Scottsdale, Arizona Is A Desert Oasis
Iconic mountains, lavish resorts, temperate weather, and a welcoming culture make this city a pickleball paradise.
The sun has just kissed the top of Camelback Mountain at 6:45 a.m. Three of four pickleball courts at G.R. Herberger Park near the Phoenix/Scottsdale border are filled with doubles matches. By 7 a.m., players are racking up to take on the winners in an informal round-robin that packs these courts, backdropped by the iconic mountain, each morning in the coolish November-to-May time frame.
Many are fast friends who took up the sport during the pandemic, when pickleball offered group exercise at a safe social distance. But they’ve improved quickly and the play is highly competitive, which isn’t surprising given the dry Arizona weather and the court culture of resort-centric Scottsdale, where golf courses and tennis clubs, often associated with lavish hotels, virtually carpet the Sonoran Desert.
“The weather here allows you to play the sport outside 12 months a year,” said Andrew Seidenberg, the director of pickleball at the Phoenician resort in Scottsdale, at the base of Camelback Mountain. “It’s also the culture and the lifestyle, where people prioritize health and outdoor activities, and public amenities encourage drop-in play.”
Enthusiasts can play as much pickleball as they desire in Scottsdale, where courts are seemingly everywhere and the sunny skies encourage outdoor living beyond court time, from al fresco dining to cultural tours.
WHERE TO PLAY
Seidenberg teaches pickleball to guests at the Phoenician, which has two dedicated pickleball courts. “With pickleball, if you have racket-sports experience, within a lesson or two you can most likely play a full year before you need to come back to me,” he said. “Compared to tennis, it’s a smaller, quicker game that’s easier to learn and fun for everyone from kids to grandparents, and you can have different levels play together.” One-hour private lessons cost $120; thephoenician.com.
For drop-in play, the pro recommends nearby G.R. Herberger Park, which attracts an active group of locals in the early morning hours and people playing vigorous singles in the late afternoon (free). Also public, Cholla Park, about a 20-minute drive north of downtown Scottsdale, has eight lighted courts prized by drop-in players, especially in the morning (free).
At the Boulders Resort & Spa Scottsdale, where the 1,300-acre grounds mingle dramatic red granite boulders with undulating golf greens and private adobe-style villas, pickleball regulars play most mornings on four dedicated courts, which are also available to guests of its 160 casitas. “The allure of burning 350 calories an hour while having fun is big,” said Lisa Sigler, a local resident and pickleball regular. “It’s a very social sport. You can play, have a cocktail, have lunch, and maybe go play some more.” Hotel rates start at $499 and court time is $35 an hour; 90-minute pickleball clinics, available on request, cost $55 a person; theboulders.com.
WHERE TO STAY
Many Scottsdale resorts double as pickleball meccas, beginning with the 950-room, dual-golf-course JW Marriott Desert Ridge Resort & Spa in Phoenix, home to 17 pickleball courts, including a stadium court capable of hosting 400 spectators during tournaments. Cool off in one of five pools, including a lazy river bordered by cabanas. The spa has its own generous outdoor pool and café, one of the resort’s seven restaurants. Rooms start at $399 in spring, including two hours of pickleball play with paddles and balls; book the pickleball package, which includes unlimited play and a $50 daily resort credit, from $434; jwdesertridge.com.
At the Phoenician, guests get one hour of daily pickleball court time and equipment, after which court fees are $75 an hour. Amenities include a two-story athletic club with a fitness center, free bikes for two hours a day, family-friendly and adult pools, eight dining options, and a 37,000-square-foot spa with its own rooftop pool. Rooms start at $529.
The new Adero Scottsdale overlooks the Four Peaks and McDowell Mountains from a certified Dark Sky Community, offering stargazing from each of its 177 rooms (high-definition telescopes are available on request). In addition to six pickleball courts, the resort offers access to 400 miles of surrounding hiking trails. Rooms start at $359, with unlimited access to courts, paddles, and balls included in the $35 daily resort fee; aderoscottsdale.com.
