Top 12 Free Things to Do in Phoenix

Last Updated on February 17, 2024 by Emily Johnson

Blessed with over 300 days of annual sunshine, Phoenix delights visitors with countless opportunities for outdoor exploration and Southwestern cultural immersion without draining wallets.

Hike Camelback MountainOffers panoramic views of Phoenix without fees.
See Heard Museum CourtyardView Native American art in outdoor settings for free.
Hike South Mountain ParkExplore trails and enjoy city views in a vast urban park.
Visit Old Town ScottsdaleWander through galleries, shops, and enjoy art for free.
Check Out Taliesin WestObserve Frank Lloyd Wright’s architecture from surrounding areas without an entry fee.
Hike Piestewa PeakClimb to see extensive views across Phoenix.
See Christmas Lights Along CanalEnjoy holiday lights along the Arizona Canal near Old Town Scottsdale for free.
Visit Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary ArtAccess contemporary art exhibitions free on Tuesdays from 5 – 9 pm.
See Butterfly PavilionObserve butterflies at Rooster Cogburn Ostrich Ranch’s seasonal attraction without an admission fee.
Pan for GoldExperience gold panning near Apache Junction; only cost is for the paydirt.

From strolling desert botanical gardens and hiking through red rock landscapes to visiting fascinating museums and digging for gems, memorable adventures await without paying steep admission fees. Get ready to save money for local keepsakes after enjoying these 12 top free things to do.

Hike Camelback Mountain

Name and Location: Camelback Mountain is an iconic 2,704 ft mountain located in Phoenix, Arizona between the upscale Paradise Valley and Scottsdale neighborhoods.

History and Significance: Named because it resembles a kneeling camel, Camelback Mountain is a popular hiking destination with two trails leading up to the summit showcasing panoramic city and valley views.

What to Expect: Hikers can choose between the very challenging Cholla Trail or the more moderate Echo Canyon trail. Excellent views await from the top after a strenuous hike up steep, rocky terrain.

Visitor Information: Open daily sunrise to sunset. Parking is limited so arrive early. The trail has handrails and benches but no water sources. Pack plenty of water.

Panoramic views reward hikers charging up the steep Chuckwalla Trail weaving 1,280 feet to Camelback Mountain’s pinnacle, standing taller than Phoenix’s skyline with communication towers blinking from its peak. Glimpse posh Camelback resorts scattered around the base for context regarding how enormously this red rock giant looms over the city. Scrambling over boulders between its twin stone humps shaped uncannily like a camel’s back feels triumphant, especially when spotting saguaro cacti along the mountain’s slopes. Enjoy this quintessential Phoenix experience without any fees.

See Heard Museum Courtyard

Name and Location: The acclaimed Heard Museum of Native Cultures and Art sits near downtown Phoenix surrounded by beautifully landscaped courtyards and outdoor sculpture gardens.

History and Significance: Founded in 1929, the Heard Museum houses over 40,000 Native American artifacts and artworks across expansive galleries and serene outdoor spaces.

What to Expect: Visitors can explore the museum’s galleries focused on Hopi, Navajo and Southwestern culture before winding through cactus lined sculpture courtyards exhibiting contemporary and traditional Native stonework.

Visitor Information: Courtyard access included with museum entry ticket. Guided tours offered. Closed Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years Day.

Beautiful courtyards linking galleries at the esteemed Heard Museum showcase Native talent through vibrant Hopi pottery and Zuni carvings without paying admission. Grab an iced tea at the café to sip strolling through rotating fine art exhibitions under shade canopies. Kids test balance walking the zigzagging labyrinth while reading wisdom quotes etched into pavers. Monthly courtyard concerts feature renowned Native musicians like flutist R. Carlos Nakai or indie rockers Redbone playing free to the public. The Heard Museum’s serene sculpture gardens offer glimpses into its outstanding cultural treasures.

Hike South Mountain Park

Name and Location: South Mountain Park encompasses over 16,000 acres of hiking trails and native desert landscape south of downtown Phoenix, Arizona.

History and Significance: Established in 1925, the park’s Sonoran Desert ecosystem shelters ancient Hohokam petroglyphs and offers scenic trails boasting views across the entire Phoenix Valley.

What to Expect: Over 50 miles of trails ranging from easy to very difficult pass through desert flora taking hikers to Dobbins Lookout with panoramic vistas as well as secluded ancient rock art panels etched into the mountainside.

Visitor Information: Open daily sunrise to sunset. Some trailhead parking lots close earlier. Bring plenty of water and prepare properly for desert conditions.

Over 50 miles of trails ripe for hiking, biking and horseback riding await exploration across South Mountain Park’s immense 51,000 acres, twice the size of Manhattan with stunning city views. Follow the short National Trail to Dobbins Lookout and stand upon an elevated ridge gazing down at downtown Phoenix skyscrapers poking through desert haze. Listen for birds calling and scan for wildlife across the rugged slopes covered in saguaro cacti forests. Prepare properly with sun protection, but entry into Phoenix’s biggest city park remains free.

