Taking a 5 day long family spring break or long weekend in Tucson, Arizona was just the road trip escape we needed to refresh ourselves for the last school push before summer. Even though it may feel really far away, it’s relatively easy to travel from Southern California to Arizona. In fact, we’ve kind of developed a little loop we like to take from Orange County with the I-10 on the way there and then jumping over to I-8 on the way back.
All the links on Where to Stay, Where to Eat, and What to Do in Tucson are at the bottom of this post and I will be adding some pretty nifty new maps soon. (This was a personal family trip – no compensation or media rates for any of it.)
What Do I Know About Arizona?
- We’ve driven through a number of times on cross-country moves. I also had a college friend who I helped move from North Carolina to the University of Arizona and hung around Tucson with her for a few days.
- A winter break Flagstaff trip where we stayed in a condo with a 1 year old (and grandparents and aunt & uncle) and took day trips to Sedona and the Grand Canyon.
- A Thanksgiving week trip to stay with friends in Cave Creek, AZ and then a splurge for Thanksgiving dinner buffet with a stay at the Arizona Biltmore, A Waldorf Astoria Resort.
- A spring break travel writing assignment from Trekaroo.com to cover the Sheraton Wild Horse Pass in Chandler, AZ followed by a stay at the Loew’s Ventana Canyon in Tucson.
That last spring break trip on my list really made an impression on my kids. They loved both hotels so much, especially Loew’s in Tucson. They’ve always wanted to go back. I had my hesitations because they are quite a bit older now and since I wasn’t on assignment, they wouldn’t be getting quite the same royal treatment. But even with my warnings, they still wanted to go. So did it live up to expectations?
Why Spending Spring Break in Arizona is Awesome for Families
- Since spring breaks are staggered (different schools have different vacation dates), there’s never a big crunch on the hotels. Not like Thanksgiving week, for example.
- Desert wildflowers and cactus are blooming! I forgot about this, but the Ocotillo were flaming up with their fire red blossoms on our drive across the desert.
- You might catch a full moon over the desert on your drive or be able to enjoy the night sky full of stars. Tucson strives for low light pollution and the result is an amazing showing of stars that pop out at night.
- It’s warm enough to take advantage of the awesome swimming pools, but cool enough to get outdoors and do some exploring.
- The timing is good for college tours, if you have a teen looking at attending university here.
But, really, taking a long family weekend in Arizona is do-able any time of year. It’s a 4 hour drive from Irvine, CA (Orange County) to Las Vegas — and I know families who take that drive all the time. It’s only a couple of hours longer to Phoenix.
Day One (Friday) – Driving, Driving, Driving
It shouldn’t have felt like it was a long drive, because it’s not really. However, it’s not so easy getting out of LA on Friday afternoon and I’m not a night person. It would have been better if we left at noon and arrived in Phoenix before dark, but we didn’t get out the door until later so we didn’t get to our destination until later. Oh, well!
(Map Coming Soon)
- Leave home at noon
- Drive 5 hours and 42 minutes on I-10
- Stopped in Quartzsite for fuel because it’s cheaper in AZ
- Ate lunch and snacks in the car on the way to the hotel
- 1 night at Home2 Suites by Hilton – Chandler, AZ (breakfast included)
This hotel turned out to be insanely awesome for families! Our room was HUGE with two queen-sized beds, a nicely stocked kitchenette with an almost full-sized refrigerator, and breakfast was included. If we had stayed longer, we could have grilled our own food on the barbecues and made use of the pool. It even had a dishwasher in our room! They also had a fitness room where you could do laundry called the “Spin2 Cycle Center.” Most guests were families with children or adults who were there on business for long-term stays. The staff was super friendly and they even allow you to take a couple water bottles for free from their fridge by the front desk.
- Right across the street from the hotel is a small shopping & restaurant area dubbed “Downtown Ocotillo” which we had scoped out on Google maps before we left. We grabbed dinner at Sauce Pizza & Wine and kept Press Coffee Roasters on our list for the next morning. Both are local to Arizona. The pizzas were the best bet at Sauce, followed by the pasta. You could skip the salads – at least the to-go versions.
- To save money, you could always bring something to microwave IN the hotel room. It was fully stocked with dishes and utensils, a microwave and a full-sized fridge.
Day Two (Saturday) – Desert Museum & Living the Resort Life
(Route Map Coming Soon)
- Included with hotel stay. So we had a leisurely breakfast downstairs in the lobby.
