Kylie and I belong to the same photography group dedicated to creating beautiful, honest family photography. She has some stunning photography, which you can see on her website Kylie Pond Photography, and I was so please when she agreed to talk about her home state of Arizona. I have fond memories visiting my grandparents when they used to winter there and I think it’s a great destination with so much variety. In fact, there’s more variety than I thought – who knew that it could be snowy!
Read on to see why this is such a great pick for travelling with toddlers.
Hello, Roasted readers! As Michelle said, I live in Arizona, and I’m actually an Arizona native! I’ve lived here my entire life, as has my husband. We decided to stay in Arizona to be close to family and because we truly love where we live. Arizona is actually one of the more diverse states in our country. It’s known for its hot desert climate, but we actually have quite the diverse topography. Deserts in the south are broken up by mountains in the north. One year, Flagstaff was the snowiest city in America! We love that we can drive just a few hours in any direction and enjoy a completely different environment. Arizona also has a lot of young families and many people have lived here for generations. There are lots of things to do with kids: from museums and zoos, to lots of neighborhood parks, to historical and outdoor adventures.
Hotels are readily available in every city. However, for a more unique and child-friendly experience, try finding a residence to stay in on a site such as AirBNB. There are even some fun family-style resorts in the Phoenix Metro area.
I have a couple city recommendations for where to base yourself. If you want to see the whole state, I would recommend one of the family resorts in Scottsdale. However, as those are a bit nicer & pricier, I am from Mesa and would recommend staying in East Mesa, near the Superstition Springs Mall (I-60 & Power Rd area). There is a lot of food and shopping, plus you’re close to many beautiful desert hikes and right off the I-60. If you’d like a small-towner vibe and mountains, I can’t say enough about Flagstaff. It’s really close to the Grand Canyon and just beautiful, especially during the summer. It’s also close to Sedona, which is one of my other favorite places in Arizona. It’s famous for its beautiful red rock formations and crystal vortexes. In Flagstaff, I would stay on the southwest end of town, just as you enter off the I-17 from the south. You’ll be a little further from the railroad and there are plenty of hotels to choose from right there. Also look up B&Bs in or near Flagstaff! While you’re there, check out NiMarco’s Pizza and order the Popeye, then head to the Sweet Shoppe on Heritage Square for some gelato, fudge, or other homemade candy.
If you’re in Arizona, you must try the best Mexican food this side of the border. There is an abundance of this favorite cuisine, from hole-in-the-wall taco shops to nicer restaurants. One of our family’s favorites in Mesa is a step above hole-in-the-wall, but still a totally casual, family-friendly dining experience: Backyard Taco. It’s fast, fun, and there are plenty of highchairs for the kids. Try the chicken tacos and the carne asada burrito.
Really though, most everywhere in Arizona has readily available fare for all meals. Most grocery stores also have a deli & hot food counter in a pinch, and most hotels serve at minimum a continental breakfast.
Every family is different, but we have found a love for the outdoors (though we’re not experts by any means). Camping and hiking are part of many family’s lifestyles in Arizona. There is a wide range of options, from desert to mountains, and paid campgrounds or “roughin’ it.” Paid campgrounds can be found easily through online searches, and most forests allow campers. Desert camping should be done October-April, as the heat during the summer is much too oppressive. Camping in the mountains is best done through the summer months with toddlers, as the temperatures can still dip fairly low at night. We love camping near Flagstaff, which is where we lived for several years and where my husband grew up. Be sure to pack warm layers and check the weather forecast, as a random thunderstorm could produce snow, even in the middle of July.
We have been trying to go on more hikes as a family, and if you love hiking, Arizona has a plethora of trails that are great for kids. We enjoyed going to Usery Park last November, and doing one of the 1-mile loops with our kids. My oldest, age three, rode his balance bike on most of that trail (that allows bikes). Again, unless done in the early hours of the morning, desert hikes are best done during the winter months. We actually did this as part of REI’s #optoutside campaign on Black Friday.
Our most recent family hike took place on Flagstaff’s Mt. Elden. We chose Fat Man’s Loop, which the maps say is about 1.5 miles, but actually ended up being closer to 3.5 miles (according to our GPS trackers). However, our almost four-year-old did really, really well, and only asked to be carried the last half mile or so. This trail is a loop that goes up the mountain a bit and drops back down. It’s not very steep, though it is a bit rocky in parts. It was easily navigable by all of us, with our 1-year-old strapped on in an Ergo. As with all hikes, be sure to have plenty of water and wear sunscreen. The air in the mountains is thin and it’s easy to sunburn and get dehydrated.
Other activities that are popular with families include the Desert Botanical Gardens, Grand Canyon National Park (one place we haven’t taken our children to yet, but it should be on everyone’s must-see list!), Phoenix Zoo, Phoenix Children’s Museum, Arizona Science Center, and more.
The main airport, Sky Harbor, is in Phoenix. Tuscon and Flagstaff both have small airports, as well as a couple of other suburbs. Phoenix doesn’t have an extensive metro system, though the recent Lightrail does connect the city to a couple of the major suburbs. Many people use this to get to concerts, sporting events, etc. and it is a fun experience for kids who aren’t used to mass transit systems like most major cities have (ahem, like my children). Most people own vehicles here, and the freeway system is pretty extensive, though you will want to avoid the Loop 101 during rush hour (it becomes a veritable parking lot). Please note that in Arizona, slow traffic is expected to travel in the right lanes on freeways and highways.
Many establishments run specials on deal sites such as Groupon. It’s worthwhile to check there for restaurants and activities with children. Also, many restaurants have nights where children eat for free or get a special discount. Ask the locals which places and which nights these occur.
I recommend planning your visit in the spring if wanting to see the majority of the state. The summer months are my favorite time of year in the mountains, as the weather is rarely in the 90s and the nights are blissfully cool. In the lower regions, however, temperatures are well above 100 and it feels like living inside a hot oven. Springtime provides ideal weather, and less visitors than the winter months (Arizona is a “snowbird” state–our northern state friends own winter homes, desirable for our mild winter weather). For people from colder climates, it’s warm enough to utilize the sparkling swimming pools at hotels and residences, and the plethora of splash pads at the local parks.
English is widely spoken, although Spanish is very prevalent as well. As with any large metropolitan area, it’s a good idea to be aware of your surroundings and conscious of your belongings, but many of the suburbs (which are decently-sized cities themselves) actually have very low crime rates. Difficulties encountered should be few and far between, as none really come to mind for me. Arizona really is a generally family-friendly place to visit, and unless alcohol is involved, most activities can accommodate young children.