The Essential Guide to Visiting Phoenix in Winter

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There is no denying that visiting Phoenix in winter is one of the best times to head to the Arizona capital. When many other cities in the USA are shut in and tucked under a frozen blanket, winter is when Phoenix tends to experience some of the most pleasant temperatures and it is actually bearable to be outside.

Known for its abundant sunshine, great restaurants and fantastic outdoor activities, spending the winter in Phoenix is the perfect way to beat the frosty temperatures of elsewhere. So why not experience the high season in the Valley of the Sun while skipping out on the low season everywhere else? You certainly won’t be sorry.

If you’re planning a winter trip to Phoenix and want to know what to expect, then look no further. I was born and raised in the city and know exactly what it’s like and what there is to do.

Winter Weather in Phoenix

The main thing most people want to know before planning a trip to Phoenix in the winter months is exactly what kind of weather to expect while you’re visiting. Does it get cold? Will it be blisteringly hot? What kind of clothes should you pack?

One thing to know is that Phoenix experiences quite extreme temperature variations throughout the day. Due to its desert climate, the nights and mornings can have a far lower temperature than at the peak of the afternoon. So if you’re judging the temperature based solely on the predicted highs, that’s not really the way to go about it.

In the months of December through February in Phoenix (generally considered to be the winter months here), the average low temperature ranges from 45-48°F (7-9°C) and the average high temperature ranges from 68-72°F (20-22°C).

Camelback Mountain in Phoenix
Camelback Mountain in Phoenix

The coolest month is often January and that also happens to be the rainiest month. Keep in mind, however, that there are still only an average of 3 days of rain during the month of January so you are still most likely to experience a lot of sunshine on your trip unless you get unlucky.

Nights and mornings can get pretty chilly so having a warm jacket is necessary for these times, but you can probably leave the scarves, hats and gloves at home unless you plan to visit parts of Northern Arizona, too. Phoenix can experience freezing temperatures at night, but it does tend to warm up by about 10AM so you likely won’t be too cold for too long.

It is worth noting, however, that the winter temperatures in Phoenix aren’t necessarily indicative of the entire state of Arizona in winter.

Which Month to Visit Phoenix in Winter?

If you want to plan a winter getaway to Phoenix, then which month should you visit in? As discussed above, the temperature doesn’t really vary too much during the months of December through to February, however, February does tend to be the warmest of the three.

If you’re thinking of visiting Phoenix in December, there are a lot of holiday light exhibitions on in the city. For instance, the Phoenix Zoo and Desert Botanical Garden all have seasonal light displays that generally are on from after Thanksgiving in November through to the first or second week of January. There are also lots of decorations that are put up in different areas lending to a great “festive” feel if that’s what you’re after.

If you’re planning on visiting Phoenix in January, there are a few events on that can make it worthwhile. For example, this is when the Barrett-Jackson Car Auction takes place which is a great event for those who want to view some really cool classic vehicles.

Phoenix in February is arguably one of the best months to head to the city. It’s where you can get some of the warmest temperatures and there are a few cultural and sporting events on that can be worthwhile, too. For instance, the Scottsdale Arabian Horse Show is on from the middle of the month. If you’re a baseball fan, Cactus League Spring Training usually starts up at the end of February, as well.

Downtown Phoenix
Downtown Phoenix

Safety Tips for Visiting Phoenix in Winter

So are there any safety tips you need to keep in mind when visiting Phoenix in winter? Considering that the winters are incredibly mild and the excessive heat in the Valley does not usually begin until April or May, you don’t need to be as aware of any heat-related safety tips as if you were travelling in the summer months.

While your chances of getting heatstroke are drastically diminished during winter, you do still need to be aware of the strong sunshine that can be persistent even in the months of December, January and February. Especially if you’re planning on spending a lot of time outdoors or hiking (of course you are!), make sure to keep very hydrated, apply copious amounts of sunscreen and wear a sun hat.

If you’re out and about in the early morning or late at night, it’s worth noting that there can be frosts and things have the potential for getting icy, however, anything will tend to melt as soon as the sun goes up.

There is not generally a need to adjust any kind of driving style, for instance, when visiting Phoenix in winter and there aren’t any accelerated risks on winter roads vs any other time of year. If you need to rent a car for your trip to Phoenix during the winter months, browse which aggregates deals across many car hire companies.

golf course in phoenix
Phoenix in winter is also a great time for golf!

Hiking in Phoenix in Winter

One of the most popular things to do in Phoenix any time of year is to go hiking on one or two of the many different trails that are present in the metropolitan area. Winter is arguably the best time of year to go for a hike as the temperatures are far more pleasant throughout the day, whereas in the summer you would need to hit the trail as early as possible to avoid the extreme heat and the risks involved with that.

