Family-friendly Road Trips Through Arizona: The Old West

To help you plan your family-friendly road trip through Arizona, I’ve put together this list of awesome road trip stops. Keep reading to learn about my favorite spots and campgrounds along the route.

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 four family-friendly road trips through Arizona?

Bisbee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Earlier articles highlighted Northern Arizona and the Grand Canyon, Sedona and the Verde Valley, and Phoenix and Tucson. Today is a short drive to our final destination in the state’s southeastern part.

Tombstone © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Exploring Arizona’s Old West

This was the land of copper mines, silver mines, gold mines, Army forts, Indian wars, cowboys, cattle rustlers, gamblers, the Earp brothers and the Clantons and Doc Holiday. Southeastern Arizona was the quintessential Wild West. This place oozes with tales and legends and beauty. And it is all still here for you to enjoy.

Benson © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Settlers were first attracted to Arizona’s deserts in the 1800s by the lure of mining and pioneers on the wagon trail soon followed as settlers sought a new life as cattle ranchers, treasure hunters and more. In more recent history, Arizona’s authentic Old West is the backdrop for many Western movies.

Benson © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Railroad heritage

Your Old West adventure begins in Benson. Amid picturesque river-valley views, agreeable weather, and the Home of Kartchner Caverns State Park, the City of Benson is ideally situated along Interstate-10 as the Gateway to Southeastern Arizona. Founded in 1880 prior to Arizona’s mining boom, Benson developed as a stopping point for the Butterfield Overland Stage mail delivery route. Soon thereafter, the Southern Pacific Railroad came into Benson and continued to serve the area until 1997 when the line was purchased by Union Pacific Railroad.

Related Article: Your Cochise Adventure

Benson © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The City of Benson’s culture is ingrained with the Old West and its traditional Railroad heritage. The Benson Visitor Center—Train Depot, located at 249 East Fourth Street in the heart of Benson’s historic downtown, is a beautiful replica railroad depot using many of the same architectural features as the original depot that was built over a century ago. Learn all about the city’s rich railroad heritage and the many area attractions.

Tombstone © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Town Too Tough To Die

Tombstone, the site of the shootout at the O.K. Corral, is justifiably the most famous of Arizona’s Old Western towns. Starring in dozens of films, Tombstone is very well preserved and visitor-friendly, and most of the attractions here are authentic. Daily reenactments of the shootout are staged at the O.K. Corral. The entire town is a National Historic Landmark and much of the original buildings are still intact. There is something for every member of the family in Tombstone, the Town Too Tough To Die.

Tombstone © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Stop in at the Bird Cage Theater, chock-full of Western artifacts and home to the longest-running poker game in Arizona history. The Crystal Palace Saloon (which has been around since 1879) offers an authentic saloon and dance hall experience plus a tasty lunch menu.

Tombstone Courthouse State Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tombstone is also the home of Arizona’s oldest continuously published newspaper, the delightfully named Tombstone Epitaph with a small museum behind the Crystal Palace Saloon. Read the original 1881 reports of the gunfight at the O.K. Corral and learn how the Epitaph’s editor, John Clum, captured the Apache warrior Geronimo.

Related Article: Arizona’s Coolest Small Towns Are Filled with Cowboys, Wine, and Mysticism

Boothill © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Finish your visit to Tombstone at Boothill Graveyard. Tombstone’s first city cemetery, Boothill was established in 1879 as the final resting place of law-abiding citizens as well as thieves, murderers, and rustlers alike.

Bisbee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Queen of the Copper Camps

From Tombstone drive south 25 minutes to the delightful and beautifully preserved mining boomtown of Bisbee. Temperatures are cooler in the scenic Mule Mountains where it even snows in the winter.

One of Bisbee’s most magnificent architectural achievements is the countless concrete stairs that cling to the steep canyon sides. You can find these stairs all over town. While you’re at it, explore the heritage and culture along Subway Street and enjoy some shopping as you take a self-guided tour.

Bisbee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Bisbee Tour Company offers multiple golf cart tour options to enjoy the town from an entirely different perspective. If you’re interested in the Bisbee’s eerie past, an evening walking tour with Old Bisbee Ghost Tour will show you the town and introduce you to some ghostly members of society.

Queen Mine, Bisbee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Both the Bisbee Mining and Historical Museum and the Bisbee Restoration Museum chronicle the city’s copper-mining past as the “Queen of the Copper Camps.” During almost a century of mining, 8 billion pounds of copper, 102 million ounces of silver, and 2.8 million ounces of gold—along with millions of pounds of zinc, lead, and manganese—were pulled out of the ground here.