See Butterfly Wonderland

Name and Location: Butterfly Wonderland is a glass atrium attraction housing thousands of butterflies adjacent to OdySea Aquarium in Scottsdale, Arizona.

History and Significance: Billed as America’s largest butterfly pavilion, this tropical conservatory allows close observation of native butterflies in a temperature controlled rainforest habitat.

What to Expect: Visitors walk through mesh doors into an enclosed central atrium filled with lush vegetation where butterflies generously flutter past visitors from all angles in the warm, humid setting before exiting through the gift shop.

Visitor Information: Timed entry tickets required for the walk-through atrium experience. Open daily. Plan to spend at least 90 minutes inside.

Butterfly Wonderland lets visitors glimpse gorgeous species from around the globe fluttering freely through a glass atrium and feeding on fruit without paying admission. The Scottsdale attraction’s outdoor meadow maze also grants peeks of the soaring rainforest conservatory and aquatic gallery’s shark tank through continental-themed entry portals. Kids delight spotting cocooned chrysalises wiggling with soon-to-fly insects and turtles swimming the pond. While only paying visitors can fully explore inside, Butterfly Wonderland’s exterior sights mesmerize.

Visit Old Town Scottsdale

Name and Location: Old Town Scottsdale refers to the historic original town site and downtown district of Scottsdale showcasing Southwestern architecture, art galleries, restaurants and more.

History and Significance: Founded in 1894 and incorporated in 1951, Old Town Scottsdale is known for its preserved Western storefronts and historical buildings concentrated around Main Street and Brown Avenue.

What to Expect: Visitors will find pedestrian walkways lined with boutique shops, cafes, museums, public art and historical markers offering a glimpse into Scottsdale’s early beginnings and cultural heritage.

Visitor Information: Free to walk around. Operating hours vary by business. Several free parking garages located nearby. Seasonal events occur annually.

Wander seven walkable blocks packed with boutiques, galleries and bars playing live music framed by palm trees and neon lights decorating Old Town Scottsdale. Sample spicy sauce, handmade sweet treats and local craft beer at dozens of indie shops while snapping photos of bright murals splashed across adobe walls. Catch an intricate Native dance show on the central mall to be dazzled by fast-pulsing drums and feathered costumes whirling. Make sure to return Thursday evenings for Scottsdale ArtWalk when galleries host free open houses until 9pm.

Check Out Taliesin West

Name and Location: Taliesin West was architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s winter home and school in the foothills of the McDowell Mountains in Scottsdale, Arizona.

History and Significance: Built between 1938-1959, it served as Wright’s laboratory for experimenting with organic architecture against the Sonoran Desert landscape and features numerous significant Wright designed buildings.

What to Expect: Guided tours take visitors through Wright’s former winter home showcasing his style via the Drafting Studio, Cabaret Theater, musical instrument inspired structures and desert rock formations integrated throughout the property.

Visitor Information: Guided tours are offered daily for a fee by advanced reservation. Discounted combo tickets available to include Taliesin West’s onsite Wright designed home and studio.

Marvel at angular architecture hugging rugged hills, sheltering boulders and using sunlight for illumination during free panoramic views of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin West from the top of small hills along the property’s periphery. This was the famed architect’s winter home and prestigious school melding brilliantly into the surrounding Sonoran Desert through his signature floating level floors, natural pigments and flowing indoor-outdoor living design still considered iconic today.

Hike Piestewa Peak

Name and Location: Piestewa Peak towers 2,610 feet as part of the Phoenix Mountains preserve offering rigorous hiking trails with rewarding views northeast of the city.

History and Significance: Originally Squaw Peak, Arizona’s second highest point was renamed in 2003 after fallen Native American soldier Lori Piestewa with various trails leading to several free standing summit rocks covered in graffiti.

What to Expect: Hiking options ranging 1.2 to 2.4 miles ascent over 1100 feet through Sonoran Desert terrain leading to one of Phoenix’s premier panoramic vistas across the sprawling valley below.

Visitor Information: Open daily with two main trailhead parking lots. Arrive early as spaces fill by late morning. Carry water and dress appropriately for challenging inclines.

Pack sun protection, hydration and sturdy shoes to traverse the steep 1.2-mile Summit Trail climbing Piestewa Peak towering over Phoenix to heights delivering panoramic views across the entire valley. Standing at the very top behind the communications balls feels like a major accomplishment! Originally named Squaw Peak, it was renamed to honor Lori Piestewa, a member of the Hopi Tribe who was the first Native American woman to die in combat while serving in the U.S. military.

See Christmas Lights Along Canal

Name and Location: From Thanksgiving through New Years Eve, the Arizona Canal is illuminated nightly with Christmas lights in conjunction with the Canal Convergence event spanning over 5 miles.

