What would happen if a huge metropolis were plopped in the middle of one of the most diverse desert ecosystems in the world? Look no further than Phoenix, where mountains and rust-hued rock formations of the Sonoran Desert are visible and accessible for exploring throughout a vast urban sprawl.
Here are five kid-friendly ways to experience the desert during a stay in Phoenix. Just remember to bring plenty of water, slather on the sunscreen, wear sturdy shoes and avoid the midday heat during the summer. The desert is fascinating any time of year, although the spring wildflower season is the most colorful time to visit.
Best Phoenix Attractions for Kids
Phoenix with Kids: Five Ways to Explore the Desert
This botanical museum has plants from deserts around the world and showcases different environments on five trails (all of them short and flat enough for younger children to easily walk). The most interesting area for kids may be the Plants and People of the Sonoran Desert Loop Trail (only 1/3 mile long). Here they'll learn how native peoples have found shelter, food, water and medicine in the desert for millennia, using plants like agave and saguaro cactus, whose fruit is harvested from the top using a long cactus-spine pole and then boiled into syrup.
Numerous hikes in and around Phoenix will let you explore the desert more intimately, with lizards and scorpions crossing your path, hawks circling overhead and the smell of sage and hot earth in the air. The McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale offers numerous hikes at various levels, including the Bajada Nature Trail, an interpretive half-mile trail that's accessible even for very young kids. Fifteen interactive stations offer information about the desert, including just what a bajada is (the area between mountain slopes and the valley floor) and panoramic photographs of the surrounding mountains. Or are you a family of experienced hikers who like a challenge? Try Camelback Mountain. The steep and very popular Echo Canyon Summit hike is closed through this fall for improvements, so try scaling nearby North Mountain or Shaw Butte instead – they are nearly as high and offer a number of trails and lookouts.
Run by Arizona State University, this museum and preserve is something of a secret even to many locals, and is a must-visit for any budding anthropologist. The site in north Phoenix contains nearly 1,500 rock carvings, which were made with stone tools on rocks of all sizes. Some of the carvings are thousands of years old. Visit the Green Room in the museum's interpretive center for interactive activities that teach kids about the people who have lived on the site during the past 7,000 years. Then hit the trails and see who can find the most pictures on the basalt rocks. Groups of six or larger can arrange guided tours that include kid-friendly activities and goodie bags. The annual archaeological festival and agave roast, which this year will take place on March 23, offers free activities like a mock archaeological dig, live music and agave tasting.
Kids who love cowboys will enjoy this former cattle and horse ranch in Mesa, just east of Phoenix. Pan for gold, see a gunfight and take a wagon ride. Is it a little hokey? Sure, but kids will also learn about an authentic part of desert history, the story of how settlers came and established ranches in this seemingly inhospitable landscape. In fact, the family that today runs Rockin' R descends from the founders of Mesa and boasts of an ancestor who was killed in a gunfight.
Plan a day trip visit to this large, primarily outdoor museum just outside Tucson; it’s worth the almost two-hour drive. You can hike in the desert on interpretive trails, find fossils in the sand in the Ancient Arizona exhibit and see 40 species of desert birds – including the roadrunner – in the walk-in-aviary. Especially fascinating for kids are the many live animals shown in their actual habitats. In the Life on the Rocks exhibit, for example, everything from rattlesnakes, squirrels and skunks to Gila monsters can be seen both above and underground in glassed-in rocky outcrops. An aquarium with a touch tank (which provides a hands-on experience) highlights the important role of water in this desert, one of the wettest in North America.