Queen Mine, Bisbee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If you’re not claustrophobic, take the underground tour of the vast Queen Mine. Here you’ll learn how generations of miners bored tunnels, laid dynamite, blew open veins of ore, and trundled it back out.

Bisbee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

First International Airport of the Americas

Next take in the ambiance of Douglas—home to the first international airport—as you enjoy the Border Air Museum and Art Car Museum. The museum includes photos, newspaper articles, original airplane photos, the official letter of President of United States Roosevelt declaring the airport “The First International Airport of the Americas,” a Trojan airplane that was built in Douglas, American Airlines memorabilia, and more.

Related Article: Most Beautiful Towns in the Southwest

Bisbee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Gadsden Hotel opened for business in November 1907. The hotel soon became a meeting place for cattlemen, ranchers, miners, and businessmen. This grand hotel was named after the historically significant Gadsden Purchase; a purchase of 30,000 square miles from Mexico made in 1853 for 10 million dollars, negotiated by James Gadsden who was then the U.S. Ambassador to Mexico. The land purchase was to ensure territorial rights for a practical southern railroad route to the pacific coast.

We can now only imagine how Arizona was before it was a state and at a time when Wyatt Earp, Geronimo, and Pancho Villa rode roughshod over the West.

Butterfield RV Resort © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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:

  • Quail Ridge RV Resort, Huachuca City
  • Tombstone Territories RV Resort, Huachuca City
  • Butterfield RV Resort and Observatory, Benson
  • Cochise Terrace RV Resort, Benson
  • Tombstone RV Park and Campground, Tombstone
Cochise Terrace RV Resort © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bottom line

One of Arizona’s advantages is a nearly year-round panorama staged with excellent weather. Visitors can see Arizona by car pretty much any time of the year, so the most difficult thing about planning a family road trip is determining the best path to match everyone’s interests. Regardless of which itinerary is chosen, a family road trip through this fascinating state will take in some of our country’s most interesting history and impressive natural wonders.

Worth Pondering…

To my mind these live oak-dotted hills fat with side oats grama, these pine-clad mesas spangled with flowers, these lazy trout streams burbling along under great sycamores and cottonwoods, come near to being the cream of creation.

—Aldo Leopold, 1937

Your Cochise Adventure

Roam Cochise

With the Grand Canyon, Oak Creek Canyon, the Painted Desert, the Four Corners area, and many other geographical wonders in the northern part of the state, southeastern Arizona, steeped in both natural history and human history, is often overlooked. But it is not to be missed!

Benson Visitor Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This was the home of Cochise. This was the land of Geronimo. This was the land of copper mines, silver mines, gold mines, Army forts, Indian Wars, cowboys, cattle rustlers, gamblers, the Earp brothers and the Clantons and Doc Holiday. Southeastern Arizona was the quintessential Wild West. This place oozes with tales and legends and beauty. And it is all still here for you to enjoy.

Benson Train Depot © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Your Cochise adventure begins in Benson. Amid picturesque river-valley views, agreeable weather, and the Home of Kartchner Caverns State Park, the City of Benson is ideally situated along Interstate-10 as the Gateway to Cochise County. Founded in 1880 prior to Arizona’s mining boom, Benson developed as a stopping point for the Butterfield Overland Stage mail delivery route. Soon thereafter, the Southern Pacific Railroad came into Benson and continued to serve the area until 1997 when the line was purchased by Union Pacific Railroad.

Benson Train Depot and murals © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The City of Benson’s culture is ingrained with the Old West and its traditional Railroad heritage. The Benson Visitor Center—Train Depot, located at 249 East Fourth Street in the heart of Benson’s historic downtown, is a beautiful replica railroad depot using many of the same architectural features as the original depot that was built over a century ago. Learn all about the city’s rich railroad heritage and the many area attractions.

Related Article: Now is the Time to Explore Southern Arizona’s Gorgeous State Parks

Benson Murals © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Head out from the Visitor’s Center to the Mural Walking Tour, a fun look at 42 hand-painted—showcasing everything from Buffalo Soldiers to Hopi kachinas and cattle drives to the Butterfield Overland Stage.

Benson Murals © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Then you’ll head to Sierra Vista for a Bicycle Tour of the Cochise Vista Trail. Hop in the saddle—the bicycle saddle—and explore southeastern Arizona. Whether your bike has skinny tires or knobby ones or you ride astride a single-speed cruiser or a speedy racer, Sierra Vista is the place to start your bicycle adventure.

