From cracking bats to seventh inning stretches, baseball fans of all ages count the days until February and March when spring training kicks off. Fifteen major league baseball teams play in stadiums spread across Arizona’s Greater Phoenix area. Sunny weather, affordable tickets, lawn seating with room to move, and autograph opportunities have all the makings for great family fun.
Scottsdale is the perfect home base for traveling families. It’s home to three teams during spring training: the San Francisco Giants, the Colorado Rockies and the Arizona Diamondbacks. But opportunities on the baseball diamond are only a small part of the draw to this desert destination. With outdoor adventures like hiking, river rafting and hot air ballooning, your family will surely run out of vacation time before you run out of things to do. If you happen to be in town during spring training, it’ll be easy to make good use of time in between games. In fact, you just might decide it’s okay to skip a game or two.
To appreciate the best that Scottsdale has to offer, come prepared to spend a lot of family time outside. From trails and peaks to parks and rivers, outdoor adventure comes in all shapes and sizes in this stretch of the Sonoran Desert.
One of the best ways to teach your kids just how immense the desert is, is to show them from above. Sunrise hot air balloon flights launch year-round. You have to roll the family out of bed before the sun is up (typically around 5am), but the once-in-a-lifetime experience is something your family will talk about long after vacation is over.
It’s not uncommon to see both Rainbow Ryders and family-owned and operated Hot Air Expeditions launching from the same areas. Flights on both companies cost about the same, but Hot Air Expeditions includes a tasty post-flight breakfast in the desert, complete with linens and china.
If your family just isn’t the early riser type, afternoon hot air balloon rides are available seasonally, typically November through March.
McDowell Sonoran Preserve boasts more than 30,000 acres of desert scenery. With 215-plus miles of trails, families can explore on foot, bike, or by horseback.
No-cost guided hikes are scheduled mid-October through April. Conservancy Kids programs include family-focused educational hikes and hands-on trailside stations where you’ll learn about everything from reptiles to cacti. McDowell Sonoran Conservancy Pathfinders are stationed at a number of trailheads and are happy to answer questions about the Preserve. If you’re hesitant to make a go of it on your own, full-day and half-day hiking tours can also be booked through REI Co-op.
Families with younger kids not ready to tackle McDowell Sonoran Preserve can get the feel of hiking the great outdoors, without nearly as many steps, at the Desert Botanical Garden. Five loop trails no more than a 1/3 mile in length showcase the beauty of the desert in stroller-friendly stretches.
There’s an Instagram moment around just about every corner at Wonderspaces Arizona. It’s like a modern art museum, without the stuffiness museums can include. It’ll take an hour or so to explore the dozen-plus interactive art installations. A handful of exhibits with lights and mirrors are especially selfie-worthy, so have a camera handy.
All ages are welcome, but tweens and teens may be the most impressed. Strollers are allowed, but there are a few installations where you’ll need to leave them outside the exhibit area.
Entry is timed to prevent crowding. Tickets are good for a specific date and time, so plan accordingly. Wonderspaces is located in Scottsdale Fashion Square, so if you have shoppers in your mix, consider yourself forewarned.
If you want to park the rental car and forget about it for a while, the free Downtown Scottsdale Trolley is a great way to get around and help you get the lay of the land. The Old Town route stops at Scottsdale Fashion Square Mall.
A visit to the Musical Instrument Museum (MIM) will leave families singing a happy tune. More than 7,000 instruments and objects from over 200 countries and territories are on display. State-of-the-art wireless technology combined with high-resolution video lets visitors see, hear and watch instruments being played. The Experience Gallery offers musical instruments that guests can try for themselves.
MIM also boasts instruments that once belonged to famous performers; look for the Martin d-28 guitar Elvis Presley played for his last concert performance in June 1977. Two of Carlos Santana’s custom guitars are also part of the historic collection.
