Against a deep blue sky, cumulus clouds floated lazily above the lake, framing the outlines of nearby Four Peaks, the prominent landmark of the Mazatzal Mountains. As our boat glided along, we scanned the cliffs for bald eagles, which were scarce this sunny afternoon, but our vigilance was rewarded when we saw a heron stretch its wings and fly off through our binoculars.
Our cruise was part of an afternoon adventure in Fountain Hills. My friends and I—eager to get outdoors and try something new—decided to check out the offerings in Fountain Hills, a short drive from Phoenix and Scottsdale. We soon discovered boats, boulders, beer and a few artistic bones.
The first stop was Saguaro Lake, just northeast of Fountain Hills and surrounded by the nearly 3 million-acre Tonto National Forest. The lake is one of four reservoirs formed on the Salt River to provide water for the Phoenix metro area—but we were there for a more pleasant reason—a cruise.
Our ship had not yet sailed, so we had time to check out the double-decker Desert Belle, a boat built to look like an old-fashioned paddle wheeler, which has been providing up-close-and-personal narrated tours of the lake since 1964. We took our seats on the shaded upper deck, and noted the air-conditioned lower level with its restrooms, bar and snack array. A round of margaritas was not out of the question as the boat left the dock for the 90-minute tour that covered much of the lake’s ten-mile length.
As we floated past steep cliffs and rolling desert hills dotted with saguaros, the captain detailed the area’s history, the lake’s formation in the early 20th century and the surrounding geology. We were angling for some selfies with the wildlife we hoped to spot on the water or shore. Besides the bald eagles we’d wanted to ogle, and the heron we did post to Instagram, our captain listed big horn sheep, javelina, turkey vultures, hawks, mule deer, and even wild horses as being sights on the local lakefront property. We were just happy with another Instagram-able shot of grebes and ducks bobbing in our wake.
As we headed back to the dock, we glided past the ski boats, jet skiers, kayakers, families relaxing on pontoon boats and small craft filled with folks angling for rainbow trout and bass. Back on dry land, we learned that Desert Belle had recently partnered with Stellar Adventures to offer a “Lake and Land Combo Tour,” a morning-into-midafternoon adventure that includes a Hummer tour of the desert, the lake cruise and door-to-door pick up and drop off service. That totally went on our list for a future adventure, but we had more places to explore in Fountain Hills.
“As the evening light begins to glow behind the layered mountain range, I’m offered a better view for dessert and accept.”
In the middle of town, we found the Fountain Hills Desert Botanical Garden, a hidden treasure that’s easy to miss just off Fountain Hills Boulevard. The small parking lot doesn’t hint at what’s beyond, but the eight-acre preserve is a natural wonderland, lush with unique desert plants.
Though the botanical garden’s gravel trail (actually two loops and a few viewpoints) is less than a mile in length, we were prepared with comfy shoes, sunscreen, water and hats.
As we hit the trail, we stopped often to read the interpretive signs. Some of the information gleaned: desert varnish is a patina of manganese, iron and clay that forms on desert boulders; the boulders are granite and visible due to uplifting and erosion; and the garden was originally part of the P-Bar cattle ranch. We also snapped photos at viewpoints and read plant tags that ID’ed desert natives like mesquite trees, globe mallow, brittlebush and pincushion cactus.
The trail meandered down through a wash, through a thicket of trees and around the boulders. As we wandered, it was easy to forget that we were in the middle of Fountain Hills, except for a few glimpses of rooftops in the distance. Strategically placed benches offered us resting places and more viewpoints as we drank our water so we could stay hydrated, but we had worked up a thirst for something besides water.
We were in luck. Bone Haus Brewing, Fountain Hill’s first brewery, opened in April 2018 and, it was just a short drive from the botanical garden. The brewery, founded by two Fountain Hills residents, was carved out of an old office suite and now had a sports and industrial-meets…skeletal vibe. Recycled wood pallets, corrugated metal siding and an acid-stained copper bar counter form the bones of this building, but the real “bone zone” owes thanks to California artist David Lozeau, known for his vibrant, humorous portrayal of Day of the Dead skeletal figures. Skulls, skeletons and bones festoon the space. We took a selfie with a (faux) skeleton next to a sign that reads, “Take your last photo here.” We also browsed a wall of Lozeau’s paintings, and considered purchasing one to take home.
We made no bones about the fact that we were there for the beer (and, yes, we made even more bone jokes while we were there). The brewery, which has a “bold and adventurous” philosophy, offers six beers on tap, and our flights included a refreshing raspberry blonde ale, their signature, bitter-yet-smooth black IPA, the double coffee milk stout and a maple mesquite brown ale, made with locally harvested, charred mesquite wood. We grabbed a couple chicken quesadillas from the food truck parked just outside the brewery’s door, and called it dinner.
As our afternoon adventure in Fountain Hills drew to a close, we realized there was still so much we wanted to discover about this scenic desert town: a mountain bike adventure at the base of the McDowell Mountains, more desert hikes, a stroll around the legendary fountain, and sampling other only-found-in-Fountain Hills meals.
As the sun faded and the pale moon began to rise, we vowed we’d be back to explore Fountain Hills again.