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Arizona Adventures: A family desert discovery

Two parents, two grandparents and two children under 10 cruise in a rented van past the miles of desert that nudge up against the interstate east of Tucson. Our destination: the splendid Kartchner Caverns, a meticulously developed and maintained cave system that lies 40 miles east of the city. The February morning is cool, and sunshine bounces off the windshield. Spirits in the van are high; we’ve waited for months for this day, and now, here it is.    

Tucson is one of my natural-history-minded family’s favorite winter getaways. We use the city as a base, and fan out to explore open spaces lush with birds, cactus and (if we’re lucky) wildflowers. It’s also a relatively short plane ride away from Seattle, offering respite from the Pacific Northwest cloud cover without a grueling day of travel. This time around, our weeklong intergenerational trip includes short hikes that still manage to pack in a lot of desert sightseeing, a day at the city’s desert-themed museum/zoo, and the long-awaited tour of Kartchner Caverns.

Cave crawling

Kartchner Caverns, located at the base of the Whetstone Mountains near Benson, Ariz., opened to the public in 1999, 25 years after their discovery by a pair of college students out for a day of caving. The site’s location was kept secret for years, for fear that unregulated public access would destroy the limestone cave’s fragile and spectacular formations, called speleothems, which have been growing drip by drip for tens of thousands of years.

Tour the cave with kids and you’ll get a crash course in the region’s geology, the science of cave formation, and the fascinating facts behind the park’s development and strict conservation measures (allowing dry desert air into the moist, still-growing cave system would quickly ruin it). Best of all, you’ll get an eyeful of glistening, oh-so-weird mineral deposits with remarkably apt names: “bacon,” “fried eggs,” “soda straws.” Touching anything within the caves is off limits, but kids eager to get their hands on the inviting shapes can work off energy in the visitor center, which features fake formations and a hole — just like the one cavers Randy Tufts and Gary Tenen first wiggled through in 1974 — to squeeze through.

Peak bloom

Massive Picacho Peak, an eroded lava flow that rises abruptly from the flat desert floor, is visible for miles from the stretch of I-10 between Tucson and Phoenix. The peak is known for its difficult hikes to the nearly 2,000-foot summit, but our group, in deference to the creaky knees and short legs of various members, passed that up in favor of the half-mile nature trail.

The easy but dusty path led us past intriguing rocky outcroppings and green slopes studded with saguaros, with wide-open views of endless flats and mountains in the far distance. Wildflowers are abundant and spectacular in the spring during good years (California poppies turn the lowland slopes an eye-searing orange), but we were surprised to be greeted by a late-February bloom that had us wishing we had brought along a field guide.

The state park is located 40 miles north of Tucson, which makes it another day trip, but the drive is well worth it. Wear sturdy shoes, bring hats and sunglasses, and don’t skimp on the water. And if you visit after a wet winter, bring a guide to Arizona wildflowers so you’ll be able to identify that delicate white flower growing alongside the trail.

Desert discovery

Don’t visit Tucson without spending a day at the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum, a zoo, botanical garden and natural history museum that’s an ideal first stop for families interested in understanding the area’s rich plant and animal life.

Walk the half-mile desert loop trail for a view of coyotes and javelina (or collared peccary, the only native wild-pig-like animal in the United States) in a naturalistic setting. In the hummingbird aviary, stand still and watch as dozens of the tiny birds buzz overhead like glittering bumblebees.

We spent a long time in the Earth Sciences area, gazing at an eye-popping valley view from the Geology Overlook and exploring an artificial cave complete with a long, low-roofed passage to squirm through. Exhibits are varied at the museum, from mineral displays to native plant gardens to zoo-like animal enclosures, and there’s enough here to keep families on the go for a full day.  

Canyon crossing

If you want to experience an Arizona canyon without driving too far, or if hiking’s not on your agenda, head to Sabino Canyon, located in the foothills of the Catalina Mountains in Tucson. A narrated 45-minute tram tour takes you 3.8 miles into the canyon on a paved road that periodically crosses Sabino Creek over stone bridges constructed during the Depression.

The amplification of the tour guide’s voice is jarring, given that the location — wind, blue sky and looming canyon walls — is so serene, and the road can get crowded with joggers and walkers. It’s not wilderness experience, but if you’re traveling with kids or grandparents, the tram allows you to get far into seriously beautiful country without having to endure a seven-mile walk.

Kris Collingridge is ParentMap’s Out and About editor and a former Phoenix resident.

If you go

Kartchner Caverns State Park
Reservations: 520-586-2283, www.pr.state.az.us/Parks/parkhtml/kartchner.html
Make tour reservations well in advance.

Virtual cave tour: Friends of Kartchner Caverns, www.explorethecaverns.com

Picacho Peak State Park
520-466-3183, www.pr.state.az.us/Parks/parkhtml/picacho.html
Arizona Desert Sonora Museum
2021 N. Kinney Road, Tucson
520- 883-2702, www.desertmuseum.org

Sabino Canyon
5900 N. Sabino Canyon Road, Tucson
520-749-2861, www.sabinocanyon.com
Wildflower bloom information

This article originally appeared in the October 2008 issue of ParentMap.

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