Phoenix, the state capital of Arizona, is known for its warm, dry climate that attracts huge numbers of sun-lovers during the winter months. The Greater Phoenix Area is a large sprawling city with a mix of modern high-rise buildings, Indian and Spanish colonial influences, and a touch of the Wild West. The city offers abundant art and cultural attractions, historic neighborhoods, and museums. My two favorite attractions are the the Desert Botanical Garden and the Heard Museum.
DESERT BOTANICAL GARDEN
I really enjoy going to botanical gardens around the country and learning about native plants. The Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix is home to 21,000 plants representing close to 4,000 different plant classifications, and is a terrific place to learn about the flora of the southwestern desert. It is a large garden with six major trails / garden exhibit areas. Winding paths over 50-acres showcase a fantastic variety of arid plants, from towering saguaros to delicate blooms.
Spring is the perfect time of year to visit as there are wildflowers and cacti in bloom, and the weather isn’t too hot yet. If you make it before mid-May, you can even experience the butterfly house. Alas, I was too late for that this year, but I still enjoyed myself immensely! The garden’s brightly colored plants sharply contrast the Sonoran Desert’s cinnamon-red buttes and the numerous trails allow you to experience the region’s natural wonders.
I start the day at any location with any free tours to get the lay of the land and hear about what is featured. The Desert Botanical Garden actual offers several that are included with your paid admission including general garden tours, tours that focus on Birds in the Garden, ‘Ask a Gardener’ sessions, as well as discovery stations with hands-on activities. For a small additional charge, the self-guided audio tours offer an educational way to enjoy the Garden at your own pace. You can see the full list of tours and activities on their website.
My favorite part of the Desert Botanical Garden is the Plants and People of the Sonoran Desert Trail. It is an actual dirt path trail winding around the base of a hill. Along the way, there are displays showing how Native Americans used to live in the Southwest. It features five distinct habitats that have provided people with useful plants for food, fiber, medicine and cultural purposes for 2,000 years: Desert, Desert Oasis, Mesquite Bosque, Semi-desert Grassland and Chaparral. The story of these relationships is brought to life through cultural examples of the Akimel O’odham and Western Apache Roundhouse. Don’t miss out on the hands-on activities such as pounding mesquite beans to make flour.
The other trails include:
- Desert Discovery Trail
This is the garden’s main trail with desert plants from around the world. You’ll find the oldest plantings on this 1/3 mile trail, and it is easy to navigate. Don’t miss the Sybil B. Harrington Cactus & Succulent Galleries on this trail, with beautifully arranged cacti and succulents from around the world.
- Harriet K. Maxwell Desert Wildflower Trail
Learn how colorful desert wildflowers, hummingbirds, and bees interact in the Sonoran desert on this 1/3 mile trail.
- Sonoran Desert Nature Trail
A 1/4 mile trail where you can enjoy the big picture — desert, mountains, plants, and animals.
- Center for Desert Living
Features herbs and edible gardens
While researching activities in the area, I read that the internationally acclaimed Heard Museum is one of the best places to experience the art and history of the American Indians of the Southwest and it did not disappoint. The museum’s 11 spacious exhibit galleries and beautiful outdoor courtyards feature outstanding traditional and contemporary American Indian art. I also took two free docent-led tours that were included in the price of admission. The Highlights of the Heard tour allowed me to get the lay of the land and establish a plan for what I wanted to go back and see in depth. I returned later for the tour of their signature exhibit HOME: Native Peoples in the Southwest.
One of the exhibits I really enjoyed was a room with hundreds of Kachina dolls. The carved figures are given as ceremonial gifts to young girls. Each gift represents a prayer wish for good health, growth and fertility. Since the mid-20th century, these carvings have developed as an impressive art form. This display shows a wide variety of the different styles.
I thought the most moving exhibit was the one of the boarding school experience called “Remembering Our Indian School Days: The Boarding School Experience, 1879 to Present.” The display tells the story of Native American children forcibly sent to boarding schools sanctioned by the U.S. government in the latter 19th century to address “the Indian problem” by Americanizing them. The powerful display incorporates historic images, music, sound, oral histories, memorabilia and video to immerse visitors in the story being told by the people who lived it. Some of our history is hard to take, but I believe it is important to learn the truth about it so that we can learn from it.
I found an amazing tribute to Native American contributions to our military outside. The American Indian Veterans National Memorial is the only known national memorial dedicated to American Indian veterans of all conflicts. The Memorial consists of several sizable sculptures by the acclaimed Native artists Allan Houser (Chiricahua Apache) and Michael Naranjo (Santa Clara Pueblo). The 10-foot sculpture Unconquered II is the last sculpture created by Houser. Naranjo is a Vietnam War veteran who suffered an injury that rendered him blind.
Where to Stay
If you’re traveling by RV, Lost Dutchman State Park is a terrific location at the base of the Superstition Mountains.
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