Slideshow

Wandering in the Desert

If you like Scottsdale, take a walk on the wild side and try Phoenix’s West Valley.

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  • cactus
    Photo by Paul Matthew Photography
    The natural beauty of Phoenix’s West Valley is just one of the attractions.
  • west valley
  • resort
    Photo courtesy of the Wigwam
    The historic Wigwam resort
  • petroglyphs
    Photo by Roger Hall
    Petroglyphs in the desert
  • dinner plate
    Photo courtesy of the Wigwam
    Resort fare
  • Firepalce
    Photo courtesy of the Wigwam
    A patio with a fireplace
  • train
    African safari train ride at the Wildlife World Zoo and Aquarium
  • Waterpark
    Tornado Slide at the Wet ‘n’ Wild Waterpark

When I first started visiting Phoenix’s West Valley more than 20 years ago with my family, we’d drive through nearly empty stretches of flat desert, the White Tank Mountains rising up in a purple-gray line as we headed toward them. Hard ground baked under a golden sun. During late winter trips, we’d admire some of the country’s finest rose farms with row after tidy row of blooms, vibrant reds and pinks popping in contrast to the sand and red-toned earth. The Valley wasn’t popular or populous. We visited because my in-laws lived there. They chose the location partly because of what it wasn’t. It wasn’t Scottsdale, with its in-demand golf courses, swank shopping, and tony resorts. It wasn’t congested East Valley. It didn’t have a hot nightlife scene.

Instead of Scottsdale, my in-laws chose Litchfield Park, a small town that shares a long history with the historic Wigwam resort located there. The town’s palm- and orange-tree-lined streets are family-friendly and easy to walk and bike around. “Downtown” is a two-block shopping area across from the resort. In the old days, the center was anchored by a drugstore complete with a soda fountain. You could order cheeseburgers and malts, then buy a rattlesnake-skin billfold on your way out the door. It was still the Wild West, after all.

That was then. As Phoenix boomed, the West Valley grew. Farms and ranches gave way to housing complexes and strip malls. Big development arrived in the form of Westgate Entertainment District, a vast shopping and entertainment complex, the University of Phoenix Stadium, and Jobing.com Arena. NASCAR re-emerged after a hiatus. Arizona’s first aquarium arrived. And someone thought up a really rad water park for the kids.

Still, the West Valley kept a low profile until 2008. That’s when Super Bowl XLII came to town; 97.5 million people watched the New York Giants take down the New England Patriots at Glendale’s University of Phoenix stadium. The game ended in one of football’s biggest upsets and became the most-watched Super Bowl ever. Glendale and the once-sleepy West Valley shared in the spotlight.

What the country glimpsed is what locals and longtime visitors knew all along. The natural beauty of the big-sky desert attracts and calms at the same time. And the recent development has created tourist activities that can keep you busy for a week.

For Minnesotans, the trip is especially easy. Six airlines run up to 16 flights a day from Minneapolis St. Paul International Airport to Sky Harbor Airport during the peak winter season. Once there, it’s best to rent a car to get to the West Valley and to tour the area, because long distances separate attractions and the public transportation is limited.

AUTHENTIC CHARM

As it turns out, The Wigwam resort in Litchfield Park is a perfect base for exploration—that is, if you decide to venture outside the gates. You could easily golf, play tennis, swim, and hit the spa for a full weekend without ever leaving.

Arriving at The Wigwam’s main lobby, you find yourself immersed in Southwest style, starting with the main building’s adobe exterior. Inside, there’s a massive stone fireplace, leather furniture, wood floors, Navajo rugs, and ceramics and paintings by local artists.

A bellman driving a golf cart leads you to your casita or room, following a winding road landscaped with desert shrubs, flowers, and cacti. Rooms, like the lobby, are furnished with substantial pieces in leather and wood, blending comfort with a tribal palette of earth tones and pops of color. A friendly note near the bottled water reminds you that the dry climate means you’ll need to drink more.

