scottsdale at CrackerJax Family Fun & Sports Park. Choose from their two outdoor miniature golf courses. Meanwhile, more serious golfers can hit balls at their award-winning driving range. Other outdoor attractions here include bumper boats, batting cages, and go-karts.

TopGolf Scottsdale

Topgolf Scottsdale (Photo courtesy of Experience Scottsdale)

8. ATV and Hummer Tours

Get your heart pumping by exploring the great outdoors via an ATV or Hummer tour during your Scottsdale vacation. Stellar Adventures leads guided ATV tours or you can romp through the desert as a passenger in a Hummer or Blazer. Alternatively, Green Zebra offers one- and two-hour guided self-driving ATV tours of Scottsdale’s backcountry.

Stellar Adventures ATV Sonoran Desert Tour

Stellar Adventures ATV Sonoran Desert Tour (Photo courtesy of Experience Scottsdale)

9. Outdoor Shopping

Thankfully, shopping need not be confined to indoor venues. Indeed you can get your retail fix while enjoying the outdoors in Scottsdale.

Located across the street from one another, Kierland Commons and Scottsdale Quarter feel more like they’re part of a trendy uptown shopping district than mere shopping malls. With over 150 retail stores between the two, you’re sure to find what’s on your shopping list. Expect national chains like Apple, Gap and Coach as well as specialty shops unique to Scottsdale. In summer, bring swimsuits and towels for children so they can cool off in the pop-jet fountain at the Quarter.

Scottsdale Quarter Fountain

Scottsdale Quarter Fountain (Photo credit: Mark Skalny Photography, courtesy of Experience Scottsdale)

You’ll find over 225 shops, art galleries, and restaurants in charming Old Town Scottsdale. Look for Southwestern jewelry (especially turquoise and silver), art by local and international artists, clothing boutiques, and souvenir stores in this walkable area of South Scottsdale.

For more than 45 years Old Town Scottsdale has welcomed visitors to the Scottsdale ArtWalk on Thursday evenings with refreshments, live music, and special exhibits. Also, from October through May, shop for fresh produce, flowers, tamales, artisan breads and more on Saturday mornings at the Old Town Farmers Market. Come to the Entertainment District here at night to hit the clubs and listen to live music, dance, and enjoy drinks with locals and tourists alike.

Old Bronze Horse Fountain in Old Town Scottsdale

Bronze Horse Fountain in Old Town Scottsdale (Photo credit: Colleen Lanin)

10. Scottsdale Civic Center Plaza

Before or after strolling through the shops in Old Town Scottsdale, explore the Scottsdale Civic Center Plaza. This beautiful space is filled with whimsical sculptures, an outdoor amphitheater, flower-filled gardens, and bubbling fountains. Keep your eyes open for brides and bridegrooms — this is a popular spot for wedding photos.

Scottsdale Civic Center Plaza fountain and flowers

Scottsdale Civic Center Plaza fountain and flowers (Photo credit: Colleen Lanin)

Everyone wants to snap pics of the popular LOVE sculpture by Robert Indiana. My favorite piece of public art here, however, is Windows to the West. That’s partially because I have fond memories of posing here for photos with my high school friends back in the day. This abstract expressionist metal sculpture by Louise Nevelson was installed in 1970. 

Windows to the West sculpture in the Scottsdale Civic Center Plaza

Windows to the West sculpture in the Scottsdale Civic Center Plaza (Photo credit: Colleen Lanin)

11. Segway Tours

Segway of Scottsdale leads 2-hour tours through historic Old Town Scottsdale. Mic and ear pieces in their bright orange helmets help keep riders safe and informed during the 6-mile tour past art galleries, the Civic Center MallScottsdale Waterfront and more. (Participants must be aged 12 to 75.)

In addition to Old Town Scottsdale daytime tours, Scottsdale Segway Tours offers a culinary Segway excursion. You can also sign up for a Sunsets, Segways and City Lights option to roll around Scottsdale under the stars.

Old Town Segway Tour with Segway of Scottsdale

Old Town Segway Tour with Segway of Scottsdale (Photo credit: Jason Sheldon, courtesy of Experience Scottsdale)

12. Tour Scottsdale via Golf Cart

JoyRidesAZ will cart your crew around Scottsdale so you can focus on fun. Choose from golf cart tours with themes like beer or wine tasting, urban history, gelato sampling and more. One to five guests can be seated comfortably with seat belts per vehicle. You can book more than one cart as needed, making this a great group activity.

Touring Old Town with JoyRidesAZ Tours

Touring Old Town with JoyRidesAZ Tours (Photo credit: Jenna McKone for Experience Scottsdale)

13. Boating and Beyond at Saguaro Lake

Just 45 minutes from Scottsdale, Saguaro Lake is a real-life oasis in the desert. Located within Tonto National Park, this lake offers nearly 2 square miles of water and 22 miles of shoreline. 

