Hub of the sprawling Valley, Phoenix has a larger population, bigger businesses, and greater clout than any other city in Arizona. Here state laws are made and big corporate deals signed. A Western sense of informality and leisure slows the pace a bit, making for a relaxed style quickly picked up by the hordes of newcomers flocking to the city. Phoenix is the sixth-largest city in the country and one of the fastest growing. The city proper holds more than 1.3 million residents, while a similar number inhabit the surrounding area. Many retired people live in the Valley of the Sun, and whole towns are planned just for them. A negative aspect to the area's development is that smoke from industry and the many cars has created a serious air pollution problem, something not historically associated with the blue skies of Arizona.
Though you'll rarely see the name on a map, you'll frequently hear people call the greater Phoenix area the "Valley of the Sun," a name that accurately reflects the area's pleasant winters and its average of 300 sunny days per year. More than half the state's population lives here, and large numbers of visitors arrive in the cooler months to play in the posh resorts or join fellow "snowbirds" in vast RV parks. Phoenix and surrounding cities have some of the state's best museums, entertainment, golf courses, resorts, and dining. When you're ready to hit the trail, several city parks have small peaks to climb in the midst of the Valley of the Sun.
Urban sophistication fades away quickly once you reach the edge of town, and you can soon be in ruggedly picturesque mountain ranges with great opportunities for scenic drives, four-wheeling, hiking, mountain biking, and horseback riding. The mountains in this region aren't particularly high—most summit elevations range from 3,000 to 8,000 feet. But what they lack in size they make up for in challenging terrain. The major ranges—Bradshaw, Mazatzal, Sierra Ancha, Superstition, and Pinal—all with good hiking and wilderness, lie north and east of Phoenix. To the south and west you'll find a very different sort of country—the often harsh desert most people associate with Arizona. In this region, small craggy ranges break through plains of rock and sand, springs and streams rarely flow, and only hardy desert plants and wildlife survive. Adventurous travelers explore such places as Woolsey, Signal Peak, and Sierra Estrella Wildernesses and the Sonoran Desert and Ironwood National Monuments.
Outlying towns in the region make good day or overnight trips. Wickenburg, 58 miles northwest of Phoenix, has many reminders of the Old West, a fine regional museum, great horseback country, guest ranches, and the well-preserved ghost town at Vulture Mine, where a gold rush started in the 1860s. Florence, 60 miles southeast of Phoenix, is another old town from the 1860s; it has two good historical museums. Nearby Casa Grande Ruins National Monument contains a far older settlement from prehistoric times with a mysterious four-story adobe building. The scenic Apache Trail loop east of the Valley of the Sun takes in not only the incredibly rugged scenery of the Salt River Canyon, but also the historic copper-mining towns of Globe, Miami, and Superior.
Downtown Phoenix sits in the heart of the Valley. Here you'll find the State Capitol, Phoenix Civic Plaza, Heritage and Science Park, US Airways Center, Chase Field, and many offices. Streets running east-west in the downtown take the names of U.S. presidents—Van Buren, Monroe, Adams, Washington, Jefferson, and others; Washington Street divides city addresses between north and south. A newer downtown, or "midtown," extends one mile north on Central Avenue. Along this strip you'll see the Phoenix Central Library, Phoenix Art Museum, Phoenix Theatre, Heard Museum, and still more office buildings. The Camelback Road corridor in northeast Phoenix between 24th and 44th Streets holds some of the city's best restaurants and shops, along with many corporate offices.
Central Avenue divides both downtown and midtown into west and east halves. Parallel roads west of Central are numbered as Avenues, those east as Streets. (Grand Avenue, however, angles northwest from downtown across this grid on its way to Wickenburg.) In finding Valley addresses, it helps to remember that odd-numbered addresses line the south and east sides of roads.
In addition to the metered street parking downtown, you'll find many indoor and outdoor parking lots. Usually it's easy to find a space, but if a special event is taking place, costs will soar and you may have to do some hunting.
Phoenix makes the best base as it's close to most of the sights; freeways will quickly take you out to other places. There's a lot to see, so you might take in the top sights and scan through descriptions of the others to see which catch your fancy. The Heard Museum, just north of downtown Phoenix, heads up most visitors' lists because of the beautifully presented exhibits on Native American history, culture, crafts, and art. If you'd like to see more art, the nearby Phoenix Art Museum offers wide-ranging exhibits and frequent major shows. The delightful Desert Botanical Garden on the east side of the city introduces local and exotic flora of the desert, along with many informative displays. Arizona State University, southeast of Phoenix, adds to the cultural energy to the area with art and science collections as well as entertainment venues.
Getting There and Around
Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport, just east of downtown, has by far the best flight connections in Arizona. You also have a good choice of rental cars and long-distance bus connections from the city. Amtrak trains no longer serve Phoenix, but Amtrak shuttle buses connect the city with the train routes across northern and southern Arizona.
The local bus service can take you to nearly all of the points of interest, but is best used only for short distances. You'll save a lot of time by driving your own vehicle. No matter how you travel, it's worth a little planning and phoning ahead and avoiding the rush hours.
On to Downtown Phoenix