Arizona Abounds with Outdoor Adventure Options

Active family groups looking for some thrills and physical challenges will find their perfect adventure on the rivers, lakes and desert trails of Arizona.

The bonding so important in a family reunion is heightened when your group shares an activity with Mother Nature as a stunning backdrop. The Grand Canyon State certainly has a number of jaw-dropping locations for outdoor recreation.

For families looking to inject some outdoor activity into their get-together, Arizona offers a plethora of options for those of all ages and abilities. Choices range from floating down the river to riding horses through cactus-studded scenery.

Following is just a sampling of experiences that family reunion planners might consider:

Houseboating on Lake Powell

Your group can enjoy all the comforts of home while cruising the open waters and hidden canyons and coves of Lake Powell. Part of Glen Canyon National Recreation Area in far north-central Arizona, Lake Powell, with 2,000 miles of shoreline, is one of the largest manmade reservoirs in the country and is almost synonymous with houseboating.

Lake Powell

Lake Powell

At Wahweap Marina in Page, Lake Powell Resorts & Marinas rents houseboats of all kinds, from economy to luxury. The vessels can accommodate up to 12 people while moving, the maximum allowed by the U.S. Coast Guard. Ranging from 46 to 75 feet, each boat has bedrooms, living space, a bath and fully equipped kitchen. Even the first-time captain can learn to pilot the boat after a short lesson taught by an expert instructor. Most houseboaters tow a powerboat or personal watercraft for water activities and exploring deeper into the red-rock canyons. There’s fishing for striped bass, largemouth bass, smallmouth bass, channel catfish and other species. (lakepowell.com)

Colorado River Rafting

One of America’s top rivers for whitewater thrills, the Colorado River provides a variety of adventures in the Grand Canyon area, from peaceful float trips to adrenaline-pumping rides through the rapids. Outfitters offer guided trips ranging from a half-day to a week or longer.

ualapai River Runners, operated by the Hualapai Tribe, has a popular one-day whitewater trip starting and ending in Peach Springs, at the western gateway to the Grand Canyon. In addition to exciting rapids, the motorized raft outing includes calm stretches. Passengers also enjoy wildlife viewing, hike to Travertine Cavern Falls and have lunch on the banks of the river. Guides provide insight on the tribe’s connections to the Grand Canyon. Two- and five-day expeditions also are available. (grandcanyonwest.com)

Colorado River Rafting. Credit. Amy Martin

Colorado River Rafting. Credit. Amy Martin

For thrill-hungry families with a week to spare, Flagstaff-based Arizona Raft Adventures’ “Classic Adventure” expedition in the Upper Canyon features five oar boats and one paddle boat. Each rafter has the option to sit back and relax in the oar boat with three other guests, while the guide sits in the center and rows the boat down river. Or you can join five other guests in the paddle raft for a more hands-on experience as the guide steers from the back and calls paddle commands. Perfect for guests of all ability levels, the trip from the Grand Canyon’s South Rim and Flagstaff includes tent camping and hiking. Maximum group size is 21-24, and minimum age is 12. (azraft.com)

Offering a Colorado River option tamer than rafting, Yuma River Tubing in Yuma provides the tubes and a shuttle ride up the river. Then relax as you float your way down back to the park. Choose from 1-, 2½- and 5-mile floats. Bring your cooler, drinks, snacks and ice. (yumarivertubing.com)

National Park Hiking

What better way to appreciate the splendor of Tucson’s Sonoran Desert than setting out on a trail in Saguaro National Park, home to the stands of the majestic saguaro cactus that typify the landscapes we associate with Arizona. Besides panoramic views from ridgelines, you’ll be captivated by the exotic flora—from creosote bushes and groves of mesquite to the surprising variety of cacti. Most cacti bloom in late winter and spring, when temperatures are ideal for hiking.

Saguaro National Park, Arizona

Saguaro National Park, Arizona

In Saguaro East, the one-mile Freeman Homestead Trail leads to the site of an old homestead foundation, a grove of large saguaros and a cool desert wash. Great Horned Owls can often be seen in the cliff above the wash. Interpretive signs explain the history and plant life along the way and feature special exploration activities for youngsters.