Saguaro Lake makes a great spot for boating and boarding. Sign up for a guided kayaking tour before you go. Or, rent pontoons, fishing boats, and personal watercrafts onsite at the Saguaro Lake Marina. You can also rent paddleboards in advance from Riverbound Sports or at Butcher Jones Beach on select dates. Butcher Jones Beach offers a sandy beach and picnic tables but arrive early in the day during spring and summer because this area fills up fast.

Saguaro Lake outdoor Scottsdale activities

Saguaro Lake with Butcher Jones Beach in the distance (Photo credit: Colleen Lanin)

Want to get out on the water but leave the skippering to someone else? Book a Desert Belle Cruise for an 80-minute Narrated Cruise, Live Music Cruise, or Wine Cruise. My parents treated my family of four to the narrated boat ride. We were blown away by the beauty of the lake and the surrounding cactus-dotted cliffs. What a great option for multigenerational groups!

You can even book a nature-focused Scottsdale vacation at the Saguaro Lake Guest Ranch in one of 20 rustic cabins. For an additional cost, they offer kayak, tubing, and horseback riding excursions plus pony rides for kids ages 2 to 6.

View of Bulldog Cliffs from Saguaro Lake Guest Ranch

View of Bulldog Cliffs from Saguaro Lake Guest Ranch (Photo credit: Laura Doyle for Saguaro Lake Guest Ranch)

14. McCormick-Stillman Railroad Park

If you’re traveling with children, then Scottsdale’s McCormick-Stillman Railroad Park is a must. The star attraction is the ride-on Paradise Pacific Railroad, which chugs through the grassy park. I’ve been bringing my children to this park since they were wee. They would clap with joy when boarding the miniature train and wave to their grandma as they spun in circles on the Scottsdale Charros Carousel. I also have such sweet memories from my childhood of climbing and sliding in the park’s vast playground and pretending to be cowboys in the smaller Old West-themed play area.

McCormick-Stillman Railroad Park train with kids

Paradise Pacific Railroad at McCormick-Stillman Railroad Park (Photo courtesy of Experience Scottsdale)

15. Alfresco Dining

Why dine inside when there are so many fantastic alfresco dining options in Scottsdale? Locals love Olive & Ivy‘s large outdoor patio shaded by leafy trees as well as their tasty Mediterranean cuisine. With several locations in the Valley, The Vig is always an entertaining and appetizing choice with their cushy outdoor seating, fire pits, and upscale neighborhood tavern menu. My family loves to eat outdoors at the Mesquite Grille with its sweeping views of the McDowell Mountain Golf Club greens plus live musicians, a roaring outdoor fire place in winter, and corn hole games to keep the kids content. For a playful, German-themed meal head to the beer garden at Brat Haus for craft beers, artisan sausages, golden pretzels, and patio games like ping pong and life-sized Jenga.

Outdoor dining at Brat Haus beer garden in Scottsdale, AZ

Brat Haus beer garden (Photo credit: Brat Haus)

16. Water Parks

With so much sunshine, it’s no surprise that water parks are plentiful in Scottsdale and the surrounding areas. Opened in 1969, Big Surf in Tempe is home to the world’s first wave machine. Six Flags Hurricane Harbor is the largest water park in the Phoenix Metropolitan Area. Meanwhile, fans of the original Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure may recognize the waterslides at Golfland Sunsplash in Mesa. For an affordable day of simple splashy fun, head to the McDowell Mountain Ranch Aquatic Center in Scottsdale to enjoy its winding waterslide, pleasant lazy river, high and low diving boards, and a zero-entry splash play area.

A rainbow of waterslides at Big Surf Water Park

A rainbow of waterslides at Big Surf Water Park in neighboring Tempe (Photo credit: Colleen Lanin)

17. Amazing Hotel Swimming Pools

Resort pools in Scottsdale are something to be celebrated. In fact, many locals get in on the splashy action with staycations in spring, summer and beyond to enjoy these watery oases. The Fairmont Scottsdale Princess offers Arizona’s only white sand beach plus six swimming pools and two twisting waterslides. Meanwhile, The Westin Kierland Reosrt & Spa‘s Adventure Water Park has the Kierland FlowRider flow-board simulator for surfing in the desert, a lazy river, and a 110-foot-long waterslide. And then there’s Hyatt Regency Scottsdale Resort & Spa at Gainey Ranch‘s 2.5-acre water playground with a sand beach, 10 swimming pools, 20 fountains, 45 waterfalls, and a three-story, high-speed waterslide. If pool parties are your jam, then you’ll appreciate the rocking RELEASE Parties (age 21+) and poolside live concerts at Talking Stick Resort

One of the pools at The Westin Kierland Resort & Spa

One of the pools at The Westin Kierland Resort & Spa (Photo credit: The Westin Kierland Resort & Spa)

Learn More About Scottsdale

No matter which of these extraordinary outdoor Scottsdale activities you choose, you’re sure to make lifelong memories in the West’s Most Western Town. 

If you’re planning a family vacation in the Valley of the Sun, then be sure to read this list of things to do in Scottsdale with kids.

