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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 United States, numerous national parks and 21 American Indian tribes. So, what better way to spend spring break this year than packing up the kids and trying out one of these four family-friendly road trips through Arizona?
With so many options to choose from, we’ve broken each of these road trip routes down into a selection of favorite stops. Our family has taken each of these paths — some more than once — and the positive reviews were unanimous. There is truly something for every member of the family baked into each of these road trips.
The possibilities for a road trip are endless, so we’ve carefully curated the options into four paths.
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In This Post
Northern Arizona and the Grand Canyon
There’s a lot to see in the northwest corner of Arizona, where temperatures can be cooler than in the south. Start this tour from the border between Arizona and Nevada, which is a short drive from Las Vegas if you are flying in and renting a car. If you are flying into Las Vegas, consider choosing your rental drop-off location in Phoenix at Sky Harbor International Airport after your tour, and fly home from there.
Lake Mead and Hoover Dam
Lake Mead was created in the 1930s by the construction of the 700-foot Hoover Dam, which is worth a tour of its own to see how the massive construction was accomplished and its inner workings. Lake Mead National Recreation Area offers plenty of boating, kayaking, swimming and fishing.
Birdwatchers take note: More than 240 bird species have been recorded here, including bald eagles, peregrine falcons and burrowing owls.
Route 66 is a trip through history
Any road trip through Arizona must pay homage to the Mother Road — Route 66. It runs right through small towns (just like in the song), which have plenty to see and explore.
The shiny new Arizona Route 66 Museum, located in Kingman’s historic Powerhouse, traces the evolution of travel along the 35th parallel that became Route 66 and the journeys of all who traveled the route over time — including American Indian tribes, members of the military and Dust Bowl migrants.
For old-school nostalgia, make a stop in Seligman, “the Birthplace of Historic Route 66,” which inspired the look of Radiator Springs in the Pixar movie “Cars.”
Explore natural wonders
There’s no way you can drive through Arizona without paying a visit to one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World — the Grand Canyon. Over 5 million people come from around the world every year to see the mile-deep, 18-mile wide canyon. It’s even more impressive in person than in photos.
Just south of the Arizona-Utah state line is Vermilion Cliffs National Monument, with some of the most spectacular trails and views in the world. The swirls of colors in the rocks make for some eye-popping photographs.
Finally, stop on your way south to Phoenix at Montezuma Castle National Monument. American Indian tribes have lived in Arizona for over a thousand years, and the Montezuma Castle National Monument features homes built by the Sinagua, built directly into the sides of the cliffs.
Places to stay along this route
While there are many hotels along the way, here are a few recommendations that fit well into this road trip route:
- Resorts World Las Vegas — The Strip’s newest megaresort, Resorts World is actually three hotels in one: the Las Vegas Hilton, the Conrad Las Vegas and Crockfords Las Vegas.
- Holiday Inn Express Hotel & Suites Grand Canyon — This is a great way to stay near the South Rim of the Grand Canyon within close driving distance of the park entrance.
- La Quinta Inn & Suites by Wyndham Kingman — A comfortable stay with easy access to Route 66 and all the historic landmarks nearby.
Epic Sedona and historic Jerome
A family road trip to Arizona turns next-level with a stop in Sedona and a side trip to the ghost mining town of Jerome. Justifiably world-famous for its eye-popping scenery, Sedona and the surrounding area have a lot to offer for road-tripping families.
Hiking the spectacular Red Rocks
A family that loves to hike will be in paradise here. There are hikes at every difficulty level, from easy for families with small kids to strenuous for expert outdoor types. Two of our favorites are Bell Rock and Devil’s Bridge.
Bell Rock is a 1 1/2-mile round-trip outing with several paths for climbing depending on skill level. It’s a well-maintained trail with plenty of spectacular views, colorful birds, hawks, bunnies, lizards and butterflies to be spotted.
Devil’s Bridge, the largest natural sandstone arch in the Sedona area, is rated a moderate climb, but it’s well worth the effort, with the most spectacular photo op in the entire area.
