Tag: Desert Botanical Gardens

Why You Need an Arizona Christmas Vacation in Phoenix: Lights in the Desert Part Two

If you live somewhere cold, and you’re feeling like you need some fresh air and sunshine, Phoenix, Arizona might be the destination for you. The capital of Arizona is no longer a characterless surburbia. There are museums the likes of which you will find no where else. It has a unique climate perfect for getting some winter vitamin D. There are tons of desert trails to explore. And Phoenix has a growing foodie scene. However, that is not what I want to talk to you about today, because Phoenix is also the annual home to some beautiful Christmas light events that make it the perfect spot for an Arizona Christmas vacation. For families, this is a great time to visit, and experience the wonder of the holiday season without the freezing temperatures and threat of blizzards.


Zoolights has basically become a yearly holiday tradition with family and friends. Who doesn’t love strolling around the Phoenix Zoo when it’s decked out in thousands of holiday plant and animal-shaped lights while sipping a cup of hot chocolate?

Zoolights lights up the night typically from the third week of November through the second week of January. If you can swing it, we recommend going on a weekday instead of weekend because the zoo can get PACKED (plus, parking can get kinda hairy on busier days). Plus, if you go on their value nights, admission is about five bucks less! Check their website for the value night dates and full admission info.

If you’re hoping to see animals during your Zoolights experience, it’s going to be pretty limited.  The animal enclosures are dark and most of them have turned in for the night. However, you CAN visit their Stingray Bay for a chance to pet some stingrays – basically my favorite thing (which was included in admission this year, although we didn’t go 🙁 ). Alternatively, maybe you can make a zoo day out of the trip and see the animals during the day and the lights in the evening.

The Phoenix Zoo is located in the heart of Papago Park, and also conveniently located next to our other holiday lights attraction, the Phoenix Desert Botanical Gardens.

Electric Desert and the Luminaries at the Desert Botanical Gardens

The Phoenix Desert Botanical Gardens is a must-see for any first time visitors. It is set in the beautiful Papago Park, and features desert plants from Arizona and around the world. Many have adapted so well to the desert that they have taken on exotic and beautiful forms. Even people with little interest in plants will enjoy seeing these unique little lifeforms. Strolling through the Botanical Gardens is enjoyable either way, particularly in the cool weather of the winter.

Arizona Christmas Vacation

Cacti in the night (c) ABR 2018

During the holiday season, the Phoenix Botanical Gardens plays host to a variety of events that cater to both local and visitor interests. During October, they celebrate the Day of the Dead with ofrenda installations designed by local artists (October 26, 2018 – November 7, 2018). And every Christmas they do a beautiful luminary display (Dec. 1 – 23 & 26 – 31, 2018). However, the Desert Botanical Gardens has also supported a variety of unique lights-in-the-night art events. A few years ago, they had a park-wide Chihuly installation that they lit up at night. This year they are hosting Electric Desert. This event melds music and light to create immersive experiences that accentuate and highlight the organic shapes of the garden plants.

Desert Botanical Gardens Logistics

Arizona Christmas Vacation

Electric Desert (c) ABR 2018

While Electric Desert is only here until May 2019 (October 12, 2018 – May 12, 2019), if you plan your Arizona Christmas Vacation for 2019, the Desert Botanical Gardens is worth a visit. I find that the Desert Botanical Gardens is great for adults spending the night out. It is has some class and tranquility that really sets it apart.

You can visit the Desert Botanical Gardens during the day (8a-4p) for $24.95, and the Electric Desert/Luminaries costs $34.95 – $39.95 for the night. I believe that you can also purchase a joint ticket, but I didn’t see this on the website. If you go for a joint ticket plan on spending at least 3 hours in the park. You might also want to enjoy the surprisingly amazing food at Gertrude’s, the park restaurant.

Arizona Christmas Vacation

Electric Desert (c) ABR 2018

CURRENT Hours For Las Noches de las Luminarias and Electric Desert
8 a.m. – 4 p.m.  (Daytime admission)
The Garden is open for Las Noches de las Luminarias and Electric Desert ticket holders from 5:30 p.m. until 9:30 p.m. nightly.

Christmas Lights: Christmas at the Princess

Arizona Christmas Vacation

Christmas at the Princess (c) Stephanie Snedeker 2018.

We would be remiss if we discussed any Arizona Christmas vacation (or staycation) without mentioning that Phoenix has many opportunities to enjoy traditional Christmas lights in the less than frigged air. My old family tradition was to drive through the neighborhoods with cultures of spectacular lights. For the sake of responsible travel, let’s leave those places for local families. Not to worry though! There are events throughout the city to enjoy so you will not be for want of Christmas lights.

Arizona Christmas vacation

Christmas at the Princess (c) Stephanie Snedeker 2018

One such event is Christmas at the Princess, where you can enjoy a mix of light draped trees and whimsical light animals, boats, Christmas characters and more. The Princess also does a variety of Christmas-themed activities that you can pay extra to enjoy, such as a skating rink, train rides, Build-a-Bear workshops and more. Probably not our cheapest option with all the add-ons. But you can keep your eyes open for Groupons to this event. (If you love these pictures of Christmas at the Princess, be sure to check out the rest of Stephanie’s photography on Instagram!)

If you have rented a car, another great option is to skip town and drive two hours north of Phoenix to Prescott. Some call this small town the Christmas capital of Arizona, and I think that the name is fitting. The downtown square of Prescott is decked with lights and Christmas decorations every year. There are a variety of great restaurants to enjoy along with the night of celebration and small-town charm. This event is free, but it has been getting more press. So I would suggest arriving earlier in the day so you can find a place to park. It is likely that you will need to pay to park as well, unless you decide to go the extra mile and reserve a hotel there for the night.

