camelback mountain
Welcome to the West's most Western town. | jdross75/Shutterstock
Welcome to the West's most Western town. | jdross75/Shutterstock

This Desert City Might Just Be America’s Capital of Rest and Relaxation

Cowboys meet comfort in the West’s Most Western Town.

Scottsdale’s entire raison d’etre—for the last several decades, at least—has been the art of rest and relaxation. Just down the road from Phoenix, this is Arizona’s own Palm Springs: Much like the Californian escape, it initially gained popularity as a lowkey getaway for the Hollywood crowd, who figured no one would come looking for them in the far reaches of the Sonoran. It’s equal parts arts, culture, glam, and classic desert quirks, with giant, almost cartoonish saguaro cacti sprouting up from the ground where Joshua trees might be in the Golden State.

Though the city’s long called itself “The West’s Most Western Town,” your first few hours may convince you otherwise: you’ll quickly run into upscale resorts, luxury shops, and bachelorette parties romping their way through Old Town—all a far cry from the rootin’ tootin’ days of yore. But go a little deeper, and you’ll see exactly what they’re talking about.

Friendly, laid-back locals outnumber Kardashian-esque tourists; bars aren’t afraid to get a little rowdy; and no one will judge you for licking the plate after a good, hearty meal. You’ll see cacti towering over you, then craggy mountain expanses above those, and then the vibrant hues of the desert sky over all that. Spend enough time here, and you may find yourself sporting a Stetson hat: Scottsdale is also home to the one and only Cowboy College, where you can learn to wrangle and ride alongside the best of ‘em.

In this town where you’re just as likely to spot cowboys as you are celebs—including A-listers like Beyonce and Jay-Z, who spent their honeymoon in this very expanse of desert—it’s basically illegal and, dare we say, damn near impossible to leave without feeling rejuvenated. Now, whether that “rejuvenation” comes from deep tissue massages or from renewing your sense of adventure atop a galloping horse—well, we’ll leave that up to you.

Sanctuary Camelback Mountain, A Gurney’s Resort & Spa
Fun fact: Beyonce and Jay-Z honeymooned at Sanctuary. | Sanctuary Camelback Mountain, A Gurney’s Resort & Spa

R&R your way through 50+ spas and resorts

Even amongst all the wellness destination giants—the aforementioned Joshua Tree, fellow Arizona favorite Sedona, ever-popular Miami—we assure you that Scottsdale still comes out on top as the most restful. That’s thanks to the fact that, here, you’ll come across more than 50 spas and resorts spread out across less than 200-square-miles. (That’s two resorts per square mile!)

Amongst the most legendary is Sanctuary Camelback Mountain, where—as is their greatest claim to fame—Beyonce and Jay-Z once honeymooned. If you’re looking for an intimate stay or romantic getaway, this is it. Their spa treatments include everything from HydraFacials to full-body scrubs; the rooms, woven throughout the hills, feel more like sleek apartments; their elements restaurant looks out across the mountains; and the dimly-lit, sleek jade bar is downright sexy.

If you’re a little more laid-back, make your way to the historic Hermosa Inn, which feels like an oasis in the truest sense of the word. Founded in the ‘30s by cowboy artist Alonzo “Lon” Megargee, inside you’ll find adobe buildings, garden paths bursting with flowers, and some pretty spectacular portraits of Western figures. Dine at LON's, a restaurant whose outdoor seating area is straight-up Eden-like, or—if you’re visiting with a group—book a private dinner inside their wine cellar, surrounded by 6,000 bottles. (There’s also a Prohibition-era secret tunnel whose history the staff is more than happy to share.) While they don’t offer wellness treatments, the silence of the greenery-lined footpaths that lead to the cool casitas—each with skylights and fireplaces—might do for you in minutes what a spa takes hours to accomplish.

And if you want to really, truly get away from it all, drive about a half-hour into the desert until you reach the relatively-new ADERO Scottsdale. Along with spa treatments (the massages will literally work out every pandemic-related knot in your body), the views are perhaps the greatest draw of all. Here, your surroundings will be comprised exclusively of enormous saguaros and soaring mountain peaks that change from dusty brown to blue then pink and purple as the sun sets behind the hills. And even once the lights go down for the day, the fun goes on: After dinner and drinks downstairs at their restaurant, CIELO, some rooms offer telescopes for stargazing, since the hotel is situated in a Dark Sky Zone.

