This year, we’ve been on the search for the quieter areas of Phoenix, the ones where the kids can run free and get close to trees and flowers, and observe animals in their natural habitat. One could drive to Prescott, Sedona or Flagstaff to roam nature trails, but it’s not always possible to make the drive. A day trip is great, but sometimes all you need is an hour of of nature to refresh the soul.
Thankfully, Phoenix offers some great options for nature areas and parks to explore on your next family outing! We’ve been to all six of these locations numerous times; there isn’t one better than the other, it really depends on your location, the time you have available, or what works best for friends to join you. All locations have free parking and are no cost to enjoy the trails.
We hope this list encourages outdoor time, learning moments about animals and plants, and a better appreciation for the desert we call home.
Scottsdale Nature Path (Scottsdale) – located south of Indian Bend and Hayden Roads, along the canal. There are restrooms and a drinking fountain.
What the kids loved: they were constantly searching out the animal tracks on random parts of the concrete edging and paths! This was a fun surprise. They also enjoyed running around the trees and trying to climb them. This is the perfect area for toddlers to explore and learn about nature basics without a long hike. As a side note, this path connects with the Arizona Canal Trail and the Indian Bend Wash Greenbelt. So bring the bikes or the stroller and enjoy exploring beyond this nature area!
Rio Salado Habitat Restoration Area (Phoenix) – located south of I17 and Central Avenue (there are other access points listed on the website). There are restrooms next to the main parking area off Central Avenue.
What the kids loved: everything, according to our six year old! They loved the ducks on the pond, poking around in the reeds, wandering down the tree covered paths and splashing in the small creek. This was a good local alternative to traveling to Sedona. There is a hiking path to follow along the wash, but kids will likely want to stay in the shade and explore on their own. There are some great areas to have a picnic or nature journal too.
For more nature fun, walk across the bridge (Central Avenue) and visit the Nina Mason Pullman Rio Salado Audubon Center. The nature center is a fabulous way for kids to learn more about desert wildlife, there are more paths to wander, and they often host special classes and events. Hours of the center vary (they are closed Sunday and Monday), but the trails are open 24/7.
In October 2018 we visited for the Enchanted Trail Fall Festival event. We highly recommend this free community event! The whole family enjoyed learning about desert nightlife, seeing and touching animals (like a boa and a barn owl!), and exploring on the trails. The flashlight walk was especially fun, thanks to the engaging employees. Follow the Audubon center on social media, or sign up for their newsletter so you don’t miss this event next year!
Riparian Preserve (Gilbert) – located at Guadalupe and Greenfield Roads, behind the Southeast Regional Library.
What the kids loved: well, it’s really more of what is there NOT to love about this place! There is so much to see and do, and it’s all nature related. The trails are well marked and meander by and over a couple ponds, with plenty of ducks, turtles and fish to delight little ones. And birds! So many wonderful birds to observe. With over 100 acres, the further you wander, the more you feel like you’re out of the city. Don’t miss the climbing structures, and the dinosaur dig near the main parking lot. This is definitely a place to bring the nature journals, a picnic lunch, and stay the day.
Veterans Oasis Park (Chandler) – located at Chandler Heights and Lindsay Roads (main parking past Lindsay on 146th Street). There are restrooms and drinking fountains at the nature center.
What the kids loved: walking around the lake and watching the fishermen, and the Solar Walk (which was truly unique and fascinating). If you wander east past the lake you’ll find numerous, peaceful trails to explore. The kids also loved the nature center! There are many hands on exhibits for enhanced learning, or if your little ones just need a rest.
North Mountain Park (Phoenix) – located south of Thunderbird and 7th Street. There are restrooms and drinking fountains by the visitors center.
What the kids loved: while the trails held their own fun moments of exploring, the gem was the nature center (inside the visitors center). There are several interactive displays that our kids enjoyed; our favorite gave brief audio clips of animals cries. This is a good place to stop either before hiking (so you can be aware of what you might see) or to check out afterwards. There’s also a mini bookstore which had some excellent guidebook resources.
Gateway Desert Awareness Park (Cave Creek) – located at Cave Creek Road and Vermeersch Road, about 20 minutes from the 101/Scottsdale Road intersection. There are restrooms and a drinking fountain by the playground.
What the kids loved: definitely the playground (because it had a twisty slide and a small swinging bridge) and they spent a good hour here. But if you walk a bit further there’s a huge Ramada with fabulous information about desert wildlife and plants. The kids liked pointing out which birds they knew — and running around the Ramada yelling because it had a huge echo. There are a couple short trails at this park as well, all which give you an up close view of desert plants. The kids preferred the Nature Trail because it was flat and they could run ahead and investigate “noises” (they pretended to see mountain lions — don’t worry, we never did!)