Phoenix: You may want to call it an urban heat island with all the charm of a strip mall, but you’d be missing out.
With big expanses of blue that don’t disappear for months, Phoenix beckons you to spend time outside, and is a natural fit with our outside voices and inability to sit still. The last time I went, I asked a friend what to do with kids, and he rattled off a long list of museums, science centers, and, well, stuff. But we don’t come to Phoenix to ride a bike on a cable. We can do that anywhere.
We come to Phoenix because we want to be basking under the blue sky, we want to be exploring outdoors 365 days a year, never cooped up, always a part of that huge sprawling city and its huge, sprawling parks (South Mountain preserve, the country’s largest urban park, is over 16,000 acres). Honestly, this place is a cinch with kids. Pick the best resort pool and don’t leave. But if you must, there are plenty of places to go in town without locking yourself away all day. Get out, get your vitamin D, and go play. Here are the picks:
1. Pretend You’re in the Wild West at South Mountain Park
I chose to lug the kids all the way down to South Mountain park instead of the McDowells/Camelback/Piewtewa Peak because it’s far family friendlier. There are paved, wheelchair and stroller-accessible trails. You can drive to the top if hiking isn’t your thing (you can even take grandma). On many of Phoenix’s other mountains, parking is scarce and the hills are covered in finicky, quick-moving athletes. The kids would be on a one-way climb to the top, which there was little chance we could accomplish. Oh, and did I mention they’d be whining about the temperature the entire way?
Piewstewa Peak is an easy hour climb for near-teens. There’s a parking lot and aside from those downhill muscles you’ll end up feeling tomorrow, the terrain is doable by able-bodied folks without preparation. Camelback Mountain, accessible from the McDonald Side (the camel’s head) also offers a summit climb, with minimal lollygagging around the base available, a far more horrible parking experience, and a steeper climb that young kids won’t necessarily be down for. It’s also a little longer climb. But it’s redder, closer to most of the valley, and offers better picture-taking opportunities.
South Mountain allows hikers to opt out of any serious work required of treks on Camelback or Piestewa. There’s a stable where you can take a trail ride, long, lingering trails, ramadas and benches in the shade, and you can pick your fitness level without feeling like you’re disrupting others, and without waking up at 6:00 a.m. to get into the parking lot. If you’re going for horses, take the sunset ride of plan on a shorter ride early in the day for kids. And don’t forget to pack water!
The gates are open 5:30 a.m.-11:00 p.m. When you’re done exploring, head to Ranch Market at 7th and Southern and chow down on some much deserved Mexican coconut popsicles.
2. Scottsdale Mall
This outdoor corridor in downtown/old town Scottsdale runs between Scottsdale Stadium at 74th and Osborn to Scottsdale Rd. You can even cross to the west side of Scottsdale road and wind your way through some more shops that once catered to your grandparents, but are now clinging to the chance that tourists cross the street. There’s gelato aplenty, and the classic Sugar Bowl, waiting to satiate your ice cream and tea sandwich cravings.
We met the gardner while we were shamelessly wading through one of his fountains. He offered us hot peppers, already blossoming in May in the shade, and told us how he had been experimenting with corn so that he didn’t lose it over the summer. See if you can spot lunch lurking in the flower beds. If you can’t, there’s always AZ88.
3. Papago Park
You could probably call it another hiking option, but it’s right in town, you can repel off things, and hit the zoo and botanical garden to boot. While these may qualify as “attractions,” skipping around the pitted rocks is more laid back and the orienteering and jackrabbit watching are unparalleled.
Hole in the rock is an interesting cross between spiritual and touristy: rush hour (11-4 on weekends) climbers make this trek seem a little pedestrian, but alone, it’s spectacular, and host to vigils occasionally, like when Jerry Garcia died. There’s something about the outcropping and the resulting window-on-the-world that will lure you in, and an easy hill climb, with steps, straight up the back, is a 5-minute endeavor for the youngest visitors.
Phoenix is one of my least favorite zoos; even the animals look exhausted and uncomfortable to be outside in the sun all day. It’s like they’re just waiting for their lucky day — a transfer to San Diego. If you must hit the zoo, you won’t need much time, and you’ll want to spend time at the playground on site and schedule your visit early or late to avoid the high-noon sun.
The Westin at Kierland’s pool (Scottsdale) is far and away the spot for kids (or should I say pools). There’s a lazy river and a waterside. There’s simulated surfing on a big, shallow, never-ending wave. Why leave? Across the street from Kierland is the new Scottsdale Quarter, an outdoor shopping center with a water play park for toddlers and plenty of moms who seem to spend every morning bringing the kids and their bathing suits to run through the leaping fountains.
McCormick Railroad Park (Scottsdale) has water play, a train ride (they’ll love to sit in the cattle car), a carousel, and an old west playground complete with a stagecoach and a jail. And yes, Alice protested the “playground to prison pipeline.” But most kids find this kind of thing fun, don’t they?
Encanto Park (downtown Phoenix) is lovely and nostalgic in its own right, but small amusement park in the trees is shady and a great place to pop in after a picnic for a bumper car ride. Rides are pay as you go, with most limiting the height of riders to the ten and under set. Paddleboats on Encanto Lake do not allow kids under two, but can be an exercise in cooperation for the rest of the family.