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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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.
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
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.
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