When hiking, it’s important to be mindful of the wildlife you may encounter on the trail — particularly rattlesnakes. While winter is technically “hibernation” time and you are less likely to encounter snakes out and about, they do tend to congregate in dens in sunny areas so do be careful on the trail and don’t put your hands or feet into any crevices without checking who may or may not be inside first.

Rattlesnakes will not generally attack unless provoked so if you do encounter one when hiking in Phoenix in winter, make sure to give it a wide birth and simply walk around it.

Of course, lower temperatures don’t mean that there also isn’t a risk of dehydration or sunburn so make sure to drink plenty of water and wear lots of sun protection – sunscreen and a hat are necessary all year round!

One more thing to be mindful of is that the most popular hiking trails — particularly at Camelback Mountain, but elsewhere as well — can get extremely busy and parking can be an absolute nightmare.

Plan ahead, especially if you want to get a later start, and be prepared to spend a lot of time searching for a parking spot. You could always opt to take an Uber or similar to the trailhead if you don’t want to risk not finding a place to park — which is a serious risk! If you’re not an experienced hiker, you can also consider booking a guided hike.

One day in Phoenix
The Echo Canyon trailhead on Camelback Mountain

Things to do in Phoenix in Winter

Now that we’ve covered all of the essential information that you need to know before planning a winter trip to the Valley of the Sun, here are just some of the great things to do in the Phoenix metro area in winter.

Desert Botanical Gardens

One of the top destinations on any Phoenix itinerary no matter the season would be the incredible Desert Botanical Gardens in Papago Park.

This 140-acre (57-hectare) botanical garden is filled with walking trails and exhibitions displaying all of the unique flora native to the area. There are also local art instalments to view and the wonderful butterfly pavilion that is filled with countless butterflies — a great place for both kids and adults!

If you happen to be visiting the botanical gardens in December, make sure to attend Las Noches de las Luminarias or the Luminaria Nights. This event runs through the entire month of December it includes thousands of luminarias lining the pathways of the gardens to a truly magical effect.

If you’re not familiar, luminarias are simply brown paper bags filled with a bit of sand to weigh them down with a small candle inside. In the evening, they are lit and give off a lovely glow — it is a very popular holiday light decoration in this area of the world.

The Luminaria event is one of the longest-running traditions of the gardens and has been taking place since 1978 and continues to be one of the most popular events the gardens put on.

Regardless of whether you visit for the Luminarias or simply have a daytime trip to the gardens, you can purchase tickets online through the Desert Botanical Gardens website.

Desert Botanical Gardens
Desert Botanical Gardens

Phoenix Zoo

Also located in Papago Park is the Phoenix Zoo which, in December, puts on a holiday light event known as Zoolights. This light exhibition is particularly good if you’re travelling in Phoenix in winter with kids, but it really appeals to all ages — especially if you’re an animal lover!

There are animal-themed lights lining all corners of the Zoo and visiting in the nighttime also gives a unique advantage of seeing the nocturnal animals out and about, something you don’t get to experience in the daytime.

If you happen to be visiting outside of December, the Phoenix Zoo is still very much worth the trip. As the largest privately-owned zoo in the country, there are lots of great animal exhibits and demonstrations to enjoy. A childhood favourite of mine has to be the squirrel monkey enclosure!

You can purchase tickets on the day at the zoo or, to save time, you can buy them online in advance here.

McCormick-Stillman Railroad Park

If you’re travelling with kids, one of the best winter destinations in Phoenix (well, Scottsdale) is the McCormick-Stillman Railroad Park. This park spans about 30 acres (12 hectares) and is full of wild west-themed playgrounds, a train museum and even a small passenger train that winds its way around the park.

What makes this a great winter destination, however, is the holiday lights display that is on from late November to early January each year. Here, you can ride the small passenger train through an array of spectacular and festive lights and really feel the spirit of the festive season.

Like visiting the zoo or the botanical gardens, heading to the railroad park in the winter is also a great idea outside of the holiday season as it is far more enjoyable when you aren’t contending with the sweltering heat.

Entry into the park itself is free, however, there is a fee to ride the train. It is also encouraged to book tickets for the holiday lights online in advance to your visit.

Barrett-Jackson Car Auction

If you’re interested in classic cars and wondering what to do in Phoenix in winter, then consider planning a visit around attending the Barrett-Jackson Car Auction. This collector car auction takes place in January of each year in Scottsdale and is packed to the brim with incredible collector cars.

Though the price tag on these vehicles is really only accessible to those in the upper echelon of earners, it can still be worth attending just to see the cool classic cars. The auction takes place at the WestWorld event centre in Scottsdale.

