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It’s no secret that road tripping through the Grand Canyon state is a family favorite, with stunning desert light, those unmistakable saguaro cacti and red rock landscapes. While there’s no right or wrong route to take, our recent weeklong itinerary gave us a variety of memorable family experiences and outdoor adventures through Arizona.
With direct flight service from several U.S. cities, Phoenix makes for a natural start to most Arizona road trip itineraries. And its upscale sister city-cum-suburb, Scottsdale, has innumerable family offerings (more on that later). From the Phoenix area, head first to the 277-mile-long Grand Canyon, carved out by the Colorado River some 5 to 6 million years ago. From there, it’s worth adding a stop in Page, Arizona, to visit the otherworldly Antelope Canyon on Navajo land. Next, head south to Sedona for breathtaking hikes and stargazing in red rock country. Then, finish with resort time in Scottsdale and tack on a few local activities such as a half day at the 200,000-square-foot Musical Instrument Museum.
Though this is an ideal spring break road trip, Arizona’s temperate climate also makes it possible to execute a plan like this during the fall or winter months, though you will need some warmer gear as you travel north in November and December. Below, we share our highlights for families in each destination.
It’s hard to fully comprehend the geology and time the Grand Canyon represents — layers of limestone, sandstone and shale deposited between 200 million and 2 billion years ago, with the Colorado River only cutting its path through 5 millions years ago — but it’s still possible to marvel at and be humbled by its vastness and grandeur.
For a bit of context (and also because kids often listen better to guides than their own parents), look into a tour with the Grand Canyon Conservancy Field Institute. With the help of our guide, our kids spotted fossils in the rocks and picked their own pine nuts from the pinyon trees as we walked along. She also told us about wildlife in the park, from elk and California condors to bats and bighorn sheep.
We based ourselves at the South Rim, and both the Bright Angel and South Kaibab trails (to Ooh Aah Point) were a great introduction to hiking in the canyon. Our kids, however, most loved riding bikes along the rim. In truth, we all did, since it was a more active way to see the park rather than walk or ride the shuttle bus to different vantage points. Spotting a bull elk while on our bikes was an exciting moment too!
Reserve bikes from Bright Angel Bicycles & Café, which is right inside the park. We were even able to get a tandem for our younger one, as we were nervous about him riding solo. It’s worth noting, however, that the designated bike path along the rim is quite wide and you’re never right at the edge (which does have a solid stone barrier wall).
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We split our stay at the Grand Canyon between the in-park Maswik Lodge, which is a stone’s throw from the South Rim, and a glamping-style tent at Under Canvas, about 40 minutes away. It was great to have both experiences: the convenience of being in the park as well as a more unconventional stay that our kids really loved. From stargazing and spotting a roadrunner to roasting marshmallows and showering in the fancy tent, we all were won over by glamping.
From the Grand Canyon, head to the town of Page, Arizona, which sits at the southern tip of yet another natural canyon: the 170-mile long Glen Canyon, carved out by the Colorado River millennia ago. The construction of the Glen Canyon Dam in 1965 created Lake Powell, a man-made reservoir popular for boating and water activities. These days, however, controversy surrounds Glen Canyon Dam, as longstanding drought and climate change are driving environmental groups to push for the dismantling of the dam and draining of the lake to restore native habitats along the Colorado River. Even as visitors, it’s important to keep this history and context in mind.
Along with Lake Powell and Horseshoe Bend (a horseshoe-shaped bend in the Colorado River), the much-photographed Antelope Canyon is a major attraction in Page. Antelope Canyon actually compromises an upper and lower slot canyon, which can only be visited on a guided tour since it sits on sacred Navajo land. The slot canyons were formed over time as water ran through the rocks. As my family and I walked through the chambers of the Upper Canyon, with light pouring in from above and revealing gorgeous sandstone curves, we were in awe. Though this was our first visit, we were thankful to learn that the guided tours were all operating at half capacity compared to before the pandemic, making for a less crowded experience.
Tourism in Page is on the rise, with several new hotels opening in recent years. Luxury properties aren’t the norm here, but the 102-room modern Hyatt Place is a good option for families. The hotel also has partnerships with local outfitters such as Epic Adventure Rides, which offers customizable off-road UTV tours.
Synonymous with crimson monoliths, buttes and spires, Sedona’s panoramas are nothing short of astounding. Over millions of years, as water receded from the area, layers of volcanic rock were revealed and sculpted by erosion into the majestic formations we see today.
With 400 miles of trails for a variety of abilities, families will love hiking among these vermilion rocks. Our family loved Bell Rock for scrambling and scaling; the 1.9-mile Sugarloaf Summit trail, which paid off with 360-degree panoramic views for relatively little effort; and Devil’s Bridge for a bit more of a challenge. In truth, there are no bad trails. An early start is highly advisable, as parking spots are limited with Sedona’s rising tourism numbers (visitors have doubled from 5 million to 10 million in just the last few years). From hot air balloon rides to guided stargazing tours, there are multiple other ways to get outdoors and experience red rock country too.
A growing number of art galleries, shops specializing in Native American arts and crafts, and inventive restaurants in the Uptown district and Tlaquepaque village have also made Sedona a cultural and culinary destination. Come dinner, snag a table at one of local chef Lisa Dahl’s five restaurants across town, from the more casual Pisa Lisa pizzeria to fine dining at Dahl & Di Luca. Other delicious options include no-frills Tamaliza for great tamales and Oak Creek Brewery & Grill for craft beers and bites. During peak season and holidays, it’s best to make advance reservations.
There’s no shortage of hotels in Sedona, but top family-friendly options include the high-end Enchantment Resort with its Camp Coyote kids club, Amara Resort & Spa, and Sky Rock Inn, where the communal terraces offer breathtaking views. For a longer stay, consider a rental. Ours, through Marriott’s Homes and Villas division, was well located in West Sedona and proved to be very convenient, with a kitchen and laundry for all those hiking clothes. CB’s Family Travel Advisor team can work with you to select accommodations that are ideal for your family, in some cases with exclusive perks to pass along.
From Sedona, head back south and unwind with a few days in the Phoenix-Scottsdale area, where you can indulge in some downtime at a resort. A few family favorites include the recently renovated Arizona Biltmore (book one of the beautiful cottages); the Four Seasons at Troon North, which boasts a great spa and easy trail access to Pinnacle Peak; or the Fairmont Scottsdale Princess, which turns into a bona fide winter wonderland, complete with ice skating rink and train ride, through the holiday season.
Spend a day or two by the pool, sneak in a little spa time and explore the public art in Old Town Scottsdale at this final Arizona destination. Also worth visiting as a family is the Desert Botanical Garden, which incorporates Dale Chihuly’s glass sculptures into its desert landscapes, or the massive Musical Instrument Museum, where kids can learn about musical instruments from around the world (have you ever heard a Korean kayagum?) and even play guitars, drums and gongs in the Experience Gallery. And if traveling with younger ones, don’t miss McCormick Stillman Railroad Park.
Editor’s Note: Photos by Tanvi Chheda except where noted.
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This is a challenging time for our clients given the uncertainty around the spread of coronavirus, particularly for those with near-term travel plans in impacted areas. We’re working with our suppliers on being flexible with their booking conditions, and enabling families to postpone travel to a later date without a penalty, when possible. Likewise, given the unpredictability around destinations that may be impacted in the future, we’re helping clients planning new trips and understand ways that they can protect themselves until the situation improves. We are ready to help our clients work through questions and concerns.