July 15, 2024

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Arizona road trip: Kid-friendly adventure travel awaits

13 min read

Steal my seven-day road trip itinerary, featuring Williams, Grand Canyon, Sedona, Scottsdale

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From awe-inspiring canyons in the north, dramatic red rock formations towering over giant Saguaro cacti in the centre and world-class wineries within historic townships in the south, Arizona has a lot to offer. It’s been high on my bucket list of must-visit destinations in the U.S. Dubbed the “Grand Canyon State” after its most iconic attraction — I’ve felt drawn to Arizona’s rugged landscapes, diverse ecosystems and arid desert climate. 

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I recently had the opportunity to explore the area — with my family in tow — and I was determined to see as much of the state as I could in a limited time frame. What was important to us? Learning about Arizona’s rich Native American culture and history, exploring national parks, wildlife and animals galore (as defined by my two-year-old daughter) and that giant hole, of course.

We planned our trip for early March (in hindsight, there are better times to go — as many attractions were busy because of spring break), but the state is a year-round destination thanks to over 300 sunny days per year. Read on to help plan your family-friendly Arizona road trip or simply steal my vacation.

Exploring historic Williams, AZ.
Enjoying historic Williams, AZ. Photo by Leigh Taveroff/Postmedia

My seven-day family-friendly Arizona itinerary

Day 1: Arrive in Phoenix, travel north to Williams

We flew in from Vancouver, so the three-hour flight was palatable for my two-year-old, complete with the latest Google Pixel tablet loaded with Blippi (see ya, Ms. Rachel), Trash Truck, Moana and Encanto. This came in handy throughout the trip as we had many meals out and preferred to enjoy ourselves, rather than constantly entertain our toddler. Power to you if you go without screens, but having a tablet or laptop could be a very useful tool in your arsenal if you plan to travel with older kids, too — lots of driving.

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On arrival, we hopped on the free PHX Sky Train which took us directly from the airport to the Enterprise Rental Agency. All car rental agencies are conveniently located in the same hub and it’s an easy commute, even with a kid tornado.

We drove from Phoenix to Williams, which took us roughly 3.5 hours with a few strategic stops for bathroom breaks. 

Viewing bison from our rental car at Bearizona.
Viewing bison from our rental car at Bearizona. Photo by Leigh Taveroff/Postmedia

If you arrive in Williams early enough, visit Bearizona, a drive-through wilderness park and home to Alaskan Tundra and Arctic wolves, bison, black bears and bighorn sheep. Following the three-mile stretch of forest, park the car and walk through gated grounds to see red foxes and prairie dogs, plus a small enclosure full of pettable farm animals. This was one of my toddler’s favourite experiences of the trip. Last cars are admitted at 4 p.m., and you’ll need at least two hours to see everything.

We had wood-fired pizza and wings (plus one giant bowl of buttered pasta for the wee one) at the family-friendly Barrel + Bottle House – Williams. The pub is laid back and the food comes in at a rapid speed. We ate quickly and checked into The Lodge on Route 66. It’s located in the heart of Williams — walking distance from restaurants, quirky western shops and coffee houses — and a great starting point for the Grand Canyon (at a fraction of the cost). The lodge offers suites which were extremely attractive to us, as we were able to put our daughter to sleep, close the door to the bedroom and relax together in the lounge.

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The weather finally clearing at the Grand Canyon.
The weather finally clearing at the Grand Canyon. Photo by Leigh Taveroff/Postmedia

Day 2: Visit the Grand Canyon

The drive from Williams to the Grand Canyon is about an hour. Drive north past the Kaibab National Forest, full of ponderosa pine and blue spruce. When we arrived at the Grand Canyon we were shocked to see snow and the entire area socked in by a giant cloud of fog. Not ideal. In the meantime, we visited a few spots on our list: Verkamp’s Visitor Center and Kolb Studio, a Victorian-era building that was home to the Kolb brothers, the first filmmakers of the Grand Canyon, now a museum and gift shop. 

The last stop was the Grand Canyon Visitor’s Centre to watch a 20-minute documentary on the history of the canyon. We had a late lunch at the Canyonlands, which is skippable. It was wildly busy and understaffed with mediocre pub food. Instead, pack a lunch and eat it outside with an unforgettable view.

And a view we finally got. The fog parted to reveal a truly breathtaking scene. The canyon is overwhelming in size, spanning almost 450 km, with a depth of over 1,850 metres. It was worth the wait, but the crowds were overwhelming, as everyone rushed to the canyon’s edge to snap photos.

