TEMPE, Ariz. • Sometimes, it’s not so much where you go, but when.
It was the end of a long, chilly winter when my sister and her husband said they were going to be in Tempe for a week in April. Warm weather sounded good, so we stowed the snow shovel and planned to join them.
We had been to Phoenix several times, but this time we wanted to stay away from downtown and take a day trip to drive the Apache Trail, which we never had done.
Turns out, it was the perfect time to visit. Glorious weather and fabulous flowers made the trip a treat from start to finish.
Mill Avenue District
Mill Avenue runs through downtown Tempe and is lined with shops and restaurants that make it feel more like a small town than a city enclosed by a major metropolitan area.
People walk here.
The place is hopping from morning till night with students, professors, visitors and business folk grabbing a meal, shopping or just enjoying the balmy evenings with a glass of wine on a patio.
Yes, a few of the shops are chains, but there are more local stores, including a couple of neat little rare bookstores. And though there are chain restaurants (P.F. Chang’s for one), you’ll also discover lots of locally owned eateries, such as Café Boa, La Bocca and Urban Pizzeria & Wine Bar, all of which serve delectable Italian fare.
The district ends at Tempe Beach Park, where two-mile-long Tempe Town Lake has become a focal point. The manmade waterway offers areas where sun lovers can gather for family picnics, free concerts, or even rent a paddleboat or kayak.
Be sure to look for the abundant cranes — the flying kind and the construction kind. Tempe is growing at a rapid pace.
Arizona State campus
One very good reason to stay in Tempe is its proximity to the campus. Arizona State is now the largest university in the nation, by student population, but the campus is a walkable gem, easily navigated on foot.
If available, take a tour of the ASU Gammage, an auditorium designed by winter resident Frank Lloyd Wright for his friend, former college president Grady Gammage.
The auditorium was originally designed to sit in Baghdad, Iraq, but that was not to be. The design, altered slightly to grace the ASU campus, features an imposing circular building with two outstretched “arms” welcoming visitors.
Inside, there’s not a bad seat in the house — even those sitting in the nosebleed seats are only 115 feet from, and have a clear view of, the stage. A few minor alterations have been made over the years (carpet was replaced in a pattern taken from one of Wright’s favorite ties), but essentially the building stands as one of Wright’s lovelier designs.
The entire campus is a botanical garden, heavily landscaped with native and imported plants (such as yucca and date palms). And there are dozens of museums and galleries all over the campus. One gem is devoted to the exploration of Mars, including a live feed from the red planet. At the ASU Art Museum and Ceramics Research Center, you’ll find interesting art by cutting-edge contemporary artists and faculty. The Music School has a small performance hall where new compositions find an audience.
The campus also has a Gallery of Scientific Exploration (with an extensive meteorite collection), a planetarium, an archaeological research institute and a museum of anthropology, but most can be seen only by appointment, to avoid interfering with classes. Check online for hours they are open without an appointment.
The Apache Trail
This daylong drive that starts in Tempe and skirts the Superstition Mountains had Teddy Roosevelt waxing eloquent — as he did about many places he visited. He raved: “It is one of the most spectacular, best-worth-seeing sights in the world.” If he traced the 50-mile trail (partly paved, partly not) in springtime, all the superlatives were heartfelt.
The last week of April, the desert was in full bloom. (It varies from year to year, so check with the tourism office before you go if this is important to you.) The mountainsides were laden with wildflowers and cacti blossoms in white, yellow, red, orange, hot pink and purple.
First, we stopped briefly at the Superstition Mountains Visitors Center to get oriented, learn a little history and marvel at the tales of the Lost Dutchman Mine (still lost). We skipped stops at Goldfield Ghost Town and Tortilla Flat — both authentic sites of mining settlements that have been, shall we say, augmented for tourists — and focused on the wildlife and scenery.
Three enormous lakes (really reservoirs) marked our progress. Canyon Lake is heavily visited by city dwellers from the Phoenix area who want to sail, row, paddle or motor over the water. Marinas offer places to park your own or places to rent for the day. Either way, it’s a refreshing respite from the heat in the city below.
Apache Lake is 17 miles long and the most remote of the three lakes, with fewer amenities. But there is a resort lodge where we had a really great hamburger for lunch.
The Roosevelt Dam marks the last lake — not surprisingly, named Roosevelt Lake. It also is more accessible than Apache Lake and has a fair amount of use year-round.
Be sure to stop at the summit of Fish Creek Hill for the overlooks — and to wonder how stagecoaches maneuvered over the steep, winding roadway.
The drive, which then circles through Globe before heading back into Tempe, will take most of the day if you stop to smell the cactus flowers (but not too close!). If you haven’t had enough of flowers, also visit the Desert Botanical Garden, located just a few minutes from downtown Tempe. It’ll probably be in full bloom, too.
Poet T.S. Elliot thinks “April is the cruelest month” — and that might be true in northern climes, but in Arizona, it can be the loveliest. Timing is everything.