In summer in the desert, prices plummet at swanky resorts and there’s still plenty to enjoy in Arizona. Read our Scottsdale summer vacation tips and itinerary.

Considering a trip to Scottsdale over the holidays? Take a look at these Scottsdale Christmas activities.

Best Scottsdale Outdoor Activities

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For future reference, keep this list of the best things to do outside in Scottsdale, AZ. Simply pin the image above to Pinterest. We hope you’ll follow Travel Mamas on Pinterest while you’re at it!

Which of these Scottsdale outdoor activities appeals most to you? Let us know in the comments below!

A Note from The Travel Mama: This story is part of a paid campaign sponsored by Experience Scottsdale. All opinions are mine, as always.

 
About Colleen Lanin, The Travel Mama

Colleen Lanin is the founder/editor-in-chief of TravelMamas.com. As the author of her book, "The Travel Mamas' Guide," she teaches parents not only how to survive a trip with children, but also how to love exploring the world with their offspring. Her stories have appeared online and in print for such outlets as the "Today" show, NBCNews.com, Parenting Magazine, Orlando Sentinel, Chicago Tribune, Expedia, San Diego Family Magazine, and more. Colleen gives tips on television, radio, and as a public speaker. She has a master’s degree in business administration with a background in marketing. She lives in Arizona with her husband and two kids.

Comments
  1. Gunel Ibadova says

    What an amazing city, like Paradise on the Earth. Enjoyed looking at images and I’m so impressed by this beauty.

  2. I had no idea how much there was to do in Scottsdale or how beautiful it is. I’d love to take my family there. I think we’d have a great time.

    • Colleen Lanin says

      I bet you would have a great time here, Brianne! Hope you can plan a future Scottsdale family vacation!

  3. Neely Moldovan says

    I woudl love to visit scottsdale at some point. It looks like such a beautiful place!

  4. It looks like there are a lot of great things to see and do. I’d love to visit Arizona.

    • Colleen Lanin says

      I hope you do! There are so many diverse and pretty places to visit in Arizona from Scottsdale, Phoenix and Tempe (vibrant college city) in the south to Flagstaff (Gateway to Grand Canyon), Prescott (former territorial capital of AZ), Paige (home to Lake Powell and Horseshoe Bend), Jerome (biggest ghost town in the country!) and beyond!

  5. Ntensibe Edgar says

    Wow….I’d love some hot-air ballooning, to start with. Then, the horse-back riding would do good, next!

  6. Gervin Khan says

    So many beautiful things to do at Scottsdale, and I wish to be in that place someday!

  7. I have heard the name Scottsdale, but I never really knew anything about it. It seems like a wonderful place to visit. The next time I take a trip to the States, it’s going to be on my list!

    • Colleen Lanin says

      People tend to think of resorts, golf, shopping and spas when they think of Scottsdale — and we definitely have some great options for all of those here! But there are lots of other activities to enjoy, too!

  8. Lisa Goodmurphy says

    Scottsdale is so beautiful! We visited years ago when Emma was a young toddler but haven’t been back since – it’s about time!! We didn’t do a lot because the kids were so young but we spent a lot of time enjoying the pools at the Hyatt Regency Gainey Ranch and went on a jeep tour of the desert. And we loved those outdoor shopping malls! I would love to go back just for the hot air balloon ride!!

    • Colleen Lanin says

      I hope you do, Lisa! I could show you around town. 🙂 Let me know if you schedule a trip so we can at least get together for drinks or a meal!

  9. khoingn | The Broad Life says

    This is a great checklist to sum up activities to do in Scottsdale.
    I always love reading the list like this that help me to easily figure out things to do in a place.
    Thanks for sharing!

  10. Emman Damian says

    There’s so many places I really want to visit. I hope I can go to Scottsdale, Arizona! So nice! Maybe after the pandemic.

  11. Catherine says

    What a great list of things to do in the Scottsdale area!! Pre-covid we’d try to get out to the Scottsdale/Phoenix area ever year for Spring training. Once we resume that tradition I’ll reference your post for addiitonal ideas of things to do!

    • Colleen Lanin says

      Catherine – I love that you visit Scottsdale and Phoenix each year for spring training — what a great tradition! Looking forward to welcoming you and other baseball fans back to the Valley of the Sun once it’s safe to travel again!

  12. katrina m kroeplin says

    those are great options. i used to live in AZ and loved going to Scottsdale. it was always fun.

  13. Jennifer L Brommer says

    This is such a great article! I recently went to Scottsdale for a girls’ trip and reflected back on what I would do there if I took the kids! DEFINITELY the hot air balloon rides! They are awesome! I also love the Sonoran Preserve as you mentioned for hiking. It is so beautiful and a true testament to the gorgeous landscape there. Thanks for the great ideas!

    • Colleen Lanin says

      So glad you like these outdoorsy things to do in Scottsdale, Jennifer! I hope you will return to Scottsdale someday with your kids!

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