Once I asked a friend, who happens to be a pilot for United Airlines and travels all over the world, to tell me her family’s favorite vacation spot. “Arizona,” she said without even pausing to think about it.
I get it. Arizona has such varied and beautiful nature—from stunning red rocks to cactus-studded deserts. Arizona is also rich in history and culture. When you go there, you almost feel as if you have entered another country. It’s that different from the East Coast.
Then there’s the weather. Except for a few months in summer when temps can rise above 100°F, Phoenix and Tucson have a climate ideally suited for enjoying the outdoors. Further north, you might see snow in winter, but for the most part, mild temps prevail year round.
What’s there to do in Arizona? Plenty. Here are some of my favorite don’t-miss family attractions and destinations in Arizona—from north to south. Your family will love Arizona!
Canyons & Valleys
Northern Arizona is a best-kept secret, especially the cute towns near Sedona. There’s plenty to see and do including ancient ruins, hiking, and more!
GRANDEST CANYON OF ALL
Seeing the Grand Canyon for the first time will make your jaw drop. It’s that huge. Standing at the rim on the south side and peering across 18 miles of craggy canyons puts us humans in perspective. And for little kids, it’s an experience they’ll never forget. TIP: Reserve seats on the Grand Canyon Railway, which departs from Williams, Arizona, and travels about 50 miles across Northern Arizona, depositing you and your family at the South Rim. Enjoy on-board entertainment and a visit from masked train robbers. Not to worry. They’re friendly! www.thetrain.com
In Cottonwood, a cozy town not far from Sedona, have a rootin-tootin good time at Blazin’ M Ranch. This family-owned business offers a chuckwagon dinner and a western stage show at a very affordable rate. Plus there’s a shooting gallery, roping lessons, critter walk, and a tractor ride. Blazin’ M Ranch offers good, clean fun for the whole family. TIP: Make sure to dress up in wrangler outfits for a vintage photo you and your kids will treasure forever. www.blazinm.com
A little slice of Africa awaits in nearby Camp Verde. Out of Africa, a wildlife park, offers an amazing opportunity to enjoy a safari experience without leaving the U.S. More than 100 species of mammals, birds, and reptiles—many endangered—live at the park, including lions, leopards, bears, zebras, and giraffes. Take the safari tour, meet zebras, and feed the giraffes. Sign up for the sloth encounter, where you and your kids can feet and pet Bart, the sloth—and yes, he does live and eat upside down. TIP: If your kids are 8+, try the thrilling Predator Zip Line and zip high above the animal habitats. www.outofafricapark.com
VERDE CANYON RAILROAD
Awaken your family’s pioneer spirit as you journey by train into picture-perfect scenery aboard the Verde Canyon Railroad in Clarkdale. See unspoiled wilderness as you travel along the river’s edge where red rock pinnacles tower overhead. TIP: Check out the open-air viewing car, where your kids can get up close and personal with nature. You might even see a bald eagle! www.verdecanyonrr.com
With beautiful weather, mountain scenery, and plenty of outdoor activities—think hot air balloon rides, hiking, jeep tours, and more, the Phoenix area has lots for families to enjoy.
TIME FOR R & R
After enjoying the attractions of Northern Arizona, it’s time to escape to a fabulous resort just south of Phoenix—Sheraton Grand at Wild Horse Pass—for some R & R for the whole family. Relax beside one of three sparkling pools while the kids enjoy the 111-ft. waterslide. Other activities include Native American crafts and storytelling, pedal boats and kayaks, horseback riding, and Rawhide, a nearby western-theme park. TIP: Tee off at nearby Whirlwind Golf Course or escape to Aji Spa for an amazing treatment while your kids have fun at the Sheraton Adventure Club. www.wildhorsepassresort.com
THE WORLD OF MUSIC
While you’re in Phoenix, take your family to the new Musical Instrument Museum, where you’ll not only learn about music from around the world, but also listen to it at stations throughout the exhibits. TIP: Don’t miss the Experience Gallery, where kids of all ages can try different instruments. My favorite is the harp! www.mim.org
A trip to Phoenix is not complete without a visit to the Heard Museum, a world-renowned collection of Native American art and artifacts. One of my favorite exhibits is a huge display of Hopi Kachina dolls. Learn why girls receive these dolls and what they represent. TIP: After exploring the museum’s varied exhibits, head to Home Studio, where you can try hands-on activities. For example, create a calendar stick with your kids, commemorating favorite events in your family. www.heard.org
WATERFALLS & PALM TREES
If you want to stay close to where the action is, check out The Scottsdale Resort at McCormick Ranch, a member of the Destination Hotels. Your kids will love hanging out at the pool with waterfall features and palm trees overhead. TIP: Arrange to borrow the resort’s complimentary bikes—perfect for exploring the nearby Greenbelt with 11 miles of paved pathways and perfect spots for picnicking. www.thescottsdaleresort.com
This historic city two hours south of Phoenix is hip, trendy, and has lots for families to do. It’s also a UNESCO World City of Gastronomy, one of only a handful of cities worldwide to achieve this designation. That means you will be sure to enjoy some fabulous food here. Try the Sonoran hot dog, a local’s favorite!
If your son or daughter loves butterflies, don’t miss the Butterfly Magic exhibit that runs Oct. 1-May 31 at the Tucson Botanical Gardens. In a tropical greenhouse, your family can have one-on-one encounters with beautiful butterflies and moths. It’s a wonderland of color. TIP: Don’t miss the Frida Kahlo exhibit on view through May 31, 2017. Coming up in October, 2017: Origami in the Garden. www.tucsonbotanical.org
EXPLORE THE DESERT
Another favorite family attraction in Tucson is the Arizona-Sonoran Desert Museum, right next to Saguaro National Park. This historic museum was founded in 1952 and has helped introduce families to desert flora and fauna ever since. On its 98 acres, you’ll find two miles of walking paths through various desert habitats, 230 animal species, and 1,200 types of plants. TIP: From October through March, check out the Raptor Free Flight demo and watch hawks, owls, and falcons soar untethered overhead. Whoosh! www.desertmuseum.org
THE WILD WEST
Just up the road from the Desert Museum is Old Tucson, a movie studio and theme park, where your family can experience the Wild West and walk in the footsteps of such stars as John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, Elizabeth Taylor, Steve Martin, and Martin Short. Ride a stagecoach, take a train ride, watch a stunt show, and explore 70 years of film and television history. TIP: Giddy-up and take a ride on the Wild West Carousel, a classic merry-go-round complete with cheerful music. www.oldtucson.com
IN THE SADDLE
You can’t visit Arizona without riding on a real horse, and I know just the place. White Stallion Ranch just outside Tucson is the quintessential guest ranch, where you and your kids can enjoy an authentic Western experience. Family activities include horseback riding (lessons available), swimming, stargazing, arts and crafts, and a ranch rodeo. Meals are served family-style, and you’ll make lots of new friends. Outstanding staff and gentle horses ensure your stay will be memorable. Don’t forget your cowboy hats! TIP: Check out family-friendly summer rate specials. www.whitestallion.com
Arizona is an ideal vacation destination for kids of all ages, so grab your little wranglers and head for the desert. Just watch out for the cacti!
For more family travel adventures, visit www.tidewaterfamily.com/travel