View on the top of Camelback Mountain as taken from my iPhone
Phoenix, also known as the Valley of the Sun, is the state capital and largest city in Arizona. The beautiful desert scenery attracts people of all ages. With the warm weather and golf courses, it is a popular retirement destination. In contrast, there are plenty of things for hipsters to do as well. Outdoor enthusiasts can enjoy hikes within the metropolitan area. They can also venture north for a couple hours to Sedona or south for a couple of hours to Saguaro National Park [which sandwiches Tucson] for additional hiking adventures. Moreover, Phoenix has a representative food and coffee scene with some definite standouts. For all those reasons, it is a fun place to visit for a few days. I visited Arizona at the end of March and I felt it was a perfect time to go. The wildflowers were in full bloom. I escaped the cold weather on the East Coast but avoided the extreme heat of the desert summer.
Since Phoenix has the largest major airport by Sedona, it is a logical place to fly into when tourists want to travel to Sedona. I flew into Phoenix before driving to Sedona. I also wanted to visit Saguaro National Park. As part of my 5 day itinerary, I flew in and out of Phoenix and spent a couple of days there in the middle of my trip since it was about equidistant to the other two destinations. Sedona was certainly the highlight of the trip. Nonetheless, I felt Phoenix was also time well spent.
- Outdoor Sights
1. Camelback Mountain (via Echo Trail – 2.4 miles round trip/ 1,280 feet elevation change)
I am not entirely sure if the mountain is the actual center of the Phoenix Metropolitan Area. Nevertheless, it feels like it. Accordingly, the 360 views at the top are amazing. In my opinion, the best views of Phoenix are on Camelback Mountain. There are two trail heads that reach the summit: Echo Trail on the west and Cholla Trail on the east. I went up the Echo Trail, which is the shorter but more challenging trail. Regardless, both sides are considered difficult. Interestingly, the total distance is modest. It would probably take an hour to get up then another hour to get down if there is not too many people on the trailhead. However, it is a very popular hike and heavily trafficked. The beginning of the trailhead is not bad and I got a false sense of security that it would be pretty easy. It gets harder and harder as I ascended. The mountain gets its name from the multiple humps that makes it look like a camel’s back. The first hump is not bad in terms of elevation change. There are narrow paths at some points where hikers need to be careful. Afterwards, the hike requires a lot of rock scrambling. It is more strenuous on the way up. However, I was more worried on the descent down. It is important to remember to make sure you have strong footing, especially when going down. Moreover, do not be impatient with the crowds. It is better to be safe than sorry. One hiker was in a rush behind me. He lost his footing and wiped out. Luckily, he landed on his side on the rock and did not roll. He could have easily gotten seriously injured. The sides of the trail and mountain do not go straight down but the slopes are steep. Going over would be very dangerous. In addition, his phone, hat, and wallet went flying. Fortunately, they got caught on twigs and did not slide down the mountain.
Again, the trail requires legitimate rock scrambling. You will need the use of both hands. Accordingly, have a small bag or Camelbak to carry water. I also highly recommend the proper footwear. As another note, the morning was a perfect time to go up the mountain. As I got near the top, the breeze felt like nature’s air conditioning during the spring morning. In addition, there are Saguaro cacti throughout the mountain that are visible from the trail. The Echo Trailhead is within a residential neighborhood and overlooks a golf course. Vehicles cannot park at the beginning of the trailhead. As such, you need to park on Invergordon Lane. Even if you Uber to the trailhead, you cannot be dropped off at the start of it. Nevertheless, it is a short walk from Invergordon Lane. There are signs noting the road you need to walk on to get to the trailhead.
- Dobbins Point Lookout at South Mountain
It is a beautiful place to watch the sunset. There are multiple, memorable sights at the top of the mountain. First, the sun sets below mountains to the south of the city, which is west of Dobbins Point. Accordingly, it is to your left as you stand on top of the lookout point. Since the sun sets to the south of the city, it actually shines a sunset spotlight onto the downtown area when it begins to hit the top of the mountain. After the sun sets, a purple haze ascends over the city and blood red skies hover over the mountains to the west.
