Tucson with Teens: A Perfect Family Day

Tucson with Teens: A Family Vacation


Summertime and the living is easy in Tucson, Ariz. Winter visitors and University of Arizona students are gone, roads are as open as the skies, resorts and motels offer good deals, and reservations, even at the top restaurants, are often unnecessary. How's the weather? Naturally, it is hot (upwards of 100 degrees and dry during much of June and July). Monsoon rains usually begin by mid-July, however, and bring dramatic thunderstorms, knockout sunsets, lower temperatures and higher humidity. So, if you're planning a Tucson family adventure with teens, this is the time to do it! You'll relish the absence of the crowds.

Here's my idea of one perfect family day in Tucson with teens. From rugged hikes and sunset vistas to museum visits and shopping ventures, you'll find plenty of fun things to do. Tucson cuisine is a must, as well!


The place to start is the Arizona Sonoran Desert Museum, located 15 miles northwest of Tucson via a dizzying drive through the Saguaro cacti-studded Tucson Mountains. Sprawling over 21 acres, it has two miles of paths, almost all of which are paved and wheelchair accessible. Most of the denizens are displayed in natural settings -- the perfect place for the budding naturalist. There are two walk-in aviaries (one exclusively for hummingbirds), mountain and riparian habitats, and a cool underground display of gems and minerals. Take a guided tour or go it on your own. Be sure to set aside a full morning.

Insider Tip: Admission is cheaper after 4PM, and dining options are available on-site. You can plan for a nicer meal at Ocotillo Cafe or go super casual at Ironwood Terraces (the views from the patios at Ironwood Terraces are not to be missed). There is also a coffee shop, snack bar and, of course, a huge gift shop. Summer rates are $9.50 for adults and $2.25 or kids 6 -12. The tykes are free. As we say in Tucson, that's a ganga!

Arizona Sonoran Desert Museum
2021 N Kinney Road
Tucson, AZ 85743
(520) 883-2702
October – February: 8:30AM–5PM
March – May: 7:30AM–5PM
June – August: Sun – Friday 7AM–2:30PM, Sat 7AM–10PM
September: 7:30AM–5PM
Admission September – May: $13 Adults, $4.25 Kids (6-12)
Admission June – August: $9.50 Adults, $2.25 Kids (6-12)
*Summer Saturday Evenings: Admission after 4PM is only $7 ($2.25 for ages 6-12)

Tucson is renowned for its biking and hiking opportunities. If you're ready to explore the area's natural landscape, Nearby Saguaro National Park (west) is next on your list of things to do in Tucson. Family adventure here is abundant with many exciting trails to suit avid hikers, bikers and novices alike.

Another great place to explore when in Tucson with teens is Sabino Canyon, a desert oasis in the foothills of the Santa Catalina Mountains. Take a picnic lunch, and wear your bathing suit so you can splash around in the creek and swimming holes. You can park and walk or bike, or take the 45-minute shuttle to the end of the road. It operates daily.

Too hot? If the heat is getting to you, drive to the top of Mount Lemon via rugged Catalina Highway. Hike the Butterfly Trail, or if you have the gear and experience, rock climb at Windy Point.

Saguaro National Park
2700 N Kinney Road
Tucson, AZ 85743
(520) 733-5158
Daily, 7AM–sunset
$10 per car
$5 For any individual on foot or bicycle

Sabino Canyon
5900 N Sabino Canyon Road
Tucson, AZ 85750
(520) 749-2861

If you're not up for a bout with nature, forego the hiking and biking and venture instead to Old Tucson Studios. The original studio went up in smoke in 1995, but it has since been rebuilt. It's best described as Hollywood's take on the Wild Wild West. If you love gunfights, fistfights and frowsy saloon gals, this is the place for you.

The San Xavier Mission, located just south of town, is another must when you're in Tucson with teens. It's known locally as the White Dove of the Desert and is not a relic but a living mission ministering to the Tohono O'Oodam people. Inside the massive white painted adobe, the walls are covered with intricate frescos. Outside, there are shops featuring the basketry and pottery of the Tohono O'Oodam. Be sure to sample the Indian fry bread, made on the spot, hot and dripping with honey or filled with beans.

