AAA Travel Tips / Best Places to Hike and Eat in Scottsdale, Arizona, on a Weekend Getaway

Best Places to Hike and Eat in Scottsdale, Arizona, on a Weekend Getaway

AAA/Jennifer Broome
By Jennifer Broome , Travel Journalist and TV Personality
November 25, 2019
The draw of the desert is intoxicating with its sultry days, vivid sunsets and vast ruggedness. When you vacation in Scottsdale you quickly notice the dichotomy. It’s an oasis in the desert with ritzy resorts, lush golf courses and vibrant dining and shopping scenes. Yet it also has a remoteness with giant saguaros rising out of the barren landscape. I went on a 48-hour weekend getaway with a friend to eat and hike our way through the city. Scottsdale’s resorts may attract celebrities and the elite, but the Arizona city about 30 minutes east of downtown Phoenix has a lot of things for regular visitors, too.
McDowell Sonoran Preserve
AAA/Jennifer Broome

Best time of year to visit Scottsdale

Scottsdale is a popular winter and early spring destination. If you want to avoid some of the warm weather seekers in winter, visit during the fall and spring shoulder seasons of October, November, April or May. If you’re okay with the heat, you can snag some amazing resort deals during summer.
SOL Mexican Cocina in Scottsdale Arizona
Courtesy of SOL Mexican Cocina

Experience the hottest and newest Scottsdale restaurants

As we arrived in Scottsdale on a cool November Friday evening, my introduction to its lively and expansive culinary scene was at SOL Mexican Cocina in the Scottsdale Quarter, dubbed the “desert version of Miami’s South Beach” by the New York Times. While waiting for a table I sipped on their refreshing organic slim margarita by the inviting fire on the outdoor terrace. Once seated I took my margarita game up a notch and ordered their Grande Clase Azul Margarita made tableside. The shrimp taquitos and coconut calamari sounded delicious for appetizers, but we opted for a traditional Mexican restaurant favorite and went with guacamole. SOL’s cuisine is inspired by the Baja Peninsula with a twist like adding mango, goat cheese and pepitas into the guacamole. I decided on two of their specialty tacos. The “Gobernador” is a fish taco with pan-roasted wild-caught fish. The “El Jefe” is a surf and turf taco with grilled angus filet topped by two agave-chile shrimp. Bursting with flavor, both were a fiesta for my taste buds.
For foodies wanting to try the hottest and newest restaurants in town, FnB Restaurant in the historic Craftsman Court in Old Town is the place to dine. Chef and owner Charleen Badman just won the James Beard Foundation’s award for best chef in the Southwest, the first time in 12 years to be presented to a chef in Arizona. Toca Madera is the place where you’re most likely to spot a celebrity. Get transported to a deco train station as you dine in the 1920s-themed Century Grand restaurant. For steak lovers, Maple & Ash is the hot spot. For the wine lover looking to sample Arizona wines, Merkin Vineyards Tasting Room and Osteria is the place. It’s owned by Maynard James Keenan, lead singer of the rock bands Tool and A Perfect Circle.
McDowell Sonoran Preserve
AAA/Jennifer Broome

Hike in McDowell Sonoran Preserve to avoid crowds

If you want to hike with droves of other tourists, head to Camelback Mountain. The hikes are great, but the trails like the popular Cholla Trail can be crowded. You’ll lose the crowds in the McDowell Sonoran Preserve. For our Saturday hike, we headed to the top of Bell Pass. We started from the Gateway Trailhead. I was like a wide-eyed kid in a candy store as I saw the prickly green giants reaching their arms to the sky. Saguaros are the column-like cacti with arms. It usually takes 50-70 years before a saguaro grows its first branch. We followed the fairly flat Gateway Loop for 1.6 miles, then headed uphill on Bell Pass Trail and pretty much had that part of the hike to ourselves. As we hiked what seemed like a relentless series of ups and downs on switchbacks, the landscape changed from saguaros standing at attention like soldiers to a sea of shrubbery-like plants and smaller cacti like chollas and ocotillos.
At 3,204 feet, Bell Pass sits in the shadow of Thompson Peak. From the breezy pass, you can see the Four Peaks, Superstition Mountains and the expansive valley surrounding Scottsdale. As we hiked back down, we enjoyed the desert vistas. Once back on the valley floor for the last part of our seven-mile round-trip hike, I was captivated when I observed that the saguaros looked like green giants standing at attention guarding the desert.
fish taco

The perfect fish taco in Scottsdale

Having worked up a huge appetite, we went in search of a place where we could go in our post-hike sweatiness. Coconut’s Fish Café is an order-at-the-counter joint in a strip mall. The small restaurant chain is known for what has been called “the perfect fish taco.” I was all in to try the tacos made with seventeen ingredients including house-made mango salsa and coleslaw. My two tacos were delicious and so were my friend’s coconut shrimp and chips (fries with special seasoning).
Scottsdale sunsets
AAA/Jennifer Broome

