Phoenix has a lot to offer in the way of outdoor recreation in the winter months, and plenty of air-conditioned attractions in summer. The arts thrive here. Many of the best things to see and do are free or inexpensive. From free concerts to a railroad park, scenic drives to free museums, you won’t have to spend a ton to have a ton of fun. Here are some of our favorite free or cheap things to do in Phoenix.
- Art. The art scene in Phoenix is growing into something special. Though most museums do charge for admission, do some research and find out what days/times they may offer free admission to the public. At First Friday, tour the Phoenix Art Museum, art galleries, venues, and related spaces from 6 to 10 p.m. every First Friday of the month. You can enjoy the spirit and culture of downtown Phoenix as you mingle with thousands of other art-lovers. Scottsdale has its own art walk every Thursday night, and has for the past 30 years. Many of the more than 100 art galleries in downtown Scottsdale open their doors to art lovers and people-watchers during Scottsdale ArtWalk. The Arizona State University Art Museum is always free. This contemporary art museum has five galleries in a spacious and modern facility located within the Nelson Fine Arts Center. The museum features contemporary artists, both regional and international, and its exhibitions often deal with current social issues. While the ASU Art Museum’s collections are rich in ceramics and prints, a variety of artistic media is showcased here. Southwestern and Latino art are well represented in the collection.
- ASU Collections. The campus is a living arboretum, with native plants identified and growing everywhere. Art, archeology, astronomy and more are featured in small and large museums all over campus. They include the expected – a local sports hall of fame – to the exotic – a center for meteorite studies. Art of almost every kind is represented, as well as one of the largest collections of human fossils to be found anywhere. View live rattlesnakes (all 18 indigenous species) at the Life Sciences Building. Or explore the moon or Mars. You can do it all here on campus. You don’t even have to be a student.
- Outdoors. A popular hot spot with the locals, Camelback Mountain attracts adventurous and active Arizonans to its majestic location. It is a landscape true to desert theme with incredible views. Check out the Echo Canyon trail for an outdoor trip through mountainous terrain and desert shrubbery. Because it’s surrounded by residential development, large mammals are not normally found in the park; however, you might find a friendly lizard or two. If you’re looking for an easy hike for kids, try the Waterfall Trail. Or, become one with the Phoenix desert at South Mountain Park and Preserve – at 16.000 acres, thought to be the largest municipal park in the country. Enter through the park’s main entrance on Central and Dobbins Road to explore the South Mountain Environmental Education Center, or follow the road to the top of the mountain for spectacular views of the entire valley. The park also boasts more than 51 miles of primary trails for horseback riding, hiking and mountain biking for all ability levels. Finally, Scottsdale’s McDowell Sonoran Preserve is a place where visitors can experience the vast Sonoran Desert. The preserve, which opened in 2009, will encompass 36,400 acres of desert once it is complete. Enjoy the flora and fauna, from colorful wildflowers and Saguaro cacti to quail and lizards and other desert creatures, free shade ramadas, a dog comfort station, an equestrian staging area, and more. The Gateway Access Area is located east of Thompson Peak Parkway, one-half mile north of Bell Road. Pick up a trail map at the parking area.
- Outdoors plus. Have you tried orienteering? Find out if you could find your way around the desert with nothing but a map in this orienteering course at Papago Park. Orienteering is a form of land navigation in which participants use a map and compass to navigate through fields, woods, hills or desert terrain. The new course is geared toward the beginner and has 11 control points. The course is open daily from sunrise to sunset.
- Scenic drive. A drive on the Apache Trail is one of the most scenic drives near the Phoenix area. This well-traveled road affords visitors incredible views of canyons, geologic formations, desert plants and trees, desert and lake views, and wildflowers in season (can be spectacular in April). The best time to do it is when it isn’t raining or very windy, and probably not on the hottest days of the year unless you have a lot of confidence in your car’s trustworthiness and you don’t mind getting out for the scenic stops.
- Water. Splash pads and splash parks are popping up all over the metro Phoenix area (there are nine in the Mesa area alone). With five months of summer, it’s no wonder that splash playgrounds are so popular around the Valley of the Sun. The public swimming pools usually charge a nominal fee to get in, less than two bucks. Some of these pools have great features, like fountains, waves and slides. Turn the fun into an educational experience at the Splash Playground at Tempe Beach Park, where children can learn about how a drop of water ends up as part of the ocean or maybe the city’s water supply. Stroll the paths along the Tempe Town Lake, where dozens of special events happen annually – including the Fantasy of Lights Boat Parade and the state’s largest July 4th celebration.
- Sports. When the Arizona Cardinals have an open practice, anyone can go watch favorite players and pro hopefuls go through their paces, take orders from the coaches and, hopefully, dole out a few autographs. It only happens for about a month before regular season football starts, in the late summer. Check the schedule for open practice dates.
- Music. During the summer, the Chandler Center for the Arts offers free concerts showcasing popular local bands and musicians. The concerts take place indoors, in the theater. In Scottsdale, free outdoor concerts are offered at Sunday A’fair happening from mid-January through mid-April. For more free music, read on ….
- Rail fun. The McCormick-Stillman Railroad Park in Scottsdale may be the only one of its kind in the nation. Take a ride on the Paradise and Pacific Railroad or the antique carousel, enjoy the museum, play on one of the playgrounds, or just relax in the grass under the shade of a tree or in one of the park’s picnic ramadas. Enjoy live music from area bands every Sunday evening in May and June. In the fall, Railfair is where train enthusiasts gather to show off their model trains –a free event. At Christmas, the park is a winter wonderland of lights and holiday entertainment. Admission is free, but there is a small charge for rides.
- Factory tour. There may not be a single free golf course in the Phoenix area, but the next best thing for golfers might be a factory tour at Karsten Manufacturing, aka PING. You can take a tour of the manufacturing facility and see how PING golf clubs are made. During the busy season (October through April) they are often booked months in advance, so reservations are required. But in summer, you usually can get on a tour any day and since the tour is indoors, it doesn’t matter. Of course, if you make a purchase, there goes your cheap thrill.
Desert Botanical Garden, courtesy Greater Phoenix CVB