Note: these items are not in any particular order of preference, or by theme.
I have been writing a lot of reviews for TripAdvisor lately (read them here: jcduncan2001) and I decided I’d like to try reviewing some local Arizona treasures. I will start with things and places I’ve seen and experienced, and then I will get to a longer list of AZ things I think everyone should try before they die in or move on from Arizona.
100. Karchner Caverns
When I was in my early 20s, I did an Americorps Conservation Internship in Carlsbad Caverns National Park New Mexico. Most of my job took place in the library (I served as the Park Historian’s assistant). But every single day I found a way, a reason an excuse to go into caves.
This interest started when I was a kid—an early teen, I believe—and my mom took us on a family trip to the caverns. The giganticness of this underground space seized my imagination. You could actually get lost down there! It was astounding.
It took me another ½ of my life to get around to finally visiting Karchner Caverns. What was my problem? Well, there were a couple of half-attempts, but it took me a while to figure out that to go to Karchner you need a reservation. It’s not like Carlsbad where you can just roll in any day of the year (literally, many, many national parks are open all days of the year except Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s, check NPS.gov for details). Anyway, this was the first and most noticeable difference to me; the fact that Karchner is a state run park and therefore the hours are limited and the rules are different.
The other big difference is the commitment to conservation the AZ parks people have made to Karchner. I’m not saying at Carlsbad they aren’t committed to conservation—they are. Well, nowadays. It wasn’t always that way. As a result, decades of high-volume visits from the public have dried the caverns out and made the formation growth less active. Not the case at Karchner—this is very much a living cave. The entire cave system underground is probably gigantic, but it hasn’t all been mapped and explored (Carlsbad hasn’t either. Very highly explored (around 119 caves that are known of), but probably not entirely, plus it had a possible link to Lechugilla (at least 138 miles long) which is a whole new animal when it comes to massive cave systems). Anyway, Karchner is being protected with a sophisticated system of airlock giant tunnels and doors that are opened only occasionally to let folks in and out. There are two tours available: the Throne Room/Rotunda and the Big Room. The Rotunda tour has been operating longer and it’s an easy trek. I don’t know much about the Big Room tour because we did not do that one, but according to the website, it’s not for children under 7 years of age.
The Rotunda/Throne Tour is interesting. A ranger rides a shuttle with you to the cave mouth and you wait for instructions before you are let in. Once in you hang out in a humid damn antechamber while the ranger tells you some history of the caverns. The cave tour is only ½ a mile and you move at a snail’s pace following the guide and waiting for new portions of the path to light up so you can travel them. It’s an informative tour, but after Carlsbad it feels small and a little slow. There is a weird orchestral light show in the final chamber on an amazing formation called Khubla Khan. When we went you could barely hear the music from the weak speakers and by the time we got there we really just wanted to walk around on our own anyway. So the tour was a tad disappointing. If we had all day, I’d say do both tours. Oh, and then take a drive down to Mexico—you will find yourself only 20 minutes from the border.
99. Barrett Jackson Auto Auction
I’m not particularly a gearhead, nor do I love hanging out in places where most of the people have more money than they know what to do with, but… that said… I’ve always wanted to visit Barrett Jackson just to see what it was all about. Last year I had that chance. During the opening weekend, I snuck up to Scottsdale to check out the event for myself.
Shockingly, I had no problem with traffic nor parking. Perhaps it’s because I arrive at 2:30 on Friday afternoon. The ticket line wasn’t a problem, either. Because I had no other agenda than just to go inside and roam around, maybe eat a corndog, I wasn’t deterred from anything by crowds or long lines.
I was impressed with the interesting vendors. I got to sit in a tiny commuter car especially designed for only one driver/rider (move over Smart cars!). There were cool amphibious vehicles from WWII. There were clown cars and crazy antiques, sparkly glittery cars, and cars that could go from zero to 120 mph in only seconds. Basically this show made me feel self-conscious about driving my Prius, and I used to feel COOL for it!
I sat in on the auction for a while just because I always get a kick out of those fast-talking callers “Do I have a sixty-sixty-five, c’mon-baby-keep-it-alive, seventy-seven-thousand, baby let’s go eighty, 80-thousand, ninety? Ninety-no? Eight it is! SOLD!”
I’m sure I picked exactly the right time to go and I got out of there in an hour and a half before horrendous traffic, too. A terrible crowd would have been a deterrent. But… I surprise myself when I write this: Barrett Jackson is a fun, family event and I’d recommend anyone should go. Once.
