Tucson Travel Guide – A Long Weekend in Tucson with Kids

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Tucson is an easy trip from several US destinations that allows you to feel like you’ve escaped to a whole other world. In this travel guide for a long weekend, we’ve put together a combination of activities from numerous separate long weekend trips to highlight the best things to do in Tucson with kids.

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Things to Do in Tucson with Kids

hiking trails through the Saguaro desert
Photo by: Michele Whiteaker

Explore the Saguaros and Sonora Desert

You can route yourself on an amazing drive through Saguaro National Park as a roundabout way into Tucson from I-10. You can either allow your navigation system to route you from I-10 to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum — or you can exit at North Cortaro Road with a short jog on Ina Road to W Picture Rocks Road which turns into Golden Gate Road through the park.

You can continue on Golden Gate Road or split off on Hohokam Road – both will lead you to Kinney Road which you can either use to stop in at the museum or continue on until it connects to W Gates Pass Road which turns into the major Speedway Blvd in Tucson. The added drive time is worth it, especially if you really want to get a feel for the Sonora Desert and Saguaros.

All you can see for miles are saguaro cactus. Tucson mountains loom in the distance. These roads wouldn’t be so fun during a monsoon. Check the weather during the monsoon season June -September because of the potential for flash flooding. Along the way, you can visit the Saguaro West Red Hills Visitor Center – (Saguaro West) open from 9am-5pm every day except Christmas. There are several hiking trails within the park which are worth exploring if the weather is nice. 

Heading to Tucson during the spring? Check out these must-see spots for families. 

Located inside the national park, the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum is where you can get a real outdoor experience seeing all the flora and fauna of the Sonora Desert ecosystems. This is one of the premier attractions in Southern Arizona and should definitely not be missed. 

The coolest part for me is going underground into the cave area. It’s nice and cool. Plus, you get to see the gemology exhibits. Take a little side trail through the cavern. Then, touch a meteorite that might be the oldest thing you ever touch! If it’s a hot day, this isn’t as fun of an outing, since so much of it is outdoors. So try to get there right when it opens. And definitely get some ice cream.

things to do in Tucson
Photo by: Michele Whiteaker

Sabino Canyon

Tucson is a big city spread out between Saguaro National Park to the west, the Santa Catalina Mountains to the northeast, and the Rincon Mountains to the east. It takes almost an hour to drive from the Arizona-Desert Museum across town to Sabino Canyon on the opposite side of the city.

We took the 45-minute tram tour of Sabino Canyon. There are 9 stops up the canyon and a guide points out scenic points and shares the history of the canyon on the way up. The guide is quiet on the way back and lets you enjoy the view without interruption.  

things to do in Tucson Sabino Canyon
Photo by: Michele Whiteaker

Families rode the tram with little babies, preschoolers, and school-age kids. Meanwhile, those with teenagers were more adventurous about getting off the tram and hiking. You can choose to stay on the tram or get off for an easy walk on the tram road.

I’d suggest staying on the tram the whole way up the canyon and decide where to jump off on your way back down (i.e., jump off on stop #8 and hike down to #6).  I saw many families with strollers. Hang on to your ticket stub and you can ride up/down the road all day on the tram.

If you can’t decide between the saguaros of the national park or Sabino Canyon cutting into the rugged Catalina Mountains — then you can choose the Tucson Botanical Gardens right in the center of town. The gardens aren’t quite as wild or remote, but they are a lush oasis that’s much easier to get to for the typical Tucson visitor. Your kids can explore the life cycle of a plant in the Children’s Discovery Garden and watch the Thornville Garden Railway wind through a miniature town. Butterfly Magic is a special event that runs outside of summer months where your kids can be surrounded by tropical butterflies and have the chance of seeing a butterfly emerge from a chrysalis.

Tucson Botanical gardens
Photo by: Michele Whiteaker

Feel Like a Cowboy with Old West & Arizona History Experiences

While you are still near the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum,  you can head over to Old Tucson. This historical spot was a film location for old Westerns. Now it’s more of a Wild West theme park with stunt shows, musicals, entertainment, and BBQ.

Parents will like “walking the same streets made famous by movie legends such as John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, Elizabeth Taylor, Steve Martin, Sharon Stone, and Martin Short.” Kids will wander among movie sets feeling like they are really cowboys or cowgirls.

Ask your hotel concierge about nearby family-friendly horseback riding experiences. We took a sunset ride in the Catalina Mountains on one of our weekend trips and it was truly memorable.

The University of Arizona (U of A) campus is worth a visit just to walk around and experience student life. The campus is also home to the Arizona State Museum and the just-off-campus Arizona History Museum  where “family-oriented exhibits include a mining tunnel and a hands-on re-creation of 1870s’ Tucson.”

Look for deals on family-friendly hotels in Tucson.

Explore Aircraft and Space in a Dark Skies City

things to do in Tucson
Photo by: Flickr/ChanceKafka

If you’re coming from a big city, the night sky in Tucson is impressive. The whole city is known for its efforts to keep the skies dark for celestial viewing evidenced by hooded LED street lights you might spot around town.

The Flandrau Science Center and Planetarium is also on the U of A campus. Families can see a planetarium show or experience looking through the telescope in the volunteer-run Observatory.

Biosphere 2 feels like a spaceship has landed on Earth, except you get to walk around inside it and learn about the scientific experiments taking place there run by the University of Arizona which took ownership of the property in 2011. Read more about our guide to Biosphere 2 Tucson.

Pima Air & Space Museum is a boneyard for retired planes. It’s operated by the not-for-profit Arizona Aerospace Foundation (AAF). The museum is the largest privately funded aviation and aerospace museum in the world and the third largest aviation museum in the United States.

