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Best Things To Do in Scottsdale

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Yes, Scottsdale is known for its name-brand resorts, spas, golf courses and shopping centers, but without the Sonoran Desert, it’d be just another dot on the map. The Sonoran Desert is one of the most diverse ecosystems in the world. The Saguaro cactus is only found in the Sonoran Desert. To gain an appreciation for this landscape, visit the McDowell Sonoran Preserve. It’s this natural setting that first inspired Frank Lloyd Wright in the 1930s, which is why Taliesin West is an important stop on your Scottsdale Things to Do list. What seems to surprise people most is Scottsdale’s love for the arts. It was the citizens who first decided to put a percentage of their taxes toward the Public Art Program. In 1985, Scottsdale began a citywide beautification effort that incorporated large public art pieces into city planning. The program has grown to 70 permanent and more than 20 temporary pieces of art that are spread throughout Scottsdale, with a large concentration in the downtown area. A walking tour through downtown is one of the best ways to see popular pieces like Robert Indiana’s iconic LOVE sculpture in the Scottsdale Civic Center Mall and Donald Lipski’s The Doors, a series of 28-foot-tall mirrored panels design to be a walk-in microscope. Visit the Scottsdale Convention & Visitors Bureau inside the Galleria Corporate Center, or the bureau’s kiosk inside Scottsdale Fashion Square, for a public art map and brochure. Even some of the best Scottsdale art aficionados don’t know about the artists' compound, Cattle Track, which is located in a residential neighborhood just off the main freeway. In addition, the Waste Management Phoenix Open is a quintessential part of Scottsdale, well worth attending if you’re here at the end of January/beginning of February.

Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin West

Neighborhood: Central Scottsdale
In the 1920s, when his love affair with the rugged environment of the Sonoran Desert began, Frank Lloyd Wright was serving as the head architect for the Arizona Biltmore Resort. In 1937, he started construction on his personal winter home, studio and architectural college. Wright enlisted the help of a handful of hardworking apprentices who lugged stones by hand from the nearby McDowell Mountains to construct the buildings’ walls. Today, Taliesin West is still an active architectural school and one of the most popular attractions in Scottsdale, with daily tours of the school, Wright’s drawing room and his personal headquarters that he shared with his wife, Olgivanna, until the day he died in 1959.

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McDowell Sonoran Preserve

Neighborhood: North Scottsdale
After the city experienced a major growth spurt in the 1970s and 1980s, Scottsdale citizens initiated a preservation effort to protect nearly one-third of the city as the natural McDowell Sonoran Preserve. Currently, 16,460 (55 percent) acres of the planned 36,400-acre Preserve have been placed under protection. When complete, it will feature approximately 150 miles of trails and be one of the largest city-owned preserves in the country, larger than the Arizona cities of Tempe and Paradise Valley combined. Located in the northeast region of the city, the Preserve is the best way to get your fill of Scottsdale’s Sonoran Desert environment, with hiking, biking, rock-climbing and horseback-riding activities available.

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McDowell Sonoran Preserve  

Cattle Track Arts Compound

Neighborhood: Central Scottsdale
Cattle Track Arts Compound is an artists’ colony located on 13 acres of land in the middle of a Scottsdale residential community. Built in 1937 by local engineer George Ellis, this little-known enclave (many Scottsdale residents aren’t even aware it’s there) is where architects, printmakers, blacksmiths, jewelers and ceramicists come to work and display their art. Cattle Track’s most famous artist-in-residence was Philip Curtis, a founding member of the Phoenix Art Museum who lived onsite from 1947 until his death in 2000. Three of Cattle Track’s buildings are listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and the area is registered as a Scottsdale historic property.

Native Trails

Neighborhood: Downtown Scottsdale
Native Trails is a series of Native American festivals that emphasizes the song, dance, storytelling and traditional foods of Native American tribes in the Southwest. The outdoor event takes place when Scottsdale’s weather is at its best, so you’ll want to grab a picnic lunch from a nearby restaurant and find a spot in the grass for the noontime show. Held January through April on most Thursdays and Saturdays, this free event—compliments of the Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts and the Scottsdale Convention & Visitors Bureau—is held downtown at the Civic Center Mall.

