In partnership with Visit Phoenix

The most memorable ways to explore the Sonoran Desert

From up high in a hot-air balloon to down low in the seat of a kayak, these are some of the coolest ways to experience Greater Phoenix

Sunset and a hot-air balloon. | Photo courtesy of Visit Phoenix

Eager to get outside—and make sure that your next adventure is not only a safe one, but a memorable one, too? On this action-packed trip, we’re giving you seven perspectives of Arizona’s Sonoran Desert—a collection that few others have experienced in its entirety. And one of the best things about this trip is that you can choose how to experience it—be it by land, water, or air.

Even if you don’t own a pair of hiking boots or a bicycle, there are still plenty of adventures to be had. This trip will show you that local outfitters are more than happy to put you in the saddle of a horse, the center of a tube, or the basket of a hot-air balloon in order to give you some of the most spectacular views of Greater Phoenix.

three people in red helmets drive an ATV through the water
A fun-filled ATV adventure through the water. | Photo courtesy of Visit Phoenix

1. Arizona Outdoor Fun

Hoping to get really up close and personal with the Sonoran Desert? Arizona Outdoor Fun is the perfect way to do exactly that. Located about 45 miles north of downtown Phoenix, Arizona Outdoor Fun provides ATV and UTV rentals, guided off-road tours, and shooting range lessons. Catering to both novice and skilled riders, there is a wide variety of vehicle types and tours to choose from, including four-seater vehicles perfect for families.

With access to more than 120 miles of trails—all of which were specifically designed to accommodate ATVs and UTVs—you’ll find yourself surrounded by landscapes most have only seen in the movies. Traverse deep canyons, climb over desert mountains, and race across the Agua Fria River. Rental and tour prices vary based on party size, vehicle type, and length of time, but all fees include a short driving lesson, helmets, goggles, and gloves.

a red, yellow and blue hot air balloon flies over the desert and large cacti
Rainbow Ryders offers hot-air balloon rides. | Photo courtesy of Visit Phoenix

2. Rainbow Ryders

If you’re looking to elevate your next adventure, then you’ll want to consider Rainbow Ryders. The team at Rainbow Ryders Phoenix launches hot-air balloon flights every day of the year, offering guests some truly remarkable, 360-degree views of the surrounding desert and mountain ranges. The entire experience takes about 3 hours—with roughly an hour of air time—and guests can choose between a sunrise or sunset flight (both are equally incredible, but sunset flights are only available November through February). While most flights hold anywhere from 12 to 14 people, Rainbow Ryders can accommodate smaller groups and offer reservations for private flights. Don’t forget to reward yourself with a post-flight prickly pear mimosa.

a desert landscape with yellow flowers, cacti and mountains in the background
Tom’s Thumb Trail. | Photo courtesy of Visit Phoenix

3. Tom’s Thumb Trail

Tom’s Thumb Trail is a moderate, 4-mile round-trip hike with a few steep inclines. The trail itself is extremely well-marked, and surrounded on all sides by the beautiful cacti and desert flora of the McDowell Sonoran Preserve. But the real highlight of the hike is its namesake, Tom’s Thumb. Take the “Rock Climbing Access Route” to see this unique rock formation—which looks like a thumbs-up and is named after local rock climber Tom Kreuser—up close. At the peak, hikers are rewarded with stunning panoramic views and a unique photo op. In addition to the well-marked trail and beautiful vistas, Tom’s Thumb Trail also has plenty of free parking and clean on-site bathrooms, and dogs are always welcome. 

rock formations rise out of a desert landscape with a wooden sign that says "siphon draw trail. no. 53"
Siphon Draw Trail Sign in the Superstition Mountains. | Photo: Shutterstock

4. Siphon Draw Trail

For anyone looking for a steeper challenge, Siphon Draw Trail is a favorite among both locals and visitors thanks to its canyon landscapes and scenic views of the surrounding Superstition Wilderness. But don’t be fooled by the length of this hike (4 miles round-trip). The terrain at Siphon Draw is unique and poses some rigorous challenges, starting off at a gentle incline until you reach the Siphon Draw canyon. You’ll have to climb over large boulders and long expanses of flat rock, but the canyon offers plenty of shade and smooth surfaces to sit and enjoy a quick snack or water break. (Be sure to pack plenty of water and a light jacket.)

From here, you can continue on for another 2 miles and hike up the Flatiron or head back the way you came. If you do decide to continue up to the Flatiron, proceed with caution: This strenuous segment is not a fully-designated or maintained trail.

5. Ponderosa Stables

Located at South Mountain Park and Preserve, Ponderosa Stables (sometimes referred to as Arizona Horses) has been offering horseback trail rides since 1975. With an emphasis on offering an authentic cowboy experience, Ponderosa Stables has more than 50 miles of trails covering nearly 18,000 acres of pristine Sonoran Desert. You can choose from a variety of different experiences, ranging from individual, 1-hour rides to all-day group rides. All of the ranch hands are extremely friendly and knowledgeable, deliberately matching riders with specific horses based on experience and overall comfort. And if you’re looking for something extra special, be sure to check out the stable’s evening rides, where you can ride under the stars and enjoy the distant lights of downtown Phoenix after sunset.

white a blue buildings set in front of mountains and a lake at sunset
Tempe Town Lake. | Photo: Shutterstock

6. Tempe Town Lake

If you’re looking for a fun outdoor activity—like rollerblading, picnicking, biking, fishing, paddling, or boating—you’re sure to find it at Tempe Town Lake. The lake (which is fed by Central Arizona Project canals) attracts countless visitors every year thanks to its accessible, picturesque location within Greater Phoenix. You can walk, run, bike, or skate along the water’s edge and soak in spectacular views from one of the lake’s bridges or from Tempe Beach Park (also a perfect picnic spot). Or, if you prefer to be on the water, the lake offers nearly every type of boating, including rowing, canoeing, and kayaking. Take it easy with a pedal boat or challenge yourself on a stand-up paddleboard. 

A man paddling a canoe while looking at wild horses grazing in the water
Wild horses on the Salt River. | Photo courtesy of Visit Phoenix

7. Salt River

The more than 200-mile-long Salt River extends from one side of the Greater Phoenix area to the other, where it connects with the Gila River. If you’re looking to tube or float down the river, then we suggest you start your adventure in Mesa at the Lower Salt River Recreation Area. Here you can park your car, rent a tube from Salt River Tubing, and get a shuttle pass for a ride back to your car when the float is over. Be on the lookout for wild horses that call this region home—you might catch a glimpse of them drinking from the river or eating grass along its edges. If you plan to go tubing, make sure you wear sandals with straps; the river’s current can pick up and easily slip your shoes off and away if you’re not careful.