PHOENIX -- With cactus and strip malls obstructing the views at times, visitors could easily write Phoenix off as a place where water and culture are scarce. But this metropolis -- which includes upscale Scottsdale and college town Tempe -- is a nature lover's oasis with pristine peaks and the vast Sonoran desert.
As for the urban landscape, it's more than just golf courses crowded with retirees. In central Phoenix, which predates Arizona's 100 years of statehood, you can find historic homes and classic bungalows, including one designed by master architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Brightly colored murals around town show how much the Hispanic community has influenced the city.
Now that the summer months have given way to milder temperatures and snowbirds are finding their way here to escape colder climates, here are five free ways to heat things up in Phoenix:
Camelback Mountain hike: One of the most popular views is from the top of this red, sandstone landmark situated between Phoenix and Scottsdale. Trekking to the top, which extends 2,704 feet above sea level isn't for the faint of heart. Fortunately, there are less exhaustive trails at the base. You may also get a warm-up having to park a little farther away. The free lot fills up quickly. City officials are tentatively scheduled to begin improvements to traffic congestion in early 2013. Considered one of the best hiking cities, Phoenix has several other peaks that don't cost a cent to climb: phoenix.gov/parks/trails/index.html.
First Friday art walk: Downtown Phoenix takes on another life come night fall the first Friday of each month. This walk started out in 1994 with galleries and other venues staying open later to showcase local artists. But First Friday has snowballed into a people-watching phenomenon. Art aficionados, skater-boys and teens looking like they just came from Comic-Con deluge Roosevelt Street in the Roosevelt Row neighborhood. Artists selling anything from T-shirts to Day of the Dead figurines are stationed along the sidewalks. It's also worth venturing onto streets off Roosevelt. You'll find numerous old homes converted into businesses. The locals frequent this area for the bars, late-night munchies and Roosevelt Growhouse, a boutique and community garden that also houses a beehive.
Tempe Town Lake: This 2.5-mile man-made lake that provides flood control for Tempe is also a haven for cycling, jogging and other activities. Feel free to skate or stroll the paths that lie on either side of the lake. On any given day, you can spot people kayaking, sailing and even dragon-boat racing on the water. The lake is also the site of free special events, from July Fourth fireworks to the Fantasy of Lights Boat Parade every December. Typically, there's no fee to watch annual sporting events such as Ironman Arizona.
Rio Salado Audubon Center: Forget about city life just a couple of miles south of downtown at this hidden nature center. The Rio Salado Audubon Center is nestled in a 600-acre preserve along the Salt River. The park is home to at least 200 different species of birds and other wildlife including coyotes and jackrabbits. Take a walk or bicycle ride along the 16 miles of riding trails. Indoors, there are interactive and photo displays to peruse. Parents looking to amuse their children can choose from numerous free activities after school and on weekends. You can also toast Mother Nature at a monthly Birds 'n Beer talk (lecture and snacks are free, beer from a local brewery is offered at a reduced rate). Closed Mondays. See riosalado.audubon.org/.
Historic neighborhoods tour: In 1996, a coalition of city residents led by Gerry and Marge McCue sought to dispel the myth that downtown Phoenix wasn't safe and had no decent housing. Their grass-roots effort culminated in a handy guide to 34 historic neighborhoods. You won't find any cookie-cutter rows on these tree-lined streets. Each one is a showcase of past architectural trends. The styles range from Tudor to American Colonial and craftsman. Make sure any self-guided tour includes a stop at Encanto Park. Home of Phoenix's first public pool and golf course, the lush 222-acre park is a historic landmark. Paddle-boat across the lagoon or take the kids on the carousel.
With an estimated 80,000 printed over the years, the free maps have become staples in some hotels and antique stores. You can also get a copy by calling the McCues, who say they will leave it on their porch for pickup. If the couple happens to be home when you retrieve it, you may also get free advice about how to make the most of your visit. Call (602) 253-5579.
Frank Lloyd Wright fans should go to east Phoenix to gaze upon the home Wright built for his son at 5212 E. Exeter Blvd., which sparked a recent controversy when it was bought by a developer who announced plans to tear it down. Constructed in the 1950s, the home has a circular spiral layout modeled after the Guggenheim Museum in New York. The property remains in preservation limbo as the city council considers granting it landmark designation, which would delay demolition for up to three years.