four essential ways to chill this summer
It’s one of those things that—as soon as you do it once—you see why others do it time and again: an Arizona summer vacation. Yes, yes, we know. The heat. But there’s a lot that actually flourishes in it, from astounding deals on iconic stays to unbridled creativity under the stars—to beloved travel memories with family and friends. (Thus the repeat summer visitors.) So read on for our insider’s guide to the Grand Canyon State—and of course, the Canyon itself—then start plotting your own epic getaway here.
For its part, one of the hottest new Phoenix area restaurants, Tempe’s Golden Pineapple Craft Lounge, is also putting creative spins on local heritage ingredients. See: the grain bowl with heirloom grains, heirloom beans, charred sweet potato, charred squash, fire-roasted chiles, sprouts, arugula, and avocado honey vinaigrette—or the tamale fries with local chorizo, cheese sauce, cured jalapeño and pickled onion.
If you prefer food that’s grown mere feet from your table, head to The Farm at South Mountain for lunch at Farm Kitchen or dinner at Quiessence—and delicious lesson in the array of microclimates that exist in what you thought was just plain desert.
Of course, no discussion of the Phoenician food scene is complete without Pizzeria Bianco, home to what everyone from The New York Times to Oprah to Rachael Ray has declared the best pizza in the U.S.
Though Tucson has long been known as a major Mexican food corridor, the 2015 UNESCO City of Gastronomy designation brought a whole other kind of awareness to the fore: Ancient indigenous crops—resourcefully cultivated for millennia in the surrounding Sonoran Desert—are astonishingly alive and well. And those two streams of culinary consciousness have just converged at one of Tucson’s best new dining destinations, Barrio Charro, where a titan of the Mexican food scene (El Charro) joined forces with a preeminent purveyor of heritage grains (Barrio Bread) to create, among other impossibly tasty offerings, “panchiladas” (house-made bread smothered in El Charro’s signature enchilada sauce, two Mexican cheeses and green onions). And the venture is just one of several restaurants and food artisans to be certified under a new City of Gastronomy program. See the full list for additional places to check out—and note that among them is Boca Tacos y Tequila, the home turf of Chef Maria Mazon, whose triumphs you may well be following on the current season of Top Chef. Go try her tacos—the Dan Gibson barbacoa in tomato chile sauce is an excellent starting point—and you'll see why she's impressed not only the Top Chef judges, but also the James Beard Foundation, The New York Times, The Washington Post... and the list goes on.
Adding even a single overnight means you can get out for a gorgeous early-morning hike. Again, you’ll want to be sure that you’re done by 10am, and that you’re following the rest of the National Park Service’s
summer hiking guidelines for the Grand Canyon. Perhaps the best combo of doable and unbelievable is the Rim Trail, a succession of otherworldly views along a mostly paved 13-mile path that follows the canyon’s South Rim. Not that you’d want to attempt the whole thing in a single early-morning stretch, but frequent shuttle service along this route means you can carve the trail into the segments of your choosing. On the North Rim, a good morning hike—especially if you can get there for the legendary sunrise—is the one- to two-hour Cape Royal trail. Of course, some people head to the canyon for the rafting alone—particularly in the big whitewater months of July and August. If you have even a couple of days (and up to a couple of weeks), you’ll likely find your perfect paddling trip. Other Grand Canyon adventures include biking, off-roading and—for true adrenaline junkies—skydiving.
Though no one recommends the Clark Griswold method, there are ways to turn even a day trip to the Grand Canyon into a truly memorable experience. If you time your arrival to the late afternoon, grab some refreshments at the Café at Mather Point, then stage an golden hour overlook crawl. Starting at Mather Point, you’ll proceed to Yavapai Point and finish at Hopi Point, where the sunsets tend to be life-changing.
Even better? Arrive earlier in the afternoon and head to the 1932 Desert View Watchtower first (if you’re starting at Mather Point, the watchtower is about a 22-mile drive in the opposite direction of Hopi Point, but well worth the pre-tour for the staggering river and canyon views). You’ll want to keep hikes short in summer and avoid them altogether between 10am and 4pm, but one to consider as the day starts to cool off is Ooh Aah Point—a steep .9-mile descent from the South Kaibab Trailhead with dazzling inner canyon views. And if you’re among those taking a day trip from Vegas, consider Grand Canyon West’s Skywalk—the glass-bottomed, horseshoe-shaped bridge that extends a surreal 70 feet out over the rim.
DID YOU KNOW?
Tucson was the very first UNESCO City of Gastronomy in the entire nation—a recognition of thousands of years’ worth of local food ingenuity that continues at the hands of some of the most creative producers and chefs in town.
To see how legitimately the Grand Canyon State comes by its nickname, head just three and a half hours north—maybe four—from the capital city of Phoenix, then behold the 277-mile-long, 18-mile-wide, mile-deep World Heritage Site that stretches before you. Millions of years old, this geologic layer cake of reds, pinks, purples, oranges and browns goes well beyond grand, but in fairness, no descriptor could ever adequately convey the drama and scale. Little wonder that in an average year, nearly 6 million people make the pilgrimage here. Many come for the day, and if that’s you, we’ve got you covered. But we’ve also got suggestions that may convince you to linger longer—especially because of the relatively temperate summer days: typically in the 80s along the South Rim, and the 70s along the North Rim, though things heat up as you descend into the canyon.