In Grand Canyon National Park, the family-friendly Bright Angel Trail includes numerous turn-around points, plus water and restrooms along the way. Take in stunning views as you hike down into the canyon (and remember that you have to trek uphill on the way back). The first switchback is an ideal spot for turning around if you have small children in tow. (nps.gov/sagu, nps.gov/grca)

Mountain Biking in Phoenix

Pedaling through desert scenery is a great way to explore the environs of the Phoenix area. Being out on the trails makes it easy to forget you’re in a major metropolitan area.

Phoenix has a lot of mountain biking trails for all skill levels. A good option for beginners is Papago Park’s Double Butte Loop, a 2.3-mile trail that offers fine views of the park’s iconic red rock formations. In South Mountain Park and Preserve, the Desert Classic Trail, rated low intermediate, flows through desert washes on a surface that’s fairly smooth and non-technical but still offers a few challenges. Combine this loop with a cruise along the crosscut canal for a fun and easy spin on your bike.

Also popular with beginners is the Brown’s Ranch trail system at McDowell Sonoran Preserve in the northern metro area, between Scottsdale and Carefree. Try a few different combinations of the beginner and intermediate trails and enjoy the incredible vistas of the surrounding Tonto National Forest.

Guided mountain biking and hiking trips are offered in the Phoenix area by Cactus Adventures (cactusadventures.com), Sonoran Outdoor Adventures (sonoranoutdooradventures.com) and Wild Bunch Desert Guides (wildbunchdesertguides.com). Cactus Adventures also does bike rentals.

Home on the Range

While most guest ranches in the Rocky Mountain states close for the winter, those in Arizona’s Sonoran Desert provide a relaxing, warm-weather vacation experience when much of the country is buried in ice and snow. There’s a lot more to do than horseback riding, so these Western fantasy worlds have wide appeal to family groups with diverse interests. A few are full-fledged resorts.

Rancho De Los Caballeros

Rancho De Los Caballeros

Wickenburg, 54 miles northwest of Phoenix, was once known as the Dude Ranch Capital of Arizona and still lures city slickers who dream of a true cowboy adventure. No one will get bored at the resort-style Rancho de los Caballeros, which boasts tennis courts, a heated pool, a day spa and even an18-hole golf course. The supervised Kids Club program keeps little buckaroos engaged. Other Wickenburg ranches are Kay El Bar, Rancho Casitas and Flying E.

In Tucson, the upscale Tanque Verde Ranch is surrounded by 60,000 acres of Saguaro National Park. In addition to trail rides, the ranch offers mountain biking, nature programs, and basketball, volleyball and tennis courts, not to mention a swimming pool and spa. White Stallion Ranch, another laid-back Western paradise in Tucson, has 43 guest rooms, and for large family groups, there’s a five-bedroom, three-bath home called The Hacienda.

Active family groups looking for some thrills and physical challenges will find their perfect adventure on the rivers, lakes and desert trails of Arizona.

Just outside of Tombstone, one of the West’s most iconic cowboy towns, Tombstone Monument Ranch sprawls over 270 acres. Built in the image of an 1880s frontier outpost on historic Apache Indian hunting grounds, this working cattle guest ranch takes you back to the heyday of gold and silver mining. Each of the 18 themed rooms lining the street are individually styled, so guests might wake up in the jail, blacksmith shop, marshal’s office or Grand Hotel. The Old Trappman features evening entertainment.

Besides daily trail rides for all levels of abilities, the ranch offers extended riding tours to mining sites, ghost towns and the surrounding mountains. Cattle work is available, too. Sightseeing in Cochise County includes not only Tombstone (with its shops and Western attractions), but also Sierra Vista, Kartchner Caverns State Park, Willcox (wineries and Chiricahua National Monument) and the old mining town of Bisbee.

For information on ranches around the state, visit azdra.com, the website of the Arizona Dude Ranch Association.


by Randy Mink