When you think about the Southwest and family travel, you immediately think of the Grand Canyon. While it is truly breathtaking, there is so much more for families to see and experience in Arizona and the Southwest.
This is part two of some fabulous places to visit in Arizona as you plan a trip West.
Near Flagstaff and not far from the Grand Canyon
Flagstaff is within a two-hour drive of the Grand Canyon and there are many National Park sites and other wonderful things there to share with your family.
The Lowell Observatory, founded in 1894, sits atop a mountain at the end of a railroad line. That railroad line enabled observatory founder Percival Lowell to transport his telescopes and equipment across the country. The observatory is where Pluto was discovered. It is also where the expansion of the universe was documented and observed for years before Edwin Hubble declared the discovery. The Lowell Observatory will be the home of the new and extremely powerful Discovery Channel Telescope, although at a different site close by with less light pollution.
There is a movie inside and lots of hands-on exhibits for the kids. However, my favorite part was actually seeing the old giant telescopes that the original scientists used in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The observatory grounds are a calm, relaxing place to visit and ponder if there is anything else out there!
From the observatory, we went to the Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument. The volcano erupted sometime between 1040 and 1100 but it looks like it could have happened in the last century. Because it is so dry and has so few microbes, the land does not regenerate the way it does in more humid climates, such as on Mount St. Helens. It is a classic cinder cone with lava flows and deep volcanic cinder deposits. You can hike through the flows and up a mountain where the ash landed. But they don’t let people hike up to the top of the cinder cone anymore. The kids were fascinated and enjoyed exploring.
Near Sunset Crater is the Wupatki National Monument, which covers more than 35,000 acres and has multiple ancient pueblos on the land. Wupatki Pueblo was the largest pueblo around 800 years ago. It is so well preserved that you can clearly see the different rooms and levels to the pueblo. They had a community meeting area as well as a ball court. There is also a natural blowhole that the kids thought were amazing. Imagine what the ancient people thought of it.
Heading south of Tucson toward the border
Forty miles south of the Tucson, Kartchner Caverns isn’t really convenient to the Grand Canyon, but is well worth your drive and your time. Kartchner Caverns, which is a state park, is special because it is a live cave that is still forming, changing and growing!
The cave’s “speleothems” have been forming from dripping water for more than 200,000 years. The colors and the formations vary depending on the minerals present and other natural factors. Cave “bacon” and soda straws are among the amazing formations.
The caves are minimally lit to avoid messing with the natural environment. (Our 4-year-old was a little bit scared.) You are not supposed to touch any of the cave. The microbes and enzymes from your hands can totally invade and screw up the natural formations. You enter through double air lock-type doors to keep the humidity in the cave and you walk over slight suction to pull any dead skin off of you before you enter the cave. Did I mention they are not fooling around about not screwing up this cave’s natural environment?
When we visited, the bats (about 1,000) were roosting in one part of the cave so you were not allowed in that part. (I’m not sure I want to go in that part after they leave though.)
The kids enjoyed it as much as we did. It is one of the best places we have ever visited. I cannot recommend it enough.
We headed from the completely preserved and organic Kartchner Caverns to the completely fake and touristy town of Tombstone. We thought it would be fun to visit this famous Western town where Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday had their famous gun battle against “bad” guys in the OK Corrall. (Who were the actual bad guys is widely debated in the town.)
Sadly it’s cheesy and touristy. You can pay to tour the historical site of the OK Corral. You can see the site and positions of the gunfight. They have the bedroom where Doc Holliday lived and a lot of interesting photos and artifacts. However we paid extra for the “re-enactment.” Do NOT pay for the re-enactment. It was awful, and we walked out.
There is so much to see and do in Arizona that doesn’t involved the Grand Canyon that I just want families to realize all the wonderful options they have when they plan their trip!