Posh retreats don’t get more iconic than The Phoenician, and amazingly, you can hide out at this Luxury Collection Resort in Scottsdale over the summer for as little as a third of what you’d pay in peak season. Though the lushly landscaped grounds and desert views are themselves bliss-inducing, the spa is next-level—particularly if you book such treatments as the 80-minute Phoenix Rising Scrub & Massage, whereby you’re buffed with a blend of the spa’s warming signature scent and a magnesium-rich creamy body polish, then massaged with shea butter and coconut oil.
And if you’re a red rock fan, you won’t want to miss one of Northern Arizona’s most special wellness experiences: L’Auberge de Sedona, on a forested creek, where L’Apothecary Spa incorporates the exquisite surroundings into a range of treatments—not least, Shinrin-Yoku (better known in the U.S. as forest bathing). Again, you can find rates for as little of a third of what you’d pay in peak season—particularly if you search midweek.
Having been dubbed the best golf resort in the Southwest by Golf Digest, Boulders Resort & Spa Scottsdale is also arguably one of the region’s best summer deals (rates plunge by as much as 70% off peak). For the biggest golf fans, though, the two award-winning, Jay Morrish-designed courses with views of the resort’s namesake geologic wonders are enticement enough. And by night, the resort’s golf cart trails turn into a moonlight biking course where handlebar-mounted LED systems help you night-ride through the desert.
Another great golf option is the Ritz-Carlton Dove Mountain outside Tucson, where—for about half of what you’d pay in peak season—you can stay in one of the area’s poshest resorts and play 27 holes of championship golf on three courses, each designed by Jack Nicklaus, amongst the stunning Tortolita Mountains. Just bear in mind that wherever you’re golfing in Arizona this summer, you’ll want to get the earliest possible start.
Think about it: A lot of what you’d want to do at a resort anytime—float around a sprawling pool, bliss out at the spa, laze in bed while taking in dreamy views—is inherently heat-avoidant, whether you’re chilling in the AC or in the water. The difference during an Arizona summer? Extra-deep discounts. In the posh retreat hotspot of Scottsdale, for example, rates drop an average of 60% from their peak-season counterparts. And you’ll find similar trends statewide, with mid-week deals looking extra sweet. So now’s an especially strategic time to experience Arizona’s legendary lodgings, no matter what kind you’re looking for.
Though Arizona may be best known for its wilderness experiences (and as the Grand Canyon State, how could it not?), you’ll find of plenty of vibrant city life here—even in summer. The best spots to look? Museums, public parklands and stages under the stars.
Williams is known as the Gateway to the Grand Canyon (in fact, this is where you catch the fabled Grand Canyon Railway to the South Rim)—but the town is far more than that, so you may well want to extend your time here, especially in light of the average summer highs in the low 80s. For starters, any historic Route 66 fans in your travel party will be psyched to find themselves along one of the best-preserved stretches—the Main Street National Historic District—where some of the same motels, shops and diners that sprung up alongside the highway in the early 20th century continue to welcome guests now. Even if the names and interiors have evolved over the decades, you’ll find no shortage of soda fountains, vintage signage and classic cars parked outside. Meanwhile, animal lovers will want to visit Bearizona, a 160-acre, Ponderosa Pine-forested wildlife park where more than half the residents are rescues. The experience is largely drive-through, so you can safely check out animals from your own car—at your own pace—though you can also book a guided bus tour.
The fact that Arizona has even one wine trail, let alone three, tends to shock the uninitiated. But there’s been viticulture here for centuries, and now you can sip your way through the Sonoita/Elgin region, Willcox Wine Country and Verde Valley.
This last one pairs particularly well with summer because much of the trail lies near the Verde River, where you can actually kayak to your next tasting. The Water to Wine adventure sends you down a particularly scenic stretch to the beach in front of the award-winning, sustainably-run Alcantara Winery, whose 17 varietals range from Viognier to Syrah.
Once you’ve made your way up through the vineyards to the Tuscan-style farmhouse, you’ll have an outdoor tasting with savory plates for good measure. Another stop of note on the same trail? Caduceus Cellars, owned by Maynard James Keenan of the Grammy-winning band Tool. His wines win awards, too—and you can’t beat the tasting room’s backdrop: the haunted old copper mining town of Jerome.
Though almost any renowned Arizona resort is, by definition, surrounded by otherworldly nature (see: all of the above), some are unequivocal standouts in that department. The newest—which has made both Conde Nast Traveler’s Hot List and Travel + Leisure’s It List for 2021 is ADERO Scottsdale, the first Autograph Collection property in a certified Dark Sky Community. From its foothills perch, the resort offers, well, stellar nightly stargazing sessions, complete with high-def telescopes. Between the light-screening effect from the neighboring mountains and the community’s own dark sky efforts, you’ll spot constellations, planets and maybe even the Milky Way. One big dip you’re sure to see is in midweek summer rates, with rooms often going for less than half of peak season rates.
