Arizona, USA: Your family travel guide

Combining Wild West adventures with breathtaking scenery, world class museums and year-round sunshine, the Saguaro state is America’s hidden family holiday gem

Arizona, USA: Your family travel guide

British families looking for a US holiday traditionally flock to New York, Florida or California. But Arizona, sitting in the country’s south west corner between Mexico and the Grand Canyon, combines the year-long sunshine, natural wonders and activities of the other three. It’s a perfect winter sun destination, and it’s a wonderful winter sports spot too, with plenty of snow to be found in the higher altitudes of the 48th state’s northern part. Getting there is no more problematic than other long-haul favourites like the Maldives and Thailand either. You can fly direct from Heathrow to Phoenix Sky Harbor with British Airways in ten and a half hours from around £750 return per adult, with indirect flights to Tucson with a variety of airlines as an alternative. Car hire is plentiful, fuel cheap and the roads quiet, with driving distances between main destinations perfect for families fancying a classic American road trip (there’s even a stretch of Route 66 running east-west through the state).

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Here’s our pick of the top 5 stops on your Arizonan adventure…

Arizona, USA: Your family travel guide
Cowboy with ‘Welcome to Old Town Scottsdale’ sign.

1. SCOTTSDALE: Best for combining family activities with relaxation

Nestled next to the more famous Phoenix, this blossoming desert city boasts 330 days of sunshine a year, a vibrant cultural and museum scene, shopping a plenty, mouthwatering restaurants and luxury family hotels in a breathtaking natural setting. Best of all, it welcomes children with open arms, allowing you to have the sort of hip, relaxing holiday you had pre-parenthood with the little ones in tow. Combine lazy days by the pool with visits to the Museum of Musical Instruments, hot air balloon rides, treks up Pinnacle Peak, lunch at Desert Botanical Garden hotspot Gertrude’s, or bagpipes at dusk and a Deseo dinner at the Westin Kierland Hotel.

Five of the best family activities in Scottsdale:

Thanks to an ingenious Bluetooth headset system, which automatically lets you hear exerts of the globe-spanning collection of exhibits as you approach them, MIM is one of the most engaging museums we’ve had the joy of visiting. Take a trip through the continents and then linger in the United States / Canada Gallery, where you can hear archive footage of jazz, rock and hip hop legends, and see how a Steinway piano is made. Later, explore the Artists Gallery, featuring treasured instruments, stage costumes and videos of legends like Elvis, John Lennon and Taylor Swift, and make your own sweet sounds in the Experience Gallery, which features a booming gong, Burmese harp and more. There’s also 200 concerts a year in the auditorium, spanning every possible genre, as well as the chance to watch MIM’s restoration team at work. Tickets: $20 adults, $10 children, free for under-3s. Concerts cost extra.

Sitting proudly in the northern end of Scottsdale in the Sonoran Desert, this 600ft granite summit is a hotbed of flora and fauna. Follow a moderate 1.75 mile trail up to and over the summit (so a 3.5 mile round-trip), and take in the spectacular Scottsdale scenery for miles around at the “Grandview”. Handy signs point out the huge variety of plant life along the way, from compass barrel and hedgehog cacti, to teddy bear cholla and jojoba. You may even spot a roadrunner, gila monster, cayote or rattlesnake on your travels too. Afterwards, relax with a picnic at the visitors centre, with also offers water and loos. Free, open 5.30am-7.30pm daily. 

Experience the wonder of the rainforest without trekking to the Amazon at America’s largest butterfly pavilion, located within the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Native American community that reveres these stunning insects as a symbol of change and joy. Start your visit with a stunning 3D film about the majestic Monarch butterfly and its annual feat of migration, before observing the metamorphosis journey in the Butterfly Emergence Gallery chrysalis viewing area. Finally, step into the humid glass-enclosed conservatory to get up close and personal with a beautiful array of colourful butterflies from across the globe. It’s a magical experience for every age, especially when a Blue Morpho or Banded Peacock lands right on your shoulder. Adults £19.95, children aged 3-11 $12.95, free for ages 2 and under. 

Looking for a little oasis in the parched Sonoran desert? Check into the Westin Kierland, where guests can whizz down a 110ft waterslide or float along at a more sedate pace in a rubber ring on the lazy river in the resort’s Adventure Water Park. You can even learn to surf despite being in a landlocked state on the state-of-the-art FlowRider wave simulator, with five-day Surf Camps available for older kids. The Westin also offer a fantastic golf course, OK Corral shaded outdoor games area and daily Kids Club, plus a Digital Kids Club for 8-13 year olds and the chance to make (and eat!) S’Mores around a firepit on Friday and Saturday nights.

Marvel at the beauty and strength of the desert’s hardy residents (both plant and human) as you wander the easy themed trails at this delightful garden dedicated to preserving the region’s natural wonders. Our family were wowed by the giant cholla cacti, standing many feet above our heads. If you can persuade little ones to sit quietly amid the wildflowers, you may spot a tiny hummingbird too. There’s also the seasonal butterfly pavillion to explore, before taking lunch at Gertrude’s, with its delicious Arizona meets New Orleans menu featuring many fresh ingredients grown on site. Our recommendation? The pork gumbo with horseradish potato salad and crawfish. Entry: $22 adults, $10 children, free for under-3s. Strollers and umbrellas available to rent.

