By Tim Johnson
With high desert landscapes, amazing resorts and a dry heat that stretches all the way through the fall, Arizona has become a favourite destination for many Canadian families. It has also become a winter home for a burgeoning number of snowbirds, so heading southwest for a vacation this year may also dovetail nicely with a side visit to Grandma and Grandpa’s place.
Phoenix and area
With direct flights from some major Canadian cities, the entry point for your Arizona adventure will likely be Phoenix’s Sky Harbor International Airport. Set in the Valley of the Sun, beneath the brown, craggy peaks of the Superstition Mountains, the Sierra Estrella and a number of other Sonoran Desert ranges, Phoenix has the hottest climate of any major city in the United States — a typical July day tops out at 41Â°C (106Â°F), but by November the average temperature drops to 24Â°C (75Â°F) and down to 19Â°C (66Â°F) by December.
The Desert Botanical Garden, located within Papago Park, not far from the airport, is a good place to get acquainted with your arid surroundings. Five thematic trails, complete with hands-on exhibits to keep kids engaged, weave past more than 50,000 plants plus birds, lizards and other fauna spread across 50 acres.
Or you can choose to soar above it all in a hot air balloon. Be prepared for a very early morning — hotel pickups are usually around 5 a.m. — but seeing the sun rise over the mountains from an open-air wicker basket floating hundreds of feet in the air certainly makes it all worthwhile. The minimum age for this one- or two-hour adventure offered by Hot Air Expeditions is five. After landing, the crew sets up tables right in the desert and serves a champagne breakfast (sparkling cider for children).
Scottsdale, just east of Phoenix, is home to some of the area’s best resorts, restaurants and shopping. While the family relaxes poolside, head to downtown Scottsdale to browse its boutiques and galleries or to the Fashion Square, a large covered mall. Active families will enjoy a visit to Pinnacle Peak Park, with its hiking, horseback riding and spectacular views of the valley below. A stop at nearby Greasewood Flat is certainly worthwhile: A former way station for stagecoaches headed west, this place is now part restaurant/bar, part Wild West attraction, set amid a rough boulder landscape in North Scottsdale. Visit during the day to grab a deliciously greasy green-chili cheeseburger and have a look at the ramshackle wagons and the mules and chickens that roam around fenced off pens. Kids will get a kick out of the thousands of dollar bills that hang from the ceiling of the bar, a holdover from an Old West tradition where cowboys would leave some money with the maids so they’d have a few dollars to return to after several weeks out on the range. Or visit at night — sans kids — for some rollicking country music on the outdoor stage.
No visit to the Grand Canyon State is complete without checking out its famous gorge — one of the seven natural wonders of the world — which sits about four hours north of Phoenix. It’s true that there really are few words to describe this breathtakingly massive expanse — almost 30 kilometres across at its widest point and nearly two kilometres deep, most of the canyon is contained within a national park. Hike or drive along the more accessible south rim or opt for a helicopter or airplane ride over it — you’ll never forget the moment that the scrubby ground drops away, replaced by an unbelievable chasm and the winding, silvery Colorado River far below. Fewer crowds in November and December are a plus, but late-fall/winter weather should be considered — be ready for temperatures between 5Â° and 15Â°C (41Â° and 59Â°F) and unpredictable conditions, including snow.
Not quite as dramatic, but still shockingly beautiful, is Sedona, which sits about halfway between Phoenix and the Grand Canyon. Surrounded by hulking, vividly red sandstone monoliths, the place is truly mesmerizing. The area offers various outdoorsy ways to enjoy the surroundings, but you needn’t worry too much about your ability to get your heart rate up — even a leisurely walk in the town’s main business district, with its galleries and restaurants, will afford amazing views.
About two hours south of Phoenix sits Arizona’s sun-baked second city, Tucson. The main attraction here is the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, an outdoor showcase surrounded by the very desert that
it profiles. This combination zoo/natural history museum/botanical garden includes live animals such as tortoises, parrots, Mexican wolves and pumas as well as a hummingbird aviary, plus hands-on exhibits and interpretive experiences presented by volunteers, such as the opportunity to touch a Desert King snake.
A stop at Old Tucson Studios is also worthwhile; the outdoor set for a number of classic and modern Westerns — including The Quick and the Dead and Tombstone — is also a theme park of sorts, with cowboy gunfights and family-friendly saloon dance shows. And about 90 minutes west of Tucson you’ll find the real Tombstone, a former silver-mining boom town that’s now a bombastic mix of fact and fiction. Here in Tombstone, the self-proclaimed “town too tough to die,” you can visit the actual O.K. Corral, where frontier lawman Wyatt Earp and his sidekick Doc Holliday faced down their adversaries in that infamous 19th- century gunfight. Another worthwhile stop is Boot Hill, a Wild West graveyard, with original inscriptions on the headstones. (Some are dark and witty — one reads, “Here lies Lester Moore/four slugs from a 44/no les, no more.”) Rootin’ tootin’ attractions include ghost tours and shoot out shows; then wander the authentically dusty streets and wooden boardwalks and pick up a copy of the town paper, the Epitaph.
where to stay
Arizona is home to some wonderful resorts. Here are three of the best:
Westward Look Resort (Tucson)
Nestled in the Santa Catalina Mountains, the resort hosts guests in suite-size rooms in a series of small buildings spread across meticulously tended desert vegetation. The on-site Tinaja Desert Gallery contains snakeskins and Gila-monster skulls and other items, all of which guests are welcome to touch. There’s also plenty to keep you busy, including a spa, pool, hiking trails, tennis and a stone labyrinth that kids will love. Standard guest room, US$226* a night, westwardlook.com.
Westin Kierland Resort & Spa (Scottsdale)
This sprawling complex, close to all of Scottsdale’s main attractions, offers a lazy river, a full-service spa, 27 holes of championship golf, a kids club and activities for the whole family, including campfires and outdoor movies. Standard guest room, US$239* a night, kierlandresort.com.
Sheraton Wild Horse Pass Resort & Spa (Chandler)
Set in a broad valley populated by wild horses just south of Phoenix, this resort is owned and operated by the Gila River Indian Community. Start with a tour led by Ginger Sunbird Martin, America’s only cultural concierge, who will explain the history of the Pima and Maricopa peoples and how elements of their culture have been integrated into the hotel’s design. In addition to the pool, spa, golf and stable, take a boat ride down a replica of the Gila River to Rawhide Western Town. Kai, which integrates Native American elements into its excellent fare, is one of the best restaurants in the entire state. Standard guest room, US$179* a night, wildhorsepassresort.com.
Get your kicks on Route 66
If your kids love the animated film Cars, then a trip to Arizona is a must. The animators took much of their inspiration for the movie from many of the state’s landmarks along the historic Route 66. In fact, Arizona has the longest remaining section — 240 kilometres — of this famed road.