Natural Scenery

8 Best Experiences In Phoenix For Nature Lovers, Without Strenuous Hiking

Many visitors come to the Phoenix area for the weather. Our 300 days of sun every year and warm temperatures attract people from all over. If you want to enjoy being out in nature but are not looking to hike up into the mountains, many beautiful places beckon.

For those days when the temperature tops 100 degrees Fahrenheit, avoid the afternoon heat and spend the morning pleasantly strolling for an hour or 2. On those gorgeous winter days, you can escape the cold elsewhere and absorb the sun’s rays without great exertion. Spending time in nature has many health benefits for all, so visit these places even if you have only a short burst of time or don’t want to go on a difficult hike.

Cacti exhibit at Desert Botanical Garden.
Photo Credit: Judy Karnia

1. Desert Botanical Garden

Nestled in the heart of Phoenix, the Desert Botanical Garden creates a unique experience to see over 90,000 desert plants of 4,400 species. The main Desert Discovery Loop Trail is paved and easy to traverse as it brings you right next to towering cacti and a variety of flowering bushes. You can access the café from this trail as well as the other trails. The Desert Wildflower Loop Trail and Cactus and Succulent Galleries are mainly flat dirt trails, which showcase a vast variety of desert plants and flowers.

The Plants and People of the Sonoran Desert Trail is a longer, one-third of a mile dirt trail demonstrating how Native Americans use the desert plants for food and shelter. For a good view of the Phoenix area, you can tackle the Sonoran Desert Loop Trail. It is only a quarter-mile loop but is fairly steep.

Pro Tip: If you have time for a meal, Gertrude’s Restaurant sits at the entrance to DBG and offers a pleasant patio as well as an indoor dining room.

waterfall at Japanese Friendship Garden.
Photo Credit: Judy Karnia

2. The Japanese Friendship Garden Of Phoenix

In 1987, the mayor of Himeji, Japan, Matsuji Totani, proposed creating a garden to strengthen ties between the people of Phoenix and Himeji. The result is a serene 3.5-acre garden just north of downtown Phoenix.

As you pass by the stone lantern and walk around the pond, the rocky waterfall comes into view. The zig-zag bridge taking you across the pond is designed to slow your walking so you can enjoy the garden in a more leisurely way. Colorful koi fish swim around the bridge greeting the visitors. The pond is deep enough so the koi can cool off in the summer and stay warm through the winter. The path through the garden can be covered in 30 minutes with steady walking or you can perch on a bench for a while and bathe in the tranquility.

Visit https://www.japanesefriendshipgarden.org/ for tickets and more information.

Pro Tip: The Japanese Friendship Garden offers many enjoyable events and tea ceremonies. Check their website before your trip.

Boyce Thompson Arboretum path.
Photo Credit: Judy Karnia

3. Boyce Thompson Arboretum

To wander amid desert plants from around the world, visit Boyce Thompson Arboretum. Each of the dozens of gardens focuses on a geographical area letting you feel like you are touring the globe. The 135 acres of land includes 19,000 plants covering 3,900 taxa.

Allow yourself at least an hour here, although you can spend several hours on a nice day. The trails are all dirt and mainly flat. The main trail is large enough for wheelchairs. Most of the garden trails are narrow but very easy to walk down. The trail past Ayer Lake and around the Upland Sonoran Desert Natural Area takes you through a beautiful canyon but is of moderate difficulty. The Arboretum offers the perfect combination of small, interesting gardens and longer trails with scenic views if you have a variety of abilities within your group.

From downtown Phoenix, it will take about an hour to drive to the Arboretum; less if you are staying on the east side of town. You will need to pay a fee at the entrance.

sign for nature trail at McDowell Preserve Gateway Trail.
Photo Credit: Judy Karnia

4. McDowell Sonoran Preserve Gateway Trailhead

Located in North Scottsdale, the McDowell Sonoran Preserve encompasses over 30,000 acres of continuous desert land. Hikers and mountain bikers enjoy 225 trails through mountain vistas. You can enjoy the scenery and desert plants without a strenuous hike by visiting the nature trail at the Gateway Trailhead.

A short walk from the trailhead brings you to Bajada Trail. A wide, level dirt path takes you past multiple plaques that educate about the Sonoran desert. You can do the shorter quarter-mile loop or walk the entire figure eight for a half-mile trek. The McDowell Mountains loom, contributing to a sense of awe as you enjoy the peace of the desert.