Arizona Christmas Vacation

Arizona Christmas Vacation

The Phoenix-Area


I’m a relatively rare person in Phoenix: someone who was born and raised here, and hasn’t run off to somewhere less dry and scorching hot. I spent a few years in Tucson, but other than that, I have spent my entire life in Phoenix, and I have never lived any where outside of Arizona. That being said, I have had an interesting relationship with my home, and there have been times when I have found Phoenix to be a boring, shallow city… especially considering that it has a population that warrants some big city excitement. Lately, I have been rediscovering some of the wonderful things that this city has to offer, and that’s what I am going to focus on here.

One my favorite things about Phoenix are the mountain preserves, and there are efforts within the city government as well as groups such as the McDowell Sonoran Conservancy to use these large areas of preserved desert for a more sustainable city. As it stands now, the Phoenix-area sports some of the largest urban preserves in the country. They serve as habitat islands for desert species, and wonderful places to hike and experience the desert. I will devote individual blog entries to different sections of the preserve, so those can be referenced for details on these areas, but here is a link to the Phoenix Park Department’s Mountain Preserve website: Phoenix Mountain Preserves

Phoenix is also home to a wonderful zoo and botanical garden which I have enjoyed almost yearly since I was young. These are two separate parks, but they are located a mere two minute drive from one another, and they are both nestled in the beautiful and unique landscape of Papago Park.(c) AB Raschke The Desert Botanical Gardens is home to lovely, informative desert plant exhibits, and seasonally they also host a butterfly garden. What is fairly distinct about this particular park, and is something that I have really enjoyed over the years, is the Garden’s “Plants and People of the Sonoran Desert Trail.” This section of the garden showcases several of Arizona’s native cultures and has some interactive areas for kids to explore and learn more about the historical lives of the desert people. The Phoenix Zoo is an equally fun spot to visit, and perhaps more kid oriented than the gardens. In its entirety, the zoo is well kept, the exhibits are nice, and the atmosphere is well done. There are also some distinct exhibits that make the park special- including a monkey village (the easiest way to imagine this if you haven’t been to something similar is a monkey aviary), and AZ animals exhibit which is also set up like an aviary, and houses one of my all time favorite animals, burrowing owls! There are plenty of other reasons to visit either of these parks, but I don’t have the space here to mention them all.
The Desert Botanical Gardens
The Phoenix Zoo

In terms of general areas to check out while in the area, Old Town Scottsdale, Mill Avenue in Tempe, and downtown Phoenix all have their own charm. Phoenix’s downtown will be disappointing if you expect it to be anything like the downtown areas of other large cities. There isn’t a ton of shopping to be done, and even good food isn’t readily apparent without some searching. However, downtown is home to a couple big sports arenas, theaters, and museums (including the Sciene Museum, which is great for kids). It is also the site of events such as the annual Matsuri festival, and the Phoenix Comicon.(c) AB Raschke The Phoenix light rail (which I highly suggest for travelers, although it’s pretty small compared to many other urban rail systems) runs right through downtown, and also connects to Mill Ave on Tempe. Mill is close to Phoenix’s university, Arizona State, and it is great spot for bar crawling. Mill also has some pretty good places to eat, and connects to the Tempe Town Lake which has a nice shoreline park, as well as boats for rent. This is as close as you’ll come to finding a “college town” in the Phoenix-area. In contrast, Old Town Scottsdale is in one of the city’s richer areas, and it shows. The shopping here is similar to that of Sedona as it focuses on pricey art and southwestern souvenirs. A high end mall (Fashion Square) is also in this part of town. I mostly like Old Town Scottsdale for its food, and it makes for a nice stroll on spring or fall days, and there is even a pretty nice public garden there.
Downtown Phoenix
Mill Ave
Old Town Scottsdale

(c) AB Raschke

Now, one of the things that has always bothered me about Phoenix is it’s apparent lack of interesting restaurants, so I wanted to take some time to list a few of my favorite places:
Cherryblossom (Japanese/Italian)
Curry Corner (Pakastani)
The Dubliner (Irish)
Green (Vegetarian)
Indian Garden (Indian)
Khyber Halal (Afghani)
La Grande Orange Grocery (American)
Sala Thai (Thai)
Stax Burger Bistro (American)
Sushi Station (Japanese)
Uncle Sams (American)

In terms of living and visiting Phoenix, the weather is a big concern. Winters are traditionally mild, but recent years have seen them getting colder. A couple years ago, in fact, it got so cold in Tucson that pipes were bursting all over the city- including at University of Arizona’s massive new chemistry building. If you compare it to states that see real winter, it’s nothing, but it may be a bit colder than expected. Summers in Phoenix are what really get people, and it can be pretty brutal. A high of 120 degrees isn’t uncommon, and while it is very dry, the heat is still dangerous. (c) AB RaschkeFor a person that loves the outdoors, summer can be something of a problem in Phoenix, since it keeps most sane people indoors for most of the day, and those of us that want to hike in the city have to be out on the trail by 430a. Best option for summer hiking is to travel up to Sedona or Flagstaff for the day. Due to its weather, Phoenix is a seasonal home for lots of “snow birds,” and that can also change some of the dynamics of the city, especially on the roads. Due to the weather, winter is the typical time to visit, but for people considering a trip to Phoenix, the summer is actually a pretty great time to come. Yes, it is hot out and you won’t want to spend the day at the zoo in the blistering heat, but hotel prices tend to be pretty low in the summer, and chilling at a nice resort surrounded by beautiful desert is never a bad thing.

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