Monday, May 8, 2017

Arizona Bucket List

They say you never know what you have until it's gone, and that's true of your home's proximity as it is of anything else in life. So many people live near tourist-drawing attractions and never visit because they keep putting it off (like the guy who has lived in Arizona all his life and never been to the Grand Canyon, or the woman who lived in Chicago for decades but never visited Sears/Willis Tower). With our move to Connecticut drawing closer, we put together a list of things to do and places to visit in Arizona. (Side note: I have a broader Life List, and I usually shy away from the term bucket list because I think it's morbid, and I like to focus on living life. In this case, however, our departure from this great state is not death, so I'm ok with calling it a bucket list.)

Anyways, I thought it'd be helpful to share our list for others visiting, living in or moving to Arizona to share our list and some recommendations so others can get the most out of this place I've called home for most of my life.  Some of these places are things we've only done recently as part of checking off our Arizona Bucket List, but I've also added things that we've done prior to planning to move that I think are important to include on such a list. 

What is it: An experimental community based on combining ecology and architecture.
Who should go: Architects, futurists, anyone interested in sustainability or looking for inspiration. Really, it's just an interesting place for anyone to visit. Kids may not really get it much.
Why you should care: I am always an advocate for challenging the norm and seeing if there's things we can do better. Arcosanti is the epitome of challenging the norm, and while I'm not planning on moving there anytime soon, I did gain some learnings and inspiration you can read about on this blog post.
What to do: The main thing is the walking guided tour. The food isn't very good, but if you're willing to lower your standards for accommodations, I thought it was kind of neat to stay the night and be able to wander around; as a guest you are granted more freedom than a tour participant. We didn't get the Skysuite like I wanted, but it looks really cool.
Getting there: The turn off the freeway just north of Phoenix is well marked, but there is a dirt road to the parking lot. If you plan on staying over night, the road to the rooms is even rockier so I'd recommend an SUV or a vehicle with high clearance if one is readily available, although my Chevy Volt made it ok.
What to bring: Sunblock, insecticide, fly swatter, dress for light hiking.
When to go: We went on the weekend and the community seemed pretty dormant. Our tour guide recommended that people come during the week so you can see the ceramics and metal being worked. I would recommend going in early spring or late fall, since the rooms don't have A/C.
Warning: Food was very ordinary, and there really wasn't much to drink besides water. Accommodations are just marginally better than camping, must have an open mind!

Grand Canyon Skywalk

What is it: The Skywalk is a glass walkway hanging off the cliff and hovering above the Grand Canyon, offering views straight down the sheer rock. It's part of a self-paced kind of bus tour, get off and get on as you please, consisting of three stops. You can't do the Skywalk by itself.
Who should go: Every resident of Arizona should visit the Grand Canyon, and this is a great way to do it, honestly. Great for families.
Why you should care: Definitely not the only way to see the Grand Canyon, but this tour offers some good educational opportunities and the Skywalk itself is pretty unique.

What to do: There were actually a lot of family-friendly activities at the first stop, from horse-drawn hay rides to lasso lessons, and the chance to shoot at someone. We skipped the activities there, but we did go the Restaurant for the ribs meal included with the tour package. It included the meat, two sides, cornbread, a cookie and a founding drink. Based on reviews I've read, I'd speculate that this was the best value. The second stop is the main attraction, but there are also great views on the ledge leading up to the Skywalk, as well as some mockups of various native homes that you can enter and explore. The third stop has more breathtaking views and some hiking/climbing opportunities.
Getting there: Google GPS was very accurate getting us there, nothing special needed to get there.
What to bring: You can take pictures everywhere except on the Skywalk itself, so bring a camera for sure. Good hiking shoes are recommended but not required, I did it in flipflops.
When to go: Don't go if there is adverse weather in the forecast, because they don't refund your tour money if they close the Skywalk.
Warnings: Keep your expectations in check, and it's a great experience. If you recognize who it is run by, and that it's not like a fancy resort or amusement park, you'll be fine. Give yourself time to enjoy all three stops, make the best of it, and the pricetag is more reasonable. The second and I think the third stops had only outdoor seating for your meal, and it is windy out there pretty much all the time, all the more reason to go to the first stop for food.
Other recommendations: I'd also recommend sitting near the front of the bus if possible, because many of the drivers point out rock formations and tell you about the place, and we couldn't hear in the back. Also, since you can't bring cameras on the Skywalk, you can have your picture taken by them, and you can always decide later if you want to buy them or not. Just be patient with the process and enjoy the views!