Some rooms face one of the resort’s pools, and all guests have access to a newly renovated main pool. It has water slides for the kids, who can order smoothies and seasoned fries while you sip cocktails from a comfy chaise longue. If you’re sun-sensitive, you can rent a fully shaded cabana and hunker down with a good book.

Many visitors come for The Wigwam’s three 18-hole championship golf courses. World-famous golf course architect Robert Trent Jones Sr. designed two of them. All lead through rolling hills with ponds and streams and beautiful old trees for a classic golf experience. Check the resort’s website for golf packages.

If golf’s not your thing, the resort’s tennis courts are available even at night, when they’re lit to let you take advantage of cool evenings. Alternately, rent bikes for a half or full day, or check out the two bocce ball courts where guests can meet up for friendly happy-hour competitions.

Whatever you do, be sure to build in some downtime at the Red Door Spa. Soak in the hot tub or hang in the steam room before a heavenly massage.

Our favorite Wigwam meal is breakfast, partly because the coffee and fruit are so good that almost nothing else matters. For dinner, I recommend crossing the street into town for Mexican fare at the Old Pueblo Café and Pub. It’s not fancy, but the meals are substantial and flavorful, and the warm chips and red salsa are to die for. We’ve ordered a pint to go and packed it home in our checked bags.

If you’re interested in other golf courses, check out Golf Club of Estrella (beware the bunkers), Raven Golf Club at Verrado (spectacular scenery at the base of the White Tanks), Maryvale Golf Course (municipal), and Quintero Golf Club (a private club now allowing public play).

LOOK AROUND

To get a feel for the Sonoran desert, head to the 30,000-acre White Tank Mountain Regional Park, edged on the west by the White Tank Mountains. Two short trails, one leading to a waterfall (when there’s enough water), give a taste of the rugged beauty of the area. We’ve hiked longer trails there, too, and spotted jackrabbits, quail, and roadrunners, but thankfully no snakes.

For another desert experience, check out the Deer Valley Rock Art Center. You can hike a short trail to see black basalt boulders covered in petroglyphs made by the first inhabitants of the land. Archaeologists estimate that people first found the rocks 7,000 years ago. The center is a museum, nature preserve, and archaeological site and is managed by Arizona State University.

GOOD CLEAN FUN

Traveling with children? Then checking out the Wildlife World Zoo and Aquarium is a must. The aquarium has sea lions and a tank where you can pet stingrays. But by far the big draw for us is at the zoo. You can climb a 12-foot platform, put 50 cents in a machine to get food pellets, and feed those pellets to the giraffes in the enclosure below. They lick your palms with black tongues. Yes, it is seriously slobbery. But do you know why giraffe tongues are black? To prevent sunburn when they’re sticking it out all day to eat leaves.

If you visit in the spring or summer, check out Wet ‘n’ Wild Waterpark, featuring insane, twisty-turny, tall, and fast slides that make children shriek and adults wonder if what they’re experiencing is a) a thrill ride or b) a heart attack. Be sure to check the website for the seasonal reopening date.

IN THE AIR

West Valley residents are proud of Luke Air Force Base, whose mission, according to its website, is “to train the world’s greatest F-16 fighter pilots while deploying mission-ready war fighters.” You can tour the base if you really plan ahead. It takes organized groups of 15 to 40 people on a first-come, first-served basis, Tuesdays and Thursdays between 9 am and noon. This is why our family has never made it for a tour. Even without one, you may see and/or hear the fighter planes overhead. Their roar and speed are ferocious and impressive.

For an in-air adventure that’s easier to access, visit the Challenger Space Center and take part in a simulated space mission. Your group spends time in Mission Control, on a spacecraft built just like a room from the International Space Station, and in the Earth Space Transit Module—two seats in a pretend rocket meant to feel real.

Or just head to The Left Seat West restaurant at the Glendale Municipal Airport. Over hash and eggs, you can watch little planes take off and land. Sometimes a pilot will land, walk into the restaurant to eat, then walk back out and fly off.

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