South Mountain Park is free and you can drive all the way to the top. There are also hiking trails that reach the summit too. The drive up is on a winding road. Consequently, do not drive too fast.
- McDowell Sonoran Preserve – Gateway Loop (18333 N Thompson Peak Pkwy, Scottsdale, AZ 86255)
Saguaro National Park is the premier place to see Saguaro cacti in Arizona. If you do not want or cannot make the two hour drive south to that Park, the McDowell Sonoran Preserve is an adequate substitute and great spot to see the cacti in the Phoenix Metropolitan area. The catci are not as concentrated as they are in the National Park but there are plenty of them and it is same type you would see down south. The Preserve is big with multiple entrance points. I went to the Gateway Loop at the edge of Scottsdale. It is next to a relatively quiet, residential neighborhood. Each Saguaro cactus is a different shape size. Accordingly, it did not look like I was looking at the same cactus twice. Moreover, it was a relaxing, enjoyable hike. The length is solid at 4.2 miles. It took me 2 hours to leisurely complete the loop. The route had modest incline up part of a mountain. There are also longer hikes that can be taken on the offshoots off the main loop. The best and most beautiful views are at the top of the saddle as you look back at the city. Arizona has a dry heat but it is still hot. Even at moderate temperatures at the end of March, I felt the heat a bit. As such, I can imagine the summer being brutal. An early morning hike is mostly a must during that time of year.
- Hole in the wall Papago Park
It is a totally, touristy thing to do. It is literally a hole in a big rock at Papago Park by the Zoo. For serious hikers, it is a waste of time. It is gimmicky and more for young children. The rock is a very short walk from the accompanying parking lot. Accordingly, it is a fine, quick stop if you are a traveling family and need to entertain some kids for half an hour.
Scottsdale is the newest and fastest growing city in the Phoenix Metropolitan area. It is known for its golf courses and upscale living. In other words, it is a place to be. I definitely enjoyed just walking around and relaxing in Scottsdale with its food and shopping options. The indoor Scottsdale Fashion Mall is the largest mall in Arizona. It was the first time I experienced a mall so big that it has a concierge service to tell you where specific stores were located. The size makes sense as the intense summer heat forces residents to stay indoors. In addition, there are plenty of outdoor shopping. The walk along the river is nice too. Moreover, Scottsdale features some excellent coffee shops if visitors need a break and want to sip some caffeine. As an added bonus, Scottsdale also has free but timed municipal parking that includes free parking lots.
- Diego Pops (4338 N Scottsdale Rd, Scottsdale, AZ 85251)
It is a solid Mexican Restaurant. I was not blown away but enjoyed my mea. One of its signature dishes, the Brussel Sprout nachos, were unique and delicious. The chips were made fresh and excellent. They were very crisp and crunchy. I absolutely loved the Brussel sprouts. The leaves of the buds are peeled apart and dumped over the nachos. They had a great smoky flavor. The nachos also included a fried egg, corn, onions, and tomatoes. They complemented each other very well. Moreover, the onions made it very colorful and matched the colors of the restaurant’s façade and logo.
In addition, I ordered some tacos. There are 6 sauces on the table for guests to try. In terms of the tacos, the first had white meat chicken. It was dry by itself but not dried out [i.e. not overcooked]. The chipotle mayo and salsa verde sauces were great on it. Next, the cod taco came with mayo. The fish was fresh but the mayo had a bland flavor. In my opinion, it would have been better with a spicy mayo, which provides a kick. Finally, the skirt steak was chewy and tender enough for taco meat. Moreover, I definitely recommend the crunchy shell. Like the chips, they were made fresh and excellent. The softer corn tortilla shell was good but I prefer the crunchiness and firmness of the crunchy shell. Overall, the tacos were fine but nothing exceptional.
If you go during Happy Hour; the appetizers, including the Brussel sprout nachos, are ½ priced. The restaurant also has a small parking lot if you want to try your luck for a spot. Nonetheless, there is free municipal parking nearby.
