A Southwest jaunt, with the kids along

By K.C. Summers
Sunday, November 15, 2009

Here's a family-friendly itinerary in southern Arizona that combines gentle hiking, a spectacular desert zoo, a little Wild West action, Native American lore and, for a splashy ending, a water park resort. Conspicuously missing: the Grand Canyon. The Petuskys want to save that until their kids are a bit older, and that's just as well. As they're about to find out, Arizona is worth more than one visit.

Days 1, 2 and 3: Tucson. Fly from BWI Marshall to either Tucson or Phoenix. The Petuskys plan to use frequent-flier miles for this trip, but if airfare were an issue, they could save some money by flying into Phoenix and driving two hours south to Tucson. Southwest last Thursday was quoting a round-trip Internet-only fare of $391 per person from Baltimore to Tucson in late March, and $358 to Phoenix. For a family of four, that's a savings of $132. (Tip: Southwest doesn't turn up in Kayak.com or other aggregator searches, so don't forget to check its site, http://www.southwest.com, separately.)

Tucson, in southeast Arizona an hour from Mexico, has a spectacular setting in the desert valley, with mountains on three sides. Mexican, Spanish and Native American influences are everywhere, and attractions range from the sublime (the lovely 18th-century San Xavier del Bac Mission, still serving the Tohono O'odham Nation) to the offbeat (the airplane graveyard at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base).

Rent a car at the airport (Alamo is quoting a weekly rate of $241 for a midsize car on Priceline.com, including all fees and taxes) and head to a kid-oriented hotel, such as the Loews Ventana Canyon Resort (800-234-5117, http://www.loewshotels.com/hotels/tucson). Its location near the Sabino Canyon Recreation Area is convenient for hiking forays, and it offers special children's menus, supervised recreational programs, a playground and its own waterfall. Doubles start at $299 per night, but if you book 45 days ahead you can save 20 percent and get a room with two double beds for $753 for three nights, including taxes and fees.

A cheaper option: the historic Westward Look Resort (800-722-2500, http://www.westwardlook.com), set on 80 acres in the foothills of the Santa Catalina Mountains. There are no kids' programs per se, but the desert setting is gorgeous, and swimming pools and nature trails should keep everyone happy. Rooms start at $170 a night on Travelocity with a AAA membership, or $613 for three nights, including fees and taxes.

Start exploring at the spectacular Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, a combination zoo-botanical garden-natural history museum with "invisible" cages and lots of hands-on programs for kids (520-883-2702, http://www.desertmuseum.org; $13 for adults, $4.25 for kids 6-12). Be ready to walk a lot: The grounds include almost two miles of paths on 21 acres. Don't miss the raptor and snake demos.

Another must-do: Saguaro (pronounced "Sa-WAH-ro") National Park (520-733-5100, http://www.nps.gov/sagu; $10 per car). It's divided into two parts, on either side of the city, and is one of the few places in the country where you can see the majestic, iconic saguaro cacti. The park offers more than 165 miles of hiking trails, ranging from a short stroll through a cactus garden to day-long treks. In the Tucson Mountain half, a terrific orientation program gives the Native American perspective on the saguaro.

For cowboy fun, head to Old Tucson Studios (520-883-0100, http://www.oldtucson.com; $16.95 for adults, $10.95 for kids 4-11), an old frontier town and former movie set now abuzz with shows, stunts, saloon musicals and other doings. Finally, try to fit in a day trip to the town of Tombstone, a little over an hour southeast of town. It's a bit of a tourist trap these days, but it was the real thing, and you'll be able to say you've been to the original O.K. Corral.

Day 4: Sedona. Drive up to Red Rock Country, about a four-hour drive, but it's worth it, with some of the most spectacular scenery you'll ever see. Once there, go off-road with Pink Jeep Tours (800-873-3662, http://www.pinkjeep.com), a slightly nerve-racking four-wheel-drive ride on, over and under the stunning red rocks. A two-hour tour is $75 for adults, $56.25 for kids 12 and younger, with a 10 percent discount for AAA members. (Tip: Many hotels and attractions offer discounts to members of AAA, AARP, the military and other organizations. But staffers generally won't volunteer that information, so be sure to ask when booking.)

Try to stay at a hotel in town, such as the Best Western Inn of Sedona (800-292-6344, http://www.innofsedona.com), where a double room with two queen beds, a fridge and continental breakfast runs about $170, including taxes and fees. Wander through beautiful Oak Creek Canyon, window-shop the New Age-y stores and contemplate immersion in an isolation tank.

Days 5 and 6: Phoenix. Drive from Sedona to the capital, about two hours south. For a soggy finale, treat the kids to a stay at one of Phoenix's cool water park resorts. The all-suite Pointe Hilton Squaw Peak Resort (800-947-9784, http://www.squawpeakhilton.com), for example, has a four-acre "river ranch" with pools, a lazy river, slides and more, plus themed dinners and a children's program that emphasizes Western folklore and geography. There are golf and spa services for the grown-ups, too.

Advance-purchase, nonrefundable rates start at $169.15 per night for a one-bedroom suite with a pullout sofa, for a total of $380 for two nights, including taxes and fees. (Tip: Always check hotels' Web sites for Internet-only rates, which can offer substantial savings.)

Day 7: Fly home. Lodging and ground transportation for the trip will run about $1,400 to $1,500 and attractions about $360, for a total of about $1,900, assuming frequent-flier miles are used. Round-trip air from BWI to Phoenix would add $1,488, including taxes and fees, for a family of four, bringing the grand total to $3,388. Tucson, Sedona and Phoenix have a variety of lodging options, so you can bring the cost down by staying in cheaper places.

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