Organ Stop Pizza
What is it: Silly eatery with a giant organ that is played while you eat. It's much more then just the organ, though, drums and cymbals and marimbas
hang from the ceiling and all around the room, and they get played by the organ somehow, and there's lights and silly puppets and bubbles and such.Who should go: Families and visitors, anyone who wants to be entertained. Good for birthdays and anniversaries, you'll get your name called out.
Why you should care: It's very popular with the snowbirds, so it must be worth a visit.
What to do: Pretty straightforward, order your food, get a table with a decent view.
Cheesy garlic bread was awesome. I wasn't a fan of the pizza.
Getting there: It's easy to find in Mesa, but if there's no parking, realize that it's going to be packed inside.
What to bring: Cash, an appetite and a sense of humor.
When to go: Since it is popular in the winter, you're probably better off going in the summer months, or at least on a weekday so you don't have a long line to wade through. The place gets PACKED!
Warnings: Cash only, bring plenty because the only ATM is one of those generic ones.
Other recommendations: Rather than ordering the nasty pizza, you could just get a few beers here, or ice cream, and still be highly entertained.

Lake Havasu City & London Bridge

What is it: Cute drinking town on the water, surrounding the actual London Bridge.
Who should go: This would be a great place for a group to party.
Why you should care: There's an ounce of history or so.
What to do: I loved our room at The Heat (we booked the Inferno Suite with a view of the London Bridge). There was a bar upstairs, and other bars within very short walking distance, as well as a beer store like 30 ft from our room. You can play corn hole and dance to the dj'ed music at the hotel bar.
Warnings: Don't stay near the London Bridge if you plan to go to sleep early and need silence because the party is a little loud. After one drink each, however, we managed to pass out, so it's not that loud.  If you like to party, then disregard this advice and have a blast!

Low Key Dueling Piano Bar
Who should go: Seems great for birthday celebrations, fun for anyone who likes pop music (of old and current)
Why you should care: Far from an ordinary bar with live music, these artists are catering the show on the fly and adapting to different instruments as needed.
What to do: Get a reserved table upfront if you can. If you're feeling generous, buy the musicians a shot!
Getting there: I prefer taking the light rail into Tempe because parking sucks and then you don't have to drive away from the bars (which cops look for).
What to bring: Cash for tipping... these musicians are awesome and they are happy to take requests... if there's a bill accommodating it. :-D You may want to bring ear plugs, it was really loud in the front and our ears were ringing for hours after.
When to go: Thursday nights were the most fun on Mill Ave back in my college days, I assume that's still a good night to go out. Weekends are fine too.

Spring Training Game

Who should go: Sports fans, Chicago transplants, and people who like to eat and drink and have fun!
Why you should care: Even if you don't love baseball, these are professional athletes playing here in Arizona, and the opportunity to see them so up close should not be squandered.
What to do: Come hungry, there's so much to eat and drink!
Getting there: Light rail is a good alternative to driving and parking, but our tickets came with a parking pass so we used it. 
What to bring: Hats and sunblock. If you're sitting in the grass area, bring blankets and folding chairs if you can.
When to go: Spring, duh! 

