Enjoying the surroundings at Lost Dutchman State Park. Credit: Catherine Ryan Gregory
1. Phoenix, Arizona
Phoenix may be the fifth-most-populous city in the United States, but it’s also mere minutes away from stunning wilderness. Get to know the desert, which is pretty much the antithesis of winter in Seattle.
There are more than 15 nonstop flights a day from Seattle to Phoenix; flight time is less than three hours.
The saguaro cactus is perhaps the most recognizable icon of Arizona, and you’ll be surrounded by them in Lost Dutchman State Park. While some of the trails within the park are decidedly not kid-friendly, Treasure Loop Trail and Jacob’s Crosscut Trail are more doable (especially if you’re not opposed to bribing reluctant hikers with M&Ms). Be sure to share some local legends with your kids; one legend has it that a prospector found an epic gold mine in the area’s Superstition Mountains. If your kids are like mine, they’ll look for that long-lost cave for the entire hike!
Pro tip: To identify animal and plant species as you hike, grab a free pamphlet at the park’s visitor center, stroll the quarter-mile native plant trail or download the PictureThis app before your visit.
You could easily spend an entire day exploring the Phoenix Zoo. Winter is a terrific time to visit, as animals are more active in the milder weather. With roughly 400 species calling the zoo home, chances are good your kids’ favorite animals are here. Don’t miss the petting zoo, carousel and water-play areas (just remember to bring a change of clothes). Check for family-friendly events and programs, such as the animal-themed story time and sessions where you can feed stingrays by hand.
Who knew there were so many kinds of cacti? This beyond-beautiful garden grows more than 4,000 plant species — including nearly 500 that are rare or endangered. Trails and walking paths wind through different habitats and past towering saguaro cacti and agave plants. Don’t miss the butterfly enclosure, which is located conveniently next to the outdoor kids’ play area. In addition, the Desert Botanical Garden partners with artists to bring the museum experience outdoors.
Pro tip: The garden attracts plenty of wildlife. Keep your eye out for lizards, roadrunners, woodpeckers, hummingbirds, quails and more.
While this 7-acre water park is located within a resort, you can buy day passes to swim, slide and, of course, sun yourself. A lazy river winds through most of the park, and the Wildcat Springs area is best for the littles. For kids wanting more adventure than a lazy river can provide, waterslides turn and plummet, and a wave pool lifts tubes along 2-foot-high swells. Bonus: The water is heated.
Pro tip: Guests are allowed to bring in drinking water but no other beverages or food, so budget for the water park’s grill and snack bar.
Next stop: skip the Strip