First, some generalities:
People use “Phoenix” mostly for the city, but we also use it for the whole metro area, which covers more than 2000 square miles and includes a bunch of cities and towns.
It’s the Arizona state capitol, the hub of the Valley of the Sun, and the cultural center of the area, if you are looking for art, music, theater, museums or conventions.
Phoenix is a large city in its own right (fifth in the nation), with 1.5 million residents, with about 4.5 million people in the metro area. That’s up just a tad since the invention of home and automobile air conditioning (the city had only about 100,000 residents in 1950). It’s 517 square miles, per the city web site, and it’s bounded all around by other cities: Scottsdale, Tempe, Glendale, Peoria, among others. For a big city, Phoenix was slow to get freeways, but it’s working on making up for that now. The area freeways are growing by leaps and bounds.
It gets less than 8″ of rain and more than 320 days of sun per year. It has snowed in town, but it didn’t stay long.
There’s a decent zoo, a wonderful botanical garden, a new aquarium (in Tempe), a big new stadium (in Glendale), restaurants and all the rest, but they aren’t what makes the city special.
The desert, even though it’s been shoved out to the edges, dominates this city. It controls the heat in the summer and the warmth in the winter. It gives the monsoon dust storms. People in the desert joke about the dry heat, but it really is dry, and that is a blessing at 115 degrees Fahrenheit. You may not be able to touch your steering wheel, but you can at least sweat effectively. In the Midwest, the heat index is almost always above the actual temperature in summer. Here, you may see a temperature of 105 and a heat index of 98.
The city is home of the Diamondbacks and the Suns (the Cardinals play in a giant dome in Glendale but the stadium is named for the University of Phoenix – go figure…). There’s ice hockey and curling (watch the Winter Olympics for exciting curling action!) and golf at hundreds of courses across the valley.
It also has a dry gulch most of the time that occasionally turns into the Salt River. It’s ironic that building the dams on the Salt, which made agriculture and big cities possible in the desert, dried up the main reason that people used to come. Now water only flows when they have to release it upstream for some reason.
There are mountains inside the city, and they are very popular hiking spots. The trails on Camelback, Piestewa and South Mountain are frequently busy, if not crowded.
CamelBack Mountain, as seen from downtown, with downtown’s iconic palms in the foreground.
A view down one of the steep sections of Camelback’s Echo Canyon trail.
The Valley has a large transit system. Its most recent addition is the new Light Rail , which runs from far west Mesa (which is still on the east side of the Valley) through Tempe and into Phoenix, with links to the bus system and a shuttle connecting to Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport – also known as PHX.
A Little History
The earliest settlers in the valley were here and gone a long time before the city was around. Phoenix was so named because it was founded in the vicinity of ancient Hohokam ruins and the canals that they had built hundreds of years before – the city rising from the ashes of the previous culture, as it were. Its early years were spent growing crops to support the miners in places like Wickenberg.
Well before Phoenix was created, and well after the Hohokam, the Valley was claimed as part of New Spain, which became Mexico. After the Mexican War in 1848, the area became part of the New Mexico Territory and was a contested area in the Civil War (though the only actual fight was near Picacho Peak, well to the southeast toward Tucson).
Incorporation came in 1881, with the territorial capital in 1889. Also in the 1880’s train service arrived and the town began to grow in earnest.
Early crops were citrus and cotton, and they remain important to the Valley as a whole.
Downtown Phoenix is broken up somewhat. In the area south of I-10 is the real downtown, with the majority of the major venues and attractions, but there’s a second cluster of skyscrapers and attractions north of I-10 along Central.
On the west end of the downtown is the State Capitol, built in 1900, even before the state became a state in 1912.
The building now houses the State Capitol Museum. In front of the building is the Wesley Bolin Memorial Plaza, where more than two dozen memorials are located, including the mast and anchor of the U.S.S Arizona and a controversial 9/11 memorial.
Just down the road, Chase Field and the US Airways Center are home to the Arizona Diamondbacks baseball team and the Phoenix Suns, respectively.
The downtown has been experiencing a rebirth – a revisiting of the Phoenix Rising, as it were – with the development of Heritage Square , which is in turn part of the Heritage and Science Park.
Northward from the park is the Arizona Center, the downtown location for movies, dining and shopping. Nearby is the downtown ASU campus.
