Picnics by Starlight

Pack a meal for an evening of live music, movies, family fun, and more | By Jessica Dunham

Contrary to popular belief, summer in Phoenix isn’t all about hibernation. You don’t have to hustle from air-conditioned car to air-conditioned building for the next two months (OK, four months) without ever seeing the light of day. Just readjust your perspective on outdoor fun. What might be a movie in the park in Seattle becomes a movie in a swimming pool in Greater Phoenix. A picnic at noon in New England is reimagined as a post-sunset alfresco dinner here in the desert. Read on for great ways to pair an evening summer picnic with outdoor entertainment in our warm-weather months. Spoiler alert—they have zero to do with machine-cooled air.

Photo by Grace Stufkosky.

Park play

There’s something oh-so-summery about listening to live music under the stars. The Glendale Summer Band Concert Series, now entering its 53rd season, offers music lovers a free evening of toe-tapping tunes every Thursday at 8 p.m. for eight weeks throughout June and July. Each week’s show highlights a different theme—“Wild, Wild West” or “World of Fantasy,” for example—and the jaunty band comprises nearly 100 talented musicians. Bring family, bring friends, and set up blankets and lawn chairs in the E. Lowell Rogers Amphitheatre in Glendale’s Murphy Park. Fun fact: The Glendale Summer Band is the longest-running community band in the state. It was formed in 1966, playing its first show at O’Neil Park, also in Glendale.

You can buy light refreshments at the concert, but for more hearty eats, place a to-go order at Cuff. Located just across the street from the park—read: easy trek for schlepping food to your hungry family—this hip restaurant features a menu of elevated comfort foods (sandwiches, burgers, salads), plus extensive offerings for vegans. We recommend ordering a few trios of tacos: pineapple coleslaw tops the pulled pork, the green-chile chicken comes with Cotija cheese, and you get a choice of grilled or fried fish for the tequila-lime fish tacos.

Gilbert Rotary Centennial Observatory


The celestial treasures of the summer sky include the thick band of the Milky Way threading through the constellation Sagittarius, a spectacular sight and one that’s easy to spot with the naked eye if you happen to be in the middle of nowhere. But if you’re in the city? It’s best to have a telescope handy. Thank goodness the Gilbert Rotary Centennial Observatory presents Skywatch, an open-to-the-public sky party the second Friday of every month at the Gilbert Riparian Preserve. Using state-of-the-art telescopes, astronomers lead you through a tour of the cosmos, pointing out star clusters, nebulae, planets, constellations, and more. The event is free and starts at dusk.

Picnics were meant for finger foods, and Sonoran-style appetizers fit that bill. A five-minute drive from the Riparian Preserve, Rancho de Tia Rosa serves Mexican favorites in their brightly colored dining room or on the gracious patio, but for goodies-to-go, look no further than their starters. Crispy tortilla chips make it easy to scoop up the beans, cheese, guacamole, and salsa topping the Nacho de la Cantina. The crunchy, rolled taquitos come with tasty queso fundido for dipping, and everyone will find a favorite filling in the Mini Chimi Sampler, which includes a combination of petite red chile beef, green chile pork, and bean-and-cheese chimichangas.

Superstition Ranch Farmers Market, Apache Junction (Photo by Grace Stufkosky.)

Stay cool in the pool

The city of Apache Junction, located near the Superstition Mountains at the eastern edge of metro Phoenix, hosts outdoor events at their community parks year-round. Locals and visitors alike enjoy concert series in fall and winter and movies on the lawn in spring at Flatiron Community Park; and in summer, a Dive-in Movie series offers cool evening entertainment at Superstition Shadows Aquatic Center. Once a month in August and September, you can bring the fam to the swimming pool to watch a movie by the light of the moon. The 25-foot film screen showcases flicks geared to all ages. The cost is $2 per person, and don’t forget to bring towels, blankets, chairs (in case you prefer to watch your movies on dry land), and a small cooler full of yummy snacks. There will also be food trucks on hand. Mark your calendar for other Apache Junction evening festivities at the pool: Fit Family Pool Night in May, Itty Bitty Beach Party in June, and Teen Night in July.

Pay a visit to the Superstition Ranch Farmers Market to stock up on goods for your summer evening picnic. The brick-and-mortar market—with locations in Mesa and Apache Junction—offers an array of fresh foods from the working ranch of the same name, as well as plenty of other locally grown and locally sourced fare. The ranch and market have been in operation since the late 1960s, nailing the local-first trend before it was cool. For a perfect picnic spread, pick up fruit—apples, pears, cherries, grapes—a few cheeses, cured meats, crackers, and freshly baked bread.

Honey Bear’s BBQ, Phoenix (Photo by Grace Stufkosky.)

Garden party

It’s easy to see the Sonoran Desert’s flora and fauna during the day, but we often miss the chance to glimpse the night-blooming plants and nocturnal creatures that come to life after the sun sets. That’s why the Desert Botanical Garden hosts Summer Nights at the Garden every Saturday night from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Not only are the temperatures cooler, and thus more pleasant for meandering the garden’s 140 acres of paved trails, but visitors’ flashlights illuminate sights that go unseen in the daylight—the white, trumpet-shaped flowers of the cereus cactus, for one. Summer Nights tours run from 7 to 9:30 p.m.; BYO flashlight.

Picnics aren’t allowed in the garden, so fuel up before the tour by heading to nearby Honey Bear’s BBQ for a tasty—albeit messy—stick-to-your-ribs meal. Choose from spicy hot links, beef brisket, pulled pork, shredded chicken, and fried catfish, then pick from sides like corn on the cob, collard greens, macaroni and cheese, potato salad, or sweet potato fries. If your little ones are picky eaters, the children’s menu gets it right with a kid-approved choice of hot dogs or chicken strips. To enjoy your meal alfresco, get your grub to go and dine amid the sandstone buttes of Papago Park, which offers roomy ramadas with picnic tables just across from the entrance to the garden.

McCormick-Stillman Railroad Park Summer Concert Series, Scottsdale (Photo by Grace Stufkosky.)

All aboard!

Local bands grace the stage every Sunday night at McCormick-Stillman Railroad Park in Scottsdale. The railroad park’s Summer Concert Series features live music that spans all genres and caters to every musical taste—from classic rock and Motown to 80s hits and country tunes. The free concerts start at 7:30 p.m. and run until 9 p.m. Arrive early to not only stake out your spot on the lawn but also to hop on the 5:12 reproduction of a Colorado narrow-gauge train for a $2 trip around the park or to enjoy a carousel ride. The series launches on April 28 and concludes with a final concert on June 30 followed by a fireworks show.

With sunset views, a cooling breeze, and great music, you’re missing only one thing—good food. Eat like an Italian at locally owned Babbo Italian Eatery; there’s a location straight down the road from McCormick-Stillman Railroad Park at The Pavilions at Talking Stick. The name of the game here is traditional, from the classic pastas to the Neapolitan-style pizzas. Get stuffed with an order of stuffed manicotti—large pasta noodles filled with ricotta cheese and baked with your choice of meaty sausage or vegetarian friendly portobello and mixed pepper ragù. For something new, try the fig jam, prosciutto, and arugula pizza, which combines the titular ingredients with zesty Italian sausage, Gouda cheese, and olive oil on a thin and crispy crust for the ultimate light, yet filling, white pizza. Bonus: The railroad park offers a beer permit to visitors during the concerts. Did someone say “pizza and beer?”