Our last two Christmases have been spent, respectively, stuck in a snowstorm on the way back from Maine and in the emergency room, so when my husband suggested that we avoid family gatherings altogether over Thanksgiving and take our two boys to Arizona, I was thrilled. After a few disagreements (I wanted Tucson; he wanted Monument Valley) we settled on a week-long itinerary intended to cover a great deal of the state but that also allowed for strategic, kid-friendly driving breaks along the way.
As it turned out, November is a great time to visit Arizona. The weather is comfortable during the day and then cools off at night, but best of all, there are no crowds. Not at the Grand Canyon, and not on the roads.
Day 1: Arriving in Phoenix
The downside of spending only a week in Arizona is that you're going to be doing a lot of driving; if you've got restless kids, plan accordingly. I brought my laptop, and my youngest happily watched Dora the Explorer DVDs during most of our drives and on the five hour flight. (Not a peep out of him until the plane stopped on the runway and he started screaming "I DON'T LIKE THIS PLANE! I WANT TO GET OFF!")
Days 1 & 2: Sedona
We planned our trip so that the long drives came earlier in the week and at the end of the week we would have a few days in Scottsdale to relax in the sun. As soon as we arrived in Phoenix we took off in our rental car, heading north on Rte. 17 to Sedona. The drive isn't long, a couple of hours, but it's beautiful. Point out to your kids how the landscape changes as you rise from the deserts around Phoenix to higher, hillier Sedona. They'll be able to see the saguaro cacti giving way to trees as you drive. Make a game of who can be the first one to spot some red rocks.
We stayed at a wonderful new hotel in Sedona, the Sedona Rouge, 2250 West Hwy. 89A (tel. 928/203-4111; www.sedonarouge.com). It's not one that I would ordinarily recommend for families, but the staff was so accommodating and the rooms so comfortable, that we had a terrific time. In truth, however, it's the kind of place where you long to be with your partner, curling up in front of the fireplace, snuggling in the incredibly comfortable beds, enjoying the oversize showers (seriously, this shower was bigger than my bathroom at home) or, in my favorite room, number 225, soaking in the Jacuzzi tub with a wonderful view of those fire-red rocks just outside.
The helpful concierge recommended a couple of hikes, and the next day we set out early for Bell Rock, an easy loop (ok, to be honest we didn't make it around the whole thing) that gets you up close to one of those gorgeous rocks. If you're interested in serious hiking, look elsewhere; we did some serious meandering. My older son couldn't resist a bit of spontaneous rock climbing, while the younger treated the sand underfoot as a natural sandbox, picking it up and rolling in it until he looked like a miniature Pigpen, with clouds of fine, red dust puffing out of his clothes as he walked.
In the afternoon we headed to the open-air Out of Africa Wildlife Park, Route 260, three miles west of Interstate 17 at Exit 287 in Camp Verde (tel. 928/567-2840; www.outofafricapark.com), getting there just in time for the feeding (Sun. Wed. & Fri. at 3pm). Following a truck with a galvanized tin bathtub overflowing with various carcasses, we watched the zookeepers as they heaved 20-pound turkeys into the air for eagerly waiting lions, wolves, bears and other assorted carnivores. My favorites were the hyenas, all slouchy hindquarters and scruffy fur. The beasts were well aware of the crowds; one lion neatly caught his turkey, and then struck an attitude with it for photographers, head high, his brownish-black mane waving majestically in the breeze.
While by no means on a par with zoos like the Bronx Zoo, whose strengths lie in their ability to make you feel as though you've entered into the animal's world, the Wildlife Park does offer an unusual opportunity to get close to the primal nature of these hunters (which, face it, is the real reason we all enjoy watching National Geographic specials). Kids under 14 in particular will enjoy this place, but even our 17-year-old was entertained.
Day 3: The Grand Canyon
It's another easy drive up to the Grand Canyon from Sedona. Since we were traveling in the off-season we took more popular U.S. 180 and barely saw another car. If you come in the summer you may want to take U.S. 89 to Ariz. 64 which approaches the park from the east; this route has less traffic in summer. We took Ariz. 64 out of the park--it's absolutely spectacular and well worth driving at any time of year.
Now, at the risk of sounding like a spoilsport, the Grand Canyon was my least favorite part of our Arizona vacation. Yes, it's spectacular, but when you're traveling with an extremely restless, active three-year-old, a giant hole in the ground is just not what you're looking for. We spent most of our time picking up pinecones and riding the free trail shuttle. Xanterra (www.xanterra.com), the company that manages the hotels and transportation along the canyon does a nice job. Information centers abound, the cafeterias are basic and very kid friendly and the hotel we stayed in right on the South Rim of the canyon, Maswik Lodge (tel. 928/638-2631; www.grandcanyonlodges.com), perfectly comfortable. Also good fun if you're traveling with little children, seeing the peaceable kingdom of deer that congregates around the El Tovar Hotel. Kids can also take part in the Junior Ranger Programs (ages 4-14) run by the park; note that some portions of the program are only offered in summer.
With just one morning with which to really explore the canyon, my husband and older son set off on the South Kaibab Trail, which has some of the most spectacular views of the canyon of any day hike. It's a steep trail with no water available.
Day 4: Driving through Indian Country to Canyon de Chelly
The drive out of the canyon and then east across the state to Canyon de Chelly was to be our longest stretch in the car, and I was dreading it. But to my surprise, it turned out to be one of the very best parts of the trip. (Thanks again to Dora the Explorer.) First of all, the landscapes were astonishing, like nothing I've ever seen before. Wild, vast spaces, tortured twisting rocks, deep crags and furrows, and again, almost no cars. The drive took about 5 hours (gas up before you start out as you won't find many places to stop along Ariz. 264) but we broke it up with stops along the way, the first of which was at the Watchtower in the Grand Canyon. Designed by architect Mary Colter and built of local materials, it simultaneously blends in with the rocky landscape and challenges it, jutting symmetrically toward the sky and offering dramatic slices of views from its tiny windows.
