By Josephine Matyas
Arizona’s blessed with a range of ecozones, meaning your clients could easily spend a lifetime sampling the menu of outdoor activities. Add to that a dizzying choice of places to stay – from rustic ranches to luxury resorts – and it means that active and adventuresome travellers can play hard during the daytime, and land softly at night.
In the desert
The Sonoran Desert sprawls across much of southern Arizona and it’s here that you find that iconic sentinel of the desert, the multi-armed, saguaro cactus. The best desert introduction is at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, a world-renowned zoo, botanical garden and natural history museum near Tucson. Daily demonstrations and interpretive programs range from a butterfly walk, to a behind-the-scenes tour with an animal keeper. At the foothills of the Santa Catalina Mountains, the elegant Hacienda del Sol Guest Ranch is a Tucson landmark that has been recognized by National Geographic as a geotourism destination. After a day of demanding outdoor adventure, guests can relax in The Grill, the ranch’s award-winning restaurant that holds the distinction of “Tucson’s Most Romantic Dining.”
In the northern part of the state, a land of dramatic red buttes, spires and deep canyons define the high desert of the Four Corners region. Rafting the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon is considered a must-do item for outdoors adrenaline junkies. There is no shortage of hiking trails at Grand Canyon (multi-day hikes into the canyon are popular with the very fit, but there are plenty of short rim hikes for regular folks). Hikes through the hauntingly beautiful slot canyons of Antelope Canyon and Canyon X show you the power of water and erosion in sculpting the landscape. The evenings are your time to recharge and luxuriate: Grand Canyon, Sedona, Page and Lake Powell all offer a range of hotels (from the historic El Tovar National Park lodge on the canyon rim, to the swishy Adobe Grand Villas in Sedona where fresh baked bread is prepared in your villa upon arrival).
When the sun goes down in Arizona, it’s hard to beat the show put on by the moon and the stars. Blessed with temperate weather and clear night skies, the state is an astronomer’s dream, and home to a wide variety of observatories, nighttime astronomy programs and stargazing events.
At the Kitt Peak National Observatory southwest of Tucson, the collection of 26 telescopes includes the world’s largest solar telescope. Guided tours and nightly observing programs provide a great introduction to the brilliance of the skies. In Flagstaff, the historic Lowell Observatory houses the Pluto Discovery Telescope, used in the discovery of the distant dwarf planet. In addition to tours and gazing through telescopes, wanna-be astronomers can watch the live stream from NASA. The popular Summer With the Stars is full of family-friendly events from hands-on assembly of telescopes to widescreen multimedia shows.
Skygazers who don’t want to stray beyond the city limits can visit the Dorrance Planetarium at the Arizona Science Center in downtown Phoenix. Multiple shows at the interactive planetarium zero in on comets, black holes, the stars above Arizona and a grand tour of the solar system.
Observing the show in the night sky has become a popular activity at resorts that are offering special weekend stays with an astronomy theme. Sunglow Ranch, near the Chiricahua National Monument, offers stargazing nights with their resident astronomer, where guests can use the resort’s telescope. In the Phoenix area, the Sky Jewels™ stargazing program at GemLand® has partnered with resorts to offer guests guided astronomy tours. Guests at The Boulders Resort, Camelback Inn, Four Seasons Resort in Scottsdale and JW Marriott Desert Ridge Resort can make arrangements at their hotel through the concierge.
Up, Up & Away
Experiencing the majestic landforms of Arizona from above is guaranteed to electrify even the most experienced thrill seeker.
Nothing can prepare you for seeing the Grand Canyon from the seat of a helicopter. Flights with Maverick Tours – ranging from 25 to 50 minutes in length – begin over the ponderosa pine forest of the plateau and then drop over the South Rim revealing some of the most spectacular views in the entire canyon. Maverick also offers daylong tours from Scottsdale/Phoenix that give a birds-eye view of the Sonoran Desert, the red rocks of Sedona, and the majesty of the Grand Canyon.
For clients wanting an adrenaline hit, the buzz of fighter combat or aerobatics may be the experience of a lifetime. Aviation Performance Solutions/Fighter Combat International in Phoenix prepares the thrill seeker to be their own pilot and take control in half-day experiences to five-day air combat missions. Aerobatic flights allow riders to test their limits, always under the guidance of an expert aerobatic instructor. The Best Western Legacy Inn & Suites in Mesa and the Hyatt Place Phoenix in Gilbert both offer special room rates for program registrants.
There’s always peace and solitude with soaring quietly and slowly above the Arizona desert, whether skydiving, gliding or riding in an ultralite plane, or floating quietly in the basket of a hot air balloon. These are “once-in-a-lifetime” experiences that your clients will come back for over and over again.
For those who like to stay a little closer to terra firma, SkyVenture Arizona (located between Phoenix and Tucson) simulates skydiving at their state-of-the-art indoor wind tunnel. Clients can still “get the thrill” trying various flying and aerobatic skills without having to jump out of an airplane or use a parachute.
Mountains & Canyons Beckon
Arizona’s rugged terrain is perfect for mountain biking. The ski lift at Sunrise Park Resort in the heart of the White Mountains is outfitted with special bike carriers to carry equipment to the top of Sunrise Mountain. The resort offers bike rentals and all-day lift tickets for mountain bikes during the summer. In the Verde River basin area, the McDowell Competitive Track offers three loops totalling 24 kilometres – with levels for average to expert riders.
Spelunkers love the southern part of the state. Adventuresome souls can wriggle and squeeze through the tiniest cave openings at the world-famous Kartchner Caverns. For those who need a little more breathing room, Colossal Cave Mountain Park near Tucson offers guided tours into the world of cave formations like stalactites, stalagmites and helictites.
Looking For Birds?
There’s more life in the desert than you would expect. With a temperate climate and a wide diversity of terrain, the skies of Arizona are a birder’s paradise. More than 500 species of birds pass through a green corridor as they migrate from northern nesting grounds to southern wintering climes. Birding hotspots like Ramsey Canyon, the Huachuca Mountains, Verde Valley and Sedona attract serious birders who return year after year.
Many visitors also come for the annual bird festivals. For five-days in January, Wings Over Willcox Birding & Nature Festival combines a nature expo, educational seminars and tours on southeast Arizona’s geology, botany and archaeology. The springtime Yuma Birding and Nature Festival holds workshops, field trips, speakers and photography classes. And the state’s longest running nature festival, the Southwest Wings Birding & Nature Festival, includes everything about birding plus guided nature tours.