It’s easy to take advantage of – or seek shelter from – the Sonoran Desert sun at the more than 185 city parks in Phoenix

Throughout the city, you’ll find massive, multi-use green spaces that teem with family- (and dog-)friendly recreational facilities, including fields and courts that are lit up at night. Perhaps even more surprising is that vast expanses of nature – more than 41,000 acres of desert parks and mountain-preserve land – sit on the edge of this metropolis, where short hikes lead to sweeping views of the Valley of the Sun. 

Whether you’re in to skateboarding or swimming, looking for a place to picnic or spot ancient petroglyphs, you’ll find what you’re after at our choice for Phoenix’s seven best city parks.

Civic Space Park

If you’re strolling near Civic Space Park in the evening, you’ll be transfixed by the glow emanating from a magnificent 145ft aerial sculpture, its colors programmed to change with the seasons. American artist Janet Echelman’s outsize yet ethereal sculpture Her Secret is Patience (named for a line by Ralph Waldo Emerson) dominates this urban green space. Its loomed “threads” dance in the desert breeze and create shadow play by day, much like the monsoon clouds on which they’re modeled. 

While Civic Space Park only extends two city blocks, it’s a paragon of sustainability. Located on Arizona State University’s downtown campus, the public park is easily accessed by mass transit (parking spaces were purposefully omitted in its design), plants and trees provide shade, solar panels generate enough electricity to offset electrical and lighting use, and hard surfaces are composed of porous materials to reduce heat reflection and damage from storm runoff. It’s a great example of how a small space can have a big impact. 

A skateboarder slides his board across a rail at Paradise Valley Skate Park
It’s not uncommon to see skateboarders doing their thing at set-aside areas of Phoenix parks © Norm Hall/Getty Images for Adidas

Desert West Skateboard Plaza

It's not uncommon to see areas in Phoenix parks set aside for skateboarding (like Paradise Valley), and the city has also dedicated spaces where ramps, bowls and banks are the star attractions. At Desert West Skateboard Plaza (also called “D-West”), only skateboards (34in max) are allowed, which means no need to share this terrain with longboards or BMX bikes. Stretching 25,000 sq ft, this local favorite also hosts the annual PhxAM Skateboard Tournament.

All Phoenix’s parks are “skate at your own risk;” you’ll find no safety staff on site. Wearing all the appropriate gear, including helmets and pads, is encouraged. 

Margaret T. Hance Park

The recently revitalized Margaret T. Hance Park, named for Phoenix’s first female mayor, is a gorgeous green space in the middle of downtown. The park is a cultural mosaic: on the site are the Japanese Friendship Garden, Irish Cultural Center and McClelland Library, plus landmarks like the 1919 Winship House, an exemplar of the Arts & Crafts movement. What’s just as enticing is the park’s vast swaths of grass, inviting people to gather for a picnic (there are grills and shelters, too) and perhaps even a nap.

South Mountain Park/Preserve

Seeking solitude in the city? Take part in Silent Sundays, in South Mountain Park/Preserve just sound of downtown. Every Sunday of the year, roadways are closed to vehicle traffic (from 5am to 10pm, with extended closures until 7pm on the fourth Sunday of each month), turning them into dedicated places for exploring at your own speed. Even if you don’t visit at the end of the week, you’ll find plenty of room to roam. South Mountain’s 16,000 acres span a trio of mountain ranges, Ma Ha Tauk, Gila and Guadalupe. At 2330ft, Dobbins Lookout is the highest point visitors can access from the park’s 50 miles of trails for hiking, biking and horse-riding. 

Discover mountain vistas on the two-mile hike to San Juan Lookout (along National Trail), spotting species like cholla and saguaro cactuses. Intriguing petroglyphs can be spotted in Hidden Valley, accessed via the Mormon Trail (rated moderate). There are more recent historic landmarks in the park, too: the Lost Ranch ruins are shrouded in urban folklore, and Mystery Castle is a stone structure with 18 rooms and 13 fireplaces that’s open for guided tours. 

A bench at South Mountain Park offers a lookout onto the Phoenix skyline and desert in the distance
It’s easy to find serenity (not to mention beautiful vistas) at 16,000-acre South Mountain Park © Alamy Stock Photo

Cortez Park

If bagging a sea bass, trout or sunfish in a downtown lake free from the buzz of boats or gleeful shrieks of swimmers sounds like an idyllic way to spend an afternoon, head to Cortez Park to fish in its namesake lake. The City of Phoenix restocks the lake seasonally; daily catch limits of some species are higher (eg 10 sunfish, compared to five) than at other city parks. Not into fishing? At just three acres, this compact park has all you need for creating your own version of chill time: a spacious lawn, shade trees, basketball court and playground for the kids. 

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Encanto Park

When it comes to run-of-the-mill water features or patches of green in the desert, the word “oasis” gets tossed about a little too liberally. Yet Encanto Park’s 222 palm-tree-fringed acres – featuring a lagoon, golf courses, swimming pools and a privately operated amusement park named Enchanted Island – amply earns this vivid descriptor. 

Expect this beloved attraction, which opened in 1935, to be busy. Indeed, it’s hard to resist joining in all the activity: rent a boat to row or canoe the lagoon, do some urban fishing (swimming and wading aren’t allowed), or hang out at the courts and fields to play or watch softball, basketball and tennis. 

Papago Park

A favorite Phoenix pastime is to jog, bike or hike the low-elevation trails to iconic spots like Hole-in-the-Rock in Papago Park, located just minutes from downtown Phoenix. Wind erosion over the millennia created the sandstone hole, which was originally used as a sundial by the Indigenous Hohokam peoples who lived in the area from 450 to 1450 CE. 

Although this is an iconic selfie stop, the 1500-acre park has other enticing trails, attractions (some for a fee, such as Desert Botanical Garden, Phoenix Zoo and the Hall of Flame Museum) and oddities, like Hunt’s Tomb. Built by Arizona’s first governor (a colorful character to say the least), this 20ft-tall pyramidal grave site is sheathed in white bathroom tile.  

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