The preserve is free to use and the Gateway Trailhead offers plenty of parking, clean restrooms, and a water refill station.

Pro Tip: Rattlesnakes do frequent the preserve but rarely on the Bajada Trail. The distinctive rattle can be heard from several feet away so you can give a wide berth if you come upon one.

lake at Chaparral Park.
Photo Credit: Judy Karnia

5. Chaparral Park

Local parks abound in the Phoenix area with playgrounds and ballparks to enjoy. At Chaparral Park, you can walk around a lake on a flat sidewalk. Multiple benches sit next to the shore so you can rest and watch the geese and other waterfowl. You may see a pair of bald eagles occasionally diving down for fish. If you want to do a workout, 10 exercise stations ring the lake. Three ramadas are available to reserve for a picnic.

You can park near the dog parks or walk past the soccer and baseball fields to The Scottsdale Xeriscape Garden. The 5-acre garden is a National Wildlife Federation Certified Wildlife Habitat. You can stroll through Palo Verde trees and various flowering bushes while listening to the bird song and breeze blowing through the branches. Two spiral paths offer perfect spots for meditation. Signage educates on ways to create landscaping that saves water.

Visiting the park is free and there are four locations for restrooms and drinking fountains throughout the park.

Pro Tip: The small parking lot off Chaparral Road is usually full. Park in the large parking lot that spreads along Hayden Road north of Chaparral.

Water basin at Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch.
Water Basin (Photo Credit: Judy Karnia)

6. Riparian Preserve At Water Ranch

Southeast of Phoenix sits the town of Gilbert, which decided in 1986 to reuse 100 percent of its wastewater. It created a 110-acre park consisting of 70 acres of water spread over seven water ponds. Most of the path is packed dirt but overall very flat and shaded. Over 4 miles of paths intertwine through the park enabling you to choose how long of a walk you want.

You can perch at one of the benches or blinds along the ponds to view the almost 300 species of birds that visit the preserve. There is also a floating boardwalk near the entrance from which you can watch the fish.

Trails are open from dawn to dusk and it is free to enter. Visit Riparian Preserve’s website for more information.

Pro Tip: If the main parking lot is full, park at the Southeast Regional Library on the Guadalupe Road side.

Pedestrian bridge over Tempe Town Lake.
Pedestrian bridge over Tempe Town Lake (Photo Credit: Judy Karnia)

7. Tempe Town Lake

Just south of Phoenix sits the town of Tempe, home of Arizona State University. The gem of the town is Tempe Town Lake, an oasis in the desert. Although there is little vegetation surrounding it, the shimmering lake offers a wonderful place for a stroll on a gorgeous sunny day.

An entire loop of the lake extends 7 miles but the strip — from the Mill Avenue Bridge to the pedestrian bridge near the Tempe Center for the Arts — is easily accessible from the Tempe Beach Park lot for a short meander. This area typically hosts a crowd of walkers, runners, bikers, and picnickers on the weekends. Public art can be enjoyed along the way. My favorite is the Sea of Waves reflecting pond adjacent to the arts center. The architecture of the arts center and pedestrian bridge provides some man-made wonders.

Pro Tip: To get out onto the water, rent a boat, kayak, or paddle boat on the south side of the lake near the Mill Avenue Bridge.

Green of The Short Course at Mountain Shadows.
The Short Course (Photo Credit: Judy Karnia)

8. Mountain Shadows Golf Course

If you enjoy golf but are not up for a long, tiring game, make a reservation at The Short Course at Mountain Shadows in Paradise Valley. From this beautifully landscaped course, you can enjoy gorgeous views of Camelback Mountain. The par three course has become my family’s favorite when my in-laws come to visit. Even if you merely ride along with your golf lover, you will enjoy your time here out in nature.

Spending time outdoors in nature provides physical and mental health benefits. To take advantage of the sunny weather in Phoenix, many visitors take to the hiking trails. If you want to avoid a strenuous hike, however, you can visit these wonderful sites to experience nature and enjoy the day.

Pro Tip: Pay close attention to the weather. The jokes about the low humidity are true and it is easy to get dehydrated quickly. The sun seems warmer in Arizona so always plan for it to feel warmer than the temperature reads. Drink more water, wear sunscreen, and protect yourself from the sun if you are sensitive to the heat.

For more to explore in the Phoenix area, check out the rest of our coverage: 


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