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Camelback Mountain

Neighborhood: Central Scottsdale
The most iconic landmark in Scottsdale and the rest of the Greater Phoenix area, Camelback Mountain got its name because it literally looks like a camel lying down—humps and all. Camelback serves as the backdrop for several of Scottsdale’s notable resorts, including The Phoenician and the Sanctuary on Camelback Mountain Resort and Spa; however, it’s better known as one of the most-popular hiking destinations in the city. Be warned, though. Hiking to the top is not for beginners, and includes a lot of vertical climbs. There are easier trails along the base of the mountain, though, that still offer worthwhile views of Scottsdale.

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Camelback Mountain  

Waste Management Phoenix Open

Neighborhood: Central Scottsdale
Known as “The Greatest Show on Grass,” the Waste Management Phoenix Open (formerly FBR Open) is more of a weeklong party than a traditional golf tournament. Drawing a crowd of approximately 500,000 people every year, the WM Open is by far the best place to go for people-watching. (Yes, there’s the whole golf thing, too.) After a day of sipping and mingling on the greens, head to the Birds Nest for some after-hours entertainment that includes live music, plenty of drinks and food from some of Scottsdale’s most popular restaurants.

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Paolo Soleri’s Cosanti

Neighborhood: Paradise Valley
Italian-born architect, artist, ceramicist and former student of Wright, Paolo Soleri still lives and works at the Cosanti studio he built more than 50 years ago. His handcasted ceramic and bronze wind bells have become a Scottsdale icon. At Cosanti, tour his working studio and, if you’re lucky, catch a glimpse of the 91-year-old architect as he walks the grounds in his knee-high socks and ruby-red house slippers. In July 2010, construction began on the $3.5 million, pedestrian-friendly Soleri Bridge over the Arizona Canal in downtown Scottsdale. The bridge will be a testament to Soleri’s interest in the celestial and demonstrate the importance of solar movement with two, steel-clad 64-foot-high pylons, creating a shaft of light across the bridge that will mark solar events like the equinox, solstice and cross-quarter dates. While Soleri has designed more than 60 bridges, this is the only one ever to be built.

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Paolo Soleri’s Cosanti  

Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art

Neighborhood: Downtown Scottsdale
Originally a movie theater, the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art was designed by Scottsdale-based architect Will Bruder. It has five always-changing galleries that are devoted to modern-day art, architecture and design. SMoCA, as the locals call it, is also known for Knight Rise, a “skyspace” created by internationally celebrated earth and light artist James Turrell. When in Scottsdale, be sure to check if SMoCA Nights is going on during your visit; this seasonal event usually coincides with exhibit openings, and it’s a lot of fun, with live DJ entertainment, fashion shows and drink specials. If you’re on a budget, visit SMoCA on a Thursday night for free admission.

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Tour with Desert Wolf

Neighborhood: New River
Let us introduce you to your new obsession: the TOMCAR. Originally used as an off-road vehicle of choice in some militaries, the TOMCAR is a heavy-duty four-wheel beast that you’ll love driving through the Sonoran Desert with Desert Wolf Tours. Half- and full-day tours start at Road Runner Restaurant & Saloon in New River, Ariz. (about 30 minutes from North Scottsdale). Note that full-day tours are not offered during the summertime. From North Scottsdale, head out into the foothills of Bradshaw Mountain where you’ll see the remains of a ghost town and mine. You’ll cross rivers, mine for turquoise and take in the sights of Indian ruins found in the area. Tours include an optional firearms experience, where you’ll run through live exercises with American-made semi-automatic M4s and Glock 17 handguns, all under the careful supervision of trained professionals.

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Old Town Scottsdale Farmers Market

Neighborhood: Downtown Scottsdale
The Old Town Scottsdale Farmers Market runs October through May and has more than 40 vendors with a variety of organic vegetables and fruits, flowers, herbs, a coffee roaster, and an assortment of handmade items, including pastries, jams and baked goods. Local favorites include McClendon Farms with their fresh and affordable produce, and Cactus Flowers, a family-owned and operated flower shop that’s been a Scottsdale staple since the 1970s. While there are a handful of farmers markets in the Valley of the Sun, the Old Town Scottsdale Farmers Market has become especially popular with support from local chefs and restaurants. In 2009, local businessman Joe Garcia introduced The Farm Sessions, a program where Scottsdale chefs lead you on a shopping excursion through the market and hold a seasonal cooking class using only locally sourced ingredients.

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