How to Vacay in Phoenix—with Kids

Need some pro tips for keeping everyone happy on a winter getaway to the Valley of the Sun? Roller coasters, butterflies, and ranch dinners.

By Kelly Clarke February 16, 2018

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Dinner at Rustler's Rooste, a half-century old steakhouse perched on a South Mountain butte outside of Phoenix, comes complete with live music, a giant slide, and free cotton candy.

Image: Kelly Clarke

Vacation with kids is always a little weird. The typical adult travel schedule of lazy mornings, cultural outings, and late-night excursions is upended for unwanted 7 a.m. wake-up calls, iPad negotiations, and the logistical challenge of shepherding small, hangry people to a series of supposedly fun things they’ll remember fondly in years to come (at least, that’s the theory, dammit).

Then again, traveling with kids is also awesome—because it gives you license to ignore the supposedly important, cool, Instagram-worthy stuff a city has to offer and indulge in a locale’s unabashedly silly side. Just a quick direct flight away, Phoenix—with its winter temps in the 70s and 80s, lonesome desert vistas, and goldmine of hokey attractions (including actual goldmines)—nails that sweet spot where kid and adult enjoyment meet.

A few notes: Phoenix is actually a sprawling bowl of valley cities (Scottsdale, Mesa, Tempe…) connected by blacktop arteries thronged with some of the nation’s most aggressive motorists and ringed by stubby mountains. You often can’t walk to a museum, let alone a sandwich shop, so many hotels act as self-contained hamlets that range from baroque desert mirages like South Mountain’s Arizona Grand Resort to standard Hilton and Sheraton outposts. (They all have pools, and many even have waterslides*, which is all your kid will care about.) Preemptively give up your Portland dreams of mass transit and just rent a car. Phoenix’s Sky Harbor Airport provides speedy, continuous shuttles to its Sandcrawler-like car rental complex just for this reason. 

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The halfway mark of Pinnacle Peak's 1.75-mile out-and-back hike, with a panorama of the Sonoran Desert.

Image: David Gaston

Peak Excitement

Kick off your family adventure with some mountain time, whether a horseback trail ride through South Mountain Park (at 1,600+ acres, it’s the largest city-owned park in the U.S.) or an easy hike to one of the many, many surrounding peaks. Skip strenuous Camelback Mountain in favor of a lope up to Papago Park’s fun “hole in the rock.” Or, better yet, head to chichi North Scottsdale’s Pinnacle Peak, a towering granite crag with sweeping views of the Sonoran desert valley. With clear signage and a safe, wide, well-maintained switchback trail, the 1.75-mile, in-and-out hike is perfect for little legs. Wild views of the vast, rock tower-dotted plains are visible from nearly every point, which means you can stop and turn around whenever your group gets tired without feeling like you haven’t achieved anything. (Bonus: Pinnacle Peak is home to a menagerie of cacti species, from stately giant saguaro to funky jumping cholla and scarlet hedgehog. Let your kid snap a bunch of cactus photos and they can spend the drive back to the hotel drawing faces on the spiny wonders in KidDoodle.) 

Hungry? Continue down Highway 101 to Scottsdale proper, which boasts a charming Western-themed Old Town with ranchwear shops filled with a rainbow of cowboy boots, Tex-Mex restaurants, trinket emporiums, and even the odd wig shop. Plus, horse-drawn carriage rides and a grassy parkway with a pair of cool, woven merry-go-rounds designed by artists Hector Esrawe and Ignacio Cadena, perfect for a breezy spin before heading home. 

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Huge OdySea Aquarium gives visitors a deep-sea eyeful on the elevator (and in the shark-peeping bathrooms).

