Phoenix and Litchfield Park: Playtime in Two Arizona Cities

Kayaking the Lower Salt River with high school friend Kristy. Sonja Stark photos.
Kayaking the Lower Salt River with high school friend Kristy. Sonja Stark photos.

Kayaking, Biking & Grooving Poolside in the Valley of the Sun

By Sonja Stark

It’s a hot start to a cool adventure in the desert city of Phoenix, Arizona.  The Valley of the Sun is an inferno in the summer but I’m determined to make the most of a bounty of urban eateries, natural wonders and hotel treasures in under three days.

The soaring mercury does little to slow the people in the country’s fifth largest city from being outdoors, resourcefulness is the key. Take for example waking up in the dead of night to go kayaking, a suggestion offered by a high school friend who relocated here from upstate New York.

Wake up Call

I l tried to dance the Bachata at The Wigwam Resort but did better lounging poolside.
I tried to dance the Bachata at The Wigwam Resort in Arizona but did better lounging poolside.

At pre-dawn, when a majority of civilized society is vast asleep, Kristy picks me up in her overworked blue Subaru.  The license plate reads “50-by-50,” an ode to her life’s formidable bucket list.  Previous accomplishments are obvious from her car’s odometer reading.   She intends to check off another today.

Horsing Around on the Salt River

Kristy heads east on Red Mountain highway past ancient bluffs silhouetted by the start of a sunrise on the horizon.   We park creekside in a lush riparian area just south of Saguaro Lake reservoir.

This is the source of Arizona’s Lower Salt River and we aim to float lazily down it to the Granite Reef Recreational Area.  Kristy estimates no more than 4 hours to finish, long before the sun’s feverous pitch.

Equines in the Mist

Photographers agree that the best time to snap photos of these magical creatures is in the early morning light.

We carry the kayaks to the river where a sliver of glimmering orange kisses a range of sculpted canyons and volcanic remnants.  Coated with a layer of bug spray and sunscreen we shimmy ourselves into opposite kayaks.

Suddenly, a trio of feral horses lingers out from behind a misty shoreline of tall reeds.  The elusive equines graze quietly in the early morning light along the water’s edge.   It’s magical.

The horses remain blissfully indifferent to our noisy cameras and quiet gasps.  At times, the river flows swiftly giving way to a few class one riffles and eddies that start the heart pumping but nothing an EKG can’t handle.

A Dip in the River

Our descent stays undisturbed by revelers on inner tubers who come to party, drink and toss garbage into the river, evidenced by beer cans and missing flip-flops washed up on shore.  Kristy succeeds in getting us ahead of these raucous revelers.

We glide past a natural landscape of native flora that includes willows, cottonwoods, juniper, and ponderosa pines.   An occasional fluted saguaro tree pops out of the hillside.  The sheer-sided, jagged peaks remind me of an old John Wayne western.

While the water is mostly shallow it’s also mountain cool, at least 15 degrees cooler than expected.  Our free-roaming friends seem to like it so we hurl our sticky selves into a deep swimming hole splashing about like awkward teenagers.

(Check out my video montage)

The Found:Re boutique hotel has 104 newly renovated rooms including some (minus the pool) that accommodate furry friends.

Found:Re Hotel

Though I’m not a millennial I sure do like to play one when I travel. Thanks to the urban lifestyle of young people the hip and trendy lodging scene is booming in downtown.  Rather than hang at some tiresome cooking-cutter hotel chain I set my sights on accommodations that are unusual and fun.

Enter Found:Re (pronounced “foundry”), an industrial hotspot in the heart of the midtown arts district with no shortage of excitement. My suite inspires a playful seduction in no short part to the galvanized metal décor, the floating king size bed, and the whimsical chandelier.

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“This used to be an old Best Western but we stripped it to the bare bones and made it an amazing space,” says cultural curator, Michael Oleskow. “The art is soft and beautiful to offset the hotel’s industrial aesthetic.”

It took the owners $25 million worth of renovations and four years to repurpose the chain into a conceptual masterpiece that includes a giant ear sculpture at the entrance and a floating tree trunk in the lobby.   Visitors are free to purchase any of the original works on display.

The hotel doubles as an art gallery and even the urban chic bathrooms are artsy.

Transportation Alternatives

No need for rentals while in downtown Phoenix Arizona: bike-sharing, Uber and light rail are three convenient ways to get around town.  And, if you’re feeling intimidated by the Grid Share bike program, don’t worry, it’s easy.

Iconic Geometric Grid

Downtown Phoenix is a flat city with an easy-to-navigate grid.  Streets run north, south, east, and west, with every eight, numbered street totaling exactly two miles.  Biking here is pure pleasure. I don’t feel suffocated because the buildings are scaled lower and I’m not hemmed in by traffic because the avenues are wider.

