The top free things to do in Phoenix

The beautiful Sonoran Desert surrounds the Phoenix metro and offers an amazing assortment of free recreational activities. While many tourists vacation in Phoenix to shop, play golf, and relax at luxury resorts, the real highlight of visiting this desert oasis is taking time to explore all the beautiful Saguaro cacti, mountain ranges, and hiking trails. Spending all of your vacation shopping, dining out, and engaging in expensive activities can really add up. In a city surrounded by such natural beauty, it is easy to save some money by enjoying the great outdoors.

Here are a few of the best freebies to enjoy in and around Phoenix. Keep in mind that most of these activities are outdoor based, and thus, it is best to plan your visit during the cooler fall and winter season. Note that heat exhaustion is common and too much time outdoors in the harsh summer sun (when temps frequently soar past 110) is definitely not recommended.

1. Hike Camelback Mountain

Hiking Camelback Mountain in PHoenix

The most iconic hike in Phoenix involves a challenging climb up to the summit of Camelback Mountain, the highest point in the city at 2704 feet. You will find 2 pathways to the top, both extremely strenuous. The Cholla and Echo Trail are both about 1.5 miles long, with the Cholla considered the easier of the 2. Note that both treks require a very intense heart pumping climb (1200-1300 feet in elevation gain) which involves some maneuvering up rocks. Lets just say that you will get in a fabulous workout. After all your effort, you will be treated to some amazing views of the surrounding mountains. Do not attempt this hike during the spring and summer season!

Camelback Mountain fastest climbers – Check out these amazing times! What an accomplishment!

2. Drive up South Mountain

Great views of Phoenix from South Mountain Park

South Mountain is an incredible urban oasis. At 16,000 acres, it is one of the country’s largest urban recreational areas. More than 50 miles of trails are available for hiking, mountain biking, and horseback riding. The nice thing is that there are trails here for everyone, from the novice hiker to the avid mountain biker seeking challenging terrain. The views are gorgeous and you will see many exotic cacti no matter which trail you choose. The highlight here is the beautiful drive up to the summit – a great activity no matter the weather outside. Sit back and enjoy the picturesque 5.5 mile drive and breathtaking views from the summit lookout.

3. Enjoy a unique viewpoint at Hole in the Rock

City views from Hole in the Rock at Papago Park in Phoenix AZ

Hole in the Rock is a short, yet interesting hike located at Papago Park. This striking red rock formation is named for its’ unique look. While Papago Park is more well known for being home to the Phoenix Zoo, this beautiful little hike will not take up more than 20 minutes of your time. The views are incredible, particularly at sunset. For the history buffs out there, this rock holds a bit of historical significance. The Hohokan Tribes used the hole to mark the summer and winter solstice.

4. Take a bike ride along the Scottsdale Greenbelt

The beautiful Scottsdale Greenbelt path

The Indian Bend Wash Greenbelt is an 11 mile long fitness oasis which travels through the heart of Scottsdale. If you are seeking a scenic place to enjoy a long bike ride or run, there is no better choice in the Phoenix metro. The distance is perfect for any type of lengthy exercise. Best of all, the path is so green with so many trees, lakes, and golf courses along the route. It’s so green in fact that you may forget that you are in the desert, thus easily making it the most picturesque spot for any type of workout activity.

5. Explore desert plant life at Scottsdale McDowell Preserve

Cacti at the Scottsdale McDowell Preserve

This underused Scottsdale gem is easily one of the best places to hike in the state. There are so many gorgeous trails to explore that you could hike here forever and never get bored. You will find 200+ miles of diverse trails to explore within this massive 35,000 acre outdoor lover’s paradise, known as “the people’s preserve.” Along with being a great place to explore native cacti and desert plant life, Scottsdale McDowell Preserve is a bird and wildlife watching hotspot (bobcats and javelina make frequent appearances). Out of all the fantastic hiking destinations in Phoenix, McDowell wins the award for most amazing mountain views.

