The Southwest is a blast for families, with entertaining attractions for all ages: national parks, aquariums, zoos, science museums, theme parks, lively campgrounds, and hiking and biking in outrageously scenic places. Geology, history and wildlife are accessible at every turn, making the Southwest as educational as it is fun.
Best Regions For Kids
Outdoorsy families can bike the Greenway near Grand Canyon Village and study saguaros outside Tucson. Water parks lure kids to Phoenix, while dude ranches, ghost towns and cliff dwellings are only a scenic drive away.
- New Mexico
Swoop up a mountain on the Sandia Peak Tramway, drop into Carlsbad Caverns or scramble to the Gila Cliff Dwellings.
National parks sprawl across swaths of red-rock country, offering fantastic hiking, biking and rafting. In the mountains, skis, alpine slides or snow tubes are equally fun.
Children are not allowed in the gaming areas of casinos, but roller coasters and animal exhibits cater to the kiddies in Las Vegas. For outdoor adventure, head to Great Basin National Park or Valley of Fire State Park.
Southwest USA for Kids
Why visit the Southwest with your family? Because it's fun. Yes, the long drives, harsh desert landscape and oppressive summer heat can be daunting, but the rewards for families far outweigh the challenges. These rewards can be found in the most mundane of activities – splashing in the creek in New Mexico's Jemez Mountains, picnicking on the edge of the Grand Canyon in Arizona or watching an old Western on the big screen at Parry Lodge's Old Barn playhouse in Kanab, UT.
Education comes easy too, with docents at museums, rangers in the parks and interpretative signage along numerous trails. Most national parks in the Southwest have a free Junior Ranger Program, with activities geared to children. Ask for details at the visitor center or check the park website before your trip for details.
Hotels and motels typically offer rooms with two beds, which are ideal for families. Some have cribs and rollaway beds, sometimes for a minimal fee (these are usually portable cribs which may not work for all children). Ask about suites, adjoining rooms and rooms with microwaves or refrigerators. Some hotels offer 'kids stay free' programs for children up to 12, and sometimes up to 18 years old. Many B&Bs don't allow children, so ask before booking.
Full-scale resorts with kids' programs, lovely grounds, full service and in-house babysitting can be found throughout the region, but particularly in Phoenix and, to a lesser degree, Tucson. For the real Western-immersion cowboy experience, complete with trail rides through the chamisa, cattle wrangling and beans 'n' corn bread 'round the fire, stay at a dude ranch, such as the Flying E Ranch in Wickenburg, AZ.
If it's late and you don't want surprises, head to a chain motel or hotel. Hilton perches at the high end of the scale, while Motel 6 and Super 8, usually the least expensive, offer minimal services. Americas Best Value Inn is notably inconsistent. Your best bets are Holiday Inn Express, Fairfield Inn & Suites and Drury Inn & Suites, which usually offers free popcorn and soda in the evening.
Beautiful campsites perfect for car-camping are easily found in national and state forests, and parks throughout the region. You can't beat the flexibility and price, and kids love it.
While the Southwest offers the usual fast-food suspects, you may find yourself driving mile after mile without a neon-lit burger joint anywhere in sight. Be prepared with snacks and a cooler packed with picnic items. Supermarkets are often scarce outside urban areas so stock up when you can. Breakfast is included at many lodgings.
Children generally find Southwestern fare to their liking – burritos, quesadillas, Navajo tacos and buffalo burgers are always good options for introducing them to local flavors. They might also enjoy experimenting with classic dishes like green chile, enchiladas and chicken mole (chili- and spice-based sauces) but keep in mind that the spice level can range from mild to off-the-charts hot.
- Grand Canyon National Park, AZ Explore the canyon trails.
- Halo, UT Stargaze at a cool observatory with research-grade telescopes.
- Oak Creek Canyon, AZ Swoosh down a red-rock waterslide at Red Rock State Park.
- Ghost Ranch, NM Ride horses on the former property of Georgia O'Keefe.
- Nordic Valley, UT Ski the powdery slopes.
Theme Parks & Museums
- Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, Tucson, AZ Take in coyotes, cacti and demos.
- Meow Wolf, Santa Fe, NM Explore a mysterious house with portals to other worlds.
- Museum of Natural History & Science, Albuquerque, NM Check out the Seismosaurus in the Age of Super Giants Hall.
- Rawhide Western Town & Steakhouse, Mesa, AZ Relive the rootin', tootin' Old West with gold panning, burro rides and shoot-outs.
