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Escapes With The Family In Mind

Published: Jan 25, 2011
Grand Canyon Railway

Arizona’s amazing demographic diversity means that there is something to capture the imagination of all ages. Kid-friendly attractions and venues with something appealing for adults as well abound in Arizona.

Up, Up and Away
The geothermal conditions in Arizona make hot air ballooning a particularly appropriate sport. Gondolas range from family-size, to little “sports car” gondolas that hold two. Sunrise and sunset flights are the equivalent of a magic carpet ride over the Sonoran Desert in the Phoenix area. Skimming the tops of saguaro cactusi and getting friendly waves from early-morning golfers is part of the fun. When your balloon reaches its highest point, you can see for more than a 160 kilometres in all directions.

In the northern part of the state, seeing the monoliths, buttes and spires of Monument Valley from a hot air balloon is unforgettable. You can book flights over Sedona’s spectacular red rock country, and soar with eagles over the Verde Valley, startling rabbits and cattle below.

Family Resorts
Arizona excels at entertaining the kids while pampering mom and dad. Attractive summer rates can lower the price of a family vacation by more than half. A case in point is the Oasis Water Park at Arizona Grand in Phoenix. An eight-storey tower with three water slides and a gigantic wave pool challenge kids, while adults can hop a tube and meander along a lazy river pool. The adjacent golf course blends desert target links with traditional golf, and hiking trails in South Mountain are accessible from the resort.

Pointe Hilton Squaw Peak Resort

The two Pointe Hiltons in Phoenix, Squaw Peak Resort and Tapatio Cliffs Resort, are especially kid-friendly. At Squaw Peak, the Hole-in-the-Wall River Ranch, themed dining experiences and a children’s adventure program called Coyote Camp engage kids 12 and under, and those ages 13 to 17. At Tapatio Cliffs, the Kids’ Korral at The Falls Water Village occupies the youngsters while adults head for Lookout Mountain Golf Course, shared by both resorts.

The water playground at Hyatt Regency Scottsdale at Gainey Ranch keeps kids busy for hours while parents can tee up at the adjacent championship golf course or indulge at Aviana spa. Young ones ages 3 to 12 can be entertained at Camp Hyatt Kachina.

The Hilton Tucson El Conquistador proves itself kid-friendly with the Desert Springs Oasis that features a 43-metre “slide rock” waterslide. The pool for smaller tykes, Shallow Springs, is shaped like a fish with interactive water features in the tail.

Museum Escapades
Far from the staid, stuffy museums of bygone days, today’s museums offer as much fun as a theme park. The Arizona Science Center in Phoenix is filled with interactive exhibits that entertain everyone from toddlers to grandparents. A Lego castle adventure, dancing metals in a sound and music exhibit, the process of creating a house and an echo chamber that teaches about sound waves are among the big crowd-pleasers. When it’s time for a rest, the Dorrance Planetarium has shows that immerse guests in the imagery of the galaxy.

The Museum of Northern Arizona in Flagstaff is a real child-pleaser for its life-size model skeleton of Dilophosarus, a flesh-eating dinosaur that once roamed the surrounding woods. At Fort Huachuca in Sierra Vista, located on the military post, a series of museum buildings house exhibits ranging from one dedicated to the famed Buffalo Soldiers to all types of military wagons. Displays help impart a sense of U.S. Army history on the southwestern frontier.

The Pima Air and Space Museum in Tucson appeals to wanna-be astronauts, fighter pilots and history buffs. More than 275 aircraft and spacecraft from around the world are at home here. One of the biggest draws is the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird, the strategic reconnaissance aircraft operational from 1966 to 1990. Visitors can climb aboard the last prop-driven Air Force One, used by John F. Kennedy as well as Lyndon B. Johnson.

More of an extension of the desert than a museum, the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum in Tucson is a showcase for the natural desert and the creatures that live there. It is truly a wild place because only 12 of its 40 hectares are under exhibit. Always garnering attention are the prairie dog colony, Mexican wolves, desert bighorn sheep, white-tail deer and mountain lions. Great gift shops and an outstanding café‚ round out an entire day of exploring.

In Phoenix, the nationally-acclaimed Desert Botanical Garden is an excellent starting place for becoming acquainted with the arid places of the world. It exhibits, conserves and studies the world’s arid-land plants, with special emphasis on the ones native to the Southwestern United States. Nature trails criss-cross the garden, with interpretive signs and helpful docents to introduce guests to the mysteries of the many-armed saguaro cactus and the secrets of the colourful Gila woodpecker. From February through April Mother Nature schedules her own special event. The wildflower season bursts into bloom in the desert in general, and in a concentrated way at the garden. For desert plants to take home, check the March and October Landscape Plant sales. Helpful attendants will advise on which ones will flourish in other parts of the world. At the gift shop, check out the treasures with a Southwest flair to take home.