There’s also Hotel Valley Ho, which mirrors the colorful, palm-lined California-fun of Palm Springs resorts; The Phoenician, with utterly luxe rooms and a private cactus garden; and Spain-inspired Omni Montelucia, amongst others. Truly, it would take no less than a novel to sum up every relaxing weekend escape—it all comes down to what you prefer when it comes to views, spa treatments, and proximity to town.

cowboy college
Let Rocco (pictured here!) teach you the ways of the Wild West | Photo by Tiana Attride

Go to Cowboy College

On the flip side of all that R&R, you can head into the outskirts of town to experience the true heart of Scottsdale and its roots in the wild, wild West. Start your journey at MacDonald’s Ranch, where you can book a scenic horse trail ride that’ll take you winding through cacti and desert brush. When you’re done, you’re welcome to explore the ranch, which is fashioned after the kind of town you’d expect to see in a Western film, complete with old-timey building facades, a horseshoe toss, a locomotive, and a (not so traditional) petting zoo. They also host cowboy cookouts from November through April.

But to really immerse yourself in the spirit of the West, sign up for a weekend at the Cowboy College. It may sound gimmicky, but allow us to clarify: by the time you’re done, you will be sweaty, empowered, and genuinely knowledgeable on how to groom, dress, mount, ride, and, most importantly, understand a 700-pound horse—no holds barred.

Run by Lori Bridwell and Rocco Wachman—who, on top of being excellent riders, might just be the two most interesting and engaging individuals in the entire Southwest—the college lets wannabe cowfolk spend a few nights learning the ropes of a bonafide ranch. Should you sign up, you’ll spend time in their rustic bunkhouse before getting to know the ins and outs of horses: how they’re trained, how to clean their hooves, how to arrange a saddle, wrangle cattle, and—of course—how to ride ‘em. (Not to mention how to avoid getting the shit kicked out of you.)

Even if you’ve never ridden a horse before, they will literally have you trotting along in no time; stick around a few nights for the fullest experience, including a chance to eat around a bonfire and sleep with stars overhead. By the end, you’ll be in love with your steed, fully ready to run away to Arizona for good, and surprised by how much courage and work it takes to be a cowboy, even today. Just be sure to ditch your tennis shoes in favor of some heeled boots; you’ll soon find out why the cowboys didn’t just wear ‘em for the fashion.

Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art (SMoCA)
Artist Zineb Sedira's installation “Way of Life” (2021) | Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art (SMoCA)

Fill your afternoons with arts and culture

Between Scottsdale and nearby Phoenix—which, despite how homogeneous they may look on a map, are separate cities whose itineraries just so happen to bleed into one another often—there are nearly as many museums, galleries, and art spaces as there are resorts.

For starters, anchor yourself in Old Town, where you can hit two of Scottsdale’s greatest artistic hits in the space of a few hours. Western Spirit: Scottsdale's Museum of the West—considered one of the best Wild West museums in the country—is home to hundreds of pieces of century-old paraphernalia, Native American pottery, and rotating exhibits. As of 2022, visit to see hundreds of photos of more than 80 Native American tribes spanning from present-day Arizona all the way to Alaska, the only collection of its kind. Afterward, walk five minutes down the road to the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art, home to dozens of fun modern pieces as well as one of James Turrell’s bewildering “Skyspaces,” one of just a handful in existence.

Another famous institution is Taliesin West, Frank Lloyd Wright’s former winter residence and architectural masterpiece, where you can take a guided tour of the grounds and learn, room by room, how the late designer and his colleagues brought the home to life. It’s also worth making your way over to Wonderspaces in Fashion Square, home to some of the most impressive tech-based and immersive digital art this writer has ever seen.

You can also drive into Phoenix if you really want to stack your arts itinerary. For a taste of Arizona’s thousands of years of Indigenous history and culture, hit the Heard Museum or the Pueblo Grande Museum/Archaeological Park, while the Cave Creek Museum (which is only open from October to May) chronicles Arizona’s mining days. If you’re into something a little more quirky, you’ve got plenty of options, too: McCormick-Stillman Railroad Park, the Penske Racing Museum, and the Musical Instrument Museum, where you can see and even play with dozens upon dozens upon dozens of instruments from all over the world.

