I try to keep a tight grip on the reins of my horse with my left hand while cupping my right hand over my eyes. As my body wobbles to and fro, I grip a little tighter and call out to my son, “How are you doing up there?” I’m sitting on a horse named Scooter, riding through rows and rows of saguaro cacti on the Tucson, Arizona desert, following my 9-year-old son who is riding horseback for his very first time.
His little cowboy hat tilts only slightly back in my direction, and I see his wide grin shining in the sun under his shadowed face. Seeing that smile keeps me going as we trot along the trail in the scorching desert heat. Horseback riding has never been my thing, but for him, I happily oblige.
Here’s how to enjoy the ultimate family road trip across Southern Arizona, including some must-see stops and places to stay along the way.
Uncover The Mysteries of Mystery Castle (Phoenix)
Located in the foothills of South Mountain Park, you’ll find a stately stone structure with a stirring history. In the 1930s, a man named Boyce Luther Gulley fled him home in Seattle (where he left his wife and young daughter) to find refuge in the hidden hills of Phoenix. Diagnosed with Tuberculosis, he was believed to only have months to live.
Remembering his young daughter’s request to one day live in a real-life sand castle, Boyce decided to pass his time by building a castle for his princess. Boyce collected anything he could find to use as building materials – mountain rocks, boxcar siding, remnants of old phone poles, car rims, and railroad tracks. He scavenged dumps and demolition sites and began building – never sure if each day would be his last.
Months turned into years, and in 1945 – 15 years after the building began, the castle was finally complete. That year, Boyce wrote home, revealing his illness, and telling his family to come visit him in Phoenix. Unfortunately, Boyce passed away before his family arrived for their long awaited reunion. During your tour of the whimsical and whacky dwelling, you’ll learn about his daughter, Mary Lou’s time living in the home that her father built with his own two hands, discover hidden trap doors, kitschy cat decor, and other hidden gems that can be found in this must-see mansion now known as Mystery Castle.
(Note: tours are only available between October and May)
Enjoy A Stay At White Stallion Ranch (Tucson, Arizona)
Take your family back to before the age of digital diversions with a stay at White Stallion Ranch – a family-run ranch that is sure to channel your child’s inner cowboy.
Start each morning with a hot, home-cooked breakfast, made to order by the ranch’s talented team. Then, select your day’s activities – you can choose from guided horseback riding tours, fat tire biking, rock climbing, shooting, or even team cattle sorting (for the more experienced riders), or you can opt for a more laid-back stay with a stroll through the grounds, a visit to the petting farm, a game of basketball on one of the sun-drenched courts, or a dip in the heated pool. With friendly visiting staff from England to Osaka, and a welcoming family of lifelong ranchers on site, you’ll want to take time to get to know your hosts while you take in the colourful surroundings.
Evenings are filled with family-friendly activities too. From live musical performances by the campfire, to stargazing with a local astronomer, the ranch keeps the schedule packed with fun things to do, so you can connect with your kids, while keeping them disconnected from their devices.
Creep Through Kartchner Caverns (Benson, Arizona)
Kartchner Caverns is a must-see wonder, and one of the few cave sites that can be accessed and explored by people with limited mobility. Your tour begins with a tram ride up to the entrance of the multi-cave system, and then you walk along a nicely paved path into the opening of the cave that you’ve chosen to take your tour.
The Rotunda/Throne Tour is a great one for families. Explore the underground cave system and see the discoverers’ original trail that dates back to 1974, gaze at the 45,000-year-old bat guano, and delight in the delicate formations and “Kubla Khan,” the largest column formation in Arizona. Featuring high-tech light and sound systems and hosted by knowledgeable staff, this tour is a great way for kids to learn about the underworld of the desert while embarking on an exciting exploration through Arizona’s breathtaking caves.