Ask around the Valley of the Sun. Most non-native residents remember when they first visited the city named after the mythic creature that rose reborn from the ashes. They will tell you about hummingbirds fluttering around blooming saguaros. They remember the fresh morning sunlight over the patio at brunch at a Scottsdale resort. They’ll talk about the refreshing backyard pool in the triple-digit heat or the view of the surrounding purple mountains at sunset.
It’s difficult to find people who were born and raised in town or who’ve lived their entire lives in the Phoenix area. For many people, the vast metro Valley is a place to reinvent themselves. They come from Iowa and Massachusetts and Los Angeles for a better lifestyle. Those from the Midwest turn the occasional snowbird vacation into a full-time retirement. New Englanders take jobs in a place where their families won’t have to shovel their way to work and school every winter. However, it’s not only about the seemingly endless sunshine. City-dwellers from L.A., Chicago, and more-established cities get hooked on the lower cost of living.
The weather can’t be beat. In March, you can phone your friends back home and let them know you’re sitting poolside in 80 degree sunshine. In fact, the Valley gets sunshine over 85 percent of its daylight hours, according to the National Climatic Data Center. If you’ve lived here long enough, you’ll find yourself shivering or even wearing mittens when the temperatures drop below 50 degrees.
Valley natives have seen Phoenix transition in the last 15 years from a small town to the booming major city it is today. New freeways, housing developments, and commercial centers sprouted up in the 1990s and after the turn of the century before the 2008 economic collapse halted growth. In many ways the Valley exemplified the over-development and over-lending that led up to America’s busted housing bubble.
The Valley was also the epicenter for the US immigration debate when Arizona passed a law in 2010 making it a state crime to be in the country illegally. The controversial state bill, known as Senate Bill 1070, fetched international headlines for months. Downtown Phoenix hosted massive protests led by Mexican-American activists and residents concerned for their safety as local police use enhanced authority “when practicable” to detain residents to question them about their immigration status.
Residents were forced to forge their way through the down economy, slumping housing values, and the specter of race-related violence. Now it seems as if Phoenix and its surrounding suburban neighbors are pushing forward into a new era after all the negative national media attention.
The Valley metro area is massive. As it annexed land in past decades, Phoenix’s population grew to about 1.4 million by 2010. It totals around 4 million combined with Mesa, Scottsdale, Tempe, Glendale, and other suburbs. While the capital city is Arizona’s center of government, industry, and commerce, it’s difficult to see where the border lines are drawn. Cities appear to meld into one giant community. Maricopa County has the fourth-highest population of any county in the US.
Obviously, natural resources in a desert are scarce. Valley residents depend on a vast waterworks system that diverts water from the Colorado River 200 miles away. Runoff from varying levels of snowpack in Arizona’s northern mountains is stored at Roosevelt Dam northeast of the Valley. Water is a constant source of debate as the Valley’s population grows and cities expand to undeveloped outlying areas. Since 2000, the West Valley communities of Buckeye and Surprise have been ranked among the top 5 fastest-growing suburbs in the country.
You’ll notice flat, seemingly fertile farmland around the Valley. While the hospitality, tourism, biotech, and manufacturing industries dominate the market, Maricopa County has maintained its tradition as one of the top pima cotton-producing areas in the nation. The Valley’s major employers include Arizona State University, which boasts one of the largest overall student populations of any school in the world. Wal-Mart, local governments, the Banner Health hospital system, and the online education giant University of Phoenix are among the others.
By 2008 the median income in Phoenix was $56,555, according to the Greater Phoenix Economic Council. The organization also reported that Phoenix had an 8.5 percent unemployment rate, which had climbed as high as 9.6 percent by 2011. Many of those workers were reeling from layoffs by local construction firms that relied on the real estate boom.
Pro sports are also a major economic force in the Valley. Phoenix hosted Super Bowl XLII at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale in 2008, bringing fans of the major-market New England Patriots and New York Giants into town. The 2009 NBA All-Star game was held at the Phoenix Suns’ US Airways Center, and the Arizona Diamondbacks hosted the Major League Baseball All-Star game in July 2011. At the college level, the Fiesta Bowl and periodic BCS National Championship are held at the Glendale football stadium, which is home to the NFL’s Arizona Cardinals. Each spring baseball fans flock to the Valley to rub shoulders with their favorite ballplayers during the Cactus League spring training season (see Spectator Sports section for more).
The Valley covers about 2,000 square miles. Most of the surrounding suburbs are clearly in the city, but the far-flung communities of Apache Junction (40 miles southeast in neighboring Pinal County) and Buckeye (about an hour’s drive west of Phoenix) are considered part of the Valley metro area. The West Valley is crowned by Glendale, though it includes Peoria, Goodyear, the Sun Cities, Surprise, Avondale, Litchfield Park, Tolleson, and El Mirage.
Scottsdale borders Phoenix to the east. The largely affluent community, home to some of the country’s top resorts and golf clubs, is neighbored by the cozy towns of Paradise Valley, Fountain Hills, Cave Creek, and Carefree, in addition to the Salt River Pima-Maricopa and Fort McDowell Indian communities. ASU’s hometown of Tempe borders Phoenix to the southeast. The city of Mesa, located about 20 miles east of downtown Phoenix, has the third-largest population in Arizona. Its neighbor, Chandler, has the fourth-largest population. Other Southeast Valley communities include Gilbert and Queen Creek, which is split between Maricopa and Pinal counties. The Gila River Indian Community is the Valley’s last stop before you hit Casa Grande on the way to Tucson on I-10.
