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  • Writer's pictureErin Schoen Marsh

Phoenix, Arizona: Perfect intro to the Southwest

Updated: Jan 16

Visiting Phoenix, Arizona reminded me that we don’t need to travel outside of the country to experience another world. Phoenix is a beautiful blend of cultures and uniquely different from any city in the Midwest or on either coast.

Deciding on Phoenix for spring break was a random choice. Flights to Florida were crazy expensive in March – prime time for spring break – and we desperately wanted some sun and warmer weather. So I googled “warmest cities in the United States in March.”

Florida was too expensive, Hawaii and California too far, but Arizona? We’d never been, flights were inexpensive and the area is known for its hiking. The trails would be vastly different from anything else our kids had experienced.

Rapid Review: Phoenix, AZ

  1. Weather: averages 77𐩑 in March with only 3 days of rain

  2. Hotel: Sheraton Grand at Wild Horse Pass

  3. Activity: Sunrise horseback riding with Koli Equestrian Center

  4. For art lovers + Star Wars fans: Cosanti and Arcosanti

  5. Worth the drive: Sedona + Red Rock State Park

  6. Favorite restaurant: Republica Empanada

  7. Best time to go: Winter/spring (avoid summer)

  8. Week or weekend: Either – enough to do for a week

  9. Family or adult trip: Family

  10. Lyft/Uber-friendly: No

A resort on native lands

The flight was painless and we rented a Jeep for the week (highly recommend this when traveling somewhere warm). The Sheraton Grand at Wild Horse Pass, where we stayed, is located in the high Sonoran desert on the tribal lands of the Gila River Indian Community.

While the resort is a bit out of the way from the city center, the beauty of the surrounding desert and the resort itself made it worth it. There is a easy hiking trail on the grounds, and our kids LOVED the pool waterslide. Our only minor complaint would be that room cleaning was sparse and the space was tight for four of us. However, this was after the world reopened after Covid and many places were/are short-staffed. The front desk was always happy to help, so it wasn't a deal breaker. Overall, I’d highly recommend staying here.

I also didn’t realize Tempe, Mesa, Gilbert and Chandler are basically suburbs of Phoenix, which means you have plenty of dining and sightseeing options within a ~30 minute drive.

Must-do excursions: Koli Equestrian + Sedona

The Koli Equestrian Center is located on the same Gila River land as our resort, so waking up before sunrise and driving to Koli was a piece of cake. I learned from the owner that he and his brother own Koli, which is on Pima/Maricopa land. The brothers are Pima and Maricopa, but in their tradition, you take the tribe of your mother, so they are Pima.

Our horses meandered at a slow, leisurely pace, which was perfect for our 6-year-old daughter who had never been on a horse. She kept slowly sliding to one side of the horse; the wrangler had to hoist her back to center at least twice. Watching my sweet kids as they rode through the serenity of the desert during a jaw-dropping sunrise was overwhelmingly beautiful.

Driving to Sedona and Red Rock State Park is another must-do. Everyone we met called Sedona a “cute little hippy town,” and I don’t disagree. Besides the appeal of the town itself, hiking up the red rocks is an experience unlike any other.

Our hike was a bit treacherous at times, especially with young kids – or so I thought. I saw one young mother hiking by herself with her toddler, chasing after him with a large stick between him and the side of a cliff. After that, I figured if they were alive, we’d make it, too. Then I saw a beautiful young woman climb up to the top of the mountain completely barefoot. Conclusion reached: Hiking up mountains out west is next level in comparison to our Midwestern forests and gentle hills.

Native culture: Hoop dancing + The Heard Museum

As luck would have it, the World Championship Hoop Dance contest was being held at the Heard Museum during our time in Phoenix, so we were able to experience indigenous dress and hoop dancing before entering the museum. I could have sat there all day and watched the dancing, but it was hot, the sun was bright, and my daughter was still recovering from a cold, so we ushered them into the air conditioned museum, a wonder in itself. Definitely worth the $20+ (adult) and $9 (children) admittance fee. Plus, because we got there close to closing and the card reader wasn’t working, the man told us to just go on in!

Southwest flair is pricey

I fell in love with the Southwest after this trip. I never imagined the desert could hold such beauty, and I now understand why no city has grown faster than Phoenix. If we had more money, I’d buy up some real estate there today.

On the downside, everything is a drive, so getting around without a car would be tricky and expensive. And that’s the other thing: Phoenix is pricey. We ended up spending quite a bit more than we had budgeted, so what we saved on flights was a wash after everyday spending. If only we had discovered Republica Empanada earlier. It was one of the best and most affordable restaurants from the entire trip.

More photos and details on Instagram @wayfaring.writer

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