- Coffee Shops
1. Regroup Coffee & Bicycles (4227 N Brown Ave, Scottsdale, AZ 85251)
As the name implies, it doubles as a coffee shop [at the front] and the bicycle shop [in the back]. It is in the running for the best coffee shop I tried in Arizona. My latte had a strong, rich coffee taste. The microfoam at the top had a smooth, thick texture. Accordingly, it also had great latte art. There was one sip of bitterness but the latte was virtually perfect.
- Berdenas (7051 E 5th Ave Suite I, Scottsdale, AZ 85251)
It is a solid specialty coffee shop in Scottsdale. I had a unique latte at the shop: honey lavender. It was delicious and very sweet. There was not a hint of bitterness. The honey lavender was definitely the dominant flavor in the latte as opposed to a strong taste of espresso. On the other hand, it was a bit watery. I prefer the texture more solid and smooth. The latte art was decent.
1. Lux Central (4402 N Central Ave, Phoenix, AZ 85012)
It is a specialty coffee shop with some great breakfast options. I ordered the Dutch pancakes and they were awesome. They were thin and crisp but firm. The bottom of the pancakes were very eggy like fried eggs. The fresh berries were incredible. The cream was like a cappuccino ganache and tasted amazing. If you are trying to eat an early breakfast before hitting the road, the kitchen does not open till 7 AM and it takes 15 minutes to make the pancakes. Next, their lattes are excellent. Mine had a strong coffee taste and was not bitter. Overall, it was very rich, strong, and smooth. The latte art was also top notch.
As a final note, there was no sign for the coffee shop on N Central Ave. The Parking lot was on W Turney Ave.
- Matt’s Big Breakfast (3118 E Camelback Rd, Phoenix, AZ 85016)
It is one of the biggest names for breakfast in Phoenix. While it was not the greatest breakfast I ever had, it was very good. I went to the location at the outdoor Biltmore Plaza Shopping Center. It is close to Camelback Mountain and a perfect place to eat breakfast after a morning hike. I ordered the Hog and the Chick. The thick bacon was the highlight. Contradictory, it was thick yet soft enough. It also had a great smoky flavor. One negative was it was a little salty. The dish also included eggs and home fries. The eggs were eggs: on par with the norm. The home fries were soft and seasoned well. They also came with wheat bread. It had air bubbles and I liked the texture they created. The bread was soft but crunchy. In addition, the strawberry jam was delicious. It was sweet but not too sweet.
- More Food
1. Pho 43 (2844 N 43rd Ave, Phoenix, AZ 85009)
It might be the best pho I have ever eaten anywhere. I ordered the #1, Dac Biet Xe Lua, which includes steak flank, brisket, tendon & tripe. The meat was probably the best quality I have tasted in a bowl of pho. Accordingly, that taste gets absorbed into the delicious soup. Next, the noodles were also great. They were thin but firm and were not stuck together. I also upgraded to the “super duper” size. In general, I finish an extra large bowl of pho easily. However, the super duper at Pho 43 is significantly more than the usual extra large. I almost finished it all but came up short.
The restaurant is detached and like a hole in the wall type of spot. The parking lot has limited spots. In addition, be careful not to park at the daycare next to it as there are signs that cars will be towed.
- Cocina Madrigal Tacos + Tequila (4044 S 16th St, Phoenix, AZ 85040)
It is a very good Mexican restaurant by the airport. I stopped by for a quick dinner before I caught my flight home. First, the salsa for the complimentary chips was very good. Next, I ordered the elote as an appetizer. Overall, the dish was very good and had a good creamy sauce. For my entrée, I ordered three tacos. In regards to the al pastor, the pork had a good char to it. Moreover, a smoky barbecue flavor was seared into it and it had a kick. The steak taco had tender and chewy meat with good marinade. Finally, the fish (cod) was unique. On one hand, I have had better because I have had fresher fish [no fresh fish in the desert]. Nonetheless, the mango sauce in the taco was awesome. The one thing I did not like about the tacos were the soft tortilla shells. They were flimsy and did not hold together.
- Rehab Burger (1534 E Bethany Home Rd, Phoenix, AZ 85014)
It is a small, local burger chain with three locations in Phoenix. Overall, I thought its burgers were very good. I had the “Hangover” with a pretzel bun, which was very soft. The beef patty was good quality. The bacon and fried egg complemented the burger well. On the other hand, the pepper gave it a bitter taste. That bitterness was intended for the “Hangover” burger but was not my taste. In addition, definitely order a side of sweet potato tots. They were addictive: crisp on the outside but so soft on the inside.