98. Lucky Boy Burger
I’d heard the rumors of this legendary place but did not believe it could rival Whataburger. Well, it can and does!
Lucky Boy burgers (3430 N 16th St, Phoenix, AZ 85016) is near my house. Driving by, you would never assume this might be a place you’d want to frequent. The blue paint on the exterior is flaking off and the parking lot is frequently overgrown with weeds. At best, it looks like a place that was abandoned at the 1960s.
But once you try it you’ll find the service is friendly. I wouldn’t say “fast,” because it took a good 15 minutes to get my order, and I only two burgers and two orders of fries. But it was worth it because I could tell the food had been freshly made and wasn’t just sitting under a heating lamp.
I got the Lucky Burger and Lucky Original because they were recommended. These are your standard burgers with lettuce, tomato pickles. There isn’t anything particularly distinguishable from what your mom might make (on a good night). Still, they are great! The fries were great, too. So, long story short, we WILL be back.
Other items on the menu are standard burger joint fare: fries, fried zucchini, hot dogs. They have a long list of shake and malt flavors including banana, Oreo cookie, M&M, peanut butter and cinnamon (I know, right: Cinnamon? But that sounds delicious!). Next time I go I’ll get a dessert and then I’ll update this entry to let you know how it was.
97. Japanese Friendship Garden
I once tried to meet a friend at the Japanese Friendship Garden 1125 N 3rd Ave, Phoenix, AZ 85003) on a weekend around 4 p.m. in the summer. To our dismay, we found it closed. I can only assume this place has limited hours (10 a.m. to 4 p.m. most days, closed Mondays) because it’s mostly volunteer run. Still, I wish it were open longed hours and more often so more of us could enjoy it during the week.
Also disappointing is the giant condo complex going up on the Southside. Not my favorite thing to see when I look up and around, pretending to be “out in nature.” But what can the caretakers of this charming little garden really do against Big Development in Phoenix?
Anyway, I went on a Friday morning after visiting with some girlfriends at Lola’s after coffee. We breezed through the little park at a not too slow pace. When I return, I’d like to spend more time there. It has some cute pagodas and lot of delicately manicured plants, even water lilies. The path is gentle and easy—anyone could do this walk (although when we went they had just watered and the path was a little tiny bit slippery). There’s a reflection pool area and places where you could sit in the shade.
I imagine this is an ideal place for a small private event such as a wedding or company luncheon. We have so few cute outdoor spaces around downtown Phoenix, that I hate to be a naysayer, but… the Japanese gardens in Portland and Seattle are really astounding compared to our quaint little one in Phoenix. It’s cute, and I hope it doesn’t close, but it’s also not grandiose or elegant.
96. Bitter & Twisted Cocktail Parlour
From the moment I first heard the name of this fancy signature cocktail joint, I knew I had to try it. Bitter & Twisted (1 West Jefferson St, Phoenix, AZ 85003) is a novelty for Phoenix but the type of fun, fancy cocktail place you’d find in Brooklyn, Austin, San Francisco or the hipper parts of L.A. It’s dark and there are huge plush booths and the place gets packed on the weekends—sometimes you have to wait in a line out the door. It’s located in the historic Luhrs building downtown. Be prepared to pay $10 to $20 for parking lots on game nights.
That said, it’s worth the wait to have expertly trained bartenders shake you hand-made cocktails from a loooooong, very long, list of cocktails beyond your basic Manhattans, gimlets and martinis. They have a seasonal drink with the catchy name “Slap & Tickle,” and they had a fun one called the Rosie Perez that I want to say contained watermelon juice? Don’t ask me, they were strong. I think I had two one night and then had to ask a friend for a ride home.
The food menu, like the revolving cocktail menu, is a tad experimental, too. But mostly good. You can’t go wrong with the bar snack popcorn (covered in butter, garlic sesame spices, sushi and crunched up spicy rice crackers), mouthwatering brisket street tacos and the meat and cheese board. They used to have a pork belly dish that was interesting, but they tend to change the menu around (drink menu, too). The desserts always look good (they serve campfire-style ‘smores!), but I always get full on drinks. And, I have to say about the Banofee pot: don’t they have the same thing just down the block at that Sam Fox nightmare place, Butcher-something? Salted pudding, or something gross?
Anyway. I will be back to Bitter & Twisted because it’s cute, cozy and I have some out-of-town friends coming to Phoenix that I want to impress.