Old Tucson Studios
201 S Kinney Road
Tucson, AZ 85735
(520) 883-0100
Tour times vary
Adults (ages 12 and over) $16.95, Children (ages 4-11) $10.95, Children 3 and under are free

San Xavier Mission
1950 W San Xavier Road
Tucson, AZ 85746
(520) 294-2624
Daily, 7AM–5PM


Next on your list of things to do is downtown Tucson. Here you'll find a lot of freebies: there's the walk across the Rattlesnake Bridge, complete with rattle, the El Tiradito wishing shrine, with its tale of love and murder, and a walk on the campus of the University of Arizona. Funky 4th Avenue is also free, and people watching on this street is entertainment in itself. There are some unique little shops to browse, as well, where you can buy anything from books at Antigone Books to vintage clothing at How Sweet it Was. More shopping is close at hand in the Lost Barrio, an old warehouse district converted to retail shops featuring an assortment of imports from Mexico and around the world. It's located just south of Broadway on Park Avenue and is the perfect place for your teenagers to find souvenirs commemorating your Tucson family adventure.

If you made it downtown without grabbing lunch, stop for a bite to eat at Tooley's, a funny little joint with the kind of Mexican food your mom might make. The menu varies, but I've never been disappointed.

Downtown Tucson
(520) 837-6504

University of Arizona
Tucson, AZ 85721
(520) 621-2211

Antigone Books
411 N 4th Avenue
Tucson, AZ 85705
(520) 792-3715
Monday – Thursday, 10AM-7PM; Friday – Saturday, 10AM–9PM; Sunday, 11AM–5PM

How Sweet it Was
419 N 4th Avenue
Tucson, AZ 85705
(520) 623-9854

299 Park Avenue
Tucson, AZ
Monday – Friday, 9AM–4PM; Saturday – Sunday, 10AM–3PM

If you're up for another adventure after lunch, or you're seeking a way to cool off, venture to Kitt Peak National Observatory Visitor Center and Museum. About a 90-minute drive southwest of Tucson, this attraction is open from 9AM to 4PM and offers guided tours several times a day. For the real astronomy geek, the must do is the three hour evening program. It's a bit pricy, though, so you may prefer a daytime tour or picnic on the summit.

If you're seeking things to do in Tucson with teens that are avid spelunkers, spend your afternoon at Kartchner Caverns State Park, 57 miles south of town. You'll walk though a living, breathing cave and enjoy average temperatures of 68 degrees. Reservations are required.

Kitt Peak National Observatory
State Toute 86 on Tohono O'Odham Reservation
(520) 318-8726
Admission to The Visitor Center is free
Daytime tour prices range from $3 - $9.75
Evening programs range from $44 - $48

Kartchner Caverns State Park
Huachuca City, AZ 85616
(520) 586-2283
Tour prices vary


Venture back downtown for the evening and visit Skrappy's, a drug and alcohol free teen venue that offers lots of diversions. It's the perfect place for your teenagers to connect and find out what's going on locally, especially on the music scene. You can drop your teen off there and then spend an hour or two wandering about the Tucson Museum of Art. If you'd rather keep the family together, plan to see a show at the Rialto Theatre, an eclectic concert venue. Popular among teens, it's a great place to hear anything from reggae to rap. And let's not forget Skate Country. It's one of the best places to roller skate in the nation, according to Brandon Perea.

191 E Toole Avenue
Tucson, AZ 85701
(520) 777-3704

Tucson Museum of Art
140 N Main Avenue
Tucson, AZ 85701
(520) 624-2333
Tuesday – Saturday, 10AM-5PM; Sunday, 12–5PM
$8 general admission, $6 seniors (60+) and veterans, $3 students (ages 13+)
Children 12 and under and active military with ID are free
First Sunday of each month is free for all

Rialto Theatre
318 E Congress Street
Tucson, AZ 85701
(520) 740-1000
Box Office: Monday – Friday, 12PM-6PM

Skate Country
7980 E 22nd Street
Tucson, AZ
(520) 298-4409
Skate times vary – see online calendar
Admission ranges from $1 - $12

A few other musts to consider during your Tucson family adventure include:

Lerua's green corn tamales.

Lerua's Fine Mexican Foods
2005 E Broadway Boulevard
Tucson, AZ 85719
(520) 624-0322
Monday – Saturday, 10:30AM – 8PM

Eegee's frozen lemonade, a Tucson-only franchise with numerous locations.

(520) 294-3333

And, of course, flour tortillas, warm and fresh. Just ask -- everyone has a favorite vendor. Mine? Anita Street Market, 849 N. Anita Avenue.

Gayle Davies Jandry spent her summers working as a fire lookout in southern Arizona's "Sky Islands" where she first learned to love the region's richness and diversity. Her novel A Garden of Aloes is set in Tucson. Read her blog on Red Room.
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