Road Trips
Arizona is the state for your clients to experience the original road trip. A drive along historic Route 66 covers some of the Mother Road’s most interesting territory as it passes through the state. Guidebook in hand, travellers actually can drive on parts of the original road. For a taste of the real Route 66, stop in Seligman for a frosty treat at the Snow Cap drive-in, overnight in a 1950 concrete and wood wigwam-cum-motel in Holbrook, stop at the Standin’ on the Corner Park in Winslow, and visit the magnificent arboretum in Flagstaff. They’re all among the treasures that keep Route 66 alive.

Outside of Phoenix, a National Scenic Byway called the Apache Trail leads to Roosevelt Dam. Used as the dam’s original construction road, it passes volcanic fields and interesting buttes. Stop at the old mining town of Goldfield, at Tortilla Flat where dollar bills hang from walls at the Superstition Saloon, and Lost Dutchman State Park to enjoy a picnic.

The Mogollon Rim Road scenic drive follows Forest Road 300 through pine forests. It roughly parallels the rim, providing amazing vistas and views and, in summer, weather that’s many degrees cooler than the desert floor.

About a half hour north of Globe, the descent begins into the Salt River Canyon, creating white knuckles in some, but that others find exhilarating. Kids love the switchbacks, and straight-to-the-bottom views. Stop at Heiroglyphic Point for more views and a close-up of petroglyphs carved into huge black boulders.

One of the most challenging, and most spectacular drives, the Coronado Trail Scenic Byway snakes for more than 194 kilometres through craggy mountains and fragrant pine forests. From the town of Alpine south to Morenci, the road descends almost 1,500 metres, passing through life zones similar to those between Canada and Mexico, testing the nerve of drivers with white-knuckle curves. Fall colours are a showy spectacle and spring wild flowers are a bloomin’ blast of wonderful. A 1,200-metre drop at Blue Vista Overlook creates dramatic views of the Blue Range Mountains and the valleys below. Stop at historic Hannagan Meadow Lodge for lunch in a charming rustic setting.

Wild West Adventures
The image of the cowboy and his dusty herd riding into the sunset is alive and well in Arizona. Outdoor cookouts that have become civilized sundown soirees, recreate the experience without losing a sense of the past. Rawhide at Wild Horse Pass, Arizona’s largest western-themed attraction, offer sundown cookouts that consist of traditional chuckwagon grub. Guests hop aboard a horse-drawn wagon for the ride to an outdoor cooking and dining area called Maricopa Wells. Before diving into cowboy vittles, take the time to see a Wild West stunt show, pan for gold, ride a mechanical bull, an old west train or a stagecoach, climb a rock wall or try your luck as a sharpshooter. On weekends a farmers market showcases fresh foods grown in the Gila River community.

Slices of the Old West known as guest ranches combine Arizona history with soft adventure for your client’s entire family. Dude-friendly steeds are carefully matched to riders under the watchful eyes of well-trained wranglers. Tanque Verde Ranch in Tucson offers days of riding through saguaro-studded terrain, as well as swimming in indoor and outdoor pools, tennis courts and nature and exercise hiking trails. Evening programs are geared to kids of all ages.

In northern Arizona near the little town of Greer, Hidden Meadow Ranch is true family luxury combined with a close-to-nature experience. Log cabins tucked into the beautiful White Mountains are home base for horseback riding, fly fishing, hiking, archery, horse-drawn wagon and carriage rides, canoeing and mountain biking.

At Rancho de los Caballeros in Wickenburg, a resort-style ranch, activities are about evenly divided between dude-style doings and golf. Tennis, trap and skeet shooting, hayrides, cookouts and a swimming pool keep everyone busy. Also in Wickenburg, the Kay el Bar is noted for its homey family-friendly feeling and according to one guest, “humorous” wranglers and hearty meals.

Ridin’ the Rails
The Verde Canyon Railroad is a comfortable excursion train that does four-hour forays into the Sycamore Wilderness, the only way to see this spectacular area. Family-friendly cars have indoor seating as well as outdoor observation gondolas with trained guides to help passengers spot bald eagles among the cliffs, and great blue herons in the silvery river below. Kids love the vintage FP7 engines that pull the train along at a sedate, rattly 19 kilometres per hour. The train depot has a marvelous museum filled with Verde Valley history.

An exciting alternative to driving to the Grand Canyon is to leave your car in Williams, and board the Grand Canyon Railway for a three-hour chug to the South Rim. Choose from vintage cars with traditional train seating or a domed observation car with a 360-degree view of forest and high desert plains. Watch out for “bandits” on the return trip.

