There’s the kind of cool where soft breezes whisper among the branches of stately pines, and water laps gently at a sandy shoreline. Where lofty altitudes create a naturally cool environment and seasonal snow flurries bring a softness to the terrain. Where chilly nights mean snuggling into a down sleeping bag.

Then there’s “cool”, which covers places where the chic and trendy meet, shop and eat. Where hip insiders know things are happening that are exciting and new. Where respecting nature and the environment means it’s cool to do the right thing.

Arizona has them both in abundance.

During summer months everyone heads for higher elevations for temperatures guaranteed to be milder than those on the desert floor. Destinations like Pinetop/Lakeside, Flagstaff and Greer embody the cool, piney-woods side of Arizona’s multifaceted personality. These are the places for drives along forest roads, rim trail hikes, and nestling under fluffy comforters in little cabins in the woods. 

Pinetop/Lakeside is filled with shops and boutiques, including a well-established antiques and collectibles area that stretches along White Mountain Boulevard. Steak houses and small cafés are there to fill a void when hunger hits. Many hikes start from Woodland Lake Park, a delightful city park with ramadas and picnic tables, a large kids’ playground, tennis courts, softball fields a little boat dock and fishing. The easy stroll around the lake is a good opportunity for birdwatching. The area is dotted with housekeeping cabins that may be rented for weeks, or just a few days.

Lyman Lake State Park is just one of Arizona’s true jewels. Cabins and yurts offer rustic accommodations that are filled during summer months, but can be almost deserted during Spring and Fall. A well-kept secret, the park has a large reservoir that’s home to bass, catfish, walleye and northern pike. Boaters love it, too, for its calm waters. For an interesting side trip, visit Casa Malpais Archaeological Park, originally occupied by the ancestors of the Zuni and Hopi. A guided tour winds past an astronomical observatory, a ceremonial plaza and a Great Kiva.

Crisp, clean pine-scented air is the hallmark of Flagstaff, about a two and a half-hour drive north of Phoenix in the Coconino National Forest. The 2,100-metre elevation practically guarantees cool temps even in the middle of August. Historic hotels, family-friendly motels and bed and breakfast inns supply overnight accommodations. Winter fun includes skiing at the Arizona Snowbowl just north of the city, or sledding and snowplay on gentle slopes within the forest.

A visit to Walnut Canyon National Monument just east of Flagstaff is high on the list of summer pursuits. The home of the ancient Sinagua from 1120 to 1250, a well-documented history is left in more than 300 cliff dwellings. Trails descend into the canyon’s depths and also skirt the rim, for varying views of what an ancient people left behind.

The Arboretum at Flagstaff is the place to spend the better part of a day, participating in a docent tour, pondering magnificent ponderosa and enjoying a picnic lunch. The woods are filled with colourful Steller’s jays and bright red cardinals. In town, a visit to Riordan Mansion State Historic Park reveals how an unusual family lived in an unusual and fascinating home.

The Museum Club or “The Zoo” as it is affectionately known, is a bar, dance club, roadhouse and unquestionably a museum with so much to chronicle its passage through time that it’s on the National Register of Historic Places. Made of ponderosa pine logs, its name comes from the collection of stuffed animals hanging on the walls, which the former owner bagged and had preserved.

In Flagstaff’s downtown area, guides in period costume take visitors on free historical walking tours. Stop at Heritage Square to enjoy a free concert on summer Saturdays and Sundays.

Greer is one of those tiny towns with a big personality. Wonderfully removed from urban hustle and bustle, it is set at more than 2,400 metres in a picturesque high alpine valley. Its attraction is its remoteness. The idea is to tuck into a cabin, lodge or B&B, and do as little possible. North of town, three small lakes are stocked with trout, as are the headwaters of the Little Colorado River nearby. Hiking in the adjacent forest is a prime pastime. During June Greer Days the little hamlet is crowded with arts and crafts booths, a variety of food vendors and Wild West entertainment.

Ripping your britches as you bounce among the Red Rocks is the way to have fun at Slide Rock State Park in Sedona. The cool, clear water of Oak Creek rushes between steep, slippery red rock walls, creating a natural 9-metre water slide. Wear old denim shorts and tennis shoes, and be prepared to cool off quickly, as the water temperature is usually a chilly 18 degrees, or less. When you’re ready to dry off, take a stroll on any of a number of cool, shady, short trails. Picnic tables and rest rooms provide all the comforts.

Just an hour or so East of Phoenix, the Australian Interpretive Pavilion at Boyce Thompson Arboretum State Park now showcases the “land down under” with new interactive displays. Aboriginal Australians’ ceremonial instruments, food-gathering tools and information on their spiritual life are part of the experience. The park is a delightful 140-hectare haven for plants and the creatures who depend on them, surrounded by the Tonto National Forest. Ayer Lake is a magnet for ducks, birds, toads and tortoises. Bring a lunch to enjoy in the shady picnic area.

As for Arizona’s “cool” side, a lot of it is in Tempe. This college town adjacent to Phoenix is the home of Arizona State University. Among its coolest cultural assets are close to 20 museums, including the contemporary art-rich ASU Art Museum. Other museums house photography and historical artifacts. The Tempe Center for the Arts encompasses a theatre, studio and gallery with rotating art exhibits. ASU Gammage, a historic hall designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, hosts Broadway shows, concerts and dance performances. The Lion King and Wicked have played there recently. The new METRO light rail provides easy access from many parts of the city.

