With its vast landscapes and colorful topography, the American Southwest is one of the best regions in the country to take an old-fashioned road trip—in fact, that’s the only way to see most of it. Arizona, specifically, is home to the only Natural Wonder of the World in the U. S., numerous national parks, picturesque state parks, and 21 American Indian tribes. So, what better way to spend spring break this year than packing up the kids for a four family-friendly road trips through Arizona?
Since the possibilities for an Arizona road trip are endless, I’ve organized these family-friendly road trips into four paths. Each of these road trip routes includes a selection of my favorite stops. I’ve traveled along each of these paths—most more than once. There is truly something for every member of the family to be enjoyed in each of these road trips.
Food and culture trails through Phoenix
The capital of Arizona, Phoenix is known for its resorts, golf courses, great food and wine, and fantastic desert views. While road-tripping through Arizona, stop here for some culture and tasty morsels.
Take in the art of Native Americans at the Heard Museum. Let the kids loose at the Arizona Science Center where STEM exhibits both teach and entertain. Race fans will love the Penske Racing Museum with its amazing collection of cars, trophies, and racing memorabilia chronicling the career of the Penske family one of the most successful race dynasties.
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Then, drive about 30 miles northeast of town to visit Taliesin West, Frank Lloyd Wright’s desert sanctuary and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s a stunning museum celebrating the genius of Wright’s architecture and design.
After taking in all those amazing places, visitors will have worked up an appetite. Phoenix’s dining scene is rich and varied with something for every taste.
Housed inside a 1950s bank building, the midcentury gem Federal Pizza serves up delicious wood-fired pizza in a relaxed atmosphere that’s perfect for families. Or try modern Mexican fare made with fresh local ingredients at Joyride Taco House with misters on the patio to keep you cool in the hot summer months.
Right across the street is Churn, a nostalgic candy and ice cream shop that will make all your kids’ dreams come true with shelves of retro toys and candy, artisan ice cream, and fresh-baked treats. Check out the Instagrammable wall of cassette tapes in the back (and have fun explaining what cassettes are to your kids).
Filled with sandstone buttes that provide gentle but stimulating hiking trails and photogenic spots like the Hole in the Rock, Papago Park is a scenic wonder only 10 minutes from downtown Phoenix. Home of the Phoenix Zoo and the Desert Botanical Garden, the park also offers many activities including an archery range, golf course, fishing lagoons, and an orienteering course. That little pyramid you’ll see is the tomb of Gov. George Wiley Paul Hunt.
There are several good reasons for paying a visit to the Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch, a 110-acre park in Gilbert. The astounding variety of cacti, probably varieties than you ever knew existed, is itself worth stopping by for. But there are also many other species of plant and animal life in and around this artificial wetland created with reclaimed water. You can view fish, birds, reptiles, and mammals of many different kinds on a pleasant little hiking trail. It’s an especially excellent place for bird watching. The picnic and playground areas are imaginatively and artistically designed and laid out.
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Another family-friendly adventure is Schnepf Farms, an organic farm where you can pick your own fruits and vegetables. With 300 acres, Schnepf Farms is the perfect place to enjoy fresh air and naturally grown, pesticide-free produce (peppers, cucumbers, kale, and green onions, among others). They are especially known for their peaches with picking season usually in May.
If you’re into clean eating, check out the Queen Creek Olive Mill. You can tour the grounds and learn how to make extra virgin olive oil, the best uses for it in the kitchen and why it’s so healthy.
Eat your way through Tucson plus a dose of nature
Tucson is another Arizona destination worth repeat visits with history, culture, and outdoor activities galore. Plus, its food game is beyond your wildest expectations. Tucson is a UNESCO City of Gastronomy, named in 2015 (the first in the U.S.). Tucson gave us the Sonoran dog—a bacon-wrapped street dog forged in nearby Sonora and packed into a bun filled with burrito toppings.
Tucson’s designation acknowledges that the chefs and residents of Tucson value the role food has historically played in the city. Many local chefs use ingredients that the Indigenous people of the area have used for thousands of years.
Whatever else is on the agenda, save time to explore an area the city has designated “The Best 23 Miles of Mexican Food.” Start along Tucson’s 12th Avenue for an authentic taste of the Best 23 Miles and work your way from there. From street food to taquerias to fine dining, the Mexican food scene in Tucson is often described as the best outside of Mexico.
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Laying claim to being the oldest Mexican restaurant in the U.S. is El Charro, with a menu offering a mix of traditional dishes and Mexican favorites. This colorful eatery was established in 1922 by Monica Flin (credited with inventing the chimichanga) and has been in continuous operation by the same family ever since.
At the historic Hotel Congress, the more than 100-year-old lobby restaurant Cup Cafe is something of a local legend. The food here is dependable and tasty — from French dip sandwiches with an interesting Southwest flavor twist to gargantuan breakfast-for-lunch omelets. For dessert, an old-fashioned spiraling glass display case shows guests a variety of sweet, homemade treats.
But this funky little town is chockablock with art, drawing from indigenous cultures, trippy desert landscape, and the fact that heat and desolation can really bring out the weirdness in people.
Home to the University of Arizona, the city nurtures a vibrant downtown arts scene with the contemporary Tucson Museum of Art forming the backbone of a flourishing community of painters, glass-blowers, and jewelers. When the heat drops at night, that same downtown comes alive with bars, breweries, and upscale restaurants embracing the uniquely Tucson convergence of Mexican and Arizona influences, a dose of green chiles, open-faced quesadillas (cheese crisps), and those exquisite hot dogs.
Tucson also happens to host one of the country’s biggest annual gem and mineral shows each winter when the city is taken over by rockhounds from around the world.
View a great variety of plants and animals of the Sonoran Desert at Arizona-Sonoran Desert Museum. Two miles of paths lead through 21 acres of displays. Live demonstrations and tours daily. The museum is a zoo, natural history museum, and botanical garden all rolled into one.
A desert oasis, Sabino Canyon Recreation Area is a hiker’s paradise. Tucked in a canyon in the Santa Catalina Mountains in the Coronado Forest, it is easily accessible from Tucson. Ride the narrated shuttle bus and you can get off and back on at any of the stops for a picnic, hike, or a walk back. Trails off the main road explore the canyon or lead into the high country.
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The West is full of beautiful national parks but one of the most iconic symbols of the Old West is the saguaro cactus—and Saguaro National Park is full of them. These majestic plants are only found in this part of the U.S. and can live to be as much as 200 years old and grow up to 60 feet tall. Learn about cacti in the gardens on the east and west sides of the visitor center and take in beautiful sunsets on the Tanque Verde Ridge Trail (a half-mile hike) from the Javelina Rocks pullout on the east or from the Gates Pass on the west side.
Places to stay along this route
With so much to explore, you may want to book a campground or RV park along the route. Here are some recommendations for places to rest your weary heads:
- Destiny RV Resort, Goodyear
- Canyon Vista RV Resort, Gold Canyon
- Leaf Verde RV Park, Buckeye
- Lost Dutchman State Park, Apache Junction
- Usery Regional Park, Mesa
- Tucson/Lazydays KOA, Tucson
- Mission View RV Resort, Tucson
- Rincon Country West RV Resort, Tucson
- Catalina State Park, Oro Valley
The saguaro cactus is the Sonoran Desert’s singular icon, the largest native living thing that exists here, and it appears to be a stunningly robust presence in a harsh land.
—Larry Cheek, Cheek, Born Survivor