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Phoenix, AZ – A Nexus of Desert Adventure and Southwest Culture

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Phoenix, Arizona, USA Cityscape
Phoenix, Arizona, USA downtown cityscape at dusk.

Arizona’s state capital and the anchor of a basin known appropriately as the ‘Valley of the Sun’, Phoenix is the nation’s fifth largest city, offering visitors a vibrant mix of urban and outdoors, culture and adventure. Sunny and warm year round with less than a foot of annual rainfall, Phoenix appeals to those who want to discover the pulse of the Southwest. Originally inhabited for two thousand years by the Hohokam people, various tribes resided at times in the Salt River Valley and combated intermittent droughts by crafting 135 miles of irrigation canals.

In 1867, Civil War veteran Jack Swilling from the nearby gold mining town of Wickenburg realized the agricultural potential of the valley and a small colony grew at the confluence of the Salt and Gila Rivers four miles east of today’s city under the name of Swilling’s Mill. The name became Phoenix at the suggestion of early settler Darrell Duppa who saw the town as rising from the remains of a previous civilization; Phoenix was incorporated as a city in 1881, just as railroads arrived to the valley. In the early years, the ‘Five C’s’ anchored Phoenix’s economy- climate, cattle, cotton, citrus, and copper, while today tourism is among the ten top industries.

Surrounded by low mountain ranges, Phoenix is considered one of the world’s sunniest locales, receiving nearly four thousand hours of sunshine daily- more than any other major city on earth. Summer highs are the country’s hottest, with over a hundred days a year reaching at least 100 degrees and eighteen days reaching 110 (1990 saw the highest recorded temperature of 122 degrees).

Despite the desert heat, Phoenix is home to nearly two hundred golf courses and six nearby lakes afford the chance to kayak, jetski, waterski, paddleboard, tube, fish, and swim. Phoenix is known for its extensive park infrastructure and numerous hiking trails accommodate all activity and fitness levels. The country’s largest municipal park, 16,000 acre (25 square mile) South Mountain Park and Preserve protects the native desert landscape and houses the world’s highest density of chuckwalla lizards.

The park contains over fifty miles of multi-use trails as well as the unique Mystery Castle, constructed by hand from recycled and inexpensive materials such as adobe, auto parts, mine rails, and telephone poles. The park’s summit is 2,690 foot Mt Suppoa and Dobbins Lookout is at 2,300 feet, affording one of the best day or night views over the city and surrounding area.

On the opposite side of the city, landmark peaks North Mountain and Shaw Butte tend to be less crowded and trails are available for all difficulty levels. A beloved adventurous hikers’ challenge is Camelback Mountain, while saguargo cactus rich Papago Park on the border with Tempe offers something for everyone including Hole-In-The-Rock, an ancient red rock chamber that looks out over low lying lagoons to the city beyond. Papago Park also includes the pyramidal tomb of George W. P. Hunt, Arizona’s first governor, the Hall of Flame Museum of Firefighting, the 140 acre Desert Botanical Garden with more than 50,000 plants on site, and the privately-owned conservation-minded non-profit Phoenix Zoo. Also nearby is Tovrea Castle, a structure reminiscent of a wedding cake intended to be a resort but instead occupied as a private residence for thirty years and which is today most revered for its extensive cactus gardens.

Phoenix’s cultural scene is strong with several world class museums, including the Musical Instrument Museum- world’s largest of its kind, with 15,000 instruments from two hundred countries. Downtown’s Phoenix Art Museum is the southwest’s largest museum of the visual arts while the Heard Museum focuses on Native American art and artifacts. The Arizona Museum of Natural History in Mesa tells the natural and cultural story of the Southwest, with popular exhibits including a three story waterfall on ‘Dinosaur Mountain’ and recreations of a gold mine and a Hohokam village.

Enfolded into the Phoenix city park system, Pueblo Grande Museum and Cultural Park is home to the remnants of a platform mound, irrigation canals, and ball courts dating to 450-1450 A.D. Downtown Phoenix bustles with inventive eateries, tempting nightlife, world class sports venues, vibrant public spaces, and renowned art galleries. The newer CityScape complex is one hub of places to eat, drink,and shop while streets like Roosevelt Row and Grand Avenue have a artsy, Bohemian vice and are decorated with colorful murals and eclectic streetside scuptures.

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Heritage Square preserves the Phoenix of Victorian days, with many buildings dating back to the late 1800’s including the restored Queen Anne Rosson House Museum. Designed to strengthen ties with sister city Hemeji, the 3.5 acre Japanese Garden features 1,500 of locally sourced rock, fifty plant varieties, an authentic tea house, a twelve foot waterfall, and a Koi pond with three hundred resident fish.

The greater Phoenix area includes cities in their own right, such as family-friendly Mesa, college town Tempe, and upscale Scottsdale. In addition to a vintage 1920’s Old Downtown, Scottsdale contains worthy attractions such as the Museum of the West which tells the story of nineteen Western states and the thirty acre McCormick-Stillman Railroad Park which features a train museum, 1950 thirty horse carousel, 10,000 square feet of model railroads, and two miniature rideable trains.

A seeming oddity in the desert, the OdySea Aquarium, the largest aquarium in the southwest, holds two million gallons of water and houses 30,000 marine animals of fifty species. Perhaps the most known attraction in Scottsdale is the National Historic Landmark of Taliesen West, Frank Lloyd Wright’s 1937 winter home and school in the desert until 1949 which sits upon 491 acres in the lower McDonnell Mountains.

Today Taliesen West houses the international headquarters of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Constructed mostly by hand with locally sourced rocks, stone, and sand, the building was designed to complement the desert landscape and utilizes a process termed ‘desert masonry’- stacking rocks into wooden frame and filling in with concrete.

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