If you had a single day in Phoenix, there is one place I end up telling everyone to go- Papago Park. The massive park on the southeastern side of the city is right in the nexus of Phoenix, Tempe, and Scottsdale. It’s near Old Town Scottsdale, Mill Ave, and loads of restaurants on Indian School Road. Within the park itself is two major Phoenix attractions, the Phoenix Zoo and Desert Botanical Garden. And on top of all that, the park has gentle hiking trails that circle otherworldly buttes, fishing ponds, and a historic tomb. It is also next to Tovrea Castle. On a nice day, everything within the park is also accessible on foot. So, if you need to see the best of Phoenix in a day, Papago Park is my suggestion as your go-to. Join me now in learning more about why this place is so amazing and special.
Best of Phoenix in a Day
When I was determining what part of the city would be ideal for seeing the best of Phoenix in a day, there were a few things on my mind. First, I wanted the location to have natural things that you couldn’t see elsewhere. The hiking trails that circle the buttes fit that bill. I wanted the location to have some cool ways to support conservation and give you access to major city attractions. Both Desert Botanical Garden and Phoenix Zoo offer guests these options! Finally, I wanted somewhere with some historic flavor. Papago Park is home to Hunt’s Tomb and is right next door to Tovrea Castle. So, seriously, you’ve got a little bit of everything here.
Although, admittedly, most everything to do in this area is outdoors. So, during the summer, this would not be an ideal day. Just something to keep in mind when planning your trip
Papago Park in General
Before you head down to read about the individual elements of the park, there are a few helpful things to know about its layout and what some of the surrounding areas are called (because otherwise, you might get confused).
First, both Phoenix and Tempe have their own Papago Parks. They are very different from one another, although both have buttes. I have another guide to the Tempe side so you can check that out if you would like to visit. The Phoenix part of the park is on either side of Galvin Parkway, between Van Buren and McDowell.
The west side of the park has the most impressive hiking trails (imo). The east side has (from north to south) Desert Botanical Garden, park amenities including hiking and fishing, Hunt’s Tomb, and the Phoenix Zoo. Desert Botanical Garden has a northern parking lot, off of the round about. And the Phoenix Zoo parking and ponds/Hole-in-the-Rock trail can be accessed to the east of the light.
Hiking in Papago Park
If you know me and this blog at all, you know I have strong feelings about hiking. I hike all the time, and even when I am having my restful down weeks, I am thinking about hiking. So, it’s no surprise that Papago’s trails are a huge draw in my mind. I will cover these trails in two different sections, the first focusing on the west side of the park, and then crossing Galvin Parkway to the east. They are actually quite different offerings, but can be done in a single morning by a fit hiker.
For official Papago Park Maps and up to date information on the park, check here.
The trails on the west side of Papago Park are my favorite. They feature the large, red buttes that make this area so special. My suggested route would be to park in the southern parking lot (off Galvin Parkway, turn west at the light shared with the zoo). Then hike clockwise in a loop that will take you around the Little and Big Buttes.
From the parking lot, follow the trail to the north west, and then trek through the flat desert north towards Little Butte. I like to follow the trail up the Butte for a little elevation gain and to get my heart pumping. But you don’t need to. After you pass Little Butte, head to the west side of Big Butte, and follow the trail around the Butte to the North. Return to the trailhead by following the established trails south. You may even follow the paved trail for ease of walking/navigation.
If you take this route, you will be looking at a pretty flat 3 miles. There are a few ups and downs, but nothing too strenuous and really nothing with a sustained elevation gain.
There aren’t a ton of signs in the park and there are a lot of spider trails, so don’t get too worried if you feel a little lost. You can use the buttes to guide your way or download a route off of AllTrails to follow. One thing I would say, however, is to please avoid creating any new spider trails. Travel on paths that are already existing, and the more worn they seem, the better.
There are two very short trails on the east side of the park. One is the very popular Hole-in-the-Rock trail. This short climb up one of the buttes takes you into a large arch or hole, where you can get some great views of the city. It’s a very short hike, with a little bit of a climb. But the most challenging thing about this trail is just how busy it can get. This is one of those famous Insta photo spots, so it can be crowded. I tend to just go with the flow when I am here. But you can also try for an off time if you really want to see it when there aren’t so many people.
The other trail is the Nature Trail. This isn’t exactly one of my favorite Phoenix trails. It is flat and mostly tracks through degraded desert areas. But I think it is really accessible to people who have never hiked before. It’s a great place to learn more about Arizona’s unique desert plants as well. So, don’t completely discount it if you haven’t been. But know that this also isn’t the most spectacular nature trail around.
