Exploring Southern Arizona: “The Beautiful Old West”

As a family that travels a lot, (in fact, this summer we will hit 50/50 states with our two oldest kids) we have it on pretty good authority to say that we think Arizona is one of the most beautiful and diverse states of the bunch. It’s one of the reasons why it will always be home to us. You can go from a desert full of saguaros, to red rocks vistas, to dense pine tree forests in a single day! The road trip possibilities are endless! 

A few years back when our oldest daughter was a fourth grader, we planned most of our road trips around national parks to take advantage of our free America the Beautiful pass. Did you know that if you have a child in 4th grade, they can get your entire family into any national park or monument for free? Thanks to the Every Kid Outdoors initiative, all you have to do is visit this site, answer several quick questions, and then print the certificate and take it into any visitor center for your free annual pass! In Arizona alone, there are 24 units operated by the National Park service, including three national parks and four national monuments, so that is usually the starting ground of planning any local trip for us.

Over the next few months, I thought it would be fun to do a few posts covering our home state so if you are making the journey to the southwest yourself, especially during these months of beautiful spring weather, you could use these road trip itineraries as a guide! 

I’m starting in the southern region in our state. This trip can be done in a week, or if you are local, you could make it a series of weekend excursions! I like to create a balance of touristy attractions and city explorations with plenty of time in nature and “away from the world” when we travel. This itinerary has both well known destinations, as well as lesser known treasures. Also, keep in mind that we did this full trip in an RV and stayed at campgrounds when our youngest was just 8 months old and our other kids were 4, 8 and 10. As with all of the trips we take – it’s very family friendly.

Our first destination was Kartchner Caverns State Park,  just 9 miles south of Benson, Arizona. This is one of the newer caves, discovered in 1974. It is famous for having the world’s longest stalactite formation! We have been to many of the big caves, including Carlsbad in New Mexico and Mammoth Cave in Kentucky and this beautiful cavern rivals those bigger, well known national parks! 

What to Do: Start your adventure at the Discovery Center. Make sure your kids pick up their junior ranger booklets and then venture into the exhibits. This is a wonderful visitor center with many informative displays and plenty of hands-on activities for the kids. There is a bat cave the littles can crawl into and the older kids can try on bat ears to see what it is like to have supersonic hearing!

Schedule your cave tour while you are here. There are two rooms available but the Big Room Tour does not allow children under the age of 7, so we did the other option – the Rotunda/Throne Room Tour.

PC: Wikipedia

A few things to note, there are many strict rules when you enter the cave, such as no touching the formations, no photography of any kind, and babies need to be worn in a soft sided front carrier. The tour lasts about an hour and a half (50 minutes of which is underground) and it is a very dark environment that can be claustrophobic and scary for little ones, so this excursion may not be for all children.

Our kids really enjoyed both the visitor center and the cave tour, and they happily completed the junior ranger program and received badges as souvenirs of their adventure.

In addition to the learning center and cave tours, the Foothills Loop Trail wraps through the park and campground. It climbs across the limestone hill north of the cave and descends into the wash that follows the fault between the Whetstone Block and the San Pedro Block. The trail is 2.9 miles round trip with a 521 foot elevation gain. It’s moderate, kid and dog friendly, and offers many opportunities for wonderful views and wildlife viewing.

Where to Stay: There is a campground attached to the Discovery Center in a beautiful area at the base of the mountains. If you have a recreational vehicle or trailer they offer water and electric hook ups for $30, but if not, they also offer tent camping and have several cabins for rent at $89 a night.

The following day, we left Kartchner and made the 30 mile drive southeast to the old west town of Tombstone, Arizona – “the town too tough to die.”

What to Do:  Tombstone is very touristy but that also means plenty of activities for the whole family and opportunities to dine out. Our first stop was the main street of the town, Allen St. It’s a dirt road that is closed to vehicle traffic with passing horse and carriage rides to help you get around. Here you will find the city hall, Bird Cage theater, the O.K. Corral, and many saloons and old fashioned soda shops!

We had lunch at the famous Big Nose Kate’s Saloon, which has earned the reputation of being the ‘best cowboy bar in the west.’ After our meal we spent quite a bit of time browsing the shops where you can find souvenirs like authentic cowboy gear, toy guns and smashed penny machines for the kids.

A not-to-miss attraction is the gun show reenactment at the O.K. Corral. Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, Virgil and Morgan Earp fight the McLaury’s and Clanton’s in daily reenactments of the famous 1881 showdown.The acting was great, the show isn’t so long that younger children will lose interest and it was a lot of fun! It does get a bit loud during the solid 30 seconds of gunfire, so our 8 month old needed to be carried out after being startled . 

After the show they had a fun meet and greet and photo opportunities with the actors. Nicholas and Aubrey were very impressed with the whole experience!

In addition to the live action show, the O.K. Corral features several walk through exhibits, a museum, mechanical pony rides, and a “learn to lasso” with ropes course.

A short walk from Allen street will take you to the Tombstone Old Western theme park. Here you will activities such as gold panning, mini golf, a shooting gallery, an Old Time photoshop, stunt shows, and lots of fun photo ops! And if your kids are misbehaving, you can throw them in jail and they can watch you through the bars as you sit outside and enjoy lunch at Cervesa’s Cantina!

