Papago Park
Papago Park

Offbeat Phoenix

There's more to Phoenix than golf and resorts. Join us on an off-the-beaten-path tour of some of Phoenix's most fascinating sites.

Find the Mystery Castle at South Mountain Park

Winding through south Phoenix's tidy neighborhoods, I was on a mission to know two things: just where and what, exactly, is the Mystery Castle? I couldn't ask directions (that'd be too easy), so I drove around looking for a building weird enough to warrant that name. I finally found it, perched on a steep hillside in Phoenix's South Mountain Park. I pulled into the gravel driveway, stopped and stared bewilderedly.

The castle is a mystery indeed—an 8,000-square-foot structure boasting 13 fireplaces and 18 rooms, built by an eccentric architect named Boyce Gulley for his daughter, Mary Lou.

The once privately owned castle, where Mary Lou lived until her passing, is made from rocks, bricks, old car parts and assorted junk that Mr. Gulley found nearby. His friend, Frank Lloyd Wright, even helped with some of the construction. Outside, the Mystery Castle resembles a real-life Dr. Seuss book, with mosaic-tiled multicolored patios, curved walls and a homemade doghouse. Inside, Mr. Gulley built a tavern, a wedding chapel, a wine cellar and, atop the house, a mother-in-law's suite; all done by hand, all according to the ideas of one man.

The Mystery Castle is just one of Phoenix's many odd charms. It may take a little investigating (and perhaps some driving around) to find them, but that's part of the fun.

Note: The castle is open from October through May, with tours offered twice daily, Thursday through Sunday. Because of its location and unique design, it is not wheelchair-accessible

Explore The Hall of Flame

The Hall of Flame Museum, a four-room building near Tempe, houses scores of old fire trucks, equipment and the National Firefighting Hall of Heroes. The fire trucks are impressive enough—included is one rig that Gene Autry salvaged and donated—yet it's the old equipment, dating back to the 18th century, that's most impressive.

The story goes that, as volunteer fire departments began forming just after the American Revolution, members began competing to see who could make the most elaborate rig. Items such as an 1870 parade carriage from Connecticut, with its oversized spoked wheels, interlaced metalwork and bass drum-like water tank, leaves visitors wondering, "What planet is this stuff from?"

Land your ship in a Cactus Garden at the Tovrea Castle

Another seemingly intergalactic charm is Tovrea Castle. Tovrea's "wedding cake" layout, with three tiers rising from a cactus-covered hillside, was the brainchild of sheet metal magnate Alessio Carraro. He envisioned the castle as a hotel but abandoned the effort when his neighbor, E.A. Tovrea, built a meatpacking plant nearby. Carraro packed up and moved, leaving the castle in disrepair.

Tovrea bought it, naming the castle for himself, but eventually left the building to fall apart until the 1990s when the castle's restorations began. Now owned by the city of Phoenix, Tovrea Castle (and its thriving cactus garden) is again testimony to Phoenix's flair for the idealistic.

Visit a Pyramid at Papago Park and more...

Phoenix holds other mysteries as well, such as the Deer Valley Petroglyph Preserve (containing more than 1,000 examples of ancient rock art), Hunt's Tomb (the final resting place of Arizona's first governor in the middle of boulder-covered Papago Park), and the Orpheum Theatre (a fully restored, overwhelmingly detailed 1929 Spanish Baroque building).

Phoenix holds even more hidden treasures than this. All you have to do is get out of the mainstream a little bit to find them.

About the Author

Mark Sanders

Mark Sanders is a journalist and archaeologist. He currently lives in Florida.