Given that we rarely leave Chicago, we made the most of an invitation to visit family in Arizona. Our trip took us from the cactus-laden deserts of Phoenix to the stunning red rocks of Sedona and the snow-capped mountains of Flagstaff.
We balanced a daily three- to four-hour adventure with swimming or relaxing at the hotel. We stretched our vacation dollars by staying with family near Phoenix and in a modest motel in Sedona. We splurged on a suite in Flagstaff, but extended our budget with low-cost activities such as hiking. We used our local museum membership cards (such as the Field Museum) to get in free at many Arizona museums and our AAA card for discounts at the Grand Canyon Railway and the Meteor Crater.
I’d like to say the ancient pueblos and historic sites fascinated Isaac, 6, and Ethan, 4, but I’d be lying. Below are the kid-tested highlights of our grand tour.
The bumpy stagecoach ride at Rawhide Western Town gave us all a greater appreciation for modern transportation. This glimpse into the 1800s Wild West oozed cowboy kitsch and the boys soaked it up. Ethan was all smiles as he rode a burro down Main Street while Isaac intently panned for "gold."
The real treasure of the Phoenix area, however, was the Arizona Science Center, with its more than 300 hands-on exhibits. This place is a treat even for those of us spoiled by Chicago’s museum scene.
I was prepared for the beauty of Sedona, but the commercialism was a shock—shop after shop of western-themed trinkets. It wasn’t all bad, though. Here we experienced the culinary highlights of our trip: grilled cactus, cactus lemonade and fried ice cream.
We hiked outside of Sedona at Slide Rock State Park—a fabulous natural water park with a stream that glides over smooth rocks, carrying swimmers along for the ride. We had a blast scrambling over rocky paths and dipping our toes in the chilly water.
No trip to Sedona is complete without a jeep tour. We were guests of two outfits, each of which took us on 90-minute tours over bumpy roads not to be attempted in a rental van. Isaac had a hard time deciding which trip was best—one had a cowboy; the other a tarantula … tough call.
Our Arizona Safari Jeep Tours guide taught us about local flora, fauna and geology. To Isaac’s delight, this trip included a hands-on meeting with the tarantula and snake our guide brought along.
The Sedona Red Rock Jeep Tour was led by a gen-u-ine cowboy who amused us with stories. My husband, Brad, and I were transfixed by the beauty, while the boys were captivated by our guide’s spurs. The Red Rock folks accommodated us well from pre-trip discussions about car seats (required in Arizona only until age 5) to the mid-tour hike among the red rocks. And while Brad, Isaac and I liked the informative tour, all the talk put Ethan to sleep—literally.
Nearly every restaurant and hotel chain are here, but the historic downtown, with its independent galleries, restaurants and small shops, gives it the feel of a town not quite "discovered." Isaac was intrigued by the "trading posts" even after he realized that they were regular stores.
Flagstaff was a great base from which to explore northern Arizona. The attractions listed below are roughly 30-minute drives from town:
• Meteor Crater. If a meteor fell to Earth and no one was around to see it, would it still become a tourist attraction 50,000 years later? Yes. "This museum really keeps to the topic," observed Isaac—the topic being objects hurtling through space. Even more exciting than viewing the 4,000-foot-wide crater was a computer simulation that allowed the boys to design virtual space projectiles.
• Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument. Most people don’t associate Arizona with volcanoes, but it’s got ‘em. The newly renovated visitor center provided a wealth of information for us adults, while the kids kept busy with the make-your-own earthquake exhibit. But the real attraction was the centuries-old lava flow outside.
• The Grand Canyon. The Grand Canyon Railway was a convenient way to travel to that crowded national park. But even in an authentically restored Pullman rail car, the 2½-hour trip dragged on. A friendly host dished out helpful details and free soft drinks and there were other surprises, but it wasn’t enough. The train is nice for an introductory trip to the Grand Canyon, but it could be a challenging ride with kids under 5. Older kids likely will find their electronic games more interesting than the scenery.
We spent our three-hour layover exploring the Grand Canyon on foot. The boys, at first underwhelmed, soon were fighting over the binoculars—a bit unnerving given the many unguarded edges along the rim.
• Walnut Canyon National Monument. This small, beautiful park was well worth exploring. Our boys were thrilled to earn Junior Ranger badges by answering questions for the park ranger after our hike. The paved, but often unguarded, trail took us down 240 stairs to the canyon’s interior where we explored ancient cliff dwellings.
We came, we saw, we hiked—and left our relatives on good terms in the hope of being invited back.
Kim Moldofsky is a writer living in the northern suburbs. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.