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New horizons: discover your inner cowgirl in Scottsdale, Arizona

by Helena Lang
New horizons: discover your inner cowgirl in Scottsdale, Arizona
The 'pansy-purple' shaded Sonoran Desert

Dramatic landscapes, luxe spas and discovering your inner cowgirl may seem like three completely different holiday breaks, however, in Scottsdale, Arizona, Helena Lang finds you can indulge in all three - and more besides.

I’m perched on a bar stool sipping a Margarita on the terrace at the Onyx Bar at the Four Seasons Resort in Scottsdale, Arizona, surrounded by loved-up couples and groups of workmates post-conference flirting while the good- looking bar team deliver wine and beer, cocktails and snacks. Nothing out of the ordinary here you might think, except we all have an amazing view of one of the most epic displays of natural beauty I have seen anywhere in the world.

We’re looking at a horizon that even the best painter in the world would find hard to capture. The distant mountain range crosses the sky like an irregular heartbeat across a monitor screen, all in a shade of soft violet. In the foreground, in a deeper pansy-purple shade, are the peaks and troughs of Paradise Valley, Camelback Mountain and South Mountain. And right up to the hotel estate’s borders is desert strewn with huge boulders and thousands of cacti.

Sunset at Boulders
Sunset at Boulders

Then the show really begins. The sky slowly darkens and the sun, a giant ball of fiery gold, dips behind Pinnacle Peak as wispy clouds turn firstly marmalade- orange, then a Turner-esque charcoal with orange splashes and, finally, a deep brick-red outlined in turquoise with a tiny crescent moon and Venus beaming above like a satellite station. Everyone claps and hollers; it truly is spectacular.

This is a dramatic landscape. It’s big, unique and awe-inspiring. From its abundance of flora and fauna (the Sonoran Desert is second only to the Amazon rainforest for the variety of species that live here), to the hikes and mountain trails, and from the big, black night skies riddled with sparkly stars, to the palm trees swaying in a light breeze against the cobalt- blue day, it’s breathtakingly beautiful. It’s such a contrast to the damp, grey, drizzly urban sprawl we left behind at London Heathrow last January that, at times, I have to pinch myself.

Scottsdale was a new one on me, but it’s a familiar destination for sun-seeking Americans bored with the glitz of South Beach Miami and the sky-high prices of Palm Springs in California. The city lies adjacent to Phoenix, and is actually an 11-mile wide series of districts and small towns with vast open spaces between that runs for 31 miles to the North where it joins the Tonto National Forest and Salt River to the South. It’s a wide plain surrounded by mountains with Indian reservations, ranches, national parks, exclusive gated communities, cowboy towns, heaps of golf courses, and more than its fair share of luxury spa hotels.

To enjoy it, you need to be an outdoorsy person. Top of any visitor’s to-do list would have to be hiking, and many of the must-do trails are challenging – the intense 1.23 mile climb to the top of Camelback Mountain begins at 1,424 feet above sea level and summits at 2,704 feet, with patches of trail that are sheer rock, others that are large boulders, and even more that are slippery gravel. That trail killed my trainers, and ruined my manicure (there were times when crawling seemed like the best option), but the exhilaration on making it to the top, and the multiple selfie opportunities, made it all worthwhile.

Helena and husband Simon enjoy 'multiple selfie opportunities' on Camelback Mountain
Helena and husband Simon enjoy 'multiple selfie opportunities' on Camelback Mountain

Saguaro cacti are unique to the Sonoran Desert, which covers this part of Arizona right into Mexico and California, and their spiky giant- cucumber forms are everywhere. At the gorgeous Desert Botanical Garden (, we learn that they can live up to 200 years and grow to over 12 metres tall. Many of them grow arms – their first when they are between 75-100 years old – and look like cowboys drawing revolvers from their holsters. Along with the elegant agave, ocotillo, the stumpy barrel cactus and the demon teddy bear or jumping cholla (not as cute as it sounds, especially when its evil babies manage to adhere themselves to your shoes, or even worse your trousers... ouch!) they are nursed by the desert ironwood tree, a benign member of the pea family. It provides a mini microclimate under its branches that is up to 15 degrees cooler than in full sun, sheltering baby plants, scattering its seeds for animals and birds, and generally being a good egg.

