Family Vacations to Phoenix and Scottsdale, Arizona

Sonoran Petroglyph Phoenix/Scottsdale, Arizona
Sonoran Petroglyph (courtesy, Scottsdale CVB)

Phoenix/Scottsdale Highlights

  • Admire and learn about Native American beadwork, pottery, jewelry, and baskets at the Heard Museum.
  • Explore the desert from a jeep, Hummer, hot-air-balloon, or horseback tour.
  • Find out about desert plants and animals at the Desert Botanical Gardens.
  • Take a customized guided tour through the Phoenix Zoo.
  • Discover the night sky and how the brain works at the Arizona Science Center.

The booming metro enclave of Phoenix/Scottsdale and its surrounding region offer a fascinating meld of cowboy, American Indian, and Hispanic cultures in a rugged desert landscape. Here, the 15-foot-tall saguaro cacti seem to beckon you forward. So whether you're lounging poolside in the midday heat or on an evening nature ramble, you're sure to feel like you've escaped the ordinary.

Get acquainted with the best of Southwestern art at the Heard Museum, known for its superb collection of Pima baskets, Navajo rugs, Hopi katsina dolls, pottery, beadwork, jewelry, and other Native American objects. The Heard Museum West is slated to open in the West Valley area of Phoenix in summer 2006, to complement the main facility on Central Avenue, Phoenix, and its Scottsdale branch, the Heard Museum North.

Phoenix's Desert Botanical Gardens reveal the world's arid habitats in a 50-acre display of 10,000 plants. A visit here is sure to dispel the myth that deserts are boring and barren. On the self-guided walking tour, discover the myriad shades of green that color the desert and how many diverse plants flourish here. Walk by huge acacia trees, mesquite thickets, and tiers of purple-tinged prickly pear cactus. Get your kids to count the number of lizards they spy darting in the underbrush. Along the Plants and People of the Sonoran Desert Trail, kids can twist agave fibers into twine and pound mesquite beans into flour. During Family Saturdays, the garden has puppet shows, craft-making sessions, and animal displays. On Thursday nights (the best time to visit since the temperatures are cooler) in June and July, families can go on Flashlight Discovery Tours through the desert to see the night-blooming flowers, watch for owls, and listen to the coyotes howl.

With your cactus-spotting skills honed, venture into the Sonoran Desert, a rugged landscape of boulders, cacti, sagebrush, and feathery palo verde trees. You can drive through it on a jeep tour, glide over it in a hot-air balloon, go cowboy style on horseback, or get in a Hummer for a backcountry nighttime tour up steep ridges and over giant rocks (after all, it is a Hummer) for a look at the stars. Ask your hotel concierge to recommend an outfitter near your lodging.

See more stars at the Arizona Science Center's planetarium. Its daily 11 a.m. "Starry Storytime" show is aimed at ages three to seven. At the center's Many Hands Make a Home exhibit, kids get a hands-on look at how electricity, plumbing, and carpentry come together to create a house. In Wired for Thought, learn about the developing brain.

The Phoenix Zoo features elephants, orangutans, giraffes, and a 10,000-square-foot Monkey Village where you can watch squirrel monkeys scamper and jump through the trees right next to you. Ride the Safari Train to get oriented, or if you want an easy-on-the-feet special tour, book a Safari Cart Tour, a customized one-hour guided tour for up to five people.

Tip: This is the desert after all, so summer gets hot. Always carry plenty of water, plan to be outdoors exploring in the morning and in the evening when it's cooler, and stay poolside in the shade or indoors in the air-conditioning during the afternoon.

Recommended Side Trips: Flagstaff, Grand Canyon, Tucson's resident family expert Candyce Stapen has written the book on family travel, having authored some 1,400 travel articles and 27 books, 26 of them on family travel. She is the winner of the 2004 "Caribbean Travel Writer of the Year for North America" award and a three-time winner of the Society of American Travel Writers' Lowell Thomas Travel Journalism award. Her articles have appeared in publications including Nick Jr , FamilyFun , Parents , Better Homes & Gardens , Conde Nast Traveler , National Geographic Traveler , and the Family Travel Network , among others. Her book, the National Geographic Guide to Caribbean Family Vacations is available from

Published: 3 Oct 2007 | Last Updated: 6 Aug 2012
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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