Arizona may be best known for the gaping magnificence of the Grand Canyon and for Monument Valley's stately pillars, but its most unexpected pleasures may well be the lovely flowers and plants dotting the desert state. The Boyce Thompson Arboretum, about an hour east of Phoenix, regularly tops locals' lists for best day trip. Paul Wolterbeek, volunteer program coordinator at the arboretum, says the best time to catch the blooming desert wildflowers is from early March through mid-April. "After that, ephemeral wildflowers give way to lush cactus blossoms, with various Opuntia species - prickly pears, cholla - continuing through May and into June with hedgehog, barrel, and saguaro cacti," says Wolterbeek. For autumn color, his secret trove of fall flora can be found in Six Shooter and Ice House canyons in the Pinal Mountains near Globe around Halloween. The intrepid will find montane canyon wildflowers, including red mint and columbines, Wolterbeek says, but "only if you're motivated to hike up a wet canyon such as Aravaipa or Fossil Creek. You'll be rewarded with a babbling creek, songbirds, and butterflies such as the pipevine swallowtail and the state butterfly, the two-tailed swallowtail, on their own quest to seek wildflowers." Farther south, don't miss a different kind of forest: The Saguaro National Park, near Tucson, has 150 miles of hiking trails in view of these anthropomorphous cacti, which can grow to 70 feet and whose large white flowers are fleeting, lasting less than 24 hours.
The green, green grass of the state's approximately 360 golf courses has largely supplanted the idea in visitors' minds that Arizona is little more than dry, dusty desert. With upwards of 300 sunny days in the Phoenix area annually, it's no wonder that golf has become a top attraction. The recently opened JW Marriott Star Pass Resort & Spa, tucked a few miles west of Tucson in the foothills of the Tucson Mountains, offers a 27-hole Arnold Palmer Signature Golf Course that you might end up sharing with coyotes, roadrunners, javelinas, and even bobcats. Because it sits in the high desert, there's more natural, lush green grass than you might expect to find on a desert course. At the Phoenician resort, in Scottsdale, the area's vegetation is put to good use in the expertly made and not-too-sweet Prickly Pear Margarita. And the Aji Spa at the Sheraton Wild Horse Pass Resort, in Chandler, features a number of plant-based treatments that pay homage to Native American healing traditions, including the Pima-inspired Bahn Blue Coyote body wrap, which finishes with hydrating cedar and sage oils, and the Aut facial, which uses aloe, long favored by the Gila River Indians for its ability to soothe and soften skin.
Natural Wonders | ARIZONA
Boyce Thompson Arboretum
Saguaro National Park
$10 (per vehicle) entrance fee
JW Marriott Starr Pass Resort and Spa, Tucson
The Phoenician, Scottsdale
Aji Spa at Sheraton Wild Horse Pass Resort and Spa, Chandler