The most recent star of downtown is the new Convention Center, a huge complex of buildings that is big enough to handle any convention or NBA All-Star week that comes along.
Heading north, you come to one of the city’s more interesting parks. Margaret T. Hance Park is also know as the Deck Park, because it straddles the I-10 tunnel (which is therefore called the “deck park tunnel” in traffic reports). The Japanese Friendship Garden of Phoenix and the Irish Cultural Center are both located within the park, along with the Burton Barr Central Library, which was designed as “resembling a curving copper mesa split by a stainless steel canyon” to suggest the Monument Valley area of northern Arizona.
Just north of I-10 are older, established neighborhoods, with streets lined by huge palm trees. This is where some of Phoenix’s old money and the state’s politicians hang out.
Also north of I-10, along the Light Rail route, you can find two great museums. The Phoenix Art Museum is home to 20 of the Thorne Miniature Rooms, along with collections of European, Asian, Contemporary and Western American art, to name but a few of the collections. The museum also has a continuing exhibition schedule. We’ve enjoyed the Curves of Steel and the Elihu Vedder Drawings for the Rubáiyát exhibitions, among others, and we’ve not been here that long.
The Heard Museum is an incredible museum with a mission to “educate the public about the heritage and living cultures and arts of Native peoples, with an emphasis on the peoples of the Southwest.”
Along with the fabulous collections, the Heard sponsors events such as the annual World Championship Hoop Dance Contest in February and Indian Fair and Market in March. The Heard has also opened a pair of satellite museums in Suprise and Scottsdale.
A pair of mountain parks are very popular north of downtown. The hump of Camelback Mountain looms over the city and a great many people cannot resist the pull to climb to its summit. Trails lead to the top from either end of the mountain. Every so often people die there because they try to do too much in the desert’s heat, so if you feel that allure, go slow and carefully and take plenty of water for a difficult hike. Of course, difficult means different things to different people – we’ve seen people do Camelback twice and even three times in a morning.
North and west of Camelback is Piestewa. There’s some controversy still because the peak used to be named Squaw Peak and the name change, meant to honor Lori Piestewa , who was killed in Iraq, did not sit well with many people in Phoenix. The peak is located in the Phoenix Mountains Park and Recreation Area and is easy to reach from the Piestewa Freeway (AZ-51).
Piestewa’s rugged shape rises high over northern Phoenix.
The next three pictures illustrate just how big Piestewa is, as well as showing some of the trail to the summit.
The city is much longer north and south than it is east and west. It is largely bounded by Scottsdale on the east and Glendale and Peoria on the west, with South Mountain on the south end, so northward was the only way it could grow.
In the far north part of town, the Deer Valley Rock Art Center protects a large collection of rock art – spcifically petroglyphs, such as can also be seen on the Petroglyphs hikes in the east and west Valley (as well as at South Mountain).
I-17, the Black Canyon freeway, located toward the western side, runs north out of downtown. Much of the north end of town is residential.
Nearby are two other attractions. The Pueblo Grande Museum and Archaeological Park preserves some of the last remaining canals of the Hohokam and is located on the site of a 1500-year-old Hohokam village.
Tovrea Castle and the Carraro Cactus Garden are cleaned up, but budget problem keep it closed to the public. However, the “castle” is easily visible on the west side of Loop 202 or along Van Buren.
Just to the south of downtown, the city becomes decidedly more Hispanic in flavor. South of the river in particular the language is often Spanish.
At the bottom end of the city lies South Mountain Park, one of the largest city parks anywhere. Over 50 miles of trails for horses, hikers and mountain bikers cover the mountain, along with a road that takes you along a number of tight turns up to the top of the mountain for an incredible view of the city. The park has “Silent Sundays” during the summer where all motorized traffic is banned. Great for riding a bicycle up a long steep grade (1,100 feet over 7 miles or so), should you fancy such a thing!
South Mountain, by the way, is the one with all the antennas on the top. At night it’s easy to spot all of the red lights marking them.
At the foot of the mountain is the Mystery Castle , a very quirky 18-room, three-story building made with car parts, railroad ties and other oddities.
Phoenix has a number of fine venues for shows, games, exhibitions and so forth. Here are links to some of them:
Chase Field – home of the Diamondbacks