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Phoenix

From the Valley, you're no more than a 20-minute drive from a natural area where you can gaze out across this bustling city. (©Greater Phoenix CVB/BabeSarver) From the Valley, you're no more than a 20-minute drive from a natural area where you can gaze out across this bustling city. (©Greater Phoenix CVB/BabeSarver)
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Forget the stately cacti and cowboys riding off into the sunset; think Los Angeles without the Pacific. While the nation has carefully nurtured its image of Phoenix as a desert cow town, this city in the Sonoran Desert has rocketed into the 21st century and become the fifth-largest city in the country. Sprawling across more than 500 square miles of what once was cactus and creosote bushes, the greater Phoenix metropolitan area, also known as the Valley of the Sun (or, more commonly, just the Valley), is now a major metropolitan area replete with dozens of resort hotels, fabulous restaurants, excellent museums, hundreds of golf courses, world-class shopping, four pro sports teams, and a red-hot nightlife scene.

Sure, it also has traffic jams and smog, but at the end of the day, it can usually claim to have had beautiful sunny weather. Sunshine and blue skies, day after day after day, have made this one of the most popular winter destinations in the country. When Chicago weather forecasts call for snow and subzero temperatures, you can have a hard time getting a tee time on a Phoenix-area golf course. Phoenicians may get the summertime blues when temperatures hit the triple digits, but from September to May, the climate here can verge on perfect -- warm enough in the daytime for lounging by the pool, cool enough at night to require a jacket.

With green lawns, orange groves, swimming pools, and palm trees, it's easy to forget that Phoenix is in the middle of the desert. Water channeled in from distant reservoirs has allowed this city to flourish like a desert oasis. However, if you find yourself wondering where the desert is, you need only lift your eyes to one of the many mountains that rise amid the suburban sprawl. South Mountain, Camelback Mountain, Mummy Mountain, Piestewa Peak, Papago Buttes, Pinnacle Peak -- these rugged, rocky summits have been preserved in their natural states, and it is to these cactus-covered uplands that the city's citizens retreat when they've had enough asphalt and air-conditioning. From almost anywhere in the Valley, you're no more than a 15- or 20-minute drive from a natural area where you can commune with cacti while gazing out across a bustling, modern city.

Best of all, at the end of the day, you can retreat to a comfortable bed at one of the country's top resorts.

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