Biosphere 2
What is it: At one time, it was a fully-enclosed environment in which eight people tried to prove the feasibility of a self-sustaining ecosystem.  Now, it is (obviously) open to the public for tours and also hosts a number of interesting, albeit less captivating, experiments, in partnership with local schools.
Who should go: Everyone!  This is especially interesting for people interested in things like space colonization.
Why you should care:  Because science!
What to do:  Take a tour.
Getting there: It's just outside of the north side of Tucson, no special vehicle needed. 
What to bring: Sunscreen and a camera
When to go:  They are open most days of the year, just be cognizant of weather when you go, because you will be walking outside quite a bit.
Warnings: In my singular experience, the tour guide wasn't all that informative, so it's good to have knowledge about Biosphere 2 and the experiment before going. 
Other recommendations:  Well before your trip, I recommend you get a copy of The Human Experiment by biospherian Jane Poynter.  This first-person narrative provides much more context and insight into the mindset of the cult-like organization that made Biosphere 2 possible than what can be gained on the tour.  The places within Biosphere 2 have been transformed and re-purposed, but the tour guides will tell you what it was, and you will be able to put the pieces together better when you are already familiar with the whole concept. 
Taliesin West
What is it: Frank Lloyd Wright's winter home and school which his students built from materials primarily found right there in the desert landscape.
Who should go: Everyone, and specifically anyone interested in architecture, retro home furnishings or life in the desert. 
Why you should care: Frank Lloyd Wright was not only a prolific and famous architect, he is credited with inventing ideas such as path lighting and sunlights.  This little school-commune estate was his own architectural lab where he experimented with different ideas and reshaped the landscape of architecture itself. 
What to do: Take a tour (book online early because those tours fill up fast).  Also, give yourself plenty of time to visit the giftshop, there are a lot of interesting pieces and literature in there.
Getting there: Get off the 101 on Cactus and head east, and you'll run right into it.  No special cars needed, no fees for parking.
What to bring: Camera, sunscreen, sunglasses, water
When to go: There is a standard tour that runs daily, but there are also special tours you may want to consider if you're especially interested in his life, architecture or just like cool special effects (like the fire breathing dragon at night). 
Warnings: Tours book up fast, and they do take a while so give yourself plenty of time to visit. 
Other recommendations: There is only so much that can be relayed on a tour, and Frank Lloyd Wright had a devastating and absolutely crazy life and career, so I'd highly recommend educating yourself prior to your visit to give your tour that much more context.  I thought the documentary aptly titled "Frank LLoyd Wright" from PBS did a really good job and was something easy to watch together prior to our visit (versus having to read a book).  If you are from out of town and not familiar with some of Wright's other work in Arizona, you may want to make your own city tour as discussed here

Fossil Creek

What is it: A moderately challenging hike near Pine, AZ that brings you to a rushing waterfall, natural rock springs and water caves you can swim in. 
Who should go: Fit hikers
Why you should care: Of all the places I've hiked in Arizona, this one looks like none other.  With almost no signs of desert, this area is a green oasis teeming with beauty and adventure.
What to do: There used to be overnight camping available near the waterfall, but I've heard that is no longer an option.  However, it is totally manageable as a day hike, but be sure to leave Phoenix early in the morning to give yourself sufficient time to enjoy the watery paradise before the moderate climb back up to civilization.  It is about 7 miles roundtrip, and entering is downhill, which means you have to climb uphill coming back out.  Wear your bathing suit underneath your hiking clothes so you can take a dip. 
Getting there: Set your sights on Strawberry, AZ (which is near Pine) and you'll know just about where you're headed, but use better GPS as you get there.
What to bring: At least 3 liters of water per person, sunscreen, bathing suit, sunglasses, good hiking shoes, a towel, maybe water shoes, protein and carb-rich snacks, a flashlight, hat, camera and general hiking gear. 
When to go: September is just about the perfect time to go.
Warnings:  There are very dangerous parts of the water, so be very cautious.  The rocks and even branches in the water are mineralized, which means they are incredibly slick, and the current can be very strong in places.  I was personally dragged about 70 feet downstream and got severely bruised and battered, but luckily escaped with no major injuries.  There are also leeches in the water, so that was fun too (pro tip: if you see tiny things that look like leaves on your skin, wipe them off immediately, discern if they were leeches afterwards). 

Rock Springs Cafe
What is it: An unassuming roadside cafe that serves the best pie in the world. 
Who should go: Pie eaters (or people who like chocolate, because I'm not a big pie person, but this place is delicious)!
Why you should care: This place has been featured on a number of food shows and is world famous, right here just north of Arizona!
What to do: Try the chocolate creme pie, it's amazing! 
Getting there: It's just north of Phoenix, actually on the way home from Arcosanti if you want to combine the two bucket list items like we did!
What to bring: Money and an appetite!  They do take credit card, so no need for cash.
When to go: Try to go as early in the day as possible, as they tend to sell out of their better pies pretty quickly.  Also, around Pi Day (3/14) is a very busy time.
Warnings: No other pie will ever be the same after you've tasted a Rock Springs Pie. 