Winding road near Sierra Vista © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Road cyclists looking for long, winding roads with low traffic can’t beat the stretches of asphalt in and around Sierra Vista. Whatever direction you ride, you’ll find a constantly changing landscape and expansive mountain views along the way.

Acorn woodpecker at Ramsey Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mountain bikers can find miles of single-track trails in the Huachuca Mountains along multi-use paths or signed bike lanes. One of the most popular jumping-on points is along Ramsey Canyon Road at Brown Canyon Ranch. The Brown Canyon Trail gains about 1,900 feet in elevation and connects Brown Canyon Road making a nice loop ride; be sure to take the well-traveled jog to avoid the Miller Peak Wilderness Area. Popular with experienced riders, Brown Canyon gets a little gnarly with the elevation gain and rocky terrain but the reward is breathtaking views and smooth, flatter trails in open areas.

Hummingbird at Ramsey Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sierra Vista, one of the top birdwatching places on earth, is nicknamed the Hummingbird Capital of the United States. Annually, 15 species of hummingbirds and more than 300 other bird species visit nearby canyons, forests, and riverbanks.

Related Article: Southeast Arizona Birding Hotspot: Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area

Bisbee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

One of Bisbee’s most magnificent architectural achievements is the countless concrete stairs that cling to the steep canyon sides. You can find these stairs all over town. While you’re at it, explore the heritage and culture along Subway Street and enjoy some shopping as you take a self-guided tour.

Bisbee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Bisbee Tour Company offers multiple golf cart tour options to enjoy the town from an entirely different perspective. If you’re interested in Bisbee’s eerie past, an evening walking tour with Old Bisbee Ghost Tour will show you the town and introduce you to some ghostly members of society.

Queen Mine © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tour the Queen Mine, one of the most productive copper mines of the 20th century. Don the mining lanterns, hats, and slickers of the miners, ride the mine train deep into the mine and search for remaining veins of copper, gold, turquoise, silver, lead, and zinc.

Bisbee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Next, you’ll take in the ambiance of Douglas—home to the first international airport—as you enjoy the Border Air Museum and Art Car Museum. The museum includes photos, newspaper articles, original airplane photos, the official letter of President of United States Roosevelt declaring the airport “The First International Airport of the Americas,” a Trojan airplane that was built in Douglas, American Airlines memorabilia, and more.

Tombstone Courthouse © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Gadsden Hotel opened for business in November 1907. The hotel soon became a meeting place for cattlemen, ranchers, miners, and businessmen. This grand hotel was named after the historically significant Gadsden Purchase; a purchase of 30,000 square miles from Mexico made in 1853 for 10 million dollars, negotiated by James Gadsden who was then the U.S. Ambassador to Mexico. The land purchase was to ensure territorial rights for a practical southern railroad route to the pacific coast. We can now only imagine how Arizona was before it was a state and at a time when Wyatt Earp, Geronimo, and Pancho Villa rode roughshod over the West.

Tombstone © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Any tour of this area would not be the same or complete without including the legendary town of Tombstone. The entire town is a National Historic Landmark and much of the original buildings are still intact. There is something for every member of the family in Tombstone, the Town Too Tough To Die.

Related Article: Mountain Island in a Desert Sea: Exploring Southern Arizona Sky Islands

Tombstone © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

At first glance, it might appear that gift, book, and curio shops are the main attractions but if you take the time to stroll down the boardwalks, you will find yourself drawn into the past. Besides the OK Corral and the reenactments that take place in the outdoor amphitheater, there are both public and private museums, antique stores, the original Tombstone Epitaph newspaper print shop, and Boot Hill.

Boothill © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Visitors can pan for gold, horseback ride down trails once traveled by Doc and Wyatt, take a stagecoach ride, tour the silver mines, stay at historic bed and breakfasts or an RV park, and attend the infamous Bird Cage Theater where Tombstone’s haunting and colorful past will take you back to its heyday.

Butterfield RV Park in Benson © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

To truly appreciate all that Tombstone has to offer, park the car or RV and plan to spend at least a day taking a walk back into history.

Read Next: 5 Surprising Facts about Arizona you didn’t know (But Now You Do)

Worth Pondering…

To my mind, these live oak-dotted hills fat with side oats grama, these pine-clad mesas spangled with flowers, these lazy trout streams burbling along under great sycamores and cottonwoods, come near to being the cream of creation.

