Top 5 Quirky Places in and Around Phoenix

For a city built in the middle of the desert, the Phoenix area and its vicinity has a lot to offer. We have the usual tourist attractions, a world-class zoo and botanical garden, numerous museums, great natural preserves with hiking trails around the town. They are all worth a visit. But there are a few very specific things that you can only experience in this area.

Pan for Gold in Golfield Ghost Town

Emese Fromm

You can pan for gold and walk away with a few nuggets (all for a price, of course) in Goldfield, a ghost town just outside Phoenix, by the Superstition Mountains. To add to your wild west experience, watch an old-time gun-fight with the protagonists all dressed up for the occasion (only if you visit during the weekends). Learn about the legend surrounding the Superstition Mountains, and set off to find the long-lost, hidden gold mine, if you believe it exists. For a better experience though walk through a museum and learn about the history of the town, take a narrow-gauge railroad through town or take an underground tour of the old gold mine.

The old buildings now house cafes, restaurants, curio shops, museums. The livery offers horseback and carriage rides. To add something modern to it all, you can even take a zip line, overlooking the town and the Superstition Mountains.

After the experience you might be surprised to learn that none of the buildings are original. The town did indeed exist here, though only for a few decades, but until a mining and wild west enthusiast, Robert Schoose and his wife, bought it in 1966, all that remained of it were a few shacks and some foundations. Now it is one of the unusual tourist attractions around.

Check Out One of the World's Tallest Water Fountains


If you are done with the Old West, head over to Fountain Hills, where you can see one of the world's tallest water fountain. An eccentric developer, Robert P. McCullogh, who also bought the London Bridge and took it to Lake Havasu City, had the idea to build the fountain right in the middle of the desert. It is spectacular, indeed. Sitting int he middle of a 28-acre lake, it shoots up in the air every fifteen minutes. The lake is surrounded by a park, kept green in this man-made oasis. Instead of wasting water though, the lake is made of chemically treated, recycled wastewater. Due to this, there is no swimming allowed. You can take pleasant walk around it and enjoy the geese that call it home. When the fountain goes off, it starts out somewhat slowly, but at it highest elevation you can experience 560 feet of water shooting straight up into the air. The fountain and the lake is in the center of the town of Fountain Hills, which, as you guessed, got its name from the fountain.

Visit the Mystery Castle

wikimedia commons

To experience another quirky architectural wonder, head over to the foothills of South Mountain and visit the Mystery Castle. The man who built it, Boyce Luther Gulley, left his home in Seattle after being diagnosed with tuberculosis, in 1927. He just simply disappeared after his doctor's appointment, and no one has heard from him since until his death. He lived another fifteen years in the desert, time in which he built this castle from all sorts of scraps and discarded bricks. If you tour the castle, you learn that he built it for his daughter, inspired by their trips to the beaches in Seattle. When his daughter was little he had built her sand castles. Watching the sandcastles ruined by the incoming tide, four year old Mary Lou asked her dad to build her a big and strong castle that she could live in, and build it in the desert, where no water could ruin it. It appears that her dad did just that. It took him fifteen years, but he built it. His daughter indeed lived in it, from the day she found out about its existence until her own death in 2010, while also giving guided tours. The tours are still available, thanks to The Mystery Castle Foundation.

Learn About Ancient Desert Dwellers at Pueblo Grande Museum

Emese Fromm

If you think that only eccentrics and a handful of adventurers ever settled here, you might be surprised to learn that even ancient people were lived in this arid place. Learn about them by visiting Pueblo Grande Museum and Archaeological site, right in the center of Phoenix. Long before settlers came to Phoenix, a tribe of Native Americans tamed the desert and made it livable. They were the Hohokam, the canal builders, some of the best engineers of the ancient world. They built an extensive, very elaborate, canal system, bringing water all over the valley from the Salt River, the only water source for this area. The canals they built were so good, some of them have been reconstructed and still used today. Once they solved the water problem in the desert, they were able to build gardens, where they cultivated three crops "the three sisters" as they are called, corn, beans, and squash that provided all the nutrients we humans need. Their pit houses were also built in a way that allowed them to live as comfortably as possible in the harsh desert, without air conditioning.

Experience Arcology in Arcosanti


Speaking of living in environmentally friendly buildings, one of my favorite places in the vicinity of Phoenix is Arcosanti. Quirky? Definitely, tough stemmed from a great idea. The experimental town was built in the 1970s, using the concept of arcology, combining architecture and ecology. American-Italian architect, Paolo Soleri came up with the idea, to demonstrate how urban living could be improved without a destructive impact on the environment. Although building this experimental town started in 1970, and originally the idea was that it would house about 5000 people, to this day it is not completed. It houses between 50 and 150 inhabitants, varying by season. Most people who live there are volunteers, workshop attendees and students. However, it is a great place to visit, or even attend a workshop, a concert or a show in their outdoor amphitheater. While there, you can pick up a few tips about environmentally friendly living.

Emese Fromm is a travel writer living in Phoenix, AZ. Her work also appeared in publications like InTravel Magazine, Travel Thru History, TravelLady, among others. She blogs about her travels at