In my travels, Hopdoddy [which I tried at one of its locations in Austin, Texas] is my favorite burger joint to date. It also has a location in Phoenix. As such, I would recommend it for the better burger overall. Nevertheless, Rehab is unique to Phoenix and also great.
- Lo-Lo’s Chicken and Waffles (1220 S Central Ave, Phoenix, AZ 85003)
It is a small chicken and waffle chain. I went to the location closest to South Mountain after sunset. I was not blown away but it was fine [Willie Mae’s in New Orleans has ruined my expectations for fried chicken]. The fried and breaded chicken skin was very crisp. As with most fried chicken, the dark meat was very juicy while the white meat was drier but not overcooked. In regards to the waffles, they were fluffy and doughy. Moreover, they were not too sweet. The portion size was definitely generous and more than enough food. I only finished 2 ½ pieces of chicken and just under 1 waffle. I also ordered a sweet tea. It was a sugar bomb but I really liked it. On the other hand, be careful of the caffeine. I drink a lot of coffee and would have thought I would not be affected too much but the tea kept me up all night.
Overall, I felt it was just a very good, fast food quality chicken and waffles spot. While I do not consider it a must try, it works if you are craving fried chicken and want to try a local flavor.
- Berry Divine (960 N Scottsdale Rd #101, Tempe, AZ 85281)
For a healthier option in Phoenix, Berry Divine is a place for acai bowls. I ordered the “Brazilian” with a replacement of coconut milk with almond milk as I am allergic. The acai base had the perfect sorbet texture. It was not as sweet as I am used to in other acai bowls. Accordingly, it was probably healthier than other bowls but definitely not as tasty. Next, the granola was very crunchy. The fruit was also fresh. The mango was great. Berry Divine also charges more for a traditional acai bowl compared to its soft serve option that is premade. I am very skeptical of the soft serve because I have tried it elsewhere and it came out as a premade slush that was not good. In addition, I liked that Berry Divine had guarana, which is basically a Brazilian ginger ale infused with a berry flavor. It is my favorite soda.
- More Coffee
In addition to Regroup Coffee, Berdenas, and Lux Central mentioned above, below are some additional, notable coffee shops.
- Peixoto Coffee (11 W Boston St Suit #6, Chandler, AZ 85225)
Chandler is a charming, small town which is a little bit out of the way from Phoenix. I stopped by the town for Peixoto Coffee on the way to Tucson. It is an awesome coffee shop. It had the best latte art in the Phoenix metropolitan area among the shops I visited. Overall, the latte had a rich and smooth taste. On the other hand, I usually prefer the texture a little thicker. It was right on the edge of being watery but not quite. As a unique item on the menu, they also have a drink that mixed gelato with espresso. I did not want it to try it 8 AM in the morning but the idea sounds and looked wonderful.
If you are heading down south or want to spend a few hours in Chandler, Peixoto is worth a stop.
- Giant Coffee (1437 N 1st St, Phoenix, AZ 85004)
It is one of the “bigger” names among coffee shops in Phoenix. I had a very good latte at Giant Coffee. It was rich, thick, and super silky smooth. It had consistent texture from top to bottom. On the other hand, it was milkier in terms of taste rather than having a strong coffee flavor. The temperature was also lukewarm compared to hot.
I went to the downtown location. At open and on a Saturday morning, I found parking right in front of the coffee shop. However, it is downtown and customers generally need to find some street parking during regular hours.
- Maverick Coffee (10269 N Scottsdale Rd, Scottsdale, AZ 85253)
The latte I got at Maverick was not as good as the other coffee shops I visited in Phoenix but still solid. It was not as rich and smooth as the others. There was also a slight acidity to it that made it bitter. On the other hand, the latte art was very pretty and unique with a swan shape.
The coffee shop is inside an outdoor shopping plaza. The shop itself was very big inside. Accordingly, it is a great place to relax, study, or do some work.