Although the state also has plenty of forest, one way or another, desert stretches from end to end in Arizona. A couple easy ways to enjoy it:
Stay near Camelback Mountain: in Scottsdale, that means the beautifully restored Valley Ho, hotelvalleyho.com, which is sort of like walking into the backdrop of a Frank Sinatra movie.
Right in Old Town Scottsdale is the best place to look for desert art: Navajo rugs and Hopi kachinas (ask before you buy, there are a lot of knockoffs) and turquoise jewelry.
A bit more expensive, but right at the foot of Camelback and one of the oldest hotels in Phoenix, the Royal Palms, royalpalmshotel.com, is pure old-style luxury, with incredible views of the mountain.
Either hotel puts you close to Papago Park, Phoenix’s central oasis. On the west side, it’s just park—wander and see what untouched desert is like. On the east side, it’s the zoo and the Desert Botanical Garden, dbg.org, a great place to see how lush the desert really can be.
If that doesn’t satisfy your interest in plants, head out to the
Boyce Thompson Arboretum, ag.arizona.edu/bta, on the edge of the Superstition Mountains.
And by the time you’ve headed out that far, a stop at Lost Dutchman State Park, azstateparks.com/parks/lodu, is the perfect place for a desert hike in the rugged, cliff-strewn mountains. Or take it easier by driving the Apache Trail, which is an old stagecoach road through the mountains. It’ll take all day to get back to town, but, especially in spring when the flowers are blooming, there’s no prettier drive in the state.
Away from Phoenix
Tucson has the Saguaro National Park, some of the most pristine, beautiful desert anywhere, chock full of its namesake cactus. Tucson is also home to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, desertmuseum.org, which is sort of a zoo, sort of a botanical garden, and a great place to see the best of the desert up close. For lodging, go for old and full of character at the downtown Hotel Congress, hotelcongress.com, a local institution since 1919. Or move upscale
and to the outskirts of town with the Westward Look Wyndham Grand, westwardlook.com, which has been around just as long. And at the base of the Santa Catalina Mountains, the swank never gets in the way of the view.
Finally, the most famous patch of desert in Arizona is that big hole in the ground: the Grand Canyon. Not so many cacti—it’s high desert, a completely different kind of ecosystem—but most people are too busy watching the sun light the rim of the canyon like a lava lamp to care about the greenery anyway. Spend the night right at the edge, at the El Tovar, grandcanyonlodges.com/el-tovar-409.html, or head over to Cameron and stay at the Historic Trading Post, camerontradingpost.com. For the record, the much less developed North Rim of the canyon is way prettier than the South, but everybody visits the south side because it’s easier to get to. If you do go to the north side, check the weather: The North Rim closes in winter when there’s too much snow.
High desert or low, the desert rewards the patient: The longer you stay, the more you’ll see, and the richer you’ll find the landscape.