“The West’s Best Western Town”


It’s a curious tagline for a city better known for golf courses (200+), art galleries (l00+), luxury resorts and destination spas (50+) than for cowboy boots and spurs. Admittedly, Scottsdale AZ began as a cattle ranching town in the late 1800s, but those days are long gone. No working ranches within a hundred miles. Heck, I didn’t even see anyone sporting a Stetson during our three week visit.

Located northeast of Phoenix, today’s Scottsdale (population 250,000) welcomes close to 10 million visitors per year, largely during the cooler and decidedly more livable winter months. Count us among them, for this year at least.

We passed up opportunities for golfing, spa visits and upscale retail (other than window shopping) in favor of natural areas and museums – our “go to” pandemic-era activities – plus a handful of restaurant visits. This article, the first of three about our stay in the Phoenix area, focuses on Old Town Scottsdale and things to do in nearby Papago Park.

Old Town Scottsdale

The pedestrian-friendly heart of town is interesting and lively. The Scottsdale visitor site describes Old Town as “an effortless blend of urban chic and Old West charm that gives our city’s downtown its one-of-a-kind flair.” Translation – a fun place to go that’s good for people-watching.

At just under two miles one way, Old Town was an easy walk from our rental condo. We treated ourselves to ice cream at the iconic Sugar Bowl three times . . .

. . . and visited the Saturday morning Farmer’s Market twice, stocking up on delicious, locally grown produce. We weren’t impressed, however, with the prickly pear jelly – runny and bland.

We happened upon a few historic structures . . .

. . . and hunted for public art using a self-guided tour map . . .

. . . but quite a few interesting pieces in the Civic Center area were MIA due to construction closures.

Moving on, the crown jewel of Old Town was . . .

Western Spirit: Scottsdale’s Museum of the West

Based on rave reviews from Trip Advisor, this museum showcasing Western art and culture was a must-do for us, and we weren’t disappointed. It’s relatively new, having opened in 2015, and quite large, with captivating exhibits and unique pieces and artifacts.

Our winning formula for visiting museums is that we each pick up a map, agree on a time to check in with each other (usually after a couple of hours), and then do our own thing.

I explored the entire museum but fairly quickly zeroed in on two exhibits.

Born in 1928, Paul Calle was a native New Yorker who was drawn to the West, and this exhibit featured dozens of his drawings and paintings depicting old time mountain men, fur trappers and Native Americans.

But that’s not all. In 1962, he was one of seven artists commissioned by NASA to record the history of U.S. space exploration. As such, he had unprecedented access to the lives of the astronauts, including pre-launch activities.

Paul Calle produced a significant body of space art, including this painting of Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the moon in July, 1969 that was also issued as a U.S. postage stamp.

And speaking of U.S. postage stamps, Paul Calle designed a total of 40, including such notable subjects as Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan, Pearl S. Buck, Robert Frost and General Douglas MacArthur.

Interesting exhibit – interesting man.

Edward S. Curtis
Edward S. Curtis self-portrait (~1910)

This remarkable photographer and self-taught ethnologist was on a mission to document the lives of American Indians, whom he believed would soon be extinct: “I want to make them live forever.” His quest began in earnest in 1906 after receiving $75,000 in seed money from J.P Morgan for a five-year undertaking.

A few of his photos:

Five years came and went, but he was not very far along. Despite setbacks and financial difficulties, he persevered and finished the project 24 years later when he published the final installment of the 20-volume The North American Indian. Along the way, he interviewed members of 80 tribes, produced 40,000 photographs and recorded 10,000 wax cylinders containing music, languages, tribal lore and oral histories. His extensive writings detailed foods, dwellings, clothing, customs, ceremonies, and more about each tribe.

Sadly, his work received little attention during his lifetime. When he died in October, 1952, his brief obituary mentioned that he was “an authority on the history of the North American Indian,” with a footnote that he “was also widely known as a photographer.”

It was a fascinating and compelling exhibit, and wanting to learn more, we bought (but haven’t yet read) Timothy Egan’s 2012 book entitled, Short Nights Of The Shadow Catcher: The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis.

I touched on two exhibits at the Western Spirit museum, but there were more. In fact, three hours was barely enough time. We both recommend a visit if you’re in the Phoenix/Scottsdale area.

Papago Park

A quick 10-minute drive from Old Town Scottsdale, Papago Park contains 1,200 acres of red sandstone formations, natural desert vegetation and lots of reasons to visit. How cool is it to have this public green space in the middle of metro Phoenix?

Fast facts about Papago Park:

  • The area was designated as reservation land for the local Maricopa and Pima tribes in 1879 but removed four years later when boundaries were moved.
  • In 1914, the site became part of the Papago-Saguaro National Monument, but that status was recalled by Congress 16 years later.
  • The land housed a POW camp with as many as 3,100 prisoners during WWII. After the war, the facilities were used as a VA hospital until 1951, then for Army Reserve activities.
  • Today, the major attractions at Papago Park include a zoo, botanical garden, hiking/walking trails, 18-hole golf course, fishing lagoon, archery range, sports complex, and fire-fighting museum.

We visited the Desert Botanical Garden, the Hall of Flame Museum and hiked a couple of short trails.

Desert Botanical Garden

In my opinion, this is the crown jewel of Papago Park. After a delightful visit three years ago (click here), we looked forward to returning. It was especially fun this time around, because we went with friends Rhonnie and Bob, and our visit coincided with the Chihuly in the Desert special exhibit.

The garden consists of 140 acres and more than 50,000 plants. Here are a few photos, mostly cacti.

Dale Chihuly is an American artist best known for his large-scale, mind-boggling sculptures of blown glass. The example shown below is a permanent fixture at the entrance to the Desert Botanical Garden.

We toured the temporary exhibit twice – once in the afternoon and again after dark. In between, we all enjoyed a nice dinner at Gertrude’s, the on-site restaurant.

The attractions at the Botanical Garden were a feast for the eyes, and spending time with dear friends was food for the soul. We had a great time!

“Hiking” at Papago Park

Hiking vs. walking – what’s the difference? If you’re seeking an extended trek through the rugged desert wilderness, look elsewhere. These trails are short and easy, although hiking boots are still a good idea for navigating the rocky and uneven terrain.

At 0.3 mile (roundtrip!), Hole in the Rock is a quick must do. As you might imagine, it’s a popular activity for all ages and abilities, so be prepared to share the space with dozens of others.

Our other hike was the Double Butte Loop that circumnavigates the most prominent sandstone rocks. Not particularly exciting but a scenic way to enjoy a beautiful afternoon.

Hall of Flame Museum of Firefighting

If the Botanical Garden is the crown jewel of Papago Park, the Hall of Flame would be a lesser known gemstone. And that’s where I will end this post, to be continued next time . . .

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