Maricopa County is home to dozens of attractions that draw in millions of visitors every year. From zoos and parks to museums and cultural events, here are some of the best things to do in the county.
The Phoenix Zoo has more than 125 acres of attractions and exhibits like the Stingray Bay, Africa Trail, and Children’s Trail plus more than 3,000 animals. The Phoenix Zoo is the largest nonprofit, privately owned zoo in the country and a designated Phoenix Point of Pride.
The Heard Museum in Phoenix focuses exclusively on Native American art and culture, including traditional and contemporary art.
Arizona Science Center
Located in downtown Phoenix, the Arizona Science Center features more than 350 hands-on exhibits including the Dorrance Planetarium. The center has exhibits and programs for adults and kids with traveling exhibits. One of the latest exhibits at the center is Mummies of the World, the largest collection of mummies ever assembled from Ancient Egypt, Europe, and South America.
Wildlife World Zoo, Aquarium & Safari Park
The Wildlife World Zoo in Litchfield Park is the largest collection of endangered and exotic animals in Arizona. The zoo features 600 species with a petting zoo and rides. The 15-acre Safari Park includes African lions, hyenas, cheetahs, olive baboons, warthogs, ostrich, and more. The Wildlife World Zoo also has an aquarium exhibit with a South Pacific Reef tunnel tank.
Phoenix Art Museum
The Phoenix Art Museum in the heart of downtown Phoenix is the largest art museum in the Southwest. The museum has more than 19,000 works in its permanent collection that cover contemporary, modern, Asian, American, Latin American, European, and Western American art. It also features regular exhibitions such as Art of Islam through Time and Place and Ragnar Kjartansson: Scandinavian Pain.
Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art
The Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art is the only permanent museum in Arizona dedicated to modern architecture, art, and design. The museum is located in downtown Scottsdale on a 21-acre landscaped park and frequently collaborates with other art institutions in the area like the Phoenix Art Museum.
Pueblo Grande Museum
Explore trails through preserved remains of the Hohokam people who disappeared from Maricopa County in the 15th century. Trails go through the village and the remains on irrigation canals in this pre-Columbian site.
The OdySea Aquarium in Scottsdale is the largest aquarium of the southwest. The aquarium features more than 30,000 animals with unique experiences like a penguin encounter, a shark tour, Living Sea Carousel, SeaTREK helmet diving, and a submerged escalator that allows guests to descend into the ocean surrounded by sea life. There are also several galleries including Kid’s Cove, Deep Ocean, Otter Banks, Rivers of the World, Touch Pools, and Monster Fish with more than 50 exhibits.
Wet ‘n’ Wild Phoenix
Wet ‘n’ Wild Phoenix is a popular theme park situated on 35 acres which makes it the largest theme park in Arizona. It’s also one of seven Wet ‘n’ Wild parks in the U.S. Wet ‘n’ Wild features dozens of thrill rides, kids rides, and family rides as well as popular events throughout the year.
Sea Life Arizona
This 26,000 square foot interactive aquarium in Tempe is a family-oriented experience with something for everyone. The aquarium features several exhibits like Critter Canyon with up-close views of tortoises and more, Bay of Rays, and Ocean View with sharks and a sea turtle. Sea Life has dozens of species on display like seahorses, sea turtles, tangs, rays, desert pupfish, and more.
Arizona Museum of Natural History
This is the only natural history museum in the Phoenix area. Located in Mesa, the Arizona Museum of Natural History opened in 1977 and features dozens of exhibits on dinosaurs, cultures of Ancient America, palaeontology, and archaeology. The museum has exhibits devoted to the Hohokom people of the region plus interactive dinosaur exhibits.
Children’s Museum of Phoenix
The Children’s Museum of Phoenix is designed for kids up to age 10 with more than 300 interactive play areas and exhibits. The museum is rated as one of the top three children’s museums in the country with a diverse range of programs and classes in science, art, music, yoga, math, and more.
Japanese Friendship Garden
The Japanese Friendship Garden of Phoenix is a traditional Japanese stroll garden over 3.5 acres with a tea house, tea garden, koi pond, and a 12-foot waterfall.
Dolphinaris is an aquatic center and modern marine habitat with dolphin viewing tanks and open-air pools allowing visitors to swim with dolphins.
Located in Tempe, Big Surf is a large water park opened in 1969. Big Surf had one of the first wave pools in the United States. Today, the original wave pool of the Southwest receives more than 2.5 million visitors every year. Big Surf also has several water slides of all sizes and kid-friendly water park attractions.
Castles N’ Coasters
Castles N’ Coasters is a family amusement park in Phoenix with 4 miniature golf courses, a 10,000 square foot arcade, and rides.
Maricopa County Seat Overview & History
The county seat of Maricopa County is Phoenix, which was named the county seat when the county was formed in 1871.