Where to wine down and enjoy a desert sunset

The desert landscape provides a sunset canvas unlike any other terrain. As the sky fills with a palette of colors from orange to purple, a desert sunset looks like a watercolor in the sky. Isabella’s Kitchen just might be Scottsdale’s most picturesque spot for a glass of wine at sunset. The Italian country bistro overlooks the Talon Course at Grayhawk Golf Club. It’s a perfect 19-hole spot after a round of golf. Somehow, we snagged two rocking chairs in the sea of sofas and pillow-topped benches surrounding fire pits and cozy tables and chairs. As some kids frolicked on the lush lawn, we settled in for light bites and wine to catch a stunner of a sunset. Isabella’s is known for their bruschetta. As the sun was slipping in the sky, we noshed on their pear, blue cheese and pine nut bruschetta along with Burrata topped with blistered cherry tomatoes and basil. Isabella’s serves up elegant comfort food in a low-key, relaxed atmosphere. Even before we left, I was already dreaming about another visit so I could try one of their hand-stretched pizzas or hand-cut pastas and definitely more bruschetta while dining al fresco on a delightful evening in the desert.
Sushi plate with chopsticks

Scottsdale’s best restaurant for sushi fans

We met some friends for dinner at Sushi Roku. It was a fun evening of bubbles and sushi in the lively and packed contemporary Asian restaurant at the W Scottsdale in the downtown district. Try the Ume or Matsu to sample their master sushi chef’s custom creations. Their signature rolls like the Baked Crab Handroll, Gensai with seared Togarashi salmon and White Lotus with popcorn shrimp tempura are scrumptious. If you want to try the highlights from the menu, order the Izakaya Feast. If you are a sushi fan, this place is for you.
Pinnacle Peak
AAA/Jennifer Broome

Pinnacle Peak hike begins at Food Network-featured sports bar

For a pre-hike breakfast we went to the official training center of the NHL’s Arizona Coyotes. I know it sounds weird to head to the ice rink in the desert for breakfast, but 18 Degrees at the Ice Den is a must. They’re known for their over-the-top bar food including brisket and mac sliders and twice-baked nachos. The Food Network named 18 Degrees one of the best sports bars in the country. For breakfast, they're known for their Bennies, burritos and “egg”chiladas. I chowed down on their tasty chilaquiles as we enjoyed a leisurely brunch on the patio.
To work off breakfast we made a quick jaunt up Pinnacle Peak. It’s a favorite hike of locals and tourists because you can see the distinctive granite summit rising 600 feet from anywhere in the valley. If you hike the entire trail it’s 3.5 miles round trip. The topography varies from lush upper Sonoran Desert to jagged boulders stacked on each other. Pinnacle Peak is a wildlife sanctuary. Lizards, gamble quails and cactus wren are pretty common to see. You might catch a glimpse of a bobcat, gila monster, desert tortoise, diamondback rattlesnake, road runner or mountain lion. We didn’t see any of those, but the panoramas of the mountain ranges, luxurious resorts, upscale homes and golf courses are worth the effort to do the moderately strenuous hike.
exterior, 4D, Fountain,
AAA/Inspector 594

Swanky or simple: what are the best Scottsdale hotels?

Our trip was about hiking and eating so we decided to stay in middle-of-the-road accommodations instead of at one of the chic resorts. The AAA Three Diamond SpringHill Suites by Marriott-Scottsdale North has spacious comfortable rooms and is in a great location. It was perfect for our stay. If you’re looking to relax in luxury, several of the high-end resorts have just completed renovations including the AAA Four Diamond W Scottsdale. The W also has a new spa concept called AWAY Spa. The AAA Four Diamond JW Marriott Camelback Inn Resort & Spa just completed a multimillion-dollar transformation. AAA Five Diamond resorts The Phoenician, A Luxury Collection Resort, Scottsdale and Fairmont Scottsdale Princess recently underwent major renovations, too. The Ritz Carlton Paradise Valley is slated to open in summer 2020. For budget-friendly options try AAA Approved Comfort Suites Old Town Scottsdale or AAA Three Diamond Best Western Plus Sundial. Both are in entertainment districts and you could snag a room for under $100 a night in either.
Before heading to the airport, our last stop was a taste of the resort life with a relaxing brunch on the patio of the Jade Bar in AAA Four Diamond Sanctuary Camelback Mountain Resort and Spa. The views of Paradise Valley and Camelback Mountain are extraordinary. While sipping their classic grapefruit basil cocktail and nibbling on their house-made chips, I toasted a wonderful 48 hours in the desert and look forward to a swanky stay in one of the resorts the next time I visit Scottsdale.
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