Ghost Hunting
As with many states that have a mining history, Arizona is filled with ghost towns. When the ore played out, the miners left and the ghosts moved in. The state’s most famous ghost town is Jerome, which clings tenaciously to the side of Cleopatra Hill. Because the hill is honeycombed with old mine tunnels that shift constantly, Jerome often is moved by ghostly tremors. Have lunch at the Haunted Hamburger, dinner at the three-diamond Asylum (in the one-time mine hospital, now the Grand Hotel). For those who are there on Ghost Hunter night, it’s quite possible that the spirits might oblige and appear.
The Gadsden Hotel in Douglas is famed for its ghosts, as is the Hassayampa Inn in Prescott. Saloon Row ghost tours in Williams start with divining rods that help locate spirit forces.

In Bisbee, guests report that a female ghost hangs out at the Copper Queen Hotel. For a truly spirited adventure, a “Ghost Host” will lead a walking tour to learn about Julia, who enjoys the company of married men staying alone in “her” room, Nat the Miner who owed money and paid with his life, and the Lady in White who saved the lives of three children.

And in Tombstone, the Haunted Birdcage Theater, Big Nose Kate’s and the OK Corral are happy hunting, or haunting, grounds for ghosts. Visitors report everything from icy breezes to phantom hands gently caressing their faces.

Exploring Underground
In Bisbee, once the social and economic hub of southern Arizona, retired miners help guests onto mine cars where they don hard hats and straddle open seats to tour the Copper Queen Mine. The enormous mine has been closed since 1943. A “claustrophobia stop” as the tour enters the mine enables the faint of heart to change their minds.

In Goldfield Ghost Town near Apache Junction at the base of the legendary Superstition Mountains, families can tour the Mammoth Gold Mine, pan for gold, visit the museum and take a ride on Arizona’s only narrow gauge train. Gunslingers, saloon gals, gold panners and horseback riders lend a lively air. For a history of the real thing, the Good Enough silver mine in Tombstone recently opened for walking tours, suitable for older kids. Guests descend wood stairs into the main tunnel where a guide points out veins of ore and mineral outcroppings.

Threads of gold still are embedded in the walls of the “glory hole” of the Gold Road mine in Oatman that runs directly under Route 66. Scheduled tours are offered on a daily basis.

Seeing Stars
Arizona’s spectacularly clear, dark night skies, with minimum light pollution over much of the state, are a dream come true for your clients who are star-gazers. Opportunities for gazing at heavenly bodies are everywhere.

Outside of Tucson, Kitt Peak National Observatory is home to the largest collection of research optical telescopes anywhere in the world. The facility invites families to tour the visitor centre, and to participate in hands-on nighttime programs in which they’ll see everything from planets to distant galaxies using 40- and 50-centimetre telescopes. For the truly dedicated, all-night programs are also offered.

In Flagstaff, Lowell Observatory is carved in the annals of astronomy as the site from which the planet Pluto was discovered in 1930. Never mind that Pluto is no longer considered a planet. Lowell lives on. The classic observatory was heavily involved in the Apollo program, hosting Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong. Today families can tour the observatory and, on nighttime tours, marvel at the mechanics of the dome that rolls open to reveal the huge Clark refractor telescope.

Mount Graham International Observatory, an astrophysical research site near Safford, sits on top of a spectacular mountain range in the midst of a dense pine forest. Visitors check in at a base camp and museum at Discovery Park for a van ride to the mountaintop and a guided tour. The scenic ride includes an elevation gain of more than 2,128 metres. After-dark star gazing is available using a 50-centimetre optical telescope at adjacent Gov Aker observatory.

Evening Sky Tours offers a session of scintillating astronomy under the canopy of Sedona’s brilliant night sky. Professional astronomers use custom-built state of the art telescopes and high-powered laser pointers to guide you around the night sky. Many Sedona resorts also offer star gazing events, taking advantage of the area’s clear, dark nights that produce outstanding viewing conditions.
At the new planetarium at Mesa Community College adjacent to Phoenix, visitors can view the night sky and explore the universe and solar system, at no charge. As part of the Astronomy Nights program, the planetarium runs 30-minute programs every first Friday, with complimentary telescope viewing.

Cactus League Baseball
Everyone loves the sharp crack of bat against ball, especially when the sun is shining and the weather is wonderful. In February and March, the best of major league teams move into the Phoenix/Tucson area for pre-season training, much to the delight of baseball fans. This is the time when managers take a look at players, and determine who will make the season’s final roster based on their performance. The great news for fans is that they get to see many of their favourite players, at prices truly on the cheap. They start at US $6 and go to a whopping US $30!

Teams that regularly participate include the Diamondbacks, Rockies, White Sox, Angels, Athletics, Brewers, Dodgers, Cubs, Giants, Indians, Padres, Mariners, Royals and Rangers.

Glendale’s Camelback Ranch is home to the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Chicago White Sox. When the teams are home, you can take the field and see what it’s like to be in the big leagues. The Ranch offers special fantasy camps throughout the year for kids and adults who want to play with and learn from the pros.

Arizona truly is a family playground with something for every age. The challenge is to fit everything in.

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