Image: Lauren Crites

Nature Commune

Families in search of an air-conditioned outing find a brain-bending array of entertainment at Scottsdale’s 35-acre OdySea in the Desert complex, essentially a fancy outdoor mall filled with big-ticket attractions like laser tag, butterfly gardens, an ice playground, and a huge animatronic dinosaur exhibit instead of Sbarro and Forever 21. Get thee to the OdySea Aquarium, the largest aquarium in the Southwest, where you can pet stingrays (they don’t sting), eyeball gigantic, prehistoric-looking catfish, and board a faux-submarine that “travels” to meet up with sea lions and convalescing sea turtles afflicted with “bubble butt” (a real thing, look it up). Plus, it’s got the only bathroom I know of that includes a view of live sharks next to the soap dispenser.

The complex hawks multi-attraction passes, but if you only shell out for one, make it Butterfly Wonderland, where you can commune with more than 3,000 live, fluttering beauts in the largest indoor butterfly pavilion in America. Tickets include a screening of a short 3-D movie charting the migration of the Monarch butterfly, a look-see at baby butterflies hatching from their cocoons, and unlimited time in the rainforest-y garden, where Paperkites, Glasswings, African Moon Moths and Scarlet Mormons flit about on their winged business, occasionally landing on visitors' hands, backs, and faces to the utter delight of all involved. Kids, grandparents, cynical journalists—everybody loves it. It’s frickin’ magical.


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Adventure Time

Wanna check some culture off your list? Try Phoenix’s unique Musical Instrument Museum, Children’s Museum, or a deep dive into Native American culture at the Heard Museum. But according to my six-year-old, none of those top the attraction that lies 15 minutes north, wedged between a Walmart and the Arizona Canal. Since 1977, the venerable Castles N Coasters thrill park has stood, a slightly scuffed wonderland of elaborate mini-golf courses, huge loop-the-loop roller coasters, carnival rides, Bumper Boats, and a Wunderland-style arcade. The whole park is stuffed into a few city blocks through some sort of time-and-space folding technology not yet understood in the Pacific Northwest. Staffed seemingly entirely by preternaturally responsible high schoolers and far cleaner than you'd expect, it feels a bit like Oaks Park on steroids. Flashback Fridays net you unlimited rides for $20 after 5 p.m., which includes ziplines and a two-story ropes course where kids and adults can test their American Ninja Warrior skills.

Take Dinner by the Horns

The Valley’s got a handful of culinary gems, from farm-focused Beckett’s Table and the hallowed Bianco pizza empire to super-luxe steakhouses. But you—saddled with littles who have specific dietary demands and loud voices—will not be going to many of them.

Skip Phoenix’s crushing glut of chain restaurants in favor of one of the city’s most weirdly wonderful institutions: Rustler’s Rooste Steakhouse. Built atop a butte on South Mountain, around 15 minutes from the city center, the gigantic, half-century-old, family-owned steak palace is pure, goofy, over-the-top fun. Think of it as Phoenix’s version of McMenamins (or the Rheinlander, RIP): an elaborately wrought spot to take out-of-towners for a firehose blast of hokey-yet-beloved local culture.

A saloon-like labyrinth of oversized wooden beams, Western memorabilia, and huge patios dotted with hay bales, it’s possibly the only restaurant, well, anywhere that includes an indoor waterfall, a live bull named Horney, and giant clouds of complimentary spun-to-order cotton candy at the end of each meal. It looks like Disneyland’s Thunder Mountain Railroad and tastes better than it needs to.

You’ll barely see your kids after you order (and they wolf down some Indian fry bread with cinnamon butter). They’ll spend much of the meal careening down the Rooste’s gigantic slide, which transports visitors to the main dining room. It's right next to the stage featuring an old-man band that croons country western standards every single night. Order a Ball jar margarita and a respectable rib eye—or, even better, an excellent barbecue-saucy half-chicken—and let the panoramic view of the Valley at sunset wash over you. The Rooste is open for dinner every single night of the year…except for Super Bowl Sunday, natch.  

*Most of Phoenix's giant, standalone waterparks and wave pools are closed all winter long. Just telling you in advance to manage kid disappointment levels.

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