From hot air ballooning to horse riding, 8 amazing experiences GSN's David Calderon had in the Copper State
The state of Arizona, in all its rugged beauty, is staggeringly huge. At 295,254 square km, it’s the sixth largest in the United States. That said, its entire population is 6.7m – smaller than New York City, believe it or not.
Suffice to say, this is a destination known more for its untamed wilderness and natural wonders that its cosmopolitan culture.
But having lived in London and LA, I find this hugely refreshing. Here, a love of the great outdoors is prerequisite; getting your hands dirty (or at least your shoes) is a given.
During my recent visit, I finding the right base was key. I’d suggest the city of Scottsdale, Arizona (population: 227,000). It offers a wealth of comfortable hotels and delicious restaurants, but best of all, a number of outdoorsy activities to enjoy less than a ten-minute car ride away.
But before I get to that, here’s the big daddy of bucket list experiences you can tick off, by simply hopping on a plane from Scottsdale for just 75 minutes…
1 Fly over the Grand Canyon
The Grand Canyon’s majesty cannot be missed. If you want to fully comprehend its grandness then you need to jump in a plane.
Westward Air Services provide a narrated flight that takes off from Phoenix/Scottsdale area and flies you over the Red Rocks of Sedona, and the Canyon itself.
Once airborne, size can be fully appreciated. It’s 277 miles long and up to 18 miles wide, with a depth of over a mile. Its unique appearance is due to the carving out by the Colorado River that flows through Arizona.
I was in awe as I saw all the scenic views from my own personal side window. Oddly enough, I was traveling in December, and surprised to find the the Canyon actually gets snowy and icy at times. The white-tipped peaks gave the canyon even more beauty and depth.
Be aware that the planes are small. Ours fitted 10 people very comfortably, but the journey wasn’t as stable as I’m used to – you’re constantly reminded you’re in the air because of the plane’s movements due to winds. But this is to be expected. If turbulence scares you, then you might struggle a little. I remember holding tight to my seat a few times, but found the experience exhilarating.
2 Descend into the Grand Canyon
As you descend into the Canyon, via the Kaibab Trail, you feel like you’re walking into a painted canvas. It was amazing to see the rangers riding mules back and forth along the trail, depositing dirt to keep the trails walkable.
Arizona Outback Adventures provide knowledgable guides. Ask for Denny, who will take you on your journey through the valley. During the trail hike, Denny took us along all the best picture-taking spots, while giving us history on the Canyon. For example, did you know its formation dates as far back as 70 million years?
3 Ride a hot air balloon
I was extraordinarily nervous about riding up in a hot air balloon. I say this as a person who’s gone skydiving, but what scared me the most about that was the slow, parachuted descent down. That’s why I was nervous about going in a hot air ballon. The thought of going up slowly only to be stuck high in the air for an hour was enough to give me pause.
But I’m so happy I did it. I rode with Hot Air Expeditions and I was astounded by the all-encompassing views. I expected a gust of wind to send me ducking for cover. But luckily that never happened. Our guide was informative and charming. His hot air balloon motto was, ‘we like to get it hot and we like to get it up.’ The impressive 5000 feet views of the desert and mountains made for a photographer’s paradise.
I was greeted with a champagne flute after a successful ride. The adrenaline was pumping through my system as I realized I’d overcome my hot air balloon fears. Just go!
4 Hike Camelback Mountain
Camelback Mountain is one of the most prominent landmarks of Scottsdale. That said, the journey up is a laborious one. The hike, with an elevation of 2704 feet, is popular amongst tourists and locals. Camelback Mountain features two trails. Echo Canyon is steeper and Cholla is much longer. I went up the former.
This hike is a full-body workout. I found myself crawling and scaling the mountain with my hands at times. But it was fun. I actually felt like a legit mountain climber. I would recommend having a decent size water bottle with you at all times, because Echo Canyon trail isn’t for the faint-hearted.
You will meet plenty of people on your journey up and down the trail because of its popularity. I was greeted by almost every person I passed. The hike allows for plenty of photo ops along the way. The panoramic skyline and beautiful mountain ranges make a wondrous backdrop for photos. At the top you can see the horizon of Scottsdale and even catch downtown Phoenix in the distance.
5 Visit Arizona Cowboy College
Fancy becoming a cowboy? Then get on your horse and head on over to Arizona Cowboy College. Once you enter this ranch you will see all kinds of animals ranging from massive cattle to stunning horses. Make sure to keep your eye out for Myron the pig.
At the College you will learn skills such as lassoing, grooming horses, saddling, and even horse riding. But that’s only scratching the surface. You can take either a day session or all the way up to a week. It’s up to how long you want to experience the life of a cowboy on a ranch.
Horse riding was my absolute favorite. My instructor, Mel, showed me how to properly put my saddle on the horse and gave me plenty of tips.
Once ready I was led into a pen where I got on my horse, Mula. We began riding along the inside circumference of the pen. After going around in circles for a bit I was instructed on how to make my horse trot. Trotting means to make the horse move at a quicker pace. Once I gave Mule a squeeze with my legs he immediately began to quicken his steps and trot along. It was such a rush. I had no fear whatsoever. I enjoyed the quicker pace versus the slow walking. Although, I quickly felt the strain on my legs and groin because of the constant up and down movements in the saddle. You will be sore if it’s your first time riding a horse.
I left Arizona Cowboy College saddened and with a newfound love for horse riding. Giddy up!
6 Hike through The McDowell Sonoran Preserve
The McDowell Sonoran Preserve is a protected area of land that tourists are able to visit to witness Scottsdale’s McDowell Mountains and Sonoran Desert. This hike is more for the scenic views and to get up close and personal with the desert vegetation such as the famous Saguaro cacti. These cacti have a long lifespan with some living well past 150 years and growing over 70 feet tall.