Other Papago Park Amenities
On top of hiking, there are also many other amenities in the park that are not park of Desert Botanical Garden or the Phoenix Zoo. You can fish (believe it or not) at Papago Park. There is a golf course with a lovely restaurant as well. There is an orienteering course just north of McDowell.
And of course, there is Hunt’s Tomb. This is a small white pyramid on a hill behind the park, which you can get pretty close to via park roads. The tomb was built by Arizona’s first governor for his wife in the 1930s. Both of the pair are buried there, along with a few other family members. It’s definitely something you won’t see anywhere else.
Desert Botanical Garden
Desert Botanical Garden, as its name would suggest, showcases the plants of the desert. Many are from Arizona, but the Garden is home to arid-environment plants from all over the world. The research staff with the Garden are also involved in a variety of conservation and outreach work, that is really amazing. For example, they are helping to protect rare plants poached for the succulent trade. They are studying rare plants in Arizona and helping with restoration efforts. And they maintain a variety of digital and genetic databases that will support conservation into the future. Among other things (and not even including my own collaborative conservation work there from 2019-2022).
Your ticket purchase supports all of the above!
In terms of the visitor experience, the Garden is absolutely beautiful. It has a central, ring trail that will take you through forests of desert trees and towering cacti. And branching from this are four loop trails and other smaller gardens to enjoy. My favorite parts of the Garden are the trails, because they offer moments of solitude even on busy days.
If you can, explore each one. Take your time, enjoy the plants and the unique setting. There is no real forest in the world like the one created at the Garden.
Along with beautiful walks, Desert Botanical Garden often hosts art as well. During my time there, we had Chihuly and something called Cracking Art, which installed giant animal sculptures throughout the Garden. Both were lit at night (my favorite). The Garden also has good food at its little café. And Gertrude’s is a more swanky restaurant on property that does seasonal menus; reservations are suggested for this spot.
The Phoenix Zoo
The counter-part to Desert Botanical Garden, in terms of attractions, is the Phoenix Zoo. The Zoo is also known for its conservation work. In fact, they have played a major role in the successful reintroduction of the Arabian Oryx, which went extinct in the wild in the 1970s. (For the conservation buffs out there, it was the first animal to be classified as extinct in the wild, and then reverted to vulnerable status by the IUCN.) They are also working on protecting and supporting a variety of endangered Arizona species, including the Mt. Graham red squirrel. (Which I worked on studying and monitoring in the wild as my first job out of college).
On top of their conservation work, I think the Phoenix Zoo is world class. They have beautiful enclosures, and many spaces for visitors to explore different eco-climes. It’s super kid friendly, while also engaging with its adult audience. And there are some really unique experiences here as well, like a monkey “aviary” and an Arizona section with an “aviary” setting as well. I think this is the better attraction for families, especially those with smaller kids, if you are picking between the Garden and here.
Like Desert Botanical Garden, the Zoo does different installations – just generally and for the holidays. Their installations are always kid friendly and have included both giant bugs and dinosaurs in the past few years. They also do an annual Christmas light display that is really impressive.
Honestly, I can’t sing the praises of this zoo enough. They have high quality of care, they are instrumental in conserving and reintroducing endangered species, and they offer great opportunities for everyone to learn about Arizona fauna alongside animals from around the world. Your ticket will support an amazing organization. And you will have a wonderful time if you visit.
Bonus: Tovrea Castle
Tovrea Castle isn’t actually in Papago Park, but it’s right around the corner, so I am going to mention it here. The castle is visible from the 202 freeway as well as surrounding areas, and many describe it as looking like a wedding cake. For me, growing up in Phoenix, I never knew what it was, or that you could visit.
But in fact, there are tours to the castle, where you can learn all about its unique history (stemming from 1907 to now). The architecture and story of this place is one-of-a-kind and hints at the often unfamiliar history of Arizona.
You should note that if you want to visit here, it is not easy to get tickets. (Look here https://tovreacastletours.com/castle-tours/ for details). There is an annual lottery for tickets and sometimes you might be able to snatch last minute tickets. But know that either way, if you get in, it is a special occasion. Most folks in Phoenix don’t even know you can visit, as tours only open in 2012 thanks to the Tovrea Carraro Society.
Finally, this place has a special place in my heart because we worked with them to plant a native seed garden which we used to supply native plants for restoration efforts in Papago Park as well as Piestew Peak.
More About Arizona
Born and raised in Arizona, we’ve got tons of in-depth guides on many nooks (like Walnut Canyon) and crannies (like Camelback Mt.) in the state. You will learn more here about the many amazing options for exploring Arizona than you will just about anywhere else.
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