The town of Phoenix was officially settled in 1867. That year, a Confederate veteran named Jack Swilling visited the fort to assess the agricultural potential of the valley. He helped promote the creation of the first irrigation system which was based on the ruins of the Hohokam irrigation canals that were discovered. He returned to Wickenburg to raise money from miners to create the Swilling Irrigating and Canal Company to build canals and develop the area for farming. He began construction of the canals to revitalize the region. While it isn’t known who came up with the name Phoenix, it is known that Swilling had suggested Stonewall after Stonewall Jackson. By the start of 1868, the name Phoenix was already in use.
Yavapai County, which included Phoenix at the time, officially recognized the new town in 1868. The first post office was established in Swilling’s home where he served as postmaster. By 1870, the population of the Salt River Valley was 240. Swilling didn’t live long after founding Phoenix as a venture for irrigated farmland. He died in 1878 after struggling with alcohol and drug addiction while awaiting trial for robbery.
In 1871, Maricopa County was created after Yavapai County was divided. Phoenix was named the county seat. By 1875, the town had 16 saloons, 4 dance halls, and a telegraph office. It received its first bank in 1878 with a population of more than 2,400 by 1880.
Phoenix was incorporated as a city in 1881 and Judge John Alsap became the first mayor. The city grew rapidly, usually in response to some type of crisis. Shortly after becoming a city, Phoenix experienced a smallpox outbreak that prompted the creation of a public health department. A public water system was developed the same decade after serious fires.
It was the introduction of the railroad in the late 1880s that spurred the economic growth of Phoenix. Phoenix quickly became a trade city with products moving all the way to the east and west markets. By 1900, Phoenix reached a population of 5,500.
Maricopa County Sheriff
The current Maricopa County Sheriff is Paul Penzone who was elected in 2016. Penzone defeated longtime incumbent Joe Arpaio who served for 24 years. Penzone served with the Phoenix Police Department for 21 years and rose to the ranks of sergeant, eventually retiring and joining a non-profit group called Childhelp before his election as County Sheriff.
Arpaio was known for his stance against illegal immigration and his investigation into former President Obama’s birth certificate and called himself “America’s Toughest Sheriff.” Arpaio was the subject of numerous federal civil rights lawsuits and his office was found to continue detaining people without reasonable suspicion a crime had been committed after a federal court issued an injunction. He was convicted of criminal contempt of court and pardoned by President Trump in 2017.
Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office
The Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office (MCSO) has jurisdiction over the entire county with headquarters in Phoenix. The MCSO is Arizona’s largest sheriff’s office with about 3,300 employees. Founded in 1871, the sheriff’s office is the main law enforcement for unincorporated areas of the county and incorporated cities that have contracted with the MCSO for law enforcement. The MCSO also operates the Maricopa County jail system.
Because Maricopa County is so large, it’s divided into six Districts, each staffed by a District Commander, a Deputy Commander, and uniformed patrol deputies, sergeants, detectives, and admin staff.
The MCSO features several specialized units. Along with patrolling unincorporated areas of the county, the sheriff’s office patrols waterways and lakes through the Lake Patrol Division in recreational areas of Lake Pleasant Regional Park and Tonto National Forest.
The Trails Division of the MCSO provides law enforcement in wilderness and recreational areas of Maricopa County Parks with a total area of 120,000 acres. The Maricopa County parks system is the largest in the United States. The Aviation Division of the MCSO provides airborne support to Lake Patrol, uniformed patrol, narcotics, SWAT, extraditions, and Search and Rescue.
The Sheriff’s Canine Unit has 25 canines with different specialties like cadaver, patrol, and narcotics with a staff that includes one sergeant, ten deputies, four detention officers, and five detectives.
City Police Departments
Maricopa County has two types of law enforcement agencies: the Sheriff’s Office and city police departments. The following list includes the largest city police departments in the Metro Phoenix area.
Avondale Police Department
Dale Nannenga, Chief of Police
The Avondale Police Department serves a community of more than 85,000 with four police stations: Main Station, Cashion Sub-Station, Historic Old Town Sub-Station and Detention Facility, and Northwest Sub-Station on the Estrella Mountain CC Campus. The department has two divisions: Operations and Support Services. The Avondale Police Department also has several specialty units such as Special Victims and Street Crimes.
Chandler Police Department
Sean Duggan, Chief of Police
The Chandler Police Department (CPD) has more than 330 sworn officers and 160 civilian employees that serve a population of more than 250,000. The CPD has three precincts: Chandler Heights, Desert Breeze, and Main Station. The department has two divisions: Professional Services and Field Operations. It also has several specialized units including Human Trafficking & Vice, Gang Enforcement, SWAT, Criminal Apprehension, and Computer Crimes.
Gilbert Police Department
Michael Soelberg, Chief of Police
The Gilbert Police Department responds to more than 180,000 service calls every year with specialty units to address crime suppression, dangerous driving, and school safety with a SWAT unit, K9 unit, and traffic unit. The Traffic Unit has a day and night DUI team with 10 motorcycle officers, two sergeants, a lieutenant, and three collision investigators.