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We had lofty goals of completing the Trail of Time Hike, a 2.4-km trail with geological exhibits spanning over 1.5 billion years. The trail is relatively flat and accessible with wheels (we like the Cybex Libelle travel strollerread the review) or with an infant/toddler carrier backpack. We’d also planned to hike a portion of the 20 km Rim Trail, which is mostly paved with minimal elevation — another good one for families, with a free shuttle bus service from multiple points helping visitors customize their hike. However, by the time the weather cleared up, it was around 4:30 p.m. and time for us to go.

We ended the day with dinner at Red Raven Restaurant back in Williams, which exceeded our expectations. I felt nervous upon entering the unassuming, old-timey restaurant, which ended with great service and deliciously well-cooked steak. A fancy Alfredo pasta for kids, paired with a cup complete with a closed lid and straw (and the tablet) and we had a great ending to the day. Williams is a historic town, worth exploring after dinner if you have time and tolerance. For us, bed was calling.

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Note: There’s a scenic route back to Williams that we didn’t take, but if you have older kids (or if you can strategically align with a nap) it might be worth the extra 1.5 hours. Go east on Route 64 to explore the Painted Desert and make many stops, such as the Desert View Watchtower, Navajo Tribal Park, historic Cameron Trading Post,  Wupatki National Monument and Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument.

The famous red rocks of Sedona.
The famous red rocks of Sedona, are cast in shadows. Photo by Leigh Taveroff/Postmedia

Day 3: Williams to Sedona (or Cottonwood)

The drive from Williams to Sedona is just over an hour, but we stopped at the Oak Creek Vista for a bird’s eye view of the brightly coloured rocks with distinctive formations. A 15-minute drive brings you to Slide Rock State Park, which offers a unique view of the famed Cathedral Rock and a natural, 80-foot sandstone water slide.

We instantly fell in love with Sedona which felt like a unique, red desert wonderland with a lively, purpose-built town, which complemented its other-worldly surroundings. The food options seemed endless (restaurants on the main strip have inflated pricing), but we settled on The Hudson, after reading rave reviews and claims to have the best views in the city. We ordered steak and ahi tuna salads (grilled cheese for the kiddo) and we were not disappointed — by the view or the food.

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We weren’t able to secure a hotel as we were travelling during peak season and spring break, so we ended up in the neighbouring town of Cottonwood at the affordable Pines Inn & Suites — a great alternative if you’re sticking to a tighter budget. We found a great restaurant, STRADA @ Bocce, created out of shipping containers with outdoor seating and a casual vibe, but our hearts were in Sedona.

Enjoying the view from The Hudson, Sedona.
Enjoying the view from The Hudson, Sedona. Photo by Leigh Taveroff/Postmedia

Day 4: Explore Sedona

If you wake up in Cottonwood, I highly recommend dining at Crema Craft Kitchen — our favourite breakfast of the trip. Everything was delicious from the ricotta pancakes to the breakfast bowls.

I’d suggest spending a day exploring Sedona, check out the Tlaquepaque Arts & Crafts Village, full of upscale vendors, delicious food and eccentric galleries. Next, tour Hillside Sedona for world-class art like painting, sculptures, glassworks, wood carving, jewelry, photography and textiles and take in the magic and spiritual nature the town is known for.

We saw pink Jeeps driving all over town — on our next visit, we’ll try one of the off-roading adventure tours with Pink Jeep Tours Sedona but do check age restrictions if travelling with little ones.

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Tuzigoot National Monument, Clarkdale, AZ.
The family exploring Tuzigoot National Monument, Clarkdale, AZ. Photo by Leigh Taveroff/Postmedia

Day 5: Sedona (or Cottonwood) to Scottsdale

On your way to Sedona, you must stop at the Tuzigoot National Monument, a small set of ruins on top of a hill, built by the Sinaguan people in 1,100 AD. My daughter loved running up and down the paths and exploring the small museum (located indoors). The fee was nominal (something like $7 per person, free for kids) for a good hour or so of fun.

We stopped at Dead Horse Ranch State Park, which was nice for a bathroom break and quick play in the playground, but we were disappointed to learn that the horse stables had been shuttered the year prior. This stop could be skipped.

We arrived in Scottsdale two hours later, at the immaculate Fairmont Scottsdale Princess. I am a huge fan of Fairmont hotels — they have always exceeded my expectations in one way or another, and this property was no different. In the heart of the Sonoran Desert, we were welcomed with warmth from the front-of-house staff. As we wandered to our room, passing pool after pool (there are five — all heated) we instantly felt like we needed another week of vacation, spent right here.

