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Scottsdale, Ariz., has long been known for its world-renowned golf courses and award-winning spas.
As neither a golfer nor a spa maven, I was on the hunt to find out what else the desert city (nicknamed the West’s Most Western Town) has to offer — a mission made even more challenging when undertaken during a pandemic.
But as it turns out, Scottsdale offers quite a roster of COVID-19-friendly options, especially for those who prefer to spend time outside and social distance. As an active traveler who enjoys spending time in nature, I packed my five-day trip with activities that would get me out into the beautiful Sonoran Desert, from serene nature walks and tranquil self-guided kayaking excursions to treks with challenging switchbacks and tours incorporating all-terrain vehicles (ATVs).
In the end, I discovered that no matter a traveler’s fitness or skill level, there’s bound to be an outdoor activity in and around Scottsdale to suit them.
ATVing With Stellar AdventuresAdrenaline junkies will want to hop onboard an ATV, what I’ve dubbed the “Altogether Terrifying [At First] Vehicle.” My partner and I booked an ATV tour with Stellar Adventures, a Tempe, Ariz.-based operator that offers both ATV and UTV tours (Utility Terrain Vehicles are also known as “golf carts on steroids,” according to our guide, John), along with H1 Hummer tours.
We joined a two-hour small-group tour that combined UTVs and ATVs. After a quick, spaced-out safety demo where masked riders were outfitted with their own head socks, helmets and goggles, we set off on a practice run along a small training course. Then, John led our caravan over rocky terrain, up and down desert shelves and around tight S curves, pausing the group every 15 minutes or so to check up on each rider and explain the next leg of the 25- to 30-mile course.
As a first-time ATVer, I began the tour stiff as a board — hesitant to pump even the slightest amount of gas into the monster machine below me. That is, until John suggested that I repeat a song in my head as I drove, which would (hopefully) keep my mind off the bumps (read: giant boulders) my ATV was traversing over. With that, the refrain of The Arrows’ 1975 hit “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” played on repeat in my mind, almost instantly calming me and allowing me to relax enough to enjoy the beautiful scenery.
Throughout the tour, our small group (which included me, my partner and one other family) crossed creeks, rolled across sandy washes, gained air on rocky slopes and accelerated along stretches of flat desert road, gaining speeds up to 45 miles per hour. By the end of the tour, I found myself laughing and “woop-woop”ing all the way back to the trailhead.
Accessible for beginners and advanced riders alike, the travel agent-friendly operator offers a wide variety of tours that go beyond ATV and UTVing, including a Gravel ‘N Grape tour that incorporates wine tasting onboard an H1 Hummer; sunset and stargazing tours conducted in an M1009 Blazer; mountain biking and hiking adventures; and more. Children ages 12 and up can ride an ATV; UTVs are reserved for those 16 years old and up (but kids ages 6 and older can ride as a passenger on an ATV or a UTV). Rates begin at $195 for a single ATV, for two hours.
Hiking Trails for All LevelsScottsdale is surrounded by a complex network of hiking trails, from flat and relatively short walks to multi-hour treks with intense elevation gains.
Clients just looking to get a bit of fresh air would enjoy a jaunt on the Metate Trail, located in Spur Cross Ranch Conservation Area just outside Cave Creek, Ariz. After paying the $3 entrance fee, hikers will find a relatively flat trail (which, in some parts, is also used for horseback riders) that shows the area’s native flora and winds past rows of majestic saguaro cacti and through a often dry creek bed.
Nearby, in Cave Creek Regional Park, the Overton Trail Loop offers a slightly longer, more moderately challenging route among native Arizona wildflowers. The area is home to several species of wildlife — during our trek, which was organized through Civana Wellness Resort & Spa, we were lucky enough to see a pack of wild mule deer. The 3.5-mile trail can be traversed in about two hours, and those hiking at sunrise will be treated to a visual feast, and may even see several hot-air balloons dotting the horizon.
However, if a heart-pumping workout is what travelers are after, suggest they make their way to Tom’s Thumb Trail in Scottsdale’s McDowell Sonoran Conservancy. The 4-mile out and back trail features a couple sets of challenging switchbacks in the first mile, where most of the 1,236 feet of elevation is gained (and where most people decide to turn back, according to one Scottsdale local). But pushing on to the summit rewards trekkers with expansive, panoramic views of the desert. And, with several smaller trails off-shooting from the main route, this hike is a great option for repeat visitors looking for a slightly different experience each time they return.
Kayaking on Saguaro LakeSaguaro Lake (a reservoir of Arizona’s Salt River), is somewhat of an oasis within the surrounding barren and desolate landscape. And to best take advantage of this oasis, recommend that travelers pay a visit to Saguaro Lake Guest Ranch, a B&B located just outside Mesa, Ariz., that features 20 rustic cabins and offers kayak and tubing rentals, among other ranch activities.
The property’s (masked) staff will shuttle clients to the nearby lake for three hours of self-guided kayaking, at a rate of $50 per kayak, for riders ages 10 and up.
On a recent visit to the lake, my partner and I had the area almost completely to ourselves (save for the occasional speedboat). We paddled leisurely, at our own pace, while marveling at the surrounding scenery and keeping our eyes out for the area’s local residents (wild big-horn sheep). The lake can also be used for fishing, stand-up paddleboarding, swimming and more.
The DetailsExperience Scottsdalewww.experiencescottsdale.com