From penguins to otters, 6,000 animals call Odysea home. Open 365 days a year, it’s a fun and educational way to beat the heat. Save time to meet Mighty Mike: Weighing in at 800 pounds, the 14-foot alligator is longer than any car.
From luxury resorts to secluded desert retreats, families have umpteen options to choose from when picking a place to call home in the greater Scottsdale area.
Located on the banks of the Salt River, Saguaro Lake Guest Ranch is a great spot for busy families to unplug. Built in 1927 to house workers involved with the construction of nearby Stewart Mountain Dam, it served as a fishing lodge before becoming a guest ranch. Its 19 rustic cabins come with front porches and panoramic views of the Tonto National Forest.
There are no televisions, phones, radios or clocks in the cabins – but don’t worry, because your days will fill quickly here. Families with kids age 8 and older can raft (or more accurately, float) along the lower Salt River. Guides are fun and knowledgeable; boats are remarkably stable and you only have to get wet if you want to.
Wild horses are what tend to garner the biggest smiles, but herons, osprey, and bald eagles are also a common sight. Families with children age nine and up can also make a splash tubing and kayaking the lower Salt River.
For those preferring to stay on solid ground, Saguaro Lake Guest Ranch offers a number of guided horseback rides through the Sonoran desert, designed for first-timers to experienced riders. Children must be seven or older to join trail rides, but complimentary pony rides are available for little ones two to six years old.
If you’ve got any energy left, you can add in pool time, lawn games, and weekly cowboy cookouts. With only 19 cabins, Saguaro Lake Guest Ranch can fill quickly. Don’t let a full house stop you from seeing the scenic ranch. Activities can be booked by families not staying on property.
Hotel Valley Ho boasts mid-century chic with all the amenities modern travelers want and expect. Tweens and teens will appreciate its hip and trendy atmosphere. Opened in 1956, it has hosted notable guests that include Bing Crosby, Tony Curtis, Janet Leigh and Zsa Zsa Gabor. Along with being an easy walk to Old Town Scottsdale and its plethora of restaurants, bars and shops, the free Downtown Scottsdale Trolley stops near the end of the hotel’s main driveway.
Parents may feel pangs of nostalgia at roadside motel turned boutique Hotel Adeline. Teens will appreciate the Instagram-worthy shots at nearly every turn; everyone will love the cool pool. Nearby Scott Resort & Spa has a fun Caribbean feel and equally photo worthy pool.
Craving an out-of-this-world sugar rush? You’ll only have to travel to 5th Street to reach Alien Donuts. Selections change from day to day, but possibilities include the Bavarian cream-filled Alien Head, chocolate-and-Oreo-dusted Chocolate Spacecake, red velvet Red Planet, and Moon Rocks, also known as doughnut holes. Alien Donuts is closed on Mondays, so plan accordingly.
Stepping into the Sugar Bowl is like stepping back in time. Serving up favorites like burgers, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, milkshakes and sundaes since 1958, the cotton candy-pink building is a landmark in historic Old Town Scottsdale. It was featured frequently in long-running comic strip “The Family Circus,” and framed comics are hung throughout the eatery.
You can add a tropical flavor to your desert vacation just around the corner at Hula’s Modern Tiki. The menu covers everything from poke and chicken wings, to tacos, Jamaican jerk and burgers. Parents will appreciate the signature cocktails; kids will smile when their lemonade or tropical iced tea comes with a colorful paper umbrella on top.
From caramel corn with unique flavors like Chocolate Bacon to house-made cookies and ice cream, stopping at Super Chunk early on during your visit to Scottsdale comes with a big perk: getting to go back again. The airy sweet shop is also home to New Wave Market, with an all-day menu that features selections like mozzarella garlic bread, fried chicken and grilled cheese sandwiches.
Editor’s Note: Dana’s trip was organized by Experience Scottsdale. As always, our thoughts and opinions are our own on Ciao Bambino. Photos by Dana Rebmann.
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