My 5 Favorite Springtime Experiences In The Arizona Desert
When I experienced fall in the Northeast for the very first time, I fell madly in love. I couldn’t stop dreaming of living with those trees that paint the sky from palettes of gold, red, orange, and yellow. It wasn’t the Northeast, but the home I bought in Seattle had such a special maple tree by the living room balcony. When winter came, though, all its beautiful leaves fell! That’s when, being originally from the tropics, I knew I could not stand the height of winter in such a place for long.
So when at the end of our 8-year full-time RVing phase, my husband and I looked for a place to settle, it had to be further south. That’s how we discovered the Arizona desert, an environment usually described as barren, waterless, and without vegetation. Considered dull, uninteresting, even unlivable due to extreme heat or cold, people wonder why others would choose to live in a city like Phoenix or Tucson. It’s simple, really. We are people who can bear the desert heat in summer better than the winter cold up north. Happily, we have been rewarded with these springtime experiences in the desert that rival fall leaf-peeping in the north.
1. Relishing Simple Things At Home
Springtime is when temperatures are ideal at home. Weatherspark, my favorite forecaster of average temperatures anywhere in the world, says that from March 1 to May 31, highs around Phoenix are 75 to 90 and lows are 55 to 70. Because it is also not humid but dry, it is about as perfect a climate as can be for people like us. It’s that time of the year when we turn on neither the air conditioner nor the heater. We simply open the windows to let fresh air in!
It’s somewhat chilly air that wakes you up, giving you perfect mornings with your hot coffee, chocolate, or tea. A little later, it becomes a great time to putz around the garden, go around in a golf cart, and soak up bountiful vitamin D. The nights are also great for cocktails on the patio, another little walk with the dog, or for going out in style and comfort.
2. Seeing Colors Burst Out Everywhere
When we first arrived in the Phoenix area, I thought I would only be seeing drab colors — until I saw the wildflowers sprout in spring! Desert marigold, brittlebush, globemallow, purple lupine, and chuparosa flowers bring the Sonoran Desert alive with the sights and smells of a fresh spring season. They paint the desert floor in the entire spectrum and carpet the valleys and hillsides. Several regional parks — Estrella, White Tank, and Cave Creek — and state parks — Lost Dutchman, and Picacho Peak — are some we visit during this time. The flowers come out more when winter has been especially wet and snow that has collected in mountain tops produces larger melts. Then a desert super bloom happens.
The wildflowers truly transform the desert floor, but that is not what really delights me. At first, I hung on to the notion that I still preferred fall in the Northeast because the color swatches are so huge; they are splashed on the big trees! Well, imagine my delight when I witnessed the Arizona state tree, the desert trees called Palos Verdes — green sticks in Spanish, all parts of which from the leaves to the branches, limbs, and trunk are green — turn yellow in spring! Their little yellow blossoms sprout, bloom with abandon, and turn the crowns entirely yellow. Imagine the scene when there are miles of them together. You will appreciate my utter delight because I am an avid xanthophile (a lover of the color yellow)!
There are two native Arizona Palo Verdes: Foothills and Blue. They bloom at separate times, so the golden blaze stays around for two months, from mid-March to mid-May. The Foothill Palo Verde has more yellowish bark and lighter yellow flowers. Blue Palos Verdes have twigs, young branches, and leaves that are bluish-green and flowers that border on orange. Both are everywhere: in parking lots, freeway banks, private gardens, and public lands.
The first to bloom are the Blues, with the Foothills following about two to three weeks later. Their flowers are both five-petalled, with the banner petal standing out above the plane of the other four. In Blues, the banner petal is yellow, sometimes with orange spots. The Foothills’ banner petal is white. Once these flowers are pollinated, they produce edible beans.
Finally, the iconic Arizona desert cacti, the lovely saguaros that can grow to about 75 feet tall, also bloom in spring. Just go to Saguaro National Park in May and you will see how beautiful it is when they all bloom at the same time! Imagine those green, thorny, and bulky trunks and arms transform themselves into delicate, flower-bearing trees of the desert. Truly quite a sight!