Before you leave Tombstone, make sure you take a walk through the Boothill Graveyard. The term “boothill” was used in the late 1800’s to describe cemeteries in the American West that served as a burial ground for gunfighters who ‘died with their boots on.’ You will find very interesting inscriptions of some famous outlaws buried here.

Where to Stay: There are quite a number of accommodations in this tourist destination, from RV Parks, to hotels and bed and breakfasts. Many of them are within walking distance of most major attractions so you never have to drive during your visit.

Our next stop took us south to the historic copper mining town of Bisbee.  

What to Do: This town is oozing with eclectic boho charm! There is art and color everywhere, hip coffee shops, ice cream and gelato, and one of the best Mexican food restaurants I’ve ever eaten at. As an Arizona native since birth, I eat A LOT of Mexican food so that is a firm statement. If you are in the area, I highly suggest you try Santiago’s. The chili rellenos and tamales were amazing!

The Bisbee Mining & Historical Museum stands at the town center with it’s attention grabbing jumbo flies adorning the outside of the building. It is only $8 for a full day here and well worth it! As an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution, the Bisbee Mining & Historical Museum chronicles the history of what put Bisbee on the map, has many displays on rocks and minerals, and includes a real adventure on a original rail car over 1200 feet underground!

Another option to learn about Bisbee’s rich mining history is to take a tour of the Copper Queen Mine. This is Trip Advisor’s #1 rated attraction for Bisbee, but keep in mind that these tours are not available to children under the age of 5.

The main street of town is very picturesque with it’s setting nestled in the mountains. We spent the afternoon strolling up and down the streets, stopping for coffees and gelato.

Bisbee also has several art galleries and antique shops to browse, or if you have older kids, you can do a ghost tour of the town after dark!

Where to Stay: The Queen Mine RV Park is the closest spot for camping, and the town also offers several charming hotels and bed and breakfasts. We actually did not stay the night, instead choosing to continue driving toward our next destination away from town.

Bonus: As you pass by the Copper Queen Mine, you enter the town of Lowell, which is another fun area for photo ops. It has a definite “route 66” vibe to it!

Our next stop put that National Park pass to good use as we entered Chiricahua National Monument in Wilcox, Arizona.

What to Do: Chiricahua is often referred to as the “Wonderland of Rocks” and contains an 8-mile paved scenic drive and 17-miles of day-use hiking trails to explore. The rock formations are quite impressive! As with any NPS site, we always head to the visitor center first to pick up park maps and information to plan out our days.

We hiked several trails before exploring the site of the Faraway Ranch Historic District. The ranch was started by Neil and Emma Erickson when they immigrated here in 1880 from Sweden. They built a small cabin that eventually grew into a beautiful guest ranch that would support their family for years to come. It brought attention to the “wonderland of rocks” in the Bonita Canyon area that eventually led to Chiricahua receiving it’s national monument status in 1924.

We had a wonderful time in this lesser known national monument! It was not crowded and we had some of the coldest weather of our trip – including an hour of snow flurries on one day!

And the pride on their faces when they earn another junior ranger badge is always worth it!

Where to Stay: If you are camping, you can stay directly in the park at the Bonita Campground, but they do have a 29 foot limit on recreational vehicles, so we stayed just outside the park. The closest town to the monument with accommodations is in Wilcox, Arizona.

If you begin or end this loop in the big city of Tucson, it is a must to take some time to see Saguaro National Park while you are there! We chose to end our trip here. Saguaro National Park is divided into west and east portions on either side of Tucson with 30 miles of separation between them, so this trip we chose to concentrate on the west side.

What to Do: We started our journey at the Red Hills Tucson Mountain Visitor Center at the west side of Tucson. This is a national park that is best enjoyed in the winter, spring and fall months when the weather is moderate. During these times you will find the most availability for junior ranger programs, guided hikes and backpacking excursions. This national park also supports mountain biking and you will find many bike paths throughout the beautifully preserved Sonoran Desert full of impressive saguaros.

We chose to do the Valley View Overlook Trail. It is an easy .8 mile hike that we highly recommend for families with younger children. There is only around 50 feet of elevation gain, the trail is well marked, and there are beautiful saguaros, desert wildflowers and wildlife to appreciate along the way. We saw a variety of birds and even a few really cool lizards on our trek and the overlook view at the end has a wonderful payoff!

Saguaro National Park also has some cool picnic areas a short hike off several parking areas. We packed lunches and enjoyed it under one of these structures surrounded by desert! There are also petroglyphs in the area.

Where to Stay: There are hundreds of options in Tucson, but if you are camping I highly recommend the campgrounds located near the visitor center. Directly within Saguaro National Park there are many tent campgrounds, and if you are in an RV, there is the beautiful Gilbert Ray Campground located less than 4 miles from the visitor center and near Tuscon’s Desert Wildlife Museum. It is very reasonable at $20 a night for electric only sites with one of the most beautiful desert views of any campground we’ve stayed at. There are also many hiking and mountain biking trails that depart directly from the campground, and it is convenient for the sites of Old Tucson!

BONUS: If you are in the area and you appreciate architecture, the Mission San Xavier del Bac is a must see. It is an historic Spanish Catholic mission completed in 1797. On this particular day, it was open for mass and we got to see the beauty of the inside as well. It was the perfect way to round off our week in the gorgeous desert of southern Arizona!

I hope your March is filled with beautiful weather, spring break adventures, and many memories for you and your family!

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