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Exploring Arizona: A Family-Friendly Adventure Beyond the Sunshine State

a ruins of a building in the desert

Considering Arizona for your next family vacay? Book your flights right now. It’s a dream destination for kids of all ages. Read on to learn more.

If cacti and tumbleweeds come to mind when you think of Arizona, think again. Arizona is magic. It features rugged landscapes, rich history, and endless opportunities for adventure. Yes, Arizona has four (stunning!) deserts, but the northern part of the state is known for its 194 mountain ranges. So there truly is something for everyone: Hike canyons and kayak through rivers while also off-road adventuring and even hot air ballooning.

When planning a family vacation, most of us immediately consider Orlando. (Afterall, it does feature “The Happiest Place on Earth.”) But you can beat the overcrowded beaches and tourist traps of Florida and experience a whole new world in Arizona. We kind of think of it as the cooler and more adventurous cousin who knows all the best things to do, places to see and must-try restaurants. 

Worried about travel time? Getting to Arizona is comparable to flying down south; it’s just a five-hour flight from Toronto or a three-and-a-half-hour flight from BC. Which means it’s a totally doable trip with kids—even if they’re the kind who like to ask, “are we there yet?” every few minutes.

For families seeking a comfortable and convenient home base in Mesa,  consider staying at the newly renovated Delta Hotel, offering spacious accommodations and a host of family-friendly amenities, such as a heated pool and the Rydables Tour (more on that later).  Plus, there are so many great activities to check out nearby, including a waterpark complete with mini golf and arcade, and a zoo!

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Mesa: A Gateway to Adventure

Nestled in the heart of Arizona, Mesa serves as an excellent hub for your family’s adventure. The city is just 24-km from the Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, the main airport serving the metropolitan area. Depending on traffic, travel time from the airport to Mesa typically ranges from 20 to 30 minutes by car.

Begin your journey by setting sail on a scenic Desert Belle boat tour on Saguaro Lake, where you’ll marvel at the breathtaking desert vistas and canyon walls. The sightseeing cruise is led by the boat’s captain who shares charming facts and local history. Kiddos will delight at their chance to catch a glimpse of local wildlife, such as bighorn sheep, bobcats, coyotes, and bald eagles. Bottled water is allowed but you can also purchase snacks (mmm…popcorn) and drinks on board. The lower cabin, which is air conditioned, accommodates strollers and there are bathrooms on board because… well, kids. The cruise books up fast so be sure to get your tickets in advance.

For a taste of Arizona’s agricultural heritage, head to the Queen Creek Olive Mill where you can explore olive groves, enjoy farm-to-table dining (yes, there is a kids’ menu!) and wonderful tours of the groves. You will discover that Arizona has an ideal climate to support these fruit-bearing trees, which can live to 5,000 years! Hot tip: Parents, don’t skip out on the Marketplace at Kierland Commons where you can shop beautiful creations crafted by artisans from Arizona to Italy.

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No family trip to Mesa is complete without indulging in a hearty dinner at Organ Stop Pizza, home of the Mighty Wurlitzer Pipe Organ that rises above the audience on an 8,000-pound rotating hydraulic elevator that sits 10 feet above the seating area. The pizza is sure to satisfy and your family will be entertained by the magic of the organ that can mimic a full orchestra. 

The next morning, it was worth the early wake-up call to grab breakfast at T.C. Egginton’s, a local favourite known for its delicious morning and lunch fare. The menu is extensive, and it took us ages to decide as one only has one stomach, but we landed on O’Pear Grenache Omelette and Chilaquiles. Both restaurants offer an extensive menu, so every family member is satiated.

Mesa: A Hub of Culture and Entertainment

Mesa boasts a myriad of attractions to captivate both children and adults alike. Explore the wonders of the Arizona Museum of Natural History, which offers more than 10 interactive displays to spark curiosity and imagination. Young paleontologists will “dig” Dinosaur Hall where there are plenty of prehistoric reptiles to discover. There’s also an exploration station designed for kids six and under to encourage play, inquiry and creativity through special activities, such as designing a dinosaur, studying fossils, playing with puppets and more. As you can imagine, it’s a popular spot for families with young tots, so try to visit Tuesday to Friday afternoons to avoid crowds.

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After a morning of exploration, refuel with a leisurely lunch at The Salted Knot, a hip soft-dough pretzel shop serving up handmade delights, like pretzel dogs and pretzel dumplings (filled with peanut butter and served with jam), and even sweet treats. Everything is crafted from locally sourced ingredients and there’s vegan options, too. Be sure to chat with owner, Maria Vassett; her resume as a concert photographer for Live Nation and then a social worker on the Gila River Reservation had us captivated. She was delightful and the food? Oh my!

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Art enthusiasts will delight in a visit to the Mesa Contemporary Arts Museum, showcasing innovative works by regional and national artists. It hosts five galleries, with each gallery showcasing a different theme. You can stay 15 minutes or two hours as the galleries are relatively small but full of artists’ work with great imaginations. Admission is free. 