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Settling in at the Fairmont Scottsdale Princess.
Settling in at the Fairmont Scottsdale Princess. Photo by Leigh Taveroff/Postmedia

We checked into our poolside room (much to my toddler’s delight — neverending “Mommy, it’s pool time!” and pointing out the window), which had a crib waiting for us, along with a toddler amenities set (Honest baby shampoo, bubble bath and lotion) plus a little reindeer neck pillow (similar to this) for our plane ride home. Little did they know — we were never leaving (or so we wished). Adults get spoiled too, with some of my favourite Le Lebo products in our (huge) bathroom and the dreamy Fairmont sheets and pillows I’ve come to love.

That night, we ate at Mexican-inspired La Hacienda, a clever combination of Mexican flavours, European cooking techniques and North American ingredients. Our favourite dishes were the ribeye tacos, lobster tacos and Tampiqueña — a skirt steak atop a cheese-mole enchilada, guacamole, rajas con crema, scallions and serrano chile toreados. Pair these with one or many of the 200 varieties of tequila on offer, or work your way through the margarita menu, as we did.

Lobster tacos and freshly made guacamole at La Hacienda.
Lobster tacos and freshly made guacamole at La Hacienda. Photo by Leigh Taveroff/Postmedia

Day 6: Explore Scottsdale

We woke up feeling as though we could spend all day relaxing at one of the hotel’s many pools (there are waterslides, water features and even a white-sand beach for kiddos), but alas, we had a full day of activities planned.

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First, we fueled up at the Ironwood American Kitchen, another one of the five in-house restaurants at the 65-acre resort. We opted for the buffet (not my typical choice) because it offered such elevated options — every kind of fruit parfait you could imagine, fancy flatbreads, smoked salmon everything and tons of options for kids (they don’t charge for under 5s).

Properly satiated, we made our way to the Arizona Boardwalk, with multiple family-friendly attractions within steps of one another. We chose the Butterfly Wonderland — the largest butterfly sanctuary in the U.S. — which immersed us in a rainforest atrium of koi-filled ponds, blooming flowers and thousands of butterflies fluttering by.

Feeding koi at Butterfly Wonderland, Scottsdale.
Feeding koi at Butterfly Wonderland, Scottsdale. Photo by Leigh Taveroff/Postmedia

Next, we walked next door to the OdySea Aquarium, a high-tech aquarium that’s home to 30,000 marine animals including penguins, jellyfish, otters and sharks (you can even view them from the bathroom!). We loved Kids’ Cove, which offered interactive games and touch pools where kids can safely interact with stingrays and other sea creatures, as well as get an upfront view of anemones, sea stars and sturgeon. The OdySea Voyager is a must-do — the world’s only rotating aquarium experience — which sits guests aboard a “submarine” (movie-theatre-like experience) and visits five of the major exhibits, including the shark tank while educating guests on the aquarium’s sea life.

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There are six more attractions on the boardwalk to choose from, including a Ripleys Believe it or Not!, a Pangaea Land of the Dinosaurs and a Museum of Illusion, or dive 10 minutes west to McCormick-Stillman Railroad Park for a ride on the railroad and 1950s carousel.

We’d finally worked up an appetite and tried Postino Kierland, which offered excellent charcuterie boards made with local ingredients and interesting kids’ menu options.

My partner and tot returned to the hotel to rest as I got ready for my next adventure — a hot air balloon ride over the Sonoran Desert with Hot Air Expeditions. Our hour-long flight ended up being longer than expected (the wind dictates your journey) so plan for the entire experience to last around 4-5 hours, including car transport handled by the company. I opted for a sunset flight, which departed around 5 p.m. I suggest packing a long sleeve as it can get cool as the sun goes down — I wore a linen shirt (this one) and it was perfect. The flight was tranquil and exhilarating all in one breath, even during the several attempts to land — the wind had other plans for us. Once it was safe to come down, the actual landing was effortless.

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A memorable end to a great trip with Hot Air Expeditions.
A memorable end to a great trip with Hot Air Expeditions. Photo by Leigh Taveroff/Postmedia

Day 7: Head home or unwind in Scottsdale

If I were to do it again (I hope I do!), we would have stayed an extra day in Scottsdale. There’s so much to see and we felt as though we could have spent an entire day just exploring the vast grounds of the Fairmont Scottsdale Princess — or lounging in the sun enjoying poolside service, while our little grommet played in the splash pad.

For us, it was a memorable family vacation we weren’t quite ready to come home from.

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