Kayakers sail along near an arched bridge that mimics the curves of the hills behind them.
Patagonia Lake State Park

How to Have a Family & Budget-Friendly Arizona Summer

Pump up your summer vacation's cool factor with these inexpensive ideas to beat the summer heat.

Arizona's famously dry heat may be ideal for lazily lounging by a pool, but the state also offers plenty of summertime adventures sure to keep your family cool—and under budget.

Southern Arizona things to do in summer

1. Cool off at Patagonia Lake

A gem hidden among the rolling hills of southeastern Arizona, Patagonia Lake State Park is a manmade reservoir for water skiing, bird watching or simply splashing about. Families can rent a kayak or canoe on-site for exploring the water—see if you can spot the tracks of the New Mexico/Arizona railroad, which lie beneath the lake. Discover the area by foot on a hike and, if you're quiet, you may glimpse a whitetail deer or elegant trogon. Overnight camping and cabins are also available for multi-day stays.

2. Explore indoor, kid-friendly museums

Multiple scenes of miniatures depicting various winter scenes. One display is housed within the floor under glass.
Mini Time Machine Museum of Miniatures, Tucson

These Southern Arizona museums are anything but a snooze. The Children's Museum (with locations in Tucson and Oro Valley) encourages play and exploration with interactive exhibits, so children learn while also having fun. The Ignite Sign Art Museum's historic, restored neon lights and signage offer a bit of history via electrifying displays. At the Mini Time Machine Museum of Miniatures, you may have to squint to see every detail of the exhibits, including more than 500 antique and contemporary dollhouses and room boxes.

3. Head up Mount Lemmon

Three mountain bikers pause atop a rocky plateau to look out over a forest-filled valley under blue skies.
Views from Mt. Lemmon (Credit: Visit Tucson)

There's so much to do on Mount Lemmon for both kids and parents, starting with the drive up. Download the free Mount Lemmon Science Tour app (available on the Apple Store or Google Play)—a narrated audio guide timed for the ascent up Catalina Highway, providing fun facts (example: "Do you know what a Sky Island is?") and suggested stopping points. Favorite destinations for exploring: Fishing at Rose Canyon Lake, playing in the water at the Marshall Gulch Picnic Area, splitting an ice-cream-topped cookie at the Mt. Lemmon Cookie Cabin, or riding the Sky Ride ($10-$15) among towering pine trees.

4. See surprising spires

A girl sits with her back to the camera, facing the sunset over the Chiricahua hoodoos (rock formations)
Chiricahua National Monument

Wander a landscape that feels like it's from another planet. Chiricahua National Monument is an outdoor playground of stacked rock formations and skyscraper-like spires formed over millions of years. Take in the view on an eight-mile scenic drive, which ends at a lookout. Or, hike the "Wonderland of Rocks" by way of 17 miles of trails (the short, easy Bonita Creek Loop is a good one for little kiddos).

Eastern Arizona things to do in summer

5. Focus on the cosmos

Take a guided tour at a cool 10,720 feet on Mount Graham, located in the Coronado National Forest, to see the Large Binocular Telescope—the world's most powerful telescope—at MGIO—Mount Graham International Observatory. Full-day tours of this world-renowned observatory begin at Eastern Arizona College's Discovery Park Campus in Safford. Here, exhibits encourage visitors to ponder the origins of the universe as well as the complexities of building the tools to explore it. ($40, lunch included)

6. Play! Recreate! Rest!

Sunrise Park Resort, nestled in the heart of the White Mountains at 9,200 feet, morphs from a winter ski resort to a summer adventure destination. Competitive families enjoy downhill mountain biking, the 3D archery course, water sports and disc golf. If your family's adventurous, don't miss the airbag jump (like cannonballing into a pool, without the water) and zip-line tours. For more relaxed families, there are scenic ski lift and horseback rides.

Northern Arizona things to do in summer

7. Tour a cool modern marvel

The Hoover Dam is a National Historic Landmark that draws more than a million visitors each year. And why shouldn't it? Guests have the opportunity to stand atop a modern engineering wonder, then traverse concrete tunnels within the dam, as well as see powerful generators and feel the power of water rushing through pipes.

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About the Author

Melissa Wenzel

A native of Phoenix, Melissa Wenzel is a freelance writer and public relations consultant. Her writing can be found in Chicken Soup for the Soul, Raising Arizona Kids Magazine and Veteran's Magazine.

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