Our next stop was possibly my favorite of the whole trip. Just outside Tuba City on U.S. 160 you pull off the road onto an unpaved driveway with a shed manned by some Native Americans. Our self-appointed guide was Jennifer; there's no admission fee, but you are expected to tip your guide. (We paid $15.) The vast expanse of flat, red rocky land underfoot was once a swamp -- and despite some obvious signs of neglect (broken glass underfoot) it's easy for kids to imagine dinosaurs striding about this mysterious plain. Jennifer showed us footprints left by a tyrannosaurus and by a raptor; the imprint of dinosaur skin, a skeleton still half buried in rock, and best of all, piles and piles of oddly rounded, smooth rock that she told us were dinosaur poop. Tall tale or no, my toddler was thrilled. We go to the American Museum of Natural History at least once a month and the complete, reassembled skeletons there are awesome, but there was something very special about standing where dinosaurs once walked, literally in their footprints.
I've never seen such a beautifully maintained, empty road in my life as Ariz. 264. And I've never seen such great, empty expanses of land. We started crossing Indian country (homeland of both the Navajo and Hopi peoples) at around 4pm and while we saw maybe two other cars on our long drive, we passed at least 15 school buses. As we drove we tried to imagine what it must be like to live on this land that looks so little touched by humans. We saw few houses, even fewer stores. No strip malls, movie theaters, drug stores or supermarkets. We didn't even see many gas stations. Nothing but that inky black strip unwinding behind us and a evocative, crumpled landscape of mounds and crevices that gradually slipped into darkness as the sun set. We were trying to get to Canyon de Chelly before it got too late, but this would be a marvelous drive to make during the day, perhaps stopping off at some of the Indian villages along the way (for more information on this, see Frommer's Arizona 2006, page 270.)
Day 5: Canyon de Chelly, Petrified Forest & Painted Desert
By the time we arrived in Chinle we were starving. Because our hotel, the Thunderbird Lodge, which is right in Canyon de Chelly, (tel. 800/679-2473 or 928/674-5841; www.tbirdlodge.com) had a rather sad looking cafeteria, we decided to head over to the Holiday Inn on Indian Rte. 7 instead for some dinner. It was well worth it; try the Indian fry bread sandwich.
We woke the next morning to some of the cleanest, crispest air I've ever breathed. You can visit the canyon is a couple of different ways, with a guided tour or on your own. It's perfectly simple to do the drive and stop at all the lookouts, but you have only one opportunity for getting inside the canyon, a 2.5-mile round-trip walk to White House Ruins, which takes about two hours; do it if you have the time. It's an easy hike, manageable for kids ages 7 and up. Also well worth it is one of the "shake and bake tours" (arranged through the Thunderbird Lodge, see above) with an authorized guide that will get you in the canyon via six-wheel drive vehicle and up close to the ancient structures. From April 1 to October 31, 2006, the Thunderbird Lodge is offering a package deal that includes a two-night stay at the lodge, continental breakfast for two each morning, and a half or full-day canyon tour for two people (package with half-day tour $330; with full-day tour $375).
We decided to break up our drive back to Phoenix by stopping in Winslow for the night. On our way there, we stopped at the Petrified Forest & Painted Desert National Park (www.nps.gov/pefo). You can drive straight through this long park that stretches north and south between I-40 and U.S. 180 in either direction, but I recommend starting at the southern end in the Petrified Forest. Warn the kids in advance, yes, they're going to see trees that have been turned into stone, but these are stumps lying on the ground, not an upright forest where they'll be surrounded by towering stone trunks. Oddly, we thought the most striking section of this park were the petroglyphs on Newspaper Rock. There was just something completely human and relatable about these tiny drawings, so much like something you'd see scrawled in a kid's notebook today.
At the northern end of the park you'll come to the Painted Desert. Stop at as many of the pullouts as you can; the views change constantly, with blurred layers of colors fading into each other like delicate watercolors.
Our stay at the marvelous La Posada Hotel, 303 E. Second Street, Winslow (tel. 928/289-4366; www.laposada.org) was a highlight of our trip. It's a fabulous place to take kids, with railroad tracks outside (so that train-obsessed tikes can watch the trains passing through) and seemingly endless public rooms filled with all manner of unusual art, books, and well, things (a suit of armor, an old birdcage) and plenty of nooks and crannies to curl up in. Families with older children should ask for one of the four suites, consisting of two interconnecting doubles--the perfect combination of privacy and proximity--for only $149 a night.
Days 6 & 7: Scottsdale
Our last drive took us back to Scottsdale via Ariz. 87. This was to be the relaxing part of our vacation, two days of luxury at the Hyatt Regency Scottsdale, 7500 E. Doubletree Ranch Road (tel. 480/444-1234; www.scottsdale.hyatt.com/hyatt/hotels). This is hands-down one of the most kid-friendly hotels I've ever stayed in; we could have stayed the whole week and not gotten bored. For ages 3 to 12 Camp Hyatt offers daily activities; adults in need of pampering can visit the brand new spa.
While my husband and older son tried out the golf course, my younger son and I headed to one of the ten pools, this one a miniature sandy beach that sloped gently into a shallow fresh water pool, perfect for little ones who don't know how to swim yet, but love splashing around on their own. Poolside service of kid-friendly favorites like grilled cheese and hotdogs (plus a frothy drink for mom) was the icing on the cake. This was what I'd been looking forward to my whole vacation--sprawling on a lounge chair, in the sun, in front of a swimming pool, with a pina colada in my hand.
Now that's a family vacation.
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