The joy of staying in Old Town Scottsdale, a downtown warren of streets—some with Western-style shaded boardwalks—is the ability to park the rental car post-match and walk to area restaurants, bars, shops, and galleries. The mid-century modern Hotel Valley Ho offers convenient access to downtown, as well as two swimming pools and architectural tours of the 1956-vintage property, where celebrities like Bing Crosby and Natalie Wood checked in to lose the L.A. paparazzi. Rooms from $469; hotelvalleyho.com.
WHERE TO EAT
Al fresco dining meets pedestrian access—a rare occurrence in auto-loving Arizona—in Old Town Scottsdale, where the concentration of restaurants offers enticing options morning, noon, and night. Start the day at Farm & Craft, which focuses on healthy fare with flair, including açai bowls with fresh berries and almond butter and poached egg–topped avocado toast. Order at the counter and take your fresh pressed Watermelon Squeeze to a seat on the patio. Breakfast for two costs around $40; ilovefarmandcraft.com.
Between matches, score lunch at the Herb Box, a popular downtown Scottsdale café with a shaded patio in the back. It specializes in creative sandwiches (blackened chicken and sage pesto), salads (serrano-glazed crispy shrimp on arugula), and vegetarian and vegan dishes (butternut squash and corn enchiladas and a lentil cauliflower bowl). Lunch for two costs around $50; theherbbox.com.
For dinner, stay with Old Town and book FnB, the tiny but mighty restaurant that celebrates the produce grown in the state, right down to an Arizona-heavy wine list. Chef Charleen Badman changes the menu constantly to highlight seasonal dishes from the best local farmers. For maximum grazing, go with friends and share the small plates that dominate the menu, paired with a Los Milics red blend wine from restaurant partner Pavle Milic. Dinner for two costs roughly $100, without drinks; fnbrestaurant.com.
Take in the pink sunset over the surrounding mountains on the patio at Jade Bar at Sanctuary Camelback Mountain, a Gurney’s resort and spa on the north side of the namesake peak, with globe-trotting cocktails like the Marrakech (bourbon, strawberry, turmeric, and harissa) and Little Leaf (mezcal, cucumber, cilantro, and jalapeno). Stick around for a special-occasion-worthy meal at its restaurant Elements from two-time James Beard Award nominee chef Samantha Sanz, serving miso-glazed salmon and New York strip steak with shishito chimichurri. Signature cocktails, $17; entrees, $34 to $68; sanctuaryoncamelback.com.
Make reservations several weeks in advance to dine at Tratto in Phoenix, newly named to the New York Times’s list of 50 favorite restaurants in the country. Chef Chris Bianco, best known for his nearby Pizzeria Bianco, expands his Italian repertoire at the candlelit restaurant with exposed and painted brick and an open kitchen. The rich cacio e pepe pasta, not listed on the menu but always available, is a must. Pastas and entrees range roughly $22 to $68; trattophx.com.
OFF THE COURTS
Travelers come to Scottsdale for the weather and lifestyle; even the cultural attractions, led by Taliesin West, celebrate outdoor living. The western home and architecture school of Frank Lloyd Wright, who also came here for the weather, captures the architect’s love of the desert in outdoor pavilions and skylit rooms. Sixty-minute tours cost $35; franklloydwright.org.
Have your assumptions about the barrenness of the desert dashed at the Desert Botanical Garden just south of Scottsdale in Phoenix. The 140-acre greensward in view of the red rock piles in Papago Park introduces visitors to the lushness of the Sonoran Desert, from gardens devoted to butterflies and hummingbirds to native wildflowers and, of course, multi-armed saguaro cacti. Admission starts at $24.95; dbg.org.
Scottsdale is a sprawling city that reserves a sizable northern pocket—at over 30,000 acres—as the McDowell Sonoran Preserve. The undeveloped desert landscape has more than 225 miles of trails with varying degrees of difficulty, from accessible nature trails to mountain treks. For the latter, hike the 5.1-mile round-trip Tom’s Thumb Lookout Viewpoint Trail, which gains about 1,000 feet of elevation en route past granite rock formations, wildflower patches, and profuse cacti to the namesake rock thumb; mcdowellsonoran.org. Then return to the pickleball courts, warmed up from your hike.