Odysea in the Desert / ©Discover Salt River

Explore Greater Phoenix's East Valley

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October 14, 2018

Head east of the city lines, and you’ll find a swath of Greater Phoenix where bustling communities celebrate their agricultural roots and high-end resorts and entertainment venues share a footprint with rugged Sonoran Desert scenery.

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The rising stars of the East Valley’s towns and cities are anything but sleepy: They’re swapping their accolades for “hay-shipping” to “handcrafted” as maker communities and artisans converge in their districts. Destination resorts and attractions entice visitors to shop, sightsee and play, whether it’s in the casino or out in Phoenix’s Sonoran Desert backyard.

The East Valley beckons free spirits, art aficionados and fun-seeking families to slow down on a farm trail or step into a vibrant nightlife and dining scene.

Once known as a purveyor of farm feed, the East Valley town of Gilbert now nets honors as “Phoenix’s Coolest Suburb” after a growth boom and infusion of local restaurants. Downtown Gilbert’s historic Heritage District boasts big players in the metro Phoenix independent food scene—OHSO Brewery, Postino and Pomo Pizzeria among them—in a walkable three-block stretch. By day, it’s a family-friendly hub for street festivals, bike rides and markets; by night, the district thrives on happy hour hopping and music at locales such as Dierks Bentley’s Whiskey Row.

The community farm at Agritopia in Gilbert is green and welcoming.Agritopia in Gilbert / Visit Mesa

Blooming Gilbert is far from overlooking its agrarian roots. Visit the community of Agritopia, and you’ll see a modern take on urban farm-fresh sensibilities and agritourism in action. The planned community anchors residents around an 11-acre organic farm, and strolling its grapevine-draped pathways is encouraged. Come for lunch—the farm’s produce stocks the menu at the on-premises Joe’s Farm Grill—and stay to shop at Barnone, a craftsmen community. Housed together in industrial-chic barn digs, a dozen local makers, artisans and restaurateurs offer visitors a peek into their processes and handcrafted goods to take home.

If art strikes your fancy, consider coordinating your visit with the annual Celebration of Fine Art, January 12 through March 24 in 2019. The multi-week event offers a unique opportunity to connect with more than 100 fine artists as they work in studio spaces covering 40,000 square feet of showgrounds in north Scottsdale. Painters, sculptors, jewelry makers, photographers and more masters of mediums invite visitors into their creative process and offer their work for sale. Every Friday, a new Art Discovery Series event celebrates artistic techniques with wine, cheese and panel discussions. Your $10 ticket is a season pass, so you can visit anytime during the ten-week show.

Arts and culture offerings also draw visitors to the rolling landscapes and scenic mountain backdrops of Fountain Hills, a community northeast of Phoenix. It’s hard to miss the town’s namesake centerpiece: a 330-foot fountain plume that gushes from Fountain Park lake every hour, on the hour for 15 minutes. Take a stroll in the park to enjoy the spectacle, then browse the exceptional collections from local and national artists at Emerson Art Gallery and Fountain Hills Artists Gallery. Just down the street, the River of Time Museum chronicles the regional history and the relationship between early civilizations, settlers and a formative desert resource, the Verde River.

If you feel your down-to-earth explorations are best rounded out with a check off the bucket list, look to the skies. Helmed by companies such as Rainbow Ryders in Deer Valley, hot air balloon flights offer intrepid visitors the experience of a lifetime and unmatched vistas of the Sonoran Desert. Soar over saguaros as early morning sunlight plays off rugged peaks, and clink glasses over a post-flight breakfast with locally sourced treats. Rainbow Ryders' sunrise flights operate daily, and in November through March, you can also hitch a ride in the evening for an elevated view of Phoenix’s famously colorful desert sunsets.

A night game packs the house at Salt River Field in ArizonaSalt River Fields at Talking Stick / Credit: Nate Ellis

A hotspot for entertainment, the Discover Salt River region is making a splash with new additions to its Talking Stick Entertainment District, including the OdySea Aquarium and Dolphinaris. The adjacent OdySea in the Desert complex boasts a full itinerary of fun, including the immersive Mirror Maze; America’s largest indoor butterfly pavilion at Butterfly Wonderland; and the new Pangaea: Land of the Dinosaurs experience. Nearby, sports buffs can take a swing at Topgolf Scottsdale or catch a Spring Training game at Salt River Fields at Talking Stick. And for the adrenaline junkies, Octane Raceway extreme kart racing and iFLY indoor skydiving guarantee to get the blood pumping. With Talking Stick Resort’s amenities and casino at its heart, this expansive entertainment district is a diverse and exciting cultural operation of the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community.

Wild Horse Pass in Chandler is a destination in itself, where outlet shopping, golf and casino play complement horseback rides, a high-performance driving course and exquisite dining. The Sheraton Grand at Wild Horse Pass resort lodges guests in the architecture, art and legends of local Gila River Indian Community tribes. Kai, the word for “seed” in the Pima language, is a dining experience defined by time-honored American Indian techniques, native ingredients and a Forbes Travel Guide Five-Star rating. The nearby AAA Four Diamond Wild Horse Pass Hotel & Casino offers fresh accommodations and exciting game action. Local attractions include upscale shopping at the Phoenix Premium Outlets, and horseback adventures through the pristine desert with KOLI Equestrian Center. Wannabe racing pros can get behind the wheel at the Bondurant School of High Performance Driving for a spin around the track in a dream car.

You’ll need a home base to explore everything Phoenix’s East Valley has to offer. Best Western operates nine Best Western and Best Western Plus hotels in the East Valley region, with over 15 total properties in the metro area. The DoubleTree Hilton Hotel Phoenix Tempe, a contemporary hotel in the heart of Tempe, is situated with access to the freeway for easy travel to local attractions. Additional Hilton-operated properties in the Phoenix metro area number over 60, with options in convenient East Valley locations.

Author: Julia Hill

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