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For a unique way to experience Mesa’s culinary scene, embark on the Rydables Ultimate Taco Tour, where you’ll pick your favourite animal décor from “Flaco”, the mouse, “Garo Loco,” the cat, and “Gordo,” the hippo. You’ll scooter your way through the city while savouring delicious tacos from local eateries while also learning a bit of local history. The Rydables guided tours are about two hours and were originally designed for kids but they were such a hit that the tours are now for everyone three and older! 

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The scooters can travel up to 4.225 mph or 7.5 mph (depending on the model). Age requirements are set by the venue and may vary. We loved that the Rydables Tours started at the Delta Hotel, Mesa, where we stayed. You can also book a ghost tour (90 minutes) to Mesa’s Wild West & Beyond Tour or Tots & Tunes and sing and smile your way around the city.

Flagstaff: A Gateway to Natural Wonders

Next on our itinerary, we ventured north to Flagstaff, a picturesque mountain town offering an abundance of outdoor adventures and cultural experiences. The drive from Mesa was a little over three hours (260 KM) and the drive was spectacular. There are plenty of things to see and do on the way. 

Once in Flagstaff, we stayed at the newly renovated  and nostalgic Americana Motor Hotel on the famous Route 66. The kids will love it as and there’s something charming about a motel (that is extremely well-appointed) . From lawn games by a fire pit and a heated outdoor pool to bike rentals  and stargazing (they provide the telescopes), your family will love this charming motel. 

After we checked in we explored the Museum of Northern Arizona, where exhibits highlight the region’s Native American heritage and natural history. The museum is free for children ages nine and under and they offer a kids’ activity guide to complement the experience. There’s a Discovery Room with books, puzzles, and videos if your little one needs some quiet time. Try to plan your trip for a sunny day since there’s a whole slew of outdoor activities available, including an amphibian pond and Cheshire Park Playground. Food isn’t allowed inside the facility but there are lots of picnic tables located around the property if you want to pack a lunch. 

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For a truly out-of-this-world experience, visit the Lowell Observatory, where you can peer through telescopes and learn about the mysteries of the cosmos. This is where they discovered the planet Pluto. There’s so much to see and do but a family fave is stargazing at the open-deck observatory (included in your admission). It features six telescopes that allow you to explore star fields, planets, and galaxies. Your little astronaut will be over the moon! 

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After a day of fun, grab a table at Salsa Brava, which serves up mouth-watering Mexican cuisine (lobster and shrimp enchiladas, anyone?). If you’re too tired to eat out, the resto offers family packages that you can enjoy from the comfort of your own accommodation. For a quick bite on the go, fuel up with breakfast or lunch at Fat Bagels, a local favorite known for its delicious NY-style bagels and loaded sandwiches. We loved Fat Bagels so much we went back twice!

Grand Canyon: A Natural Wonder Not to Be Missed

No visit to Arizona is complete without a trip to the awe-inspiring Grand Canyon. While a day trip from Mesa is doable, it’s worth booking a stay inside the park to fully immerse yourself in the grandeur of this natural wonder. At 446-km long and 29-km wide, there’s lots to take in, including vast varieties of plants, fungi, land animals, fish, and birds. 

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There are family-friendly hiking and biking programs, a junior ranger program and rafting lessons for kids ages 11-19. Train enthusiasts will want to climb aboard a restored WWII-era passenger train and diesel engine tour that features a mock robbery by Wild West bandits. 

The key for a successful trip? Plan, plan, plan. Make bookings for stays, tours, activities, and museums and be sure you’ve got everything you need. You’ll want to consider things like a stroller, baby carrier, snacks, hats, sunscreen and sunglasses, and lots and lots of water! Keep in mind that the South Rim is considered to be family-centric: There are more restrooms and tourist stops and it features the Grand Canyon Village. And note that whilst Mesa was hot in March, it was much colder as we traveled north to Flagstaff and north again to the Grand Canyon. Bring a coat if you are traveling off-season.

Of course, the journey is half the fun: En route to the Grand Canyon, take a detour through Wupatki National Monument, where ancient ruins and stunning desert landscapes await. Don’t miss the scenic loop, offering panoramic views of the surrounding terrain and showcasing the region’s natural beauty.

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Cap off your day with a casual dinner at the Bigfoot BBQ, where you can savour mouth-watering barbecue fare amidst a rustic Western atmosphere. Don’t forget to ask what flavours of fruit cobbler they have available that day; it’s made from scratch, and you can enjoy it plain or à la mode. 

Sedona and Scottsdale: Additional Gems to Explore

While Mesa and Flagstaff offer ample adventure, don’t overlook the beauty of Sedona’s red rocks or the shopping and dining delights of Scottsdale. Scottsdale may be famous for its golf courses but there’s so much more, including the OdySea Aquarium, Butterfly Wonderland, Southwest Wildlife Conservation Center, and Railroad Park.

With so many things to see and do, Arizona presents an enticing array of attractions and experiences for families seeking adventure beyond the Sunshine State. From cultural charm to natural wonders, there truly is something for everyone. This southwest state promises an unforgettable journey filled with excitement, exploration, cherished memories, and an abundance of hospitality. So, what are you waiting for? 

Helpful Links:

Thank you to the state of Arizona for helping us to plan our trip and for hosting us so graciously. 

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