Postino WineCafe
Hit Postino for good wine and cheap bites | Postino WineCafe

Eat around the world

If you ask locals, it isn’t the resorts or shops—as new as many of them are—that tell the tale of a city growing in popularity. In Scottsdale, it’s the food scene that’s been exploding lately, bringing all kinds of award-winners and international spots out to the Sonoran.

For breakfast and brunch, there’s the aforementioned LON's, as well as Prep & Pastry, Wildflower Bread Company, and Sugarjam. Around lunchtime, The Mission is the ideal place to recover from the desert sun. The inside is cozy and dimly lit, the Latin-inspired menu serves everything from packed tortas to adobo roasted potatoes, and the drinks are poured strong—and since it’s squarely within Old Town, you can make it your fuel-up spot before museum-hopping nearby (more on that below) or blowing all your money shopping at Gilbert Ortega up the street.

In Kierland Commons, there’s also Zinc Bistro, a Parisian-style bistro serving traditional French dishes and desserts, and Postino Kierland, a very chilled-out spot with paninis, bruschetta boards, and wine, where you can fill your stomach to the brim without emptying your wallet.

If you’ve spent all day exploring Old Town, end your night with dinner at James Beard-nominated, easygoing Citizen Public House (you need those crab cakes, that bone marrow, and most importantly THAT CHOPPED SALAD). Alternatively, if you plan to have dinner at Italian spot Fat Ox—and you should!—we’re telling you now to use a rideshare service: whether it’s because you’re dizzy from all the pasta or full of great wine, you will want someone else to drive you home. If you can only try a few things, make sure the King Crab ravioli and the butterscotch budino make that list.

Bar hop through breweries, saloons, and speakeasies

As for drinks, you’ll find a number of breweries (Goldwater Brewing Co., Craft 64, Fate Brewing Company, Brat Haus) and wine spots (Merkin, Carlson Creek, Aridus, LDV Winery), as well as banging bars and saloons found both in tourist areas and in neighborhoods preferred by locals. In Old Town, the Rusty Spur Saloon became Scottsdale’s first-ever honky tonk in 1951, with live country music, cold brews, and genuine Western decor that’s been there for more than 70 years, including swinging saloon doors.

As for more modern drinking holes, the greater Phoenix area provides yet another near-endless list: Lylo Swim Club, Killer Whale Sex Club, Undertow, The Little Woody, Valley Bar, Bitter & Twisted, Melindas Alley, and Little Rituals are all local-approved. For something really special, try reservations-only speakeasy Century Grand, whose three different bars each has its own theme, including one that resembles the inside of a moving train complete with scenery.

hiking
Hike the Pinnacle Peak Trail | Ray Redstone/Shutterstock

Get outside

After all is said and done, being in Scottsdale is about getting outside—by the pool, on the golf course, while you eat, or on the trail. There are a number of solid hikes around town, all of them best taken in the early morning before the sun rises and the heat sets in. As a heads up: even those hikes listed as “quick/easy/moderate” may be more strenuous than you expect, due to rocky trails. Bring plenty of water, slather on that sunscreen, go slow, and remember that it’s always okay to turn around!

It’s not uncommon for trailheads to stem from resort grounds; from both Sanctuary and ADERO, for example, you can head right up into the hills. Otherwise, try your hand (or feet?) at a 4-mile hike up pyramid-shaped Pinnacle Peak. If you’re really down to bust your ass, hit the Camelback Mountain Trail (accessible from Sanctuary) or the Tom’s Thumb Trail, two popular yet difficult paths that’ll take you soaring above the desert.

In Phoenix, hike Piestewa Peak Summit for a serious 2.1-mile challenge, or take a genuinely breezy .3 mile climb to Hole in the Rock, where you can hang out in the opening for a birds-eye view of the Arizona capital (and a pretty stellar photo opp, which admittedly results in regular crowds).

And while it’s not a trailhead, per se, one could argue that the Desert Botanical Garden is equally important to visit if you really want to get acquainted with life in the Sonoran. There, you can see fields of cacti and other desert flora, catch vistas of distant red rock mountains, and learn how—not unlike us—animals have learned how to create unique, hospitable homes in the heart of the desert.

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Tiana Attride is Thrillist’s associate travel editor and a cowboy at heart. Follow her on Instagram at @tian.a.