Tombstone & Bisbee
What are they: Tombstone is a legit city, but it is better known for its touristy Wild West town, where fake gun battles are staged in the street and in private shows.  Bisbee is a cute little mining town just a little bit past Tombstone. 
Who should go: Everyone!  Great for families!
Why you should care: A little bit of history, and a lot of silliness, these two little towns are a big part of the Arizona tourism scene, and a can't miss if you haven't been yet. 
What to do: Make sure to stop at Boot Hill in Tombstone and read the spooky and hilarious epitaphs.  In Bisbee, the Queen Mine Tour is highly recommended.  In both towns you can walk around and enjoy a taste of the wild west.  Stay the night at the Copper Queen Hotel if you dare - it is haunted by a number of ghosts!  Bisbee Brewery has great beer and decent food, and makes for a lovely sitting place if the weather is decent. 
What to bring: Money, a camera and a sense of humor.  Also, if you plan to do some shopping in Bisbee, bring your own reusable bags, as some places charge for plastic as part of a conservation effort.
When to go: Pretty much any time except summer is great. 
Warnings:  Don't count on much cell phone reception.  Instead, turn the phones off and enjoy real experiences, and share your selfies when you get back. 

Kartchner Caverns
What is it: One of the largest caverns of living stalactites and stalagmites open to the public.
Who should go: Everyone!
Why you should care: Because nature!
What to do: There are a couple of tours to take, you can choose to do just one or both. 
Getting there: It's actually also on the way to Tombstone and Bisbee, so consider combining the trip somehow. 
When to go: If you plan to do both tours, check the website before planning your trip, because bats inhabit some of the rooms and the tour for that area is closed when the bats are in there. 

Musical Instrument Museum
What is it: Exactly what it sounds like!
Who should go: People interested in music, culture, history, etc.
Why you should care: It's really interesting to see the similarities and amazing varieties of instruments and types of music developed by different cultures through time. There are amazing pieces that you wouldn't expect. 
What to do: Normally in museums I would just read the descriptions of things, but since music is such a strong component of this museum, I think the audio tour is an obvious add-on here that is totally worth it. 
Getting there: It's in Scottsdale just off the 101. 
Other recommendations: Don't be afraid to spend some time in the play area at the end; you can go a little wild playing on the instruments in that section.  It's probably meant for the kids, but hey, we're all kids at heart, right? 

First Friday
What is it: It's a little bit beyond words, but I'll try.  It's something of a street festival of arts, ice cream vendors, and general crazies. 
Who should go: Everyone! Especially people who enjoy people-watching like me!
Why you should care: Phoenix is often ridiculed (rightfully so) for the lack of culture, but if there's one thing it has, it's this. 
What to do: Keep an open mind about the kinds of people out there, and just walk around wherever you hear music until you've had enough.  Stop and watch artists work, argue with the religious screaming people, and listen to the local streetperformers' music. 
Getting there: Light rail is a good option for transportation since parking can be challenging. 
What to bring: An open mind and some cash for art or ice cream or whatnot. 
When to go: First Friday of every month!  Obviously, summer is hot, so I would recommend avoiding those months. 
Antelope Canyons
What are they: Deep cracks in the earth that cast the most amazing shadows and sun light effects.
Who should go: Everyone, and especially amateur photographers.
Why you should care: These canyons are some of the most photographed parts of Arizona, and with good reason, they are absolutely stunning!  Photos really don't do them justice, but you can try. 
What to do: Tour either Lower Antelope Canyon or Upper Antelope Canyon, or both, but make sure you leave yourself sufficient time because tours only leave so often and take a while. 
What to bring: Bring a lot of cash - credit card was not accepted - and figure about $50 per person for each tour. Bring your camera, but no tripod unless you want to pay an upcharge for the photographer's tour. 
When to go: Any time the forecast is not showing rain - these canyons are impassable when it's raining and tours will not run if there's a risk. 
Warnings:  It's sad that people don't realize this on their own, but I feel compelled to say: These tours are run by the natives, and they have a monopoly on the tours because the canyons are on their land.  Keep that in mind, and be patient.  They do a great job, but not if you get fussy or nasty or expect them to kiss your ass. 