Roosevelt Row

Roosevelt Row is made up of colorful murals and wall mosaics among what used to be dilapidated bungalows.  The canvas is like catnip for an emerging art scene.   I pedal past a palm-tree dotted district of boutique galleries, record shops, air-trade cafes, cozy bistros, cocktail lounges, and beer gardens.  A hip new concept gathering place called The Churchill is a haven for ASU students who love local grub. There are 10 eateries all housed in repurposed shipping containers, very millennial!

Check out my wheels! I busted a lung pedaling in 100-degree temps for an equally hot slice of legendary pie at Pizzeria Bianco.

On The Menu

I stay the course for a couple more blocks looking for the legendary Pizzeria Bianco, a destination located in one of the original Heritage Square buildings.  Its lunch hour on a weekday and the place is hopping.  I lock up my ride at the front awning post and pick a place at the bar.  A server rushes me a tall glass of water to aid in my dehydration.

I order a white disc rosa topped with red onion, parmesan, and raw, unsalted pistachios. I watch as my pie slides into an 800F wood oven, re-emerging minutes later as a bubbly, baked crust dripping with house-made mozzarella.

Truth be told, the pizza is good but it’s not the balm a weary rider needs.  After my slice, I’m off to Snoh for a frozen shaved snow yogurt combo cup and a dip poolside back at the hotel.

Southwest Charm

With a tear in my eye, I bid farewell to downtown and Uber my way 20 miles west to The Wigwam.  Fittingly, Arizona’s most beloved wellness resort sits at the near-geographic center of a town called Litchfield Park.

Gone are the early days of handlebar mustaches and horse-drawn wagon rides.  Upon my arrival, a clean-shaven hire helps load my bags into a golf cart.  The registration desk is inside an adobe-and-timber dwelling called the Organization House.

A desert sunset as seen from the Wigwam Oasis pool is beautiful but even more spectacular in person.

“We used to give guests a key and a horse upon arrival, but today it’s a magnetic card and a bike,” says corporate sale manager Kenn Weisse.

The History

Few things farm well in desert sand with the exception of cotton and cattle.  In the early days of driving, Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company was the first to capitalize on a car improvement that added a cotton cord to the tires.

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That invention leads to the company investing in nearly 40,000 acres in the Salt River Valley to grow the white gold.  In 1918, a small private winter retreat was built for the sales executives, then, almost 10 years later, it re-opened to the public as The Wigwam.

Maze of Amenities

After a quick lunch of spicy fish tacos at the bar, Weisse provides me with a walking tour of the property’s whopping 440 acres.  We twist and turn our way on manicured sidewalks that lead to golf courses, pools, tennis courts, private courtyards, fire pits, and gardens.

We linger by the lush grounds where couples come to repeat their vows – complete with towering palms and budding rose bushes -overlooking fabled casitas.

In 1918, the private ranch had rooms enough to accommodate 24, today there are 331 luxury suites beautifully decorated with central air.  Millions were invested in improvements while preserving the historic windows and doors.

My Dance Fix

After the tour, I return to my casita.  There’s a dance called the Bachata taking place poolside with young Latin dancers melting into each other’s arms to a medley of sensual salsa beats.  The dance looks like a haunting courtship or mating call.

The famous Wigwam Resort arch has been a welcoming canopy for guests since the place opened in 1929.

Okay, enough of being a voyeur. I can cut a rug too.  I flop myself into the pool and rotate my hips back-and-forth to emulate their contagious rhythms but, even in the water, I know I have absolutely no fluidity.  I retire to my lounger to read a travel magazine.

The Quintessential Sunset

The Wigwam furnishes guests with complementary bikes for navigating a property over 440 acres.
The Wigwam furnishes guests with complimentary bikes for navigating a property over 440 acres.

In the evening I observe the quintessential desert sunset awash in reds and yellows outside my suite. Some jet jockeys from Luke AFB are nice enough to invite me to sit with them on the patio of the Transplant City Beer Company with complimentary pints.

I’ve always had a fetish for flying so I join in on the military ‘shop-talk’ until the sky is ablaze with twinkling stars.

Litchfield Park

Litchfield Park itself is made up of mostly strip malls, exclusive spas, and fast food.  But, there’s also outdoor adventures worth exploring like horseback riding, scenic hot air balloon rides and hiking around ancient petroglyph carvings.

Friends since high school: Kristy in the blue kayak, author Sonja Stark in the red.

An overnight rain shower ushers in desirable conditions for hiking so at dawn I fill my cantina and head for the hills.  My aim is to bike the 26-mile round-trip journey from The Wigwam to the White Tank Mountain Regional Park and hike the Waterfall Trail to enjoy a slice of Sonoran Desert beauty.

The complimentary bike, albeit helpful, is dated and worn so I initiate Plan B:  breakfast at Ground Control Fusion Bistro.  I squeeze in a few more miles around town and then call it a day before the Uber returns me, much too soon, to the airport.

Sonja Stark

Sonja Stark is an award-winning, freelance videographer and the founder of PilotGirl Productions. She shoots professional 4K video for top-rated television productions, shows and documentaries. She is GoNOMAD’s most regular blogger, click to read her latest post about travel and life in video.