Glendale Police Department
Rick St. John, Chief of Police
The Glendale Police Department has several divisions to serve a population of nearly 250,000. The department’s divisions include Communications, Criminal Investigations, and Traffic. The department has more than 400 officers and 120 civilian employees with a history of more than 100 years. There are two Glendale Police Department stations: Gateway and Foothills.
Mesa Police Department
Ramon Batista, Chief of Police
The Mesa Police Department is a large city police department with more than 800 sworn officers and 400 civilian employees serving a population of almost 500,000. The Mesa Police Department has four substations across the city: Fiesta Police Division, Central Police Division, Red Mountain Police Division, and Superstition Police Division. The department serves the community with several specialty units such as the Airport Unit, Aviation Unit, Organized Crime, Communications, Criminal Investigations, Financial Crimes, Gang Unit, K9 Unit, Sex Trafficking, and Special Victims Unit.
Phoenix Police Department
Jeri Williams, Chief of Police
The Phoenix Police Department is the largest city police force in Arizona, serving a population of more than 1.6 million. The department was formed in 1881 and is comprised of more than 2,900 police officers who patrol nearly 516 square miles with the help of more than 1,000 civilian employees. The department has six divisions: Patrol, Support Services, Management Services, Investigations, Strategic Services, and Reserve. There are also 23 bureaus such as Major Offender, Violent Crimes, Drug Enforcement, and Communications.
The Phoenix Police Department has seven precincts in its Patrol Division: Central City, Cactus Park, Black Mountain which also runs the Goelet A.C. Beuf Neighborhood Police Station, Desert Horizon which also runs the Sunnyslope Neighborhood Police Station, Maryvale, Mountain View, and South Mountain.
Scottsdale Police Department
Alan G. Rodbell, Chief of Police
The Scottsdale Police Department serves a population of more than 250,000. The city is divided into four districts: McKellips, Downtown, Via Linda, and Foothills. The Scottsdale Police Department has three bureaus: Investigative Services, Operational Services, and Uniformed Services. The Uniformed Services Bureau is the most visible with patrol and traffic enforcement officers, a K9 unit, a Bicycle Unit, and a Mounted Unit.
Surprise Police Department
Terry Young, Chief of Police
The Surprise Police Department serves a population of more than 135,000. The department has four divisions. The largest is the Field Operations Division that includes K9 teams, Animal Control, uniformed patrol officers, Traffic Enforcement, and Park Ranger Services. The Criminal Investigations Division of the SPD includes several United such as Property Crimes, Victim Advocacy, and Crimes Against Persons. The department also has a Professional Development Division and the Administrative Services Division.
Tempe Police Department
Sylvia Moir, Chief of Police
Founded in 1895, the Tempe Police Department serves a population of more than 185,000. The department has three branches: Field Operations, Investigations and Organizational Services, and Support Services. The Field Operations division includes Traffic, Central City, Metro, South Patrol, and North Patrol with specialty units such as a Bike Team, Canine Unit, Mounted Unit, and Threat Mitigation.
Maricopa County Jails
Maricopa County has five county jails with a combined capacity of nearly 9,100 inmates.
4th Avenue Jail
The Fourth Avenue Jail located in Phoenix, Arizona has an inmate capacity of 2,064 and it’s designed for high-security inmates. Built in 2005, the jail is the most secure facility in Maricopa County’s county jail system with a Special Management Unit for the highest-security inmates. About 260 people are booked into the jail every day. The Fourth Avenue Jail has several housing pods with classrooms, visitation booths, and dayroom and rec yards. Level 4 of the jail has three different designs to accommodate increasing security levels.
The Durango Jail is located on West Gibson Lane in Phoenix and has a capacity of about 2,195 inmates. This mid-sized jail was built in 1976 and is the oldest jail in the county although new dorm rooms were added in 1996. The facility was not originally intended to be a jail but instead a facility to re-introduce inmates into society. As jail populations increased, it was repurposed into a female unit then a psychiatric unit. The jail is classified for minimum and medium security inmates and sentenced inmates who attend the ALPHA substance abuse program.
The Estrella Jail on Durango Road in Phoenix is an all-female jail with a capacity of 1,380. It has four housing units with 9 dormitories. The jail is designed to accommodate female inmates of all classifications in the county jail system, including minimum, medium, closed-custody, maximum, administrative segregation, and disciplinary segregation. It also houses female inmates participating in the ALPHA substance abuse program. The Estrella Jail has the country’s only all-female chain gang.
Lower Buckeye Jail
The Lower Buckeye Jail in Phoenix, Arizona is the largest county jail in Maricopa County and the largest detention center in the state with a capacity of 2,382. Lower Buckeye is an all-male facility that houses non-sentenced minimum and medium general population and all classifications of juvenile inmates. The facility was built in 2005 with two types of living areas: dormitories with direct supervision and recreation areas and tower-style observation units. The facility also allows self-surrenders and processes about 1,100 self-surrender bookings every month.
The Towers Jail in Phoenix was built in 1982 and houses up to 1,080 inmates. This facility is unique because it’s the only one in the county to house sentenced and non-sentenced inmates in six separate housing units. It also has separate housing for veteran inmates.