Montezuma's Castle and Toozigut
What are they: Very short hikes to and around Native American ruins.  Toozigut is regularly maintained, so you can walk all over it and around it.  Montezuma's Castle is up on the side of the mountain so you can only view it from a distance.
Who should go: Everyone!
Why you should care: These two sites are rich in Arizona history and help us understand how the native people lived so many years ago.
What to do: You can buy tickets for multiple sites to save money.  Bring picnic food and hang out at Montezuma's Castle to take in the view and enjoy the babbling brook and nature all around you. 
What to bring: Sunscreen, hats and cameras. 
When to go: Anytime is fine, just be cognizant of weather as always. 

and finally, no Arizona Bucket List would be complete without...
Coyote Buttes North "The Wave"
What is it: THE most photographed part of Arizona, this is a moderately challenging hike with breathtaking rewards unlike any other hike I've ever known of.  If you work with Windows computers, you've probably seen it on one of the backgrounds - a beautiful sandstone structure carved by years of wind tearing through it. 
Who should go: Fit hikers with permits.
Why you should care: I mean, if you don't care about this place, I don't think we can be friends.  Also, there are dino tracks. 
What to do: The most challenging part of The Wave is not the hike or even the challenging drive in, but getting permits.  When I first learned about The Wave several years ago, it was much easier to get permits, but it is has become seemingly impossible lately.  But if it's of interest to you, keep trying!  The park issues 10 permits per day four months in advance through a lottery system; you

apply for the lottery online anytime the month prior to the drawing, and it's a small $5 fee that goes towards maintaining this beautiful park.  If you are selected, you will be notified on the 1st of the month, and have a few days to accept the permits at pay for them, $7 per person.  There's a trick, though, if you're a good planner and tech-savvy: All the unclaimed permits are released to the public on the website's calendar precisely at noon Utah time on the 15th of the month (note, it's not necessarily Arizona time - a mistake I realized when it was too late one month).  Those permits are literally available for seconds and snatched up by sneaky people who have figured out the system like I did so many years ago (it used to be easier to obtain permits this way, it's been much harder lately).  If you fail to get the advance permits, they also issue 10 permits per day in-person through a similar lottery drawing daily (permits are for the following day) but there is a large probability you won't get them, so make alternative plans if you choose this route. 
Getting there: Assuming you've passed the first challenge, the permit system, the next challenge you'll face is a rocky 8 mile road that absolutely requires 4WD and high clearance and could easily flood and become too muddy to get through if its raining or if there's snow on the ground.  Proceed with great caution!  There is also a "shortcut" to and from Phoenix that equates to about 40 miles of bumpy terrain that will lead to even the strongest bladder wanting to do the pee-pee dance.  I've been fortunate to go to The Wave three times, but I've only made this mistake once. 
What to bring: Standard hiking things, 3 liters of water per person minimum, snacks, a compass, flashlight, whistle, your permit (must be attached to your pack), hat, sunscreen, etc.  The permits come with an invaluable map that you can't replace with GPS or a store-bought map, so protect it and bring it.  Also, bring your camera and tripod, you do not want to miss out on these shots!  Goggles or some kind of eye protection may have been good, because the wind whips the sand up like crazy and it gets all up in your eyes, nose, mouth, ears, everything. 
When to go: January was a bit cold, but makes for some unique snowbank shots on The Wave.  The best times to get permits are late Feb through early April, but these will also be the hardest times to get permits. 
Warnings:  Unlike many hikes, the trails aren't really marked here and there aren't a lot of people roaming about to help.  Make sure you or someone in your party is confident in their navigating skills (and preferably survival skills also).  People die out here, so be cautious of the weather, give yourself plenty of time to get our before sunset, and prepare appropriately.  The sand is a bitch here - friends of mine know that I hate sand and so they assumed I was overexaggerating the sand here, but learned when we did the hike that I was serious - you end up skating down hills of sand, and it fills your shoes, and the wind blows it into every crevasse of your body, and your skin is raw from being sandblasted.  But even yours truly with a sand-phobia will say it is worth it! 

So that's it (at least for now) - that's my list!  How many have you visited?  Have I missed any?  Leave your comments below!

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