Off-roading with a Jeep tour
Sedona’s rocky geography lends itself perfectly to off-roading, and many families will find the famous Pink Jeep Tours and other providers in town offer a great way to see as much of the local scenery as possible. Jeeps wind up impossibly steep rock faces and through narrow gullies, perching on top of gigantic boulders or slabs of rock for more terrific photo ops.
The terrain in places is so precarious that riders sometimes feel like they might fall right out of the Jeep. But not to worry, everyone is securely strapped in. It makes it more fun for the kids though, who may feel like they’re on a roller coaster.
Taking in the Old West in historic Jerome
Just an hour’s drive away from Sedona is the historic copper mining town of Jerome. Once known as “the wickedest town in the West,” it’s now designated a National Historic District by the federal government and attracts visitors as a historic ghost town and artist hub.
Kids of all ages will have fun exploring the historic sites and learning about Jerome’s history at the Mine Museum and Douglas Mansion. Stop at nearby Audrey Headframe Park, where a glass viewing platform allows visitors to stand — if they dare — over a 1,600-foot-deep mine shaft dating from 1918 and look down into its depths.
You can also book a guided tour on Ghost Town Tours’ Spirit Walk. There are a bunch of allegedly haunted places in Jerome, including the House of Joy, a former bordello; the Jerome Grand Hotel; the Old Hospital; and the Old High School, complete with creepy basement locker rooms and an abandoned gym.
Stargazing in a designated Dark Sky Community
The perfect way to end a day is with some stargazing. Families from the city or even suburbs don’t get to see the clear night sky very often, and Sedona is a designated International Dark Sky Community. With very few streetlights and distance from any big city, Sedona is nationally recognized as one of the best places to stargaze in the U.S. A variety of companies offer evening sky tours in Sedona, some led by former NASA engineers or professional astronomers with powerful telescopes.
Places to stay along this route
With so much to explore, you may want to book a hotel in every town along the route. Another option would be to stay in one hotel as a home base and take daytrips from there. Either way, here are some recommendations for places to rest your weary heads:
- Hilton Sedona Resort at Bell Rock — Gorgeous views of Bell Rock and the neighboring landscape grace this hotel just outside of town.
- Hyatt Residence Club Sedona — Relax and unwind after a day of exploring at this luxurious resort full of amenities.
- Best Western Cottonwood Inn —Just a few miles outside of Jerome, this hotel is a great stop along the way.
Food and culture trail through Phoenix and Tucson
What to do and see in 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.
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).
Related: Road-tripping from Phoenix? Here are 6 destinations to set your sights on
Eat your way through Tucson
When rested, drive down to Tucson which is less than two hours away by car.
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’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.” From street food to taquerias to fine dining, the Mexican food scene in Tucson is often described as the best outside of Mexico. 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.
Places to stay along this route
Since Phoenix and Tucson are not far from one another, it would be easy to choose a hotel in each destination to use as a home base for your daily explorations:
- JW Marriott Desert Ridge Resort, Phoenix — This sprawling desert oasis is a destination in itself with five pools, two golf courses, a spa and many restaurant options.
- Westin La Paloma Resort, Tucson — Views of the Santa Catalina Mountains and saguaro cactus give this hotel a special Western flourish.
Exploring Arizona’s Old West
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.
Heading south from Tucson, road trippers can explore Saguaro National Park, home of the iconic symbol of the Old West. 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. From there, it’s a short ride to towns made famous by Western lore and Hollywood magic.
Tombstone, Bisbee and the O.K. Corral
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.
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.
Bisbee mining town
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.
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.
Places to stay along this route
While it’s possible to stay in a Tucson hotel for the entire visit, you can also hop to other locations to get a more authentic experience of the land and its history:
- Omni Tucson National Resort — Surrounded by the bold colors and warm hues of the Sonoran Desert, this hotel offers a nice respite from a day on the road.
- TownePlace Suites Sierra Vista —A small town, Sierra Vista is about equidistant from Tombstone and Bisbee, with many attractions along the way.
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.
Many sites and attractions are opening up after being closed due to COVID-19 restrictions, but not all may be back to full visiting hours. Be sure to view websites, call ahead or check Google to be sure they are accessible and what the masking and vaccination protocols are for visitors.
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