It’s a rite of spring: Angels and Dodgers fans head to Arizona to catch their beloved ball clubs and get a glimpse of what the summer will bring. It’s less than an hour in the air between L.A. and Phoenix, so Angelenos, what are you waiting for?
Plan your Cactus League itinerary with these must-dos.
1. Sloan Park – After a winter of hibernation, Cubs fans exit the frosty confines of Chicago en masse and head to the sunny Southwest where their beloved ball team has warmed up for another heartbreaking season since 1952. Built in 2014, Mesa’s Sloan Park is a miniature version of The Friendly Confines. The field’s unique dimensions are duplicated here (although there’s no ivy on the fences), the awnings, lights and bleachers are also recreated, along with a smaller version of the famous green-and-white analog clock. And to truly authenticate the Wrigley experience, grab a Chicago dog and an Old Style beer.
A sandlot with picnic tables can be found along the right field foul area. Here, an eclectic array of food trucks sets up shop, providing hungry fans with a variety of culinary options. On the other side of the parking lot is the Mesa Hyatt, which has become the latest destination for A’s fans, as it is convenient to the team’s new facility at Hohokam Stadium. There’s also a slew of restaurants and stores a stone’s throw away, and Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport is just eight miles away.
2. Four Peaks Brewing Company – What is baseball without beer? (No, really, what is it?) Four Peaks, Arizona’s largest local brewery, produces the second-most popular barley beverage in the state — Kiltlifter, a Scottish-style ale (if you’re interested, Bud Light is number-one, and it tastes like number one). The restaurant/brewery, near the Arizona State University campus in Tempe, is — like the college — one big party. Housed in a historical warehouse built with Carnegie steel, this is where families and friends gather to watch sports, chow down on hearty pub food and, of course, fill up on some of the state’s finest finest craft beer.
It’s one of the must-see stops on the Arizona Brew Tour, which might also include local favorites Wilderness Brewing Co. and OHSO Brewery. The tour is entertaining and informative — these people really know their beer and their state — and, importantly, allows beer lovers to passenge and not drive.
3. Salt River Fields at Talking Stick – Home to the local Arizona Diamondbacks and the not-too-distant Colorado Rockies, the state-of-the-art ballpark is the shining gem of the Cactus League. Every seat offers a great view, the foods — including lobster rolls and barbecue — are delicious and the atmosphere is electric.
Nearby, the Talking Stick Resort provides yet further entertainment. At night, the side of the building is lit up in a dazzling spectacle, welcoming travelers to unload their burdens — if not their wallets — at the casino. Built on an Indian reservation outside Scottsdale, the resort also features fine and casual dining, as well as other luxurious amenities.
4. Desert Botanical Garden – Centrally located in the Greater Phoenix area, yet worlds away is this exotic garden, showcasing the incredible flora of the Sonoran Desert and beyond. A highlight is the butterfly pavilion, which is currently home to some of North America’s most colorful specimens. And for food lovers, the edible garden trail reveals myriad foods that grow in the desert heat. Meanwhile, the wildflower loop is just about ready to blossom.
The ideal way to experience the scenic location is during the weekly concert series, in which the dusk garden is illuminated by thousands of candles and enlivened by enchanting music. Enjoy good Mexican cuisine on Gertrude’s patio, located within the garden. And don’t miss the breathtaking glass sculptures of Dale Chihuly.
5. Tempe Diablo Stadium – The home away from home of the L.A. Angels of Anaheim, the stadium is a favorite place for baseball lovers to bring the whole family and make a picnic of it. The grassy berm on the other side of the left and center field walls is a perfect place to set down a blanket and soak up some rays.
The park seats more than 9,300 fans, and although there is ample parking, the best way to visit the game is by catching the free (yes, free) trolley. In fact you can jump on the Angels Trolley from right outside the next outing on the list.
6. Blasted Barley Beer Co. – Horned Sun Devils chasing tail and a little libation to escape from the hellish heat find their way into this local brewery. Far smaller than the likes of Four Peaks, the brewmeister learned his craft as a homebrewer, a pastime that Arizonans take seriously. Phoenix, it turns out, has the largest membership of homebrewers in the country.
Blasted Barley offers delicious bites — wings, burgers, salads — and seasonal brews popular with the local co-eds. A gorgeous strawberry blond (beer) was surprisingly nuanced, providing a hint of refreshing fruit in the aftertaste. The Friday night scene is a little less subtle.
7. The Arizona Biltmore – We’re to the 7th inning stretch, and what better place to stretch out than poolside at this Waldorf-Astoria resort. Consulting architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s signature motifs abound in this desert oasis/golfer’s paradise. To really absorb the majesty of this region, coordinate a hike with the resort’s guides to nearby Camelback Mountain or Piestewa Peak.
After a morning of activity and an afternoon of leisure, please your palate at Frank & Albert’s, dining on a menu built on classic American staples and graced with an accent of Mexican and Italian fare. And after all that beer, doesn’t a glass of fruity-forward California cabernet sound good?
8. TopGolf – Tee off at the coolest new sports attraction in the country. TopGolf combines the fundamentals of golf with a scoring system akin to archery and a chill-out atmosphere even better than bowling. Microchipped golf balls are hit at circular targets and score is kept electronically as in bowling. Players lounge on sofas in a climate-cooled zone as munchies and cocktails are delivered while TVs can be tuned to the channel of your choice.
Fees are paid by the hour, with discount rates during off-peak hours. And you pay for the lounge, not by the person, making it an incredible value for groups, and cheaper for a foursome than the movies. There are different games available for all ages and skill levels, and they provide the clubs. And get this: A tour pro is available to gauge your swing and provide advice, even videotaping your swing and breaking it down, then sending it to your smartphone to study later. There’s branches in Gilbert and Scottsdale.
9. TQLA – This joint refers to itself as an upscale Southwestern kitchen and agave bar. I call it damn fine eats and a whole lotta tequila. TQLA, in the Dana Park neighborhood of Mesa, has its own tequilier and a triple-digit selection of to-kill-ya’s. They offer four varieties on tap, cooled to 5 degrees and served icy, like a high-potency Jalisco slushee.
TQLA provides three and a half hours of happy (3 p.m. – 6:30 p.m., Mon – Fri), in which to meet your margarita and street taco needs. And for queso enthusiasts who understand you just can’t get good queso in So Cal, try the queso blanco, featuring a blend of cheeses, green chiles and toasted pumpkin seeds. And finish your meal with one of the fine extra anejos, which are adoringly housed in a glass-encased shrine.
All photos courtesy of Scott Bridges.
Scott Bridges is an L.A.-based journalist who has worked as a police-beat reporter, a community newspaper editor, and a food and travel writer. He currently works as a freelance writer, contributing to The Huffington Post and Bizjournals.com, among other sites. He is a native Californian who lives on the Westside.