—Aldo Leopold, 1937

All Aboard & Bound For Benson

Benson, Arizona, has a wealth of history just waiting to be rediscovered

Founded by the Southern Pacific Railroad back in 1880, Benson was once a busy hub that connected major Southern Arizona communities. It was also the point where the Southern Pacific line hooked up with the Sonoran Railroad line, which ran into Mexico. Even today, modern train enthusiasts gather in Benson to watch the trains pass through, and visit the restored historic train depot that today houses the Benson visitors center.

Benson © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There was a smelter operating in the area from 1881 to 1909, and wagons brought in loads of copper and silver ore to be shipped out via rail. More people came to farm the land once artesian wells were drilled in the 1890s. Over the years, there were several fires and a flood—but Benson’s populace didn’t drop off significantly until the 1930s, when the Depression hit.

Benson © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Taking an RV camping trip to Benson is an adventure in itself—and there is so much to do while you’re there. It doesn’t much matter where your interests lie, you can construct an impressive itinerary that might include some of these nearby attractions.

Benson © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Underground Wonders

Kartchner Caverns State Park provides an unforgettable way to get in touch with the earth—literally. Located on State Route 90 in the Whetstone Mountains these unique caverns are the most pristine in the U. S.

Benson © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You can take a guided tour through a limestone cave, where mineral formations make for a stunning visual display. These caverns are living, growing, wet caves; the moisture levels are closely monitored to ensure they are not destroyed.

There is also a visitors center, gift shop, interpretive displays, modern campground, and a hummingbird garden on the park grounds.

Benson © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

How the West Was Won

A short drive north of Benson, fans of the Old West flock to Gammon’s Gulch, an 1890’s town and mining camp. This ghost town movie set was recreated like the Wild West really was with antique cars, movie memorabilia, nature path, and birding area. 

Benson © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Everything in Gammon’s Gulch is authentic, from the working telegraph to the shingle nails, even the outhouses were originally used by old west cowboys. The site of numerous movies, music videos, and photo shoots, this classic Western town is a popular attraction. Take in a special event, or tour the museum to see a collection of movie memorabilia, antiques, and more.

Tombstone © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Town Too Tough to Die

Tombstone invites visitors to walk in the footsteps of the West’s most famous outlaws and good guys, the Clantons and the Earps. During its 1880s heyday, Tombstone, the “Town Too Tough to Die,” boasted 10,000 gunslingers, gamblers, prospectors, and prostitutes.

Tombstone Courthouse State Historic Site © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sparked by Edward Schieffelin’s silver strike (skeptics warned he’d only find his own tombstone), the raucous town boasted more than 60 saloons. Tombstone is known for the famous street fight near the OK Corral between Wyatt, Virgil and Morgan Earp and Doc Holliday vs. Frank and Tom McLaury, and Billy and Ike Clanton.

Benson © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Making Peace With Cochise

Cochise’s Stronghold, the historic site in the Coronado National Forest, provides a fascinating day-trip from Benson. Located in the Dragoon Mountains at an elevation of 5,000 feet, this is the rugged natural fortress where the great chief and his followers held out against the U.S. Cavalry.

Benson © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Within the Stronghold is a hiking/equestrian trail that goes from the Cochise Stronghold Campground, over the “Stronghold Divide” and down into the West Stronghold Canyon. This trail is approximately 5 miles long one way. 

Cochise Terrace RV Park, Benson © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Interpretive Trail leaves from the campground and consists of a short loop trail approximately 0.12 of a mile long with information along the way about the Stronghold, Cochise, and his descendants. It is a beautiful, leisurely walk among the oaks and junipers.

The 11-site campground accommodates small RV under 30 feet; no utilities or dump station.

Cochise Terrace RV Park, Benson © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

To get there, take I -10 east from town, exiting at the Dragoon exit (Texas Canyon). Drive east for 13 miles until you get to U.S. 666 and turn south (right), driving for another 6 miles. Turn west and drive into the national forest.

Butterfield RV Resort, Benson © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Where to Stay: Butterfield RV Resort and Observatory

Easy-on, easy-off (I-10 at Exit 304, south one-half mile on Ocotillo Avenue), Butterfield RV Resort and Observatory and is conveniently located immediately behind Safeway and in close proximity to downtown. The park is clean and well maintained. Interior roads are asphalt; back-in sites are gravel with pull-through sites asphalt.

Butterfield RV Resort, Benson © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

Fast is fine but accuracy is final. You must learn to be slow in a hurry.

—Wyatt Earp