How the Phoenix Area Nabbed the “Valley of the Sun” Nickname

Excerpt from Valley 101: A Slightly Skewed Guide to Living in Arizona, a collection of Clay Thompson’s columns for The Arizona Republic. (Originally published June 6, 1999.)

Q: Everybody refers to this area as the Valley. What exactly is the Valley the valley of?

A: This is a deeply troubling question because it actually required some work to nail down the answer.

The easy part first: This is the Valley of the Sun.

Of course it isn’t really the Valley of the Sun. The ancient Hohokam Indians did not say to their relatives, “Hey, you should come down to the Valley of the Sun for the winter.”

Valley of the Sun was a name cooked up in the 1930s to boost tourism. As these sorts of things go, it’s not bad — short, snappy, descriptive.

It’s definitely an improvement over “the Denver of the Southwest,” which is how the boosters touted Phoenix in the 1890s.

And they could hardly call it “the Valley of Brutal Heat,” or the “Valley of the Big Gulp” or the “Valley of Really Expensive Golf Resorts.”

So Valley of the Sun works.

But because you cannot live in an advertising slogan, we don’t live in the Valley of the Sun. We live in the Salt River Valley.

This is where actual work came in.

What constitutes the Salt River Valley? Where does it begin and where does it end? And if this is the Salt River Valley, why does it look, for the most part, like the Salt River Flats?

The guy in the cubicle across the aisle says the valley of the Salt River begins at the Salt’s confluence with the Verde River, a few miles below Saguaro Lake, and ends with the Salt’s confluence with the Gila
River, which is near Avondale.

However, because we can’t base news stories on the opinions of the guy in the cubicle across the aisle, learned advice was sought.

Anthony Brazel, professor of geography at Arizona State University, maintains the valley of the Salt River is the watershed drained by said river — about 6,300 square miles. That’s a lot of valley.

You know that old saying: There’s never a fluvial geomorphologist around when you need one. Well, it’s not true. We found one right away — Will Graf, regents professor of geology at ASU. Fluvial geomorphology, in a nutshell, is the geology of rivers.

Technically, Graf said, Brazel is correct: The valley of the Salt River is that area drained by the Salt.

Then he said a lot of other stuff we didn’t understand before offering up this definition: The valley of the Salt could be considered that area in which fluvial materials — rocks or gravel or sand or whatever
deposited by the river over the centuries — cover the bedrock.

That area, Graf said, is roughly bounded by South Mountain, the north Scottsdale-Cave Creek area, Granite Reef Dam east of the Salt River Reservation, and the tiny town of Arlington, which is about 50
miles west of downtown Phoenix.

And it’s a broad, flat valley because, over the eons, the river wandered all over the place, depositing fluvial material willy-nilly.

Dig down anywhere in that area and you will be digging Salt River fluvial stuff for time immemorial. In some areas, it runs as deep at 15,000 feet, which is a lot of fluvial material.

So, there you have it, we live in the Valley of Salt River Fluvial Deposits, which isn’t as catchy as Valley of the Sun but still beats the Denver of the Southwest.


  1. Shannon says

    Interesting!! I had read somewhere once that the “mountains” we see surrounding the valley were really just the tips of rather tall mountains that are buried under thousands of feet of sediment-like material. However, many of my native friends seem to believe that most of the valley is bedrock. It’s cool to see some confirmation of what I read in the past. Thank you!

  2. says

    Wow – I didn’t know that’s how Phoenix go that name. I wonder if the salt is the reason the vegetation doesn’t get taller. I know that lack of water, plays an important role, but its seems that might as well.

  3. SaraD says

    Personally, I prefer “the Valley of Brutal Heat”. It has a certain ring to it, and it’s darned accurate.

    Way back in Ye Olden Days (the 1960s), we lived near 64th Street and Shea Blvd. At the time, the intersection of Scottsdale Rd. and Shea (just 2 lanes each) was only a 4-way stop where there was a gas station, a feed/tack shop, a Tastee Freeze, a Circle K, and a great little mom & pop market called The Bantam. Shea was not paved as far as the McDowell Mountains. We did not actually live in Scottsdale but rather were on the border between Maricopa County and Phoenix. (MCSO and Phoenix PD each always insisted that the other agency was responsible for handling any report of crime or accident in our neighborhood). My parents had several experiences where they bought something (appliance, furniture, etc.) in Phoenix, asked that it be delivered, were assured that it could be delivered at no charge, then, upon giving the address, were told that there would be an extra charge for delivery “outside the Valley”. There did not seem to be anything fluvial about it, but you never know. 😉

  4. james Boehlje says

    I have a preference to “Valley of the Toaster Oven” when it gets to a nice comfortable 113° folks pop in and out of shady spots and into air conditioned locations.

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