By Katherine Adomaitis | Photograph courtesy of Detours American West
Want to know the secrets of the city or details about the desert? Take a tour. In Phoenix, tour operators can create a custom trek for your group—be it learning about the urbanista lifestyle in downtown Phoenix, sampling truffles and cupcakes on a chocolate tour, or hiking amidst boulders and cactus high above the city. Most of these tours are also available for individuals, if members of your group have a yen to explore during their free time. Here are just a few options.
For Culture Vultures
Ace Bailey knows Scottsdale—she’s been working in the city’s arts and tourism fields for more than two decades. Her Ultimate Art & Cultural Tours include a public downtown Scottsdale trolley tour that trundles through the arts district, SouthBridge and Waterfront areas, touching on each of the area’s arts and history. Bailey also leads her popular history tours of Hotel Valley Ho, a revamped 1956 midcentury modern hotel with plenty of stories, including tales of celebrity visits. For groups, she offers art excursions, gallery visits, artists’ private studios and museums, as well as architecture-focused explorations that access significant homes and buildings.
Marshall Shore has become known as the official “Hip Historian” of Phoenix, shining a light on the city’s more obscure and sometimes noir stories. A former librarian, Shore dons sports coats hand-painted with iconic Arizona imagery as he leads groups either by foot or in a school bus on tours like “Haunted Phoenix,” which explores ghostly hotspots throughout the city; “The Fruit Loop,” an exploration of the city’s LGBTQ history; and one that looks at the sites associated with the infamous Winnie Ruth Judd, known as the 1930s “trunk murderess.” For something a bit more mainstream, Shore also offers architecture excursions and he’ll soon be adding worldwide cuisine tours.
Phoenix Rising Tours has several ways to get steeped in the culture and history of Phoenix. A trolley tour winds groups through downtown’s streets to learn about the evolution of the city. For a hipster perspective on urban living, the Coffee Crawl buzzes participants through several indie coffee shops in the Roosevelt Row arts district and downtown Phoenix, where, in addition to caffeine, guests will also view the neighborhood’s public art, murals, historic bungalows and locally owned shops. For a broader perspective, Phoenix Rising recently launched a three-hour bus tour of not only Phoenix, but Scottsdale and Tempe as well, with stops at the Desert Botanical Garden and Old Town Scottsdale along its 50-mile loop.
FOR FOOD AND BEVERAGE LOVERS
Is there ever such a thing as too much chocolate? The Chocolate Tour of Scottsdale subscribes to that dark, rich notion, offering two-and-a-half-hour walking tours of sweet spots in the city’s Old Town district. Participants sample goodies like candies, truffles, macarons, cupcakes, brownies, ice cream and more at several stops; plus, tour-goers also get a Ziploc bag to take extra milk or dark chocolate treats back to the hotel or home. Along the way, discussions about Scottsdale’s history, art and businesses serve as mental palate cleansers between sugar stops.
Many visitors to Arizona don’t know that the state has a thriving wine industry, producing red and white wines with grapes grown in several high-desert locales. Sip and Savor Tours provides insights into Arizona wines and other vinos with its popular Wine Walkabout Tour through Scottsdale’s Old Town. Groups usually start with sparkling wines and a sommelier- led discussion at a local restaurant, then walk to two other tasting rooms for more samples— including a flight poured as a blind tasting activity—along with educational presentations. If your group is more into hops than vines, Sip and Savor can also put together a Scottsdale-based craft beer tour.
Arizona Brewery Tours invites guests to “hop” on their bus for one of their popular five-hour cruises to three popular Phoenix- area craft breweries. Guests sample some 15 craft beers (in responsibly- sized tasting amounts) at the three stops and enjoy a meal at one of the breweries. A beer guide accompanies the group during the entire journey, providing an overview of Arizona’s award- winning craft beer scene, and tour-goers get behind-the-scenes peeks at the brewing process. A beer souvenir is included. Custom tours, including shorter treks, are available as are private pickups for larger groups.
Downtown Phoenix, Scottsdale and Gilbert have developed quite the food scene, with indie, chef-driven restaurants gaining in popularity. Taste It Tours explores the numerous stories behind these local restaurants with walking tours in each of the three cities. The mostly three-hour tours stop at five or six restaurants for tastes (paired in several spots with cocktails), along with brief presentations about the food and beverage by chefs or owners. A moderate amount of walking (one to two miles) between the restaurants helps work off some of the calories—especially helpful with Taste It’s newest dessert-only tour. Custom excursions can also be planned.
Greater Phoenix sits smack in the middle of the Sonoran desert, so exploring the great outdoors is always a draw for groups. Arizona Outback Adventures (AOA) gets outdoorsy types at all fitness levels out for guided group hikes and mountain and road biking throughout the metro area’s vast network of desert preserves and parks—with equipment provided. Need something cooler? AOA also offers kayaking and stand-up paddle boarding on nearby Salt River and Saguaro Lake, two popular watery destinations, as well as other lakes. The operator can also put together desert team- building experiences as well as multi-day adventure treks throughout the West.
AOA’s sister company, Desert Voyagers, features guided rafting trips down the Salt River which is rated Class I (meaning no rapids), but with just enough riffles to keep things interesting. With several people paddling the inflatable rafts, the adventure is a good way for a group to work together as a team while enjoying views of cliffs, cacti and wildlife, such as herons and the river’s famous wild horses, who make numerous guest appearances along the banks and in the shallows.
Off-road enthusiasts will want to check out Stellar Adventures, which offers wheel fun with treks such as adrenaline-pumping Hummer tours through the open desert, followed by a cookout (and perhaps bar service) on the trail. Guided ATV and UTV rides and desert drives via military- style, 10-seat M1009 Blazers are also cool options. The fun can continue after dark, with stargazing sessions far away from city lights, as well as night-vision sessions, where participants don binocular-like devices to catch glimpses of the desert’s nocturnal critters. Other Stellar Adventures offerings include shooting experiences and a combination that includes both a Hummer excursion and a boat cruise on Saguaro Lake.
FOR DAY TRIPPERS
For those who have some free time and want to get beyond the city limits, a day trip to some of Arizona’s best-known attractions is appealing. Detours American West offers mini coaches, Lincoln Navigators or, for larger groups, motor coaches to tour some of Arizona’s most scenic sites. Their most popular day trips from Phoenix include a trek to Sedona that includes stops at an ancient cliff dwelling, views of the fabled red rocks and plenty of time for shopping or a Jeep excursion. Another biggie is the Grand Canyon National Park’s spectacular South Rim, along with a stop in nearby Williams to see a segment of Historic Route 66. Antelope Canyon and Horseshoe Bend in northern Arizona and a drive on wild, winding Apache Trail east of Phoenix are also much- requested day trips.
Vaughan’s Southwest Tours also brings groups to popular Arizona destinations, but they often take the roads less traveled. The operator’s Sedona day trip, for example, includes a stop in nearby Jerome, a former copper mining ghost town that’s now an artsy, bohemian enclave. Their trip to the Grand Canyon’s South Rim is via Cameron on the Navajo Reservation, where participants can have lunch and views of the Little Colorado River Gorge. Later, there’s also a stop at the dramatic Watchtower overlooking the Grand Canyon on the national park’s east side. Vaughan’s can also arrange custom trips, including tasting trips to Arizona’s wine- growing regions.