Old Town Scottsdale

Scottsdale Arabian Horse Show

If you’re visiting the Phoenix area in February and love horses, then make sure to get tickets to the incredible Scottsdale Arabian Horse Show that is also put on at the WestWorld event centre.

This horse show has multiple different rings with a variety of competitions all featuring the Arabian horse breed. You can also find food stalls and lots of trade stalls for everything horse-related you may want to purchase. The event includes over 2,400 horses and is one of the largest Arabian horse shows in the world.

The event generally takes place in the last couple of weeks of February.

Go Hiking

Of course, one of the absolute best things to do in Phoenix in winter is to hit one of the many hiking trails. There are countless different options throughout the city and surrounding suburbs – the most popular including Camelback Mountain (both the advanced Echo Canyon trail and the easier Cholla trail) and Piestewa Peak.

If you want to venture a bit further, opt to head to South Mountain or north to Pinnacle Peak. There are tons of options and the cooler temperatures of the winter mean that you can go at most times of the day without overheating. If you want to go on a guided hike, you can consider these sunrise or sunset hikes.

Alternatively, if you want to see the beauty of Phoenix from above without breaking a sweat, then consider booking a hot air balloon trip!

Hiking in Pinnacle Peak
Hiking at Pinnacle Peak

Cactus League Spring Training

One of the most popular events that takes place in Phoenix each year is Cactus League Spring Training. If you’re a baseball fan, a portion of the nation’s top teams come to the Phoenix area to play training games ahead of the beginning of the season in the summer.

This is a major event that draws countless visitors each year and tickets can be affordable to come by. However, despite the name being “Spring” training, the first games actually start in the end of February meaning that you can likely include a game if you’re planning a winter trip to Phoenix!

Winter Day Trips

If you’re planning on spending a bit of time in the Phoenix area and are considering exploring more of the great state of Arizona, there are a number of incredible day trips you could take.

For instance, if you’re interested in keeping in the warmer part of the state, consider driving from Phoenix to Arizona’s second city of Tucson taking in all of the great things to do there. If you would rather spend more time outside in nature, then you could also head to nearby Saguaro National Park and take in the incredible cacti that pepper the landscape.

If you want to head north, then make sure to pack your jacket. Visiting a town like Sedona in winter is a wonderful idea as the town is absolutely beautiful if you’re fortunate enough to experience it underneath a blanket of snow. A day trip to Sedona is really never a bad idea no matter the season.

If you don’t mind driving a bit and want to experience a lot of snow and winter temperatures (and even some skiing), you could even head to Flagstaff.

This university town has a lot of cool things to do and is home to the nearby Arizona Snowbowl, the state’s only ski resort. Keep in mind that if you’re visiting Flagstaff or Sedona you will need to make sure that you have proper winter attire as the climate is very different to that of Phoenix.

The beautiful red rocks of Sedona
The beautiful red rocks of Sedona

Where to Stay in Phoenix

If you’ve decided that you want to visit Phoenix in winter then you’re going to need to find a great place to stay. Luckily, there are countless accommodation options available in the Valley of the Sun that can suit all kinds of travel tastes and budgets. If you’re wondering where to stay in Phoenix, have a look at these suggestions:

SureStay Hotel Phoenix Airport – This is the perfect place to stay if you’re looking for a budget hotel close to downtown Phoenix and within easy reach of Scottsdale. Conveniently located, this hotel has a range of basic yet clean and comfortable rooms on offer, 24-hour reception, and a great breakfast included in your room rate. Click here to see their latest prices

Sonder The Monarch – This hip and cool hotel located in the heart of Old Town Scottsdale is the perfect place to stay even if you want to take advantage of the Phoenix area’s winter sunshine. They have clean and comfortable rooms, a luxurious swimming pool, and are excellently located for experiencing some of the best shopping and nightlife in the Valley. Click here to see their latest prices

Private Vacation Rental – If you want to stay in your own place in Phoenix or Scottsdale, then there are a number of excellent options for you such as this 2 bedroom apartment in Scottsdale or this private casita. Click here to see the best private rentals in Arizona!

Not quite what you’re looking for? Click here to browse other hotels in Phoenix!

Visiting Phoenix in winter is arguably the best time to head to the Arizona capital. With beautiful weather and countless things to do, a winter trip to the Valley of the Sun is never a bad idea!

Are you planning a winter trip to Phoenix? Have any questions? Let us know in the comments!

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Maggie is a co-founder and writer for The World Was Here First. Originally from the US, she has lived in five different countries and has travelled to dozens more, both solo and with her partner, Michael. She particularly loves exploring Spain and spending time in the Caucasus and the Baltics. Read more about Maggie


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