Not that long ago, the following four areas weren’t exactly the recreational magnets they are today. But grassroots efforts by locals and government entities literally turned things around, creating destinations, rather than places to avoid.
Tempe Town Lake
For decades, the Salt River bed bordering downtown Tempe was a weed-filled, abandoned, rocky channel that filled occasionally when water was released from upstream dams. In 1966, the dean of nearby Arizona State University’s College of Architecture challenged students to come up with a positive use for the wasteland, and the Rio Salado project was born.
More than 30 years later, the students’ concept of a greenbelt with parks, trails and development came to fruition. Tempe developed several miles along the riverbed to include pathways, landscaping and, as the centerpiece, the two-mile-long Tempe Town Lake, its waters held in place with inflatable dams that lower when runoff water is released from upstream dams.
Visit Tempe Town Lake to fish, rent a boat, or kayak and paddle under bridges that shelter swallows’ nests. Walk or ride a bike on the pathways, then turn the kids loose at the adjacent park’s Splash Playground, where getting wet is the whole point.
Scottsdale’s Indian Bend Wash
In nearby Scottsdale, the Indian Bend Wash was a natural channel that drained floodwaters from seasonal rains into the Salt River. All of this might not have been noteworthy had the city not expanded. Houses were built on either side of the wash, and, when the inevitable seasonal floods came, the city was divided by a muddy river of rainwater.
In 1961, the Army Corps of Engineers conceived of a seven-mile-long, 170-foot-wide concrete channel to safely carry floodwaters down the wash into the river. A citizens’ committee, however, conceived of something a bit more user-friendly to shed the water. By the mid-1970s, construction began on the Indian Bend Wash Greenbelt, a series of connecting parks, ball fields, golf courses, urban lakes, pathways and other lushly landscaped recreational sites, all designed to literally go with the flow. The land was contoured to direct water; plants and trees were chosen for their deep root systems and placed to prevent damming of debris. Even some of the hardscape lets water pass without damage.
A path along the Indian Bend Greenbelt / Credit: desertsolitaire (AdobeStock)
Today you can walk, bicycle or skate from North Scottsdale all the way to the Tempe Town Lake along the greenbelt’s pathway. Along the way, play golf, toss that Frisbee, watch softball, fish, let the kids hit the playgrounds or just picnic under a tree.
Yuma Crossing National Heritage Area
Yuma has its own watery tale of redemption. While the Colorado River bore the city into existence, more recently, development had been heading away from downtown’s riverside. Part of the riverfront actually became the town dump! Non-native salt cedar proliferated, choking out native vegetation.
Things began to change in 2000 when Congress designated a 22-square-mile area along the riverfront as the Yuma Crossing National Heritage Area. The legislation recognized the city’s history as the river’s major crossing point and made available matching funds for park development, historic preservation and environmental restoration projects.
Yuma's Ocean-to-Ocean Bridge lights up at sunset.
The town dump was reborn as the West Wetlands Park, complete with playground and picnic areas, trails and a riparian habitat. Upriver, the East Wetlands has begun a conversion from dense salt cedar thicket to a wildlife habitat, with trails and newly planted native trees. Over the river, the historic Ocean-to-Ocean Bridge was renovated and reopened.
Today you can hike, picnic, play, swim and wade in the parks and beaches along the riverfront. Sit still long enough and you’re likely to spot plenty of birdlife, including the city’s “mascot” bird, the snowy egret.
Biking and equestrian trails in Pinetop-Lakeside
In the White Mountains community of Pinetop-Lakeside, Arizona, encroaching development was becoming a concern. More than 30 years ago, a group of horseback riders noted that new housing and other construction threatened access to favorite riding trails.
As an antidote, in 1987, the equestrians and other locals created the White Mountain Trail System with 10 miles of designated trails emanating from Pinetop-Lakeside. Today, with the help of volunteer trail builders, the town’s parks and recreation department, the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest and other state and local entities, more than 180 miles of designated trails loop from not only Pinetop-Lakeside but through other communities and the national forest as well.
Hit the trails for an easy stroll around a lake, a hike up a steep hillside, some mountain biking or horseback riding through wildflowers and pine. Along the way, you can stop to picnic and enjoy the gorgeous White Mountains forest, meadow and mountain views.
Portions of this article were updated by Arizona Office of Tourism staff in 2018.