Night Swims with Bats

This suggestion is from my now teen daughter because it was super memorable for her to be allowed to swim at night when it was still pretty hot outside. As an added bonus, she revels in telling anyone who will listen about the bats that would come swooping down while she was swimming. I’m so glad I was not the one in the pool with her.

Since the lights are on in the pool, it attracts insects. After sunset, the bats come out to feed and will swoop down to the water level to catch their dinner. Definitely memorable!

Escape the Heat Browsing at Bookmans

On one visit to Tucson, we saw an ad for Bookmans, which sells used books, in our hotel room magazine. But, oh, it’s SO much more than that with toys and other collectibles. I almost can’t describe how much fun we had hanging out and exploring this store. The children’s section is huge. We found it to be a fun way to get out of the heat on a desert afternoon!

We went to the Bookman’s East store on Speedway and Wilmot. Bob Oldfather is the creative mind and founder of Bookman’s Entertainment Exchange stores in Arizona. He opened the first store in 1976. He says he started it not to make money, but because “I just wanted a cool place for me to hang out.” If you are family that likes to geek out about books, then you’ll feel exactly the same way. It’s just a cool place to hang out.

Tucson Family Hotels: Where to Stay in Tucson

Why do we love Loews Ventana Canyon? Um, the location! It’s just so beautiful up against the foothills. Get the mountain view if you can. This was the view from our third floor room.

Loews Ventana Canyon
Photo by: Michele Whiteaker

Then, we looked to our right and there’s a waterfall. Really? How can it get any better? All the while you are hearing the closer small waterfall running below you and the lovely sound of families playing at the pool.

Loews Tucson
Photo by: Michele Whiteaker

Once you leave your room, you have the option to wander the grounds and perhaps walk right up to the waterfall on the “Window Walk” (ventana means window in Spanish). There are interpretive signs along the way and even though it feels like you are far from the hotel, as you circle around to the botanic garden area – you get a good view back on the hotel.

The pool isn’t that fancy, but it’s just big and fun. There are 3 sets of entry steps where kids can play and the deep end is almost situated in the middle of the pool. There are pool towels and water stations.

things to do in Tucson
Photo by: Michele Whiteaker

There is also a very cold spring-fed pool by the jacuzzi – so you can do the whole hot/cold thing. I did it, but I don’t know if I like it. My husband and kids loved it, though.

The city view over the golf course is also beautiful and accessible from the viewing balcony.

Kids will love the koi fish on both sides of the hotel. They can get pellets for feeding them at the front desk.

things to do in Tucson
Photo by: Michele Whiteaker

Other resort hotel options:

Ready to book a room? Check out the deals for Tucson hotels.

Where to Eat in Tucson

Splurge alert! The ridiculously amazing Easter Brunch at the Canyon Cafe in Loews Ventana Canyon is worth the money. I’m only showing one teeny-tiny corner of the outdoor offerings. All sorts of grilled items, including ribs and chicken — but also vegetables and even bacon-wrapped hot dogs. When we checked in for our table we walked by: desserts, kids food station (that’s set low to the ground – think chicken nuggets and fruit salad), a custom sundae/milkshake station, charcuterie (dried meat and gourmet cheeses), salads including local ingredients like nopales (cactus), sushi, seafood, and a full breakfast with omelettes and homemade cinnamon rolls.

things to do in Tucson
Photo by: Michele Whiteaker

Oh, and I forgot the OTHER outside area which had carved roasted turkey, prime rib, and all the fixings that usually go with that — like mashed potatoes, rice, and veggies. It was seriously insane. We’ve been to some pretty awesome buffets in our day, but we all agreed this has to be the best one ever!

We only wish we could come back in a couple of hours after we digested from the first round. In addition to it being a champagne or mimosa breakfast, my husband was thrilled about having two of the local brews on tap served up by the chefs outside.

We learned that this Easter Brunch was just an extension of their regular Blues, Brews, and BBQ Brunch offered most Sundays.

Good bets for food are breweries and BBQ:

things to do in Tucson
Photo by: Michele Whiteaker

Authentic Mexican food:

Must Do Day-Trips

things to do in Tucson
Photo by: Flickr/thart2009

All of these suggestions are great options for beating the desert heat.

Kartchner Caverns State Park is an Arizona State Park a little under an hour past Tucson. It is reachable by taking the I-10 east to the 90. The caves were discovered in the 1970s and kept secret until the property owners figured out the best way to keep the caves protected and intact. Arizona State Parks purchased the caverns property in 1988 and it’s now home to cave tours of the Big Room and the Rotunda/Throne.

The on-site Discovery Center runs a Junior Ranger program for children, as well as offering a Discovery Center Scavenger Hunt and other kid-friendly activities. This outing is best for kids over 6 years old since strollers and backpack carriers aren’t allowed and their website states that younger children “might be frightened or uncomfortable in the cave environment.” Reservations are highly recommended as you might drive all the way out here and discover the tours for the day are already full. 

Visiting Mt. Lemmon and Summerhaven is a way to escape the heat. You’ll travel along a scenic drive about an hour to an hour and a half up in elevation, which feels wonderful during the summer months. The Mt. Lemmon Sky Center Observatory hosts year-round nightly stargazing programs.

Kitt Peak National Observatory  Visitor Center, a famous observatory and research station about an hour outside Tucson, hits the spot. It’s open during daylight hours for visitors but requires registration for nighttime programs and visits.

Ready to explore more of Arizona? Check out the Top Ten Things to do in Phoenix

 

About the author

Michele Whiteaker started writing reviews and blog posts for Trekaroo back in 2011. She fulfills her travel writing passion through freelance gigs and keeps her favorite posts on her popular FunOrangeCountyParks.com blog which empowers families to explore outdoors.

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