Saguaro cacti at the Desert Botanical Garden
Saguaro cacti at the Desert Botanical Garden

Birds are surprisingly plentiful, too – from the bald eagle we spot on a horse ride through the Fort McDowell reservation, patiently waiting to catch a trout in the Verde River, to the cute, flightless Gambel’s quail scurrying under the bush at the sound of footfall, and the busy woodpeckers carving holes in the saguaro for nesting.

Animals are harder to spot, but we are thrilled when a coyote trots along beside our car as we approach the Sanctuary on Camelback Mountain. Bushy-tailed and bright-eyed, he’s on his way somewhere with purposeful intent. And a family of javelinas scurry in the bush near our room at Boulders – the babies are cute, but the adults have all the threatening hallmarks of wild boar and are best avoided. On our hike down Elephant Mountain, we get lost, missing the trail marker in our pursuit of a giant jack rabbit, which could have been the inspiration for Lewis Carroll – it’s so huge we can’t believe it’s related to the tiny little bob-tailed bunnies we’ve seen everywhere. Our detour takes us two hours out of our way (many, many thanks to the kind gentleman and his West Highland terrier Bluey, who picks us up in his Jeep and run us back to our car at the trailhead).

Horse riding through the Verde River Valley
Horse riding through the Verde River Valley

But don’t be fooled by the wild. Scottsdale may be heaving with plants and animals, but it’s also full of sophisticated visitors – it’s the spa resort capital of the US, with plenty of fine dining, cool cocktails, culture and luxury to be found if you know where to look.

Scattered around the region are lots of five-star hotels, complete with valet parking, world-class golf courses, high-end spas and top-quality restaurants. We had started our visit by spending a couple of nights Downtown, the original hotspot of the city in its Wild West days and now extensively revamped with glamorous shopping malls and stylish districts. Scottsdale might be in a desert, but it’s not a cultural one. Getting to grips with cowboy culture was first on our list, and the Western Spirit museum, dedicated to all things chaps, saddles and gunslingers, has fascinating exhibits that capture the atmosphere of when The West really was wild, as well as beautiful artworks, including paintings and bronzes. 

An unexpected jewel in the city’s crown, the statuesque Musical Instrument Museum is a triumph and strikes just the right note (geddit?) between information and fun. The collection of more than 6,500 instruments is staggering, but it’s the informative and tuneful recordings you listen to as you drift between exhibits that make it all come to life.

Architecture buffs will not want to miss a tour of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin West, where the great man and his team developed and explored so many of their design and building techniques. It’s an intriguing place, which includes his living quarters, the design studios and some gorgeous landscaping. 

Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin West
Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin West

Further away from Downtown, it’s best to go native. There can be nothing quite as authentic as a night spent in Cave Creek, a real cowboy town where on any given day you might see a cattle drive holding up traffic. End the night up the street at the Buffalo Chip Saloon, where the locals gave us a lesson in the two-step so we could dance like the best of them to the excellent country band. Or climb up into your own leather saddle for a leisurely guided horse ride through the Verde River Valley, home of the Yavapai Nation.

For a real grasp of just how impressive Scottsdale is, it’s best to get up, up and away on a sunrise balloon ride with Hot Air Expeditions, just as long as a 6.30am start isn’t too off-putting for such a bucket-list adventure. Enthusiastic photographers won’t get a better opportunity to capture this amazing landscape, and there’s an eerie beauty as you drift over the desert in silence, punctuated by blasts from the burner.

Getting 'up, up and away' on a sunrise hot-air balloon ride
Getting 'up, up and away' on a sunrise hot-air balloon ride

Back on land, we took our last hike on the Spur Cross Ranch Conservation Area with a guide from the Boulders resort. This prime example of High Sonoran Desert has both valley floor and spectacular rock formations climbing to almost 4,000 feet. The year-round spring-fed streams keep plants and trees – such as mesquite, cottonwoods and willows – happy, and mule deer and coyotes hydrated, while more than 80 species of birds live in the region’s most dense cactus forest. The rich diversity of life in Scottsdale is there to discover just by pulling on a pair of boots and stretching your legs, and it is truly stunning.

Getting there

We visited Scottsdale as guests of Experience Scottsdale. For more information about this gorgeous city, check out

For in-depth hotel reviews and a guide to the best places to eat, visit

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