- Thanksgiving Point, Salt Lake City, UT A hands-on dinosaur museum, petting farm and butterfly biosphere all in one location.
- Adventuredome Las Vegas, NV Fun-filled indoor amusement park at family-friendly Circus Circus.
- Oatman, AZ Take a photo of the burros that loiter in the middle of downtown.
- Goblin Valley State Park, Green River, UT Roam among thousands of surreal mushroom-shaped hoodoos, aka goblins.
- Rattlesnake Museum, Albuquerque, NM Gaze at the world's most comprehensive collection of rattlesnake species.
- International UFO Museum & Research Center, Roswell, NM Discover the truth, and lots of wild theories.
- House on Fire Ruin, Blanding, UT An easy hike to an ancient dwelling that appears to be engulfed in flames.
Native American Sites
- Bandelier National Monument, NM Climb four ladders to a ceremonial cave that combines education with adventure.
- Taos Pueblo, NM Explore ancient living history inside a multistory pueblo village dating to the 1400s.
- Acoma Pueblo, NM Discover this spot, aka Sky City, which sits atop a mesa 7000ft above sea level.
- Mesa Verde National Park, CO Climb into cliff dwellings for hands-on learning at its best.
- Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park, AZ Match the names to the butte – Mittens, Eagle Rock.
Helpful Resources For Families
For all-around information and advice, check out Lonely Planet's Travel with Children. For outdoor advice, read Kids in the Wild: A Family Guide to Outdoor Recreation by Cindy Ross and Todd Gladfelter, and Alice Cary's Parents' Guide to Hiking & Camping.
Perhaps the most difficult part of a family trip to this region will be deciding where to go and avoiding the temptation to squeeze in too much. Distances are deceptive and any one state could easily fill a two-week family vacation. Choose a handful of primary destinations, such as major cities and national parks, to serve as the backbone of your trip. Then sit down with the map and connect these dots with a flexible driving plan.
Book rooms at the major destinations and make advance reservations for horseback rides, rafting trips, scenic train rides and educational programs or camps, but allow a couple of days between each to follow your fancy.
What to Bring
If you plan on hiking, you'll want a front baby carrier or a backpack with a built-in shade top. These can be purchased or rented from outfitters throughout the region. Older kids need sturdy shoes and, for playing in streams, water sandals.
Other things you'll want to include are towels, rain gear, a snuggly fleece or heavy sweater (even in summer, desert nights can be cold – if you're camping, bring hats) and bug repellent. Head nets provide effective protection from biting gnats and mosquitos. To avoid children's angst at sleeping in new places and to minimize concerns about bed configurations, bring a travel playpen/bed for infants and sleeping bags for older children.
Car Seat Laws
Child restraint laws vary by state and are subject to change. The requirements listed here should be verified before departure.
Arizona law states that children under the age of five must be properly secured in a child-restraint device. Children between five to eight years must use a booster seat unless they are 4ft 9in or taller. Children aged between eight and 15 years must wear a seat belt.
In Colorado, infants under the age of one year and weighing less than 20lb must be in a rear-facing infant seat in the back seat. Children aged one to four years and between 20lb and 40lb must be in a car seat. Children up to eight years must use a booster. Seat belts are required for children aged eight to 15, in both the front and back seats. Anyone 16 or older who is driving a car or is a passenger in the front seat must wear a seat belt.
Nevada requires children aged five and under, and those weighing less than 60lb, to use a child seat. In New Mexico, infants under one year must be restrained in a rear-facing infant seat in the back seat, children aged one to four or weighing less than 40lb must use a child safety seat, and five- and six-year-olds and kids weighing less than 60lb must use a booster seat.
Utah law requires children under eight years old or shorter than 4ft 9in to sit in a car seat; children who are not yet eight but who are 4ft 9in or taller can use the car seat belt alone.
Most car-rental agencies rent rear-facing car seats (for infants under one), forward-facing seats (for one to four years old or up to a certain height/weight) and boosters for around $15 per day, reserved in advance. Clarify the type of seat when you make the reservation as each is suitable for specified ages and weights only.
Children under two can fly free on most airlines when sitting on a parent's lap. Remember to bring a copy of your child's birth certificate – if the airline asks for it and you don't have it, you won't be able to board. Ask about children's fares and reserve seats together in advance. Other passengers have no obligation to switch seats. Southwest Airlines' open seating policy helps avoid this.