Sure, there’s some regional bias. The East Valley scoffs at the West Valley. People in north Phoenix gossip about the crime in south Phoenix. Kids who grow up in Scottsdale might never spend much time downtown near the capitol. Strip malls in Gilbert look the same as strip malls in Glendale.
Take some time to experience this part of the world and you’ll see how shallow those views are. Each community in the Valley has its own character and its top attractions. The calm waters of Tempe Town Lake are so uniquely different than the record-setting vertical stream of water that shoots from Fountain Park in Fountain Hills. The glitzy shopping districts of Scottsdale and the massive suburban malls around Arrowhead Towne Center in Peoria are like night and day. And the Old West history embedded in each of the Valley communities is in striking contrast to the New World mass-developed neighborhoods that have mushroomed from the high Sonoran Desert of the North Valley, down to South Mountain. Remember, it’s a dry heat, and you will sweat like you’ve never sweat before. But it’s cooler at night under the desert moon.
The Valley is a place for pioneers and travelers, for vacationers and investors. It’s home. It’s a getaway. It’s a destination. And it’s yours to explore.
Arizona is a place where the ancient world meets the modern. Classic museums like the Heard Museum in downtown Phoenix and Deer Valley Rock Art Center provide a look at the culture and sacred art of the Valley’s first settlers. Ruins on the outskirts of town at Casa Grande and Montezuma’s Castle give you a glimpse of life before American settlers arrived from the East. The Valley also has its share of modern art and science museums—enough, if fact, that you can easily fill a week’s stay. Unique spots like the Desert Botanical Garden at Papago Park, the hiking trails in the mountain preserve areas around the city, and the family-oriented Old West features at Rawhide draw as many locals as they do tourists.
Museums range from the Arizona Science Center to the Phoenix Art Museum. Districts like Old Town Scottsdale and Papago Park provide enough destination spots in themselves to take up entire days. Keep in mind that most of the year the weather is so gorgeous that walking around outdoors is a primary draw when you’re not sitting by the pool.
Think about maximizing your time here by seeing multiple attractions in a day. For example, a hike in the Superstition Mountains in the Southeast Valley is easily followed by a stop at nearby Goldfield Ghost Town. A hike through the red rock buttes of Papago Park is paired nicely with a stop at Phoenix Zoo. Stop at the Pioneer Living History Museum in north Phoenix on the way to or from Out of Africa wildlife park in Camp Verde.
See the Parks & Recreation chapter for more ideas on how to enjoy the Arizona outdoors. The Kidstuff chapter will give you a child’s-eye view of our best museums and other attractions. Browse The Arts chapter if you’d like to take in some additional culture while you’re here. The Day Trips chapter also offers more ideas if you want to shoot up to the high country or down to the Old Pueblo of Tucson.
Phoenix is very much a young city, and that’s reflected in the youth of so many of its residents. Young families with little kids have their share of favorite activities, along with young professionals and snowbirds.
Based on the weather, you have air-conditioned or outdoor options. Either is sure to expand your child’s mind. With so many natural wonders around the city, there’s plenty to explore in wildlife, landscape, and ancient Native American art. While your pals back East or in the Midwest are waiting for the thaw, you and your son will be able to toss the ball around in one of the dozens of city parks that stretch across the Valley.
The museums and entertainment choices slanted toward kids are also outstanding in Phoenix. The Arizona Science Center, Challenger Space Center, and Museum of Natural History will keep young people occupied for hours. With so many family-oriented shopping areas, there’s plenty of laser tag, arcades, and children’s theater. Plus, the water parks of Big Surf and Golfland make exciting full-day outings for the family.
For more ideas see the Spectator Sports chapter for places to watch professional sports year-round. See the Parks & Recreation chapter to scope out ideal sites for desert hikes or for whiling away an afternoon. Keep in mind that other kid-friendly attractions like Goldfield Ghost Town, the Maricopa County regional parks, and other sites for all ages are detailed in other chapters.
You’re in the desert, so it’s all about cactus and triple-digit temperatures, right? Not quite. Arizona is such a massive state and covers such a wide variety of landscape that there’s quite a bit of pine-studded high country to explore up north. Between Flagstaff, Sedona, and Tucson to the south, there’s a range of hiking and outdoors events in other communities if you want to get out of the Valley.
The Grand Canyon is a 4-hour drive from Phoenix, and based on how much time you have, it is certainly worth the trek. But you really don’t have to drive that far north. Locals like to get out of the heat in the summer and drive to Prescott, Payson, and Pine for a breather. It’s about 10 degrees cooler in the summer, which makes a huge difference in August or September. It also snows heavily in the winter in Flagstaff. Major holiday weekends like Labor Day and Memorial Day tend to clog I-17 between Phoenix and Flagstaff. The college town about an hour and half north of the Valley is home to some outstanding mountain hiking and other outdoor adventures. Places like Lowell Observatory, Humphrey’s Peak, and the downtown shopping district make for a great jaunt out of Phoenix.
Sedona, known for its breathtaking red rock buttes and energy vortexes, is just over an hour’s drive north of the Valley. It’s far more touristy than Flagstaff, but still worth your time if you’ve never been. The hiking and sightseeing are sensational. It’s unlike anywhere else in Arizona, with the color of the rocks and the otherworldly buzz of certain spots shrouded in juniper and prickly-pear. Plus, it’s an artists’ haven, with everything from traditional oil paintings to far-out New Age stuff on sale in dozens of shops.
Tucson is less than 2 hours to the south. It’s also a draw for its museums, hiking, and college-town vibe in its central core. The city’s history museums, Sonoran Desert Museum, Biosphere, and Titan Missile Museum are major draws.