PHOENIX (AP) — With cactus and strip malls obstructing the views at times, visitors could write Phoenix off as a place where water and culture are scarce. But this metropolis — which includes upscale Scottsdale and college town Tempe — is a nature lover’s oasis with pristine peaks and the vast Sonoran desert.
As for the urban landscape, it’s more than just golf courses crowded with retirees. In central Phoenix, which predates Arizona’s 100 years of statehood, you can find historic homes and classic bungalows. Brightly colored murals around town show how much the Hispanic community has influenced the city.
Now that the summer months have given way to milder temperatures and snowbirds are finding their way here to escape colder climates, here are five free ways to heat things up in Phoenix:
CAMELBACK MOUNTAIN HIKE
One of the most popular views is from the top of this red, sandstone landmark situated between Phoenix and Scottsdale. Trekking to the top, which extends 2,704 feet (824 meters) above sea level isn’t for the faint of heart.
Fortunately, there are less exhaustive trails at the base. You may also get a warm-up having to park a little farther away. The free lot fills up quickly. City officials are tentatively scheduled to begin improvements to traffic congestion in early 2013.
Considered one of the best hiking cities, Phoenix has several other peaks that don’t cost a cent to climb.
FIRST FRIDAY ART WALK
Downtown Phoenix takes on another life come nightfall the first Friday of each month. This walk started out in 1994 with galleries and other venues staying open later to showcase local artists. But First Friday has snowballed into a people-watching phenomenon: art aficionados, skater-boys, and teens looking like they just came from Comic-Con deluge Roosevelt Street in the Roosevelt Row neighborhood.
TEMPE TOWN LAKE
This 2.5-mile man-made lake that provides flood control for Tempe is also a haven for cycling, jogging and other activities. Feel free to skate or stroll the 12-foot paths that lie on either side of the lake. On any given day, you can spot people kayaking, sailing and even dragon-boat racing on the water.
The lake is also the site of free special events, from July Fourth fireworks to the Fantasy of Lights Boat Parade every December (this year, Dec. 8). Typically, there’s no fee to watch annual sporting events such as Ironman Arizona.
RIO SALADO AUDUBON CENTER
Forget about city life just a couple miles (kilometers) south of downtown at this nature center nestled in a 600-acre preserve along the Salt River.
The park is home to at least 200 different species of birds and other wildlife including coyotes and jackrabbits. Take a walk or bicycle ride along the 16 miles of riding trails. Indoors, there are interactive and photo displays to peruse. Parents looking to amuse their children can choose from numerous free activities after school and on weekends.
HISTORIC NEIGHBORHOODS TOUR
In 1996, a coalition of city residents sought to dispel the myth that downtown Phoenix wasn’t safe and had no decent housing. Their grassroots effort culminated in a handy guide to 34 historic neighborhoods. Make sure any self-guided tour includes a stop at Encanto Park.
Home of the Phoenix’s first public pool and golf course, the lush 222-acre park is a historic landmark. Paddle-boat across the lagoon or take the kids on the carousel.