History and Significance: For over a decade, the canal banks have been energized each holiday season with colorful light installations cheering visitors along the water’s edge between Old Town Scottsdale and West Phoenix.

What to Expect: Guests can walk, bike or rent swan shaped pedal boats to cruise along under twinkling canal lights shaped into arches, ribbons and spheres synchronized to music viewable from the water and banks from sundown until 10pm nightly.

Visitor Information: Free unlimited access. Some boat rentals and VIP seating available nightly for added cost coordinated through event organizers.

As soon as November hits until January’s end each year, the Arizona Canal near Old Town Scottsdale transforms into a twinkling winter wonderland. Neighborhood groups string colorful bulbs across the waterway banks that pedestrians and cyclists cruise on evenings and nights when the weather stays pleasant, spreading holiday cheer citywide. Vendors sell hot chocolate and kettle corn adding to seasonal atmosphere where entry always remains free.

Visit Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art

Name and Location: The Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art resides just adjacent to Scottsdale’s Main Street Arts District and Old Town Scottsdale.

History and Significance: Established in 1999, this modern art museum placed great importance on both bringing world-class traveling exhibits to Arizona and showing works by emerging artists.

What to Expect: Visitors view rotating exhibits often pushing boundaries across 4 galleries showing painting, sculpture, photography, video installations and other experimental contemporary artworks from established and amateur artists alike.

Visitor Information: Open Tuesday-Sunday 11am-5pm. Closed major holidays. Admission around $10 for adults through other options exist. Free on Thursdays and for kids under 15.

Raising cultural discourse through rotating exhibitions, installations and community education initiatives, the downtown Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art (SMOCA) grants free admission Tuesdays from 5 – 9 pm. Guests explore global artists’ provocative contemporary works across mediums that address identity, technology, environment and humanity. Take docent-led tours, watch film screenings on the outdoor stage or get creative hands-on spaces inspiring critical consciousness.

See Butterfly Pavilion

Name and Location: Located inside the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix is the Dorrance Butterfly Pavilion, a 1200 sq foot greenhouse enclosure filled with tropical butterflies amongst flowering vegetation.

History and Significance: Added in 2021 to satisfy visitor interest, this temperature controlled space filled with lush exotic plants and waterfall features allows peaceful observation of native butterfly species fluttering freely inside a + tropical habitat.

What to Expect: Patrons view quick flying butterflies up-close while meandering along gravel paths and small bridges through heat, humidity and blooms designed specifically to mimic a tropical ecology where butterflies thrive seasonally in Arizona.

Visitor Information: Included with general garden admission ticket. Butterfly emergence fluctuates with external temps and seasonal lifespan. Best times typically April-October.

Butterfly flower fields draw 60 butterfly species to flutter freely through outdoor screened enclosures from October through May at Rooster Cogburn Ostrich Ranch. Visitors can experience this seasonal attraction with no admission, simply by ordering lunch or drinks at the ranch’s western-themed restaurant. Kids delight trying to catch delicate swallowtail butterflies landing atop colorful blooms while parents snap photos capturing their majestic wings and intricate patterns often seen slowly fanning when at rest.

Pan for Gold

Name and Location: North of Phoenix, small-scale gold prospecting and panning excursions launch into the Hassayampa River Preserve and surrounding waterways.

History and Significance: Drawn by southwest frontier mining history and occasional modern windfalls found after seasonal flooding, amateur prospecting under guidance provides opportunities to discover real glints of gold dust within the sand and rocks.

What to Expect: Participants try their hand at traditional gold panning techniques sifting through sediment filled buckets emptied from nearby gold bearing creeks and riverbeds hoping to reveal tangible glittering traces of aged minerals weighted and sold by guides.

Visitor Information: Half-day amateur prospecting trips pass through preserved lands require booking ahead through authorized outfitters familiar with showing hobbyists seeking adventure nominal remnants of gold dust near Phoenix.

Recreate an iconic gold rush experience sifting through buckets of paydirt and sand at the Lost Dutchman Mining Association near Apache Junction. Adventurers first receive a quick tutorial then try panning the specially seeded mixes laboratory tested to contain real traces of gold. Participants gain insights into Old West mining history through this nostalgic activity reminiscent of 1848 pioneers. Pay only for the bagged paydirt costing around $10 that yields sparkly minerals to take home.

With year-round sunshine and stunning desert scenery, Phoenix overflows with possibilities for memorable adventures without paying hefty admission fees. Visitors traverse across South Mountain Park’s saguaro cacti slopes overlooking downtown’s skyline or stand atop Piestewa Peak honoring Native American legacy. Wander through Old Town Scottsdale’s lively art galleries and boutiques or glimpse fluttering wings at the Butterfly Wonderland. Enjoy iconic sites like Taliesin West or pan for real gold. Phoenix delivers these 12 fantastic freebies waiting to inspire!

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