Then again, if your ideal version of sleeping under the stars involves tents, Under Canvas Grand Canyon is for you. Set in the ultimate neighborhood for wilderness lovers (more on the Canyon in the next section), this amenity-packed glamping resort also offers the lowest rates of the April-October operating season in summer, and generally midweek.
Years before it opens to the public, one of the art world’s most anticipated installations—James Turrell’s Roden Crater outside Flagstaff in northern Arizona—keeps generating buzz, most recently, as Smithsonian’s May cover story (and before that, when Kanye donated $10 million to the project). But happily, you can get a taste of Turrell’s famously ethereal work anytime you want in Tempe, where James Turrell ASU Skyspace: Air Apparent is free and accessible to the public 24/7. That said, the installation is best viewed by night, when a purple glow transforms the top.
Another light installation no art lover should miss is the legendary Yayoi Kusama’s You Who are Getting Obliterated in the Dancing Swarm of Fireflies, which will give you major summer night vibes, even though you’ll be indoors at the Phoenix Art Museum. And while you’re there, catch the special exhibition Fearless Fashion: Rudi Gernreich—a collection of groundbreaking pieces by the mod icon.
And in keeping with the famous-artists-of-the-60s theme, try to catch the just-extended Leon Polk Smith: Hiding in Plain Sight exhibit at the Heard Museum, whose innovative curators paired his paintings with singular works of Indigenous art from Oklahoma Territory, where Smith grew up.
The first item on any music lover’s Arizona agenda should be the Museum of Musical Instruments, a collection of 8,000+ instruments from more than 200 countries with so many interactive elements, you’ll feel almost like you’ve stepped into an unorthodox global conservatory. But there are also concerts here, with 12 genre-spanning performances in June alone—so be sure to check out the calendar. Granted, these are intimate events, and for the blockbusters, you'll have to wait until August, when everyone from Alanis Morisette (together with Garbage and Liz Phair) to Harry Styles will be in town. Though Harry's already sold out, naturally, all the big resale and exchange sites will let you see him for a price—and one that many a live music-starved fan will happily pay.
Tucson's nightlife legend Club Congress will be rocking throughout the summer, first on the plaza at night—then with a reopened indoor section in August—so check the calendar for whenever you'll be in town.
Another historic Tucsonan venue, the Rialto Theatre, will be welcoming live music back in late summer, with everything from a Reggaeton dance party in August to Gogol Bordello in early September. Meanwhile, fans of music posters and photography should take a page out of Mark Kelly and Gabby Giffords' book and head to the Rialto on any given Friday or Saturday night throughout the summer to check out the Gallery Project over cocktails and popcorn.
Sometimes, you don’t want to rise with the sun or drive to the wilderness just to squeeze some outdoorsiness into a summer day here—and that’s where Arizona’s urban adventures come in. You’ll find plenty that are quick and easy-access, so you’ll never be stressed about making your way back to the AC by 10 am.
Tempe, in particular, is urban adventure central—starting with Tempe Town Lake, where you can kayak, SUP or paddleboat—to say nothing of the biking and scooting you can do around the water (rental everything is available). Then there’s the 1,500-acre Papago Park, home to a number of hiking and biking trails—some quick and easy, such as the iconic Hole in the Rock hike that gives you views of the lagoon-and-palm oasis below. But arguably the ultimate Tempe urban adventure is A Mountain (not to be confused with the Tucsonan peak of the same name). Also known as the Hayden Butte Preserve Park, Tempe’s peak isn’t merely a quick (.9 mile out and back) hike with a great view. The land is sacred to the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community, whose Hohokam ancestors left behind no fewer than 500 petroglyphs at the site, and you can see a number of these abstract, geometric and human figures along the trail.
For its part, Phoenix has one of the coolest urban adventures (and we mean that in every sense, because you'll be largely indoors): the Ability 360 Center, which caters to people of all abilities with incredibly specialized and tremendously accessible activities. Out-of-towners are welcome for drop-in use (free for the first day; $5 daily thereafter) and the facilities range from an aquatic center to a climbing wall. The latter remains closed for now, but may well reopen over the summer—and the best way to stay up to date, whether on the wall or any of the other resident activities is to download the app, where you're also encouraged to reserve your activities.
For spa enthusiasts
For nature lovers
The wine regions
Check out Visit Arizona's website to start planning.
See Travelzoo's lineup of great vacation, hotel and local deals here.
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in partnership with:
Miraval Resort & Spa, Tucson
Under Canvas Grand Canyon, Valle
Caduceus Cellars, Jerome
Tempe Town Lake
Toroweap Overlook, Grand Canyon North Rim
Aravaipa Canyon, Winkelman
Desert Botanical Garden, Phoenix
If you can spare more time
If you want to get to know the neighborhood
If you have a day