Scottsdale McDowell trail map

6. Drive the Apache Trail Scenic Drive

Scenic lake view from the Apache Trail Drive near Mesa, Arizona

For all those seeking something to do that doesn’t involve a grueling workout in the hot desert, a scenic drive is for you. The Apache Scenic drive meanders 39 miles through the gorgeous Superstition mountains. It’s a scary drive with lots of twists and turns and you have to be careful as there are many blind spots. That being said, it is one of the more scenic drives in the state. Lots of interesting detours along the way including several ghost towns (Goldfield offers gold mine tours and old western gunfight shows) and 3 gorgeous lakes. Canyon, Saguaro, and Apache Lake are all truly gems in the dry desert. Cruises are available if you feel like shelling out a few bucks in return for a relaxing narrated ride complete with breathtaking mountain scenery!

7. Enjoy amazing views of Scottsdale via Pinnacle Peak

Amazing views from Pinnacle Peak in Scottsdale

Most tourists visit Scottsdale to enjoy the abundance of high end malls and restaurants. While the shopping is great, there is also much nature to explore. One of the treasures of the city is Pinnacle Peak Park. A 2 mile long intense hike will lead you to the summit, which at 2889 feet, offers some outstanding views of Scottsdale’s greenery, mansions, and beautiful surrounding mountains. HIking this trail is a challenge requiring 1300 feet in elevation gain, however, it is one of the more visually appealing hikes in the metro. After your hike, treat yourself to a wonderful gelato at Frost (best ice cream in the Valley!).

8. Take a stroll around Old Town Scottsdale

Cowboy Old Town Scottsdale sign

This walkable downtown is a favorite of tourists. Here you will find a number of local restaurants (great Mexican food – try The Mission, Cien Agaves, or Barrio Queen), bars, galleries, and museums. Lots of fun photo opps and interesting Native American shops to browse around. The cowboy western theme is pretty fun and there is interesting architecture all around. While you are in the area, stop by Cartel (one of the metro’s best roasters) for a quality cup of joe. Free events take place year-round and include art walks, farmer’s markets, and live music.

Old Town directory

9. Challenge yourself to an invigorating climb up Piestewa Peak

Nice views of the city from the Piestewa Peak trail in Phoenix

Piestewa is one of the hardest hikes in Phoenix, competing with Camelback both in terms of difficulty and beauty. Although this hike is very scenic, the trek to the summit is very hard. It’s like climbing up a Stairmaster for hours on end. The trail is only over a mile each way, yet will take several hours due to the difficulty. Many hikers turn around due to the shear cardio required to complete this beast. At the top, a 360 degree view of Phoenix awaits. For anyone up for a challenge, Piestewa is one of the most rewarding and well regarded hikes in the state.

10. Stroll around Desert Ridge Marketplace

AMC Theater at Desert Ridge Marketplace in Phoenix AZ

The Phoenix metro offers no shortage of malls – too many in fact. The outdoor malls are really extravagant, particularly Desert Ridge Marketplace. Not only will you find a great mix of stores here, but you will also find popular chain restaurants, plus a Dave and Busters and AMC theater (lots of ways to beat the heat!). Even if you are not looking to spend a lot of cash, the mall holds a number of free events throughout the year – from yoga, to concerts, to art installations. Cheap things to do include enjoying a cup of coffee at local roaster Cartel, cooling down with a smoothie at Nekter, and grabbing a slice of pizza at Slices. One of the best times to visit is during Christmas – all month long you can enjoy nightly snowfall and other free holiday festivities.

Desert Ridge directory

More free fun in the Valley!

Great views at Usery Mountain Regional Park in Mesa, Arizona

Free museum days – Check out this handy list of free museum days. Also Bank of America cardmembers get into The Heard Museum and the Phoenix Art Museum the first full weekend of each month as part of Museums on Us.

Farmer’s markets – Strolling around a farmer’s market is a great way to sample new local treats and products. For just a few bucks, you can pick up fresh produce, enjoy a local cup of joe, shop for local goods, and much more.

Art Walks – Downtown Phoenix is home to one of the largest self guided art walks. Browse through over 70 galleries and take in some local culture. Also, many other smaller cities around the metro host free art walks.

Usery Mountain – Fantastic hiking area in Mesa where you can enjoy a diverse range of trails plus see the famous Phoenix air marker sign on the mountain. Note that there is a small parking fee.

Tempe Town Lake – Great place for a scenic stroll or jog.