Tucson for Kids

Photo by Rob Rachowiecki

What's a gila monster, mom? Find out in Tucson

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Tucson is nothing if not kid friendly.  From seeing a baby elephant to boarding a giant aircraft, the ‘Old Pueblo’ has plenty of stuff for families to see and do.  Museums are designed with attractions for kids – one museum is specifically for kids.  Mountains and deserts lend themselves to outdoor picnics and wildlife encounters.  Cowboys to meet, caves to explore, cacti to marvel at – it’s all right here.

If you are visiting in summer, do as Tucsonans do – get outdoors early.  Then find a cool spot for afternoon activities.  Here are some suggestions for day itineraries for families with children of various ages – there is something here for everyone, including adults, to enjoy. Combine them for a longer trip, or just choose one.

Day 1

Get to the Reid Park Zoo, near 22nd St and Randolph, as soon as you can after it opens at 8am in summer, and visit with young Nandi, the only elephant to have been born in Arizona; check out the black jaguar sisters, feed a giraffe, and maybe hop onto a carnival carousel or ride a camel.

You can grab lunch at the zoo’s air-conditioned café, or eat a picnic at one of the shaded tables in Reid Park outside the zoo (no picnics in the zoo), or head to a kid-friendly restaurant. A favorite is Little Anthony’s Diner, about five miles east at 7010 E Broadway, where you can sample a burger and fries or a blue plate special in a retro 1950s atmosphere. Vintage cars are often parked outside.

To avoid the worst of the afternoon heat, head about six mile northwest to the Mini-Time Machine museum and lose yourself, not in a time machine, but in a world of miniatures.

The Mini-Time Machine closes at 4pm and, if energy remains, head over to Golf ‘N Stuff for a round of mini-golf as the heat eases off, or grab a typical Tucson frozen  treat at eegee’s, 6810 E. Tanque Verde Rd.  There are two dozen eegee’s scattered around the Old Pueblo and they serve sandwiches, salads, and hotdogs along with their signature frozen drinks – a go-to for kids in summer.

End the day at Trail Dust Town, with a meal at the Pinnacle Peak Steak House (kids menu and neck ties in the rafters for a laugh). Don’t miss the cowboy shoot-outs at 7 and 8 pm, as well as the carousel, train rides, Ferris wheel, and Western shops.

Day 2

A super-early start (it’s almost an hour’s drive from many parts of Tucson) will get you to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum (ASDM) when it opens at 7:30 am in summer and the animals are at their most active. This living museum has many outdoor exhibits and activities for youngsters. An ice-cream shop and a reasonably-priced café provide sustenance.

The drive from Tucson to the ASDM goes through Gates Pass which is for cars only and gives fabulous views of saguaro stands from a steep and curvy one-lane road – see the ASDM website for alternate routes for RVs.

In the afternoon, cool off back downtown at Tucson Children’s Museum, which is geared more to the under-10 set.  Older kids might prefer splashing at the Breakers Water Park, northwest of town and open from Memorial Day to Labor Day.

If you are at the ASDM outside of the hot summer months, combine it with some gold-panning or a stage coach ride and enjoy action-packed cowboy shows at Old Tucson Studios (they close in summer).

End up experiencing authentic Mexican food at El Charro, downtown, which features a kids menu (under 10-year-old) and crayons to color it.

Day 3

Today’s not-so-early summer-morning start takes you to Pima Air & Space Museum, which opens at 9 am. Make sure to visit the outdoor exhibits first, and then go inside the air-conditioned hangars to see the space displays with various hands-on stuff for the kids. They have a decent Grill where you can grab lunch.

In the heat of the afternoon, go underground at Colossal Cave, where the temperature is always a refreshing 70 F. Allow the best part of an hour to get there.

For a rewarding dinner, especially for the younger kids, head back to noisy Chuck E. Cheese’s, with fun games and pizza.

Day 4

The best summer get-a-way from the heat is driving the Catalina Highway up to Mount Lemmon where temperatures are 25F lower than Tucson.  Stop at some of the many overlooks. Bring a picnic. Hike a trail. Ride the chair lift at Mount Lemmon Ski Valley – ski here in winter and enjoy the scenery the rest of the year.

Bear in mind that Mount Lemmon often has massive thunder and lightening storms during Tucson’s monsoon season from mid-July to mid-September.  These usually strike in the afternoon, so be prepared to retreat to your car if necessary.

Other Ideas

Sabino Canyon is a year-round destination where you can take a hike or enjoy a jump-on-and-off tram ride with Sabino Canyon Tours.  Sabino Creek flows over Sabino Dam and tumbles into a series of little pools which are perfect for splashing and playing.  These dry out in mid-summer from May to mid-July, then fill up again when monsoon rains fall in late July.

If you have hikers in your family, be sure to check Tucson is a Hikers Nirvana for ideas of varying difficulties and elevations.

To learn more about southern Arizona’s iconic saguaro cactus, drive to Saguaro National Park East, where there is a paved loop drive with fine view and a one-mile hiking trail for children. If you are at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, head over to Saguaro National Park West, with an unpaved loop drive and a short trail to see petroglyphs made by Native Americans centuries before the arrival of Europeans.

Historic Agua Caliente Park has grassy picnic areas and a pond where turtles, frogs, and birds can be discovered. There are short hiking loops.


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