Clever parents know that the best path to family travel nirvana is to wear them youngins out. Luckily, Arizona provides numerous opportunities for the kids to tire themselves out, guaranteeing mom and dad a quiet night. Introduce the wee ones to the desert, meet some animals, have watery fun, soar up high, visit kid-friendly museums – or let everyone play cowboy.
In the Sandpit
One of the best places to do the desert is Tucson’s 21-acre, outdoor Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. Kids dig being eyeball to eyeball with Gila monsters and prairie dogs, dodging hummingbirds and butterflies in the pollinator gardens and messing with the numerous hands-on activities. The Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix also has plenty of junior appeal. Turn kids loose in the butterfly pavilion or along the Plants and People of the Sonoran Desert trail, where they can grind mesquite beans into flour or scamper into a traditional Apache twig dwelling.
It’s a Zoo Out There
If your children want to see coyotes and more, head to the Phoenix Zoo, where, besides desert animals, they can check out the lions and tigers and (spectacled) bears, plus scores of other species. A petting zoo, camel rides, safari train and classic carousel are other zoo attractions. Near Sedona, in Camp Verde, Out of Africa Wildlife Park lets you ride safari-style through zebra, giraffe and wildebeest habitats, watch tigers and lions get fed, and let family members loose with (no kidding) giant snakes, including anacondas and boas.
Visit a Water World
If it’s a hot summer day, add a water component to the activities. Metro Phoenix and Tucson are dotted with water parks, the granddaddies of which are Tempe’s Big Surf, where the entire family can – yes – surf, body board and ride slides until the sun or the chlorine does you in, and the new Wet ‘n’ Wild Phoenix, in Glendale. Many resorts also offer guests water park amenities, as do several city parks throughout Arizona.
Want something more in tune with nature? Try Sedona’s Slide Rock State Park, where you can glissade down a natural rock water chute into a series of swimming holes. Near Mesa, rent inner tubes and float down the lower Salt River.
Hit the Slopes
Try something uplifting for a change. Arizona’s three ski areas offer scenic chairlift rides in summer and early fall. In Flagstaff, Arizona Snowbowl has views clear to the Grand Canyon, plus occasional ranger talks at the top. Sunrise Park Resort in the White Mountains lets you bring mountain bikes on the lift, if you want to ride trails down. Near Tucson, you can see the hot desert below from Mt. Lemmon Ski Valley’s lift. There, try an easy hike through forest as an alternate way down. In winter, if the snow is good, come back to all three locales to ski, snowboard or play in the white stuff.
Indoor Fun for Kids
For indoor fun, head to child-friendly museums. Tucson Children’s Museum encourages hands-on learning with dinosaur, marine life and art exhibits, while in Phoenix, the Arizona Science Center has plenty of buttons, wheels and levers to play with, plus a planetarium and IMAX theater. In Mesa, the Arizona Museum for Youth is an experiential art museum for the under-12 set, while nearby the Arizona Museum of Natural History lures young visitors with a realistic dinosaur exhibit, plus an old-fashioned jail.
Finally, what could be better in Arizona than playing cowboy, if only for a day? Try horseback riding – the state has dozens of stables offering everything from guided trail rides and hayrides to overnight treks. At Rawhide, the 1880s Wild West town on the Gila River Indian Community near Phoenix, you can watch a gunfight, ride a stagecoach, try panning for gold or, if someone in the family is really misbehaving, ask the sheriff to throw ’em in jail.
At the end of a family-friendly Arizona day, it might not be just the kids who are nodding off right after dinner.