>Find out more about visiting this area at experiencescottsdale.com

Old ranch house in the desert near Tucson, Arizona.
Old ranch house in the desert near Tucson, Arizona.

2. TUCSON: Best for cowboy culture and guaranteed sunshine

Sitting within spitting distance of the Mexican border in the Sonoran desert, Tucson and its surrounding area is the stuff of cowboy films, quite literally. It’s cinematic scenery has appeared in many a Hollywood blockbuster while the infamous town of Tombstone is the site of the real Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. But a Wild West past isn’t Tucson’s sole heritage – once part of Mexico and also home to Apache settlers, it has a vibrant architectural style, multicultural arts scene and delicious southwestern cuisine.

This area offers year-round sun but the nights are cool, so perfect for children, while the desert landscape is teaming with greenery and wildlife, from rattlesnakes to cayotes and birds of prey – and ranches with horses to ride. It’s a great stargazing spot too, with Flandreau Planetarium on your doorstep or the Kitts Peak National Observatory situated 50 miles out of the city. Our tip: if you’ve got time, head west and take a diversion off the 86 Ajo highway (you will need to Google exactly where beforehand, as it’s not on a map and barely signposted) and travel the dirt track to Cowtown Keeylocko. This small scale Western town was lovingly built by now 86-year-old black cowboy and former actor Ed Keeylocko on his ranch in the 1970s, complete with bar, store and cemetery. The population is “uno” apart from a few pigs, but Ed can regularly be found doing maintenance or offering tequilas to the curious visitors from across the world who pop into the memorabilia-filled Blue Dog Saloon.

> Find out more about Tucson at visittucscon.org

Cathedral Rock, Sedona
Cathedral Rock, Sedona

3. SEDONA: Best for embracing the great outdoors – and your inner hippy

The red rocks that give Sedona its distinctive landscape look like they came from another galaxy – and some attribute them with special powers. In fact, around four million visitors flock to climb Bell, Cathedral or Snoopy Rock (to name but a few) each year and feel the benefit of the natural vortexes (concentrations of high energy believed to aid wellbeing) that swirl beneath the surface of Red Rock County. If this is a bit hippy dippy for you, don’t worry. The scenery is will still leave you and your children speechless (take a Pink Jeep tour or hot air balloon ride if you don’t fancy hiking or biking) and the minimalist Chapel of the Holy Cross, perched atop a rock, is a place for quiet contemplation, whether you are a believer or not. Afterwards, hang out in Sedona’s quaint high street, complete with art galleries, crystal shops and ice cream parlours.

For family friendly accommodation, try The Butterfly Garden Inn, a 15-minute drive north of Sedona, offers comfortable self-catering cabins in the woods with breakfast delivered to your door by basket. Be sure to drive a little further and climb the winding upward road through pine filled air of the Coconino National Forest to take in the view from Oak Creek Canyon Vista, a smaller cousin of the Grand Canyon, where you can also pick up some Native American handicrafts.

> Find out more about the area at visitsedona.com

The amazing Horseshoe Bend, Grand Canyon
The amazing Horseshoe Bend, Grand Canyon

4. THE GRAND CANYON: Best for that once-in-a-lifetime experience

One of the seven wonders of the natural world and a World Heritage Site, photos simply do not do justice to the geological wonderland that is the Grand Canyon. Carved through 277 miles of northwestern Arizona by the Colorado River, it runs as deep as 6,000ft and is 18 miles wide in places.With such numbers, it may seem overwhelming but the canyon is very accessible for families. There are signposted walks along the South Rim (including the Trail of Time, which teaches you about each of the rock layers), as well as two visitors centre where you can learn about the various human and animal inhabitants of the canyon. Children aged four and over can take part in the various free Junior Ranger programmes too.

If little legs get tired, free shuttle buses can ferry you between points of interest. Be sure to pack plenty of water (plastic bottles cannot be sold inside the national park but there are plenty of refilling stations), sunscreen and a coat as the weather can change quickly and be significantly colder due to the high elevation. Stay at a hotel or campsite at the canyon itself or, for an easy daytrip with children, stay 59 miles away in Williams and take the fabulous daily tourist train to the South Rim.  You can also access the canyon at Desert View in the east or North Rim (only open May to October). Alternatively, visit the Skywalk just outside the national park in the west, which is run by the Hualapia tribe and allows you to walk out 4,000ft above the canyon. Not for the faint-hearted.

> Find out more about visiting Grand Canyon 

Prime Lake and The San Francisco Peaks, Coconino National Forest, Arizona
Prime Lake and The San Francisco Peaks, Coconino National Forest, Arizona

5. FLAGSTAFF: Best for snow bunnies

This cool college town with rich native American and settler heritage enjoys a seasonal climate in contrast to other Arizonan destinations, turning into a winter playground thanks to its high elevation in the north of the state. The Arizona Snowbowl area in the San Francisco Peaks is one of the oldest continually run ski areas in the US and has excellent beginners slopes for children. Head into the Coconino National Forest for sledging, tubing, horsedrawn sleigh rides and snowball fights, visit the Flagstaff Nordic Center for cross-country skiing, while you can find ice-skating aplenty downtown. Outside of snow season, you can revel in Route 66 nostalgia, see the telescope that discovered Pluto at Lowell Observatory, or spot grizzlies, bison and wolves at Bearizona Wildlife Park.

>> Find out more at Flagstaff Arizona

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For more information about these destinations and other attractions and accommodations in Arizona, go to visitarizona.com