Arizona's Amazing Trains, Planes and Automobiles

By: Lora Finnegan

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June 30, 2011

Enjoy some family fun exploring Arizona's planes, trains and automobiles - the stuff that brings out the kid in us all.

About the author

Lora Finnegan

Lora Finnegan

Lora Finnegan is a former senior writer and senior editor for Sunset Magazine and editor of travel publications for Sunset Publishing. She currently writes for the blog California Travel Girl.

The state’s arid climate makes Arizona a good spot for a number of museums housing delicate aircraft, historic trains and classic cars. Check out these museums and feel like a kid again.

Arizona’s Amazing Airplanes

“These are pretty sexy aircraft,” says Dan Ryan, pointing to a newly arrived SR 71 Blackbird, a sleek, black machine that looks speedy just sitting there. “It’s the highest and fastest aircraft ever built, capable of hitting Mach 3. When it was on photo recon flights, the Russians used to fire missiles at it,” Ryan notes. “But they could never hit it!” he adds with a mischievous smile.

As executive director of Tucson’s Pima Air & Space Museum, Ryan maintains a youthful enthusiasm about this amazing assemblage of airplanes. It’s easy to see why – there are so many remarkable aircraft here: WWI biplanes; WWII fighters and bombers; Phantom and MIG fighters; even famous planes such as former U.S. President John F. Kennedy’s Air Force One.

“We’re the third largest air museum in America, with some 275 planes displayed and room for more,” says Ryan. Opened in May 2007 is the museum’s most important addition in years: the Spirit of Freedom wing, where you’ll see that Blackbird and other cool airplanes.

“Arizona is a perfect place for this kind of museum,” notes Ryan. “The dry air means the planes don’t get corroded.”

Mesa’s Arizona Wing/Commemorative Air Force, displays aircraft and artifacts from World War II to the Vietnam era, and The Planes of Fame in Valle, has a museum and working vintage aircraft. In Peoria, the Challenger Space Center is big with the school field-trip set (education is the center’s heart and soul). But you don’t have to be in school to enjoy other activities here: stargazing, an indoor planetarium – even space camp – are on offer.

All aboard the Verde Canyon Railroad

Just outside Clarkdale, you can journey back in time aboard a vintage mine train. The Verde Canyon Railroad traverses the North Verde River and scenic canyon country; in this birdwatchers’ paradise, you’ll see waterfowl (resident bald eagles in winter), some Sinagua Indian ruins and learn about the area’s mining past.

Or stop by Scottsdale’s McCormick-Stillman Railroad Park, where you can hop on a train that’s made for kids – the tiny steam locomotives and cars of the Paradise and Pacific Railroad are a scaled-down replica of a Colorado narrow-gauge railroad. The park is a lovely place for a picnic and has several playgrounds. It also sports a charming vintage carousel.

From Classic Rides to NASCAR

If classic cars toot your horn, take a drive to Tucson’s Franklin Museum, where you’ll get a look at the hottest wheels of the 1930s – dozens of mint-condition Franklin automobiles. These classy chassis were built between 1902 and 1934, but their air-cooled engines and light aluminum bodies were way ahead of their time.

Just north of Tucson is the Coolidge Golden Era Toy & Auto Museum (weekends only, January through May). It’s one couple’s private collection: his ten restored classic cars (such as a 1937 Packard and a 1956 T-bird); and her toys (dolls and tin toys).

If you’re inspired to start your own auto collection, check out the prestigious Barrett-Jackson Collector Car Event held each January in Scottsdale (lots of celebs have their cars sold here). You could see everything from a Shelby Cobra to concept cars, plus vendors and exhibitors.

Are you a NASCAR fan? Check out the Penske Racing Museum in Scottsdale. These cars are part of auto racing history, all winners of NASCAR races or the famed Indianapolis 500. Stand next to Rick Mears’ low-slung Indy car, and you’ll swear you can hear the engine roar.

Whether it’s gazing at a vintage car, hopping on a puffer belly train or getting a close-up view of a sexy spy plane, this stuff brings out the kid in us all."

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