3 Top Activities in Tucson with Kids

Tucson is a great escape, especially in Spring. The weather is nice, the cacti are blooming, the wildflowers abound. It is ripe for adventure. It’s about a 6 or 7-hour drive from SoCal, and about 6.5 hours from Albuquerque, New Mexico. We went last April. Here are my top recommendations.

#1. Kartchner Caverns State Park

We dedicated one day to Katchner Caverns, run by Arizona’s State Park system. It was about an hour’s drive from our hotel in Tucson. They say no cameras are allowed (unless on a paid photography tour), and I took that a little far by not taking mine in the visitor’s center either. That’s why these iphotos, scandalously clandestine, are so crumby.

The last one is me trying (almost) to break the rules and take an iPod shot at the end, till I realized my ringer and flash were both on, and quit, but not before totally embarrassing myself and my kids. Ah, it’s fun to travel with me.

Tours are required for the cave, and reservations in advance are highly recommended. Junior ranger packets are available. I loved the plethora of resources we printed out before we left. Of course we didn’t use all 86 pages of the curriculum, but made copies of a few age-appropriate lessons. Page 16 was my son’s favorite. He folded it in his pocket and carried it with him, identifying the names of various formations in the cave.

Food-named formations were the favorite, including cave popcorn, bacon, and the fried egg.

Formations, Page 16

Formations, Page 16

Because we dedicated an entire day, we both completed Jr. Ranger packets, and also had plenty of unstructured play among the interactive exhibits at the Visitor’s Center. I found irreverent boxer shorts at the gift shop (skunk), and the kids found rocks and other touristy treasures. The day felt interesting, productive, and easy.

No cave photos allowed. So we did a crumby iPhone shot in the visitor's center. Photography Tour is on the bucket list. Sigh.

No cave photos allowed. So we did a crumby iPod shot in the visitor’s center. Photography Tour next time. Sigh.

Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum

Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum

#2. Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum

The Desert Museum came highly recommended, from many people, for good reason. It’s a full day (or more) of adventure. My kids loved seeing a falcon demonstration (and all the animals). I loved the easy weather, expansive trails between exhibits, plethora of blooms, nesting birds, and variety of exhibits. There’s even an aquarium.

Looking back I wonder why I didn’t wear better shoes. There’s a lot of walking. I thought it was worth it to carry water, sunscreen, and camera.

Navigator #1. Happiness. Independence.

The kids loved serving as navigators through the park. Once we established clear turns, holding the map and being in charge fostered harmony and independence.

Another kid favorite was the rocks and gems building (built like a cave).

My favorite of the day was the live gila monster and rattlesnake demonstration, presented in a small auditorium. No glass. We felt close to the animals. The trainers shared fascinating facts about these creatures (which are fairly easy to stumble upon in the desert).

The behind-the-scenes tours look amazing. I recommend planning which day to visit based on either a live animal demonstration, or a behind-the-scenes tour.

Saguaro National Park West

Saguaro National Park West

#3. Saguaro National Park

 

Saguaro National Park is divided into two parts, East and West, on either side of Tucson. We did the West side, a morning hike. We were warned of rattlesnakes out, but didn’t see any. We did see scat on the trail, and burrows, chewed-on cacti, petroglyphs, blooms, and of course many saguaro, standing tall like community elders. They can live to about 150 years.

The kids earned Junior Ranger badges. Working through the packets enriched their experience.

Sometimes we have to put down the junior ranger packets, identification books, binoculars, and any other gear, and spend time savoring what is happening right at our feet.

I’ve seen this on a nature show before. We saw it unfold right before our eyes. This wasp invaded a tarantula’s den. It swept aside the web and dove boldly inside. The tarantula ejected, followed by the wasp. They battled. The wasp won. It drug the tarantula back into its den, alive but paralyzed. There the wasp will lay its eggs. The young will feast on the tarantula as they grow, saving vital organs for last, so the tarantula remains alive as it is eaten. Nature’s rough. We were thoroughly entertained.

Here’s a video with with a few exciting clips:

(if you’re viewing in an email, please click here for video).

Downtime.

One key to this desert trip was downtime in the hotel pool. What I’ve found (sometimes the hard way) is that as much as we like to pack our trips with education and experience, we all need white space. This successful trip included dips in our hotel pool.

You can take it up a notch at the Ritz-Carlton, Dove Mountain, which offers a four-story water slide. Although my water-conscious side hates to admit it, kids would probably love an entire day at a water park, even in the desert.

Food.

I was lucky to meet up with foodies on this trip. We dined at El Charro Cafe (the Original). It was ahhhh-mazing. This place made me oh-so-glad I traveled with people who thoroughly research dining. I’m glad we went to the original location. The ambiance was muy authentic. The food delicately melded flavors in surprising ways.

My best photo of this place was of the sappy engaged couple across the table.

Engaged.

Bucket list.

I thought about doing Tucson again this year, and didn’t, because some things were already booked. It’s a great destination. Here’s what remains on my radar.

This is an all-day tour, run by Harvard. It looks worth it, despite the drive. May do this en route. Reservations for April fill up by mid-February. An alternative, which also fills up occasionally, is Kitt Peak National Observatory. Their night program with dinner looks interesting. (8:30-3:00 Mon., Wed., or Fri.)

 

This day-trip or half-day trip came recommended. It sounds like there’s a shuttle, which has various drop-off and pick-up points. One can ride, hike, take a picnic, ride back, and make it as intense or easy as one chooses. Frankly, any venue that requires a phone call to an info. line seems temptingly quirky. #speakeasy. Information: (520) 749-2861. Reservations: (520) 749-2327.

 

I’m most interested in the Boneyard Tour. It’s probably worth noting their schedule of events.

 

It takes a road trip, wind whipping hair, to peel open petals of goodness. It takes relentless pavement. It takes wild spaces. It takes nature. It takes meeting people. It takes trying something new. Finally, we bloom. I’m reminded: we are here with purpose. We are allowed. We are alive. We are enough. Inner petals unfold. My smile returns. Ah, Tucson.

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