Some of the coolest of cool stuff is found in Scottsdale. The SouthBridge district, along the route of the Arizona Canal as it runs through downtown Scottsdale, is a sort of urban village filled with upscale restaurants and shops. Eateries thrive under the direction of local culinary talent. Shops in the three-building fashion and design centre called The Mix are independently owned and inspire shopping therapy. There’s nary a chain store in sight.

SouthBridge serves as a metro-connector to other pedestrian-friendly areas including the venerable Hotel Valley Ho. An icon in Scottsdale during the 1950s, it hosted glittering stars and celebs. Recently renovated to its hip glory days, it’s an ideal base for a retro weekend. Don’t miss Café‚ ZuZu, where the American Comfort Food menu includes macaroni and cheese and liver and onions. Nearby, Trader Vic’s is a Polynesian classic reborn with Valley Ho cool and flair.

Shopping in Central Phoenix, or “CenPho” in the lexicon of hip locals, is a departure from the mall scene. Here, independent shops reign. You can discover new designers and funky fashions in Roosevelt Row, where historic homes have been turned into boutiques, live/work spaces and art galleries. Or you can hunt for vintage treasures in the Melrose District, where the street is lined with locally owned retro shops and home and garden stores.

Even the malls in central Phoenix are cool. You can mix in some sunshine with your splurging at Biltmore Fashion Park, where garden-park grounds are surrounded by upscale retailers, including an Apple Store and Arizona’s only Saks Fifth Avenue, and distinctive restaurants such as Andrew Eil’s True Food.

In Southern Arizona, way cool is a winemaker named Kent Callaghan whose award winning vintages have been served at the White House. His bordeaux-style blend called buena suerte is smooth, silky and wonderful. Who knew Arizona could produce fine wines? A drive to the Elgin-Sonoita area with a wine trail map in hand proves they’re there, and leads to the discovery of some terrific, unexpected vintages.

In the Verde Valley north of Phoenix, estate wineries cluster along the banks of the Verde River and Oak Creek. For devoted oenophiles, there’s even a “Water to Wine” tour that allows guests to kayak to a vineyard and tasting room.

Arizona undisputedly excels in the cool food department as well, with two AAA Five Diamond restaurants to its credit. Cool for its locavore sensibilities as well as over-the-top food, Kai at Sheraton Wild Horse Pass Resort & Spa is fine dining at its best. Much of the food it serves is produced right within the Gila River Indian Community. What isn’t sourced there comes from other Native American communities, such as buffalo from the Cheyenne River Tribe, and Chippewa walleye from Minnesota. Lettuces are hand picked by local farmers and children of Gila Crossing School.

The source for the amazing olive oil used at Kai, and available in Kai’s signature blend, is nearby Queen Creek Olive Mill. Olives grown within the community are processed at the mill, which sells their top-rated blends in their visitor centre. You can spend an interesting couple of hours at Queen Creek Olive Mill, tasting olive oils, tapenades and the flavourful stuffed orbs used in martinis. Stay for lunch and a tour to round out the day.

Queen Creek olive oil also is used at Chef Chris Bianco’s pizzeria, which has become a downtown Phoenix legend. New York Times food critic Ed Levine writes that Bianco creates what “might just be the best pizza in the world”. Come early and enjoy the historic Heritage Square scenery and wine bar next door while you wait for a table.

In Tucson, the much-accoladed Five Diamond Ventana Room at Loew’s Ventana Canyon Resort encourages a leisurely, relaxed evening centred around a three-, four- or five-course meal. Servers help you “build” each course precisely to your liking, complemented by the perfect wines.

Taking care of the environment is always cool. To that end, the Nature Conservancy in Arizona’s goal to save the lands and waters that sustain the state’s beauty, economy and rich quality of life. Restoring a population of otters and beavers to the Verde River is one of its success stories.

 The Conservancy’s Hassayampa River Preserve near Wickenburg invites visitors to come for top notch birdwatching along a river that bubbles to the surface to support a fascinating Sonoran Desert streamside habitat. Docent-led programs reveal the mysteries of the preserve’s many butterflies and dragonflies. South of Sierra Vista, the shady, green arroyo in the Huachuca Mountains called Ramsey Canyon Preserve is practically a shrine to hummingbirds. From spring until early autumn, the canyon hosts more than a dozen species of the tiny jewel-like creatures, attracted by an all-season stream that also appeals to other wildlife. Deer and the amusing long-tailed coatimundi are easy to spot and photograph.

Mother Nature’s cool creations are abundantly evident in Slot Canyon, or Antelope Canyon, near Page and Lake Powell. One of the most-photographed spots in the area, it is a cave-like passage of petrified sand that winds for a half mile. Formed when rushing water swirled and curled through the soft pink sandstone, it is a shadowy, ethereal place where the temperature stays about 21 degrees even during the heat of summer. Water-sculpted rock, impregnated with quartz crystals, reflects shafts of sunlight, creating ever-shifting rainbows and deep blue shadows. It attracts photographers from all over the world. Tours are conducted only by permitted companies, some of which have photography as a special focus.

Come travelling with us!
Insider guides to everywhere, win trips to exotic locations, exclusive travel deals & discounts and more.