3. Enjoying Bodies Of Water
Some people react with disbelief when told that Arizona is blessed with 128 lakes and seven major rivers. So endowed, the desert beckons outdoor enthusiasts to swim, hike, raft, ski, and fish, especially during spring. The same snow melts that water the plants guarantee that these bodies of water come alive. In springtime, waterfalls gush, lakes fill, and rivers rise.
In fact, there are over 15 waterfalls in the state; many are in the Havasu region, in particular, the spectacular Havasu Falls. Close to where we live, the usually dry one on the Waterfall Drive of the White Tank Mountain Regional Park finally gushes after the rains in February and March.
And because the lakes are full, we enjoy the two “steamboats” that ply the two gorgeous lakes all day — the Dolly Steamboat on Canyon Lake and the Desert Belle on Saguaro Lake — offering lunches, cocktails, and dinners on tour. The many beaches come alive around these lakes, especially the great Lake Havasu where the UK’s London Bridge was reconstructed; Apache Lake, which offers motel rooms from where you can literally step on the beaches; and the wonderful playground that Lake Powell has become.
There are also seven major rivers in Arizona. The mighty Colorado River is one and Salt, Gila, Verde, Blue, Virgin, and Agua Fria are the others. There is rafting, tubing, and kayaking galore. My husband and I particularly enjoy photographing the wild horses of the Salt River Valley playing in the tributaries of the Gila River. If you’d like to do the same, consider my tips for how to spot the wild horses in Salt River Canyon, Arizona, here.
4. Going To Markets, Festivals, Ghost Towns, And Ball Fields
Daytimes are perfect so markets come alive at this time in the desert. There always seems to be a farmers market to go to, every single day of the week. It is delightful that tropical fruits like avocados, watermelons, and cantaloupes, citrus like oranges, lemons, grapefruit, and lime, and even vegetables like artichokes, palm hearts, and Brussels sprouts are dirt cheap. At this time of the year, I rarely source produce from the groceries.
Festivals also abound, from arts and crafts to music, film, and wine and everything in between. Go to the Indian Fair + Market run by one of the best Native American art museums in the country, Heard Museum of Phoenix, the Nascar Weekend at the Phoenix Raceway, or the massive Maricopa County Fair (check dates ahead and plan your visit accordingly). Open-air concerts and drive-in theaters are plentiful. Even ghost towns like Goldfield come alive with gunfight reenactments, stagecoach runs, and steam locomotive tours offered again after winter closures.
Even sports teams choose springtime in the desert to train. Come to see your favorite ballplayers practice at the Cactus League Spring Training in ball fields around Phoenix — from the Arizona Diamondbacks and the Chicago Cubs to the Chicago White Sox, Cincinnati Reds, Cleveland Indians, Colorado Rockies, Kansas City Royals, LA Angels, LA Dodgers, Milwaukee Brewers, Oakland Athletics, San Diego Padres, San Francisco Giants, Seattle Mariners, and Texas Rangers. When not in practice, I bet the players thoroughly appreciate springtime in the desert!
5. Visiting National Parks And Monuments
This is the best time to visit the Arizona national parks and monuments that the area is known for: Sedona, Grand Canyon, Walnut Canyon National Monument, Wupatki National Monument, Montezuma Castle National Monument, Petrified Forest, and beyond. You’ll be pleased with how they are dotted with springtime flowers. And, in addition to the full blooming of the cacti at Saguaro National Park, the same thing happens at the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, where creamy blossoms open during the evenings in spring. In fact, all cacti bloom in spring!
Winter in the desert can be chilly, so we go farther south to Mexico. And the heat of summer, though no worse than the humid heat of the Midwest, motivates us to visit our children who all live in great summer places. Fall used to be my favorite season, hands down, until we came to the Phoenix area. It is such a paradise in spring. Besides, spring now means more to me than fall: It signals the beginning of life rather than the end of one.
We make it a point to be home from all our travels in April and May. That is the time in the desert when it’s as if the sun has unloaded its energy, lending its rays to everything it’s touched, and the color yellow permeates the whole scene without the heat associated with the brightness of it all. I chose the right place to make our home. And it’s the time you should come and visit us!