- Drive to Tucson
- First stop is about an hour away at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum
Google Maps routed us on an amazing drive through Saguaro National Park to get to the museum. There were lots of dips in the road, which were super fun for us (rollercoaster!). But they wouldn’t be so fun during the monsoon season June -Sept. Next time we will be visiting the Saguaro West (Red Hills Visitor Center) – since we passed it on our drive!
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. The coolest part for me is going underground into the cave area where it’s nice and cool. You can take a little side trail through the cavern. And 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!
- Drive through Saguaro National Park (and maybe stop at the Visitor Center in the “West” part of the park)
- Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum (visit on the way in to town)
- Pima Air & Space Museum (if you have the time and energy in the afternoon)
- Sentinel Peak Brewing Company for an early dinner on the way to the hotel
- We shared appetizers later at the Cascade Lounge while we played UNO together (adults should try the super yummy Saguaro Blossom Sangria!)
Why We Still Love Loew’s Ventana Canyon Resort
Yes! It still lives up to expectations!
- 3 nights at Loews Ventana Canyon – Tucson, AZ (breakfast not included)
Why do we love this place? Um, the location! It’s just so beautiful up against the foothills. Get the MOUNTAIN view if you can. We checked in after our day outdoors and this was the view that awaited us off the left side of our 3rd floor balcony.
Then you look to your 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.
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. We liked to play in the pool at night when the crowds went away and the bats flew over! 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.
Also, I had forgotten about this from the last trip, but the shower/bath is giant and square. It just feels decadent.
The other draw for me is the proximity of this hotel to Sabino Canyon! We toured the Canyon on our first trip when the kids were smaller. It’s a scenic tram tour where no cars are allowed.
Here’s what I wrote in my review of the tour back in 2011:
We took the 45 minute tram tour up Sabino Canyon. It’s a very scenic ride up the canyon with the guide pointing out scenic points and sharing history of the canyon on the way up. The guide is quiet on the way back and let’s you enjoy the view without interruption. People rode with little babies, preschoolers and school age kids. 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 saw many families with strollers.
Being tourists who hadn’t done our research, we weren’t really aware that we could jump on and off the tram. We just thought it was a tour. We were on the 2nd to the last tram of the day which didn’t leave us with many options for exploring. There are 9 stops on the Sabino Canyon Trail. It seemed like some of the best swimming and hiking areas were stops #6-#8. 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). Hang on to your ticket stub and you can ride up/down the road all day on the tram. Once you leave the canyon on tram and go past stop #1 towards the entrance, then you can’t use your ticket to go back up.
Day Three (Easter Sunday) – Brunch & Biosphere 2
Splurge Alert! I swear this counts as an activity, in addition to dining! This was a ridiculously amazing Easter Brunch at the Canyon Cafe in the hotel. 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. 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.
- Spend afternoon at Biosphere 2
- Tours are first come, first served — but they are only closed on major holidays. We were surprised we could get in on Easter.
- My teen wrote an entire blog post about Visiting Biosphere 2 in Tucson with Your Family
Who needs food after a buffet brunch like that? We ended our afternoon outing with a quick stop at Basha’s – the Arizona local grocery – to grab a light dinner. Basha’s is right down the street from the hotel. We saw many guests walking down the hill to the store (or back up with their bags), but I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it. No sidewalks or consistent trail. We ate dinner on our hotel room balcony.
Activities (After Dinner)
Somehow we always had time for the pool and a night swim.
Day Four (Monday) – University, Brewery, & Bookstores
- Instant oatmeal packets that we brought from home
My husband and son took a tour of U of A from 10am-noon which gave my daughter and I an excuse to explore campus on our own and find a spot in the library to read for a bit. When it got closer to the time when the boys were done, we looked around in the University Bookstore. If you don’t know me, we are suckers for bookstores and usually spend hours wandering! You will soon find out this was not our only bookstore trip of the day.
We talked about going to the Arizona State Museum (on campus) or the Arizona History Museum (just across from campus) after the tour — but we were all pretty hungry and ready to cool off.
We grabbed a bite at Gentle Ben’s Brewing Company for lunch. It’s right on the main street outside campus lined with restaurants (University Blvd) and on the way back to our car.
We saw an ad for Bookman’s which sells used books — in our hotel room magazine. But, oh, it’s SO much more than that. I almost can’t describe how much fun we had exploring this store and the children’s section is huge. 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. Read a little about the history of this local treasure.
Then back to our balcony at the hotel to watch the stars and bats come out! Our favorite time of night. We pretty much spent every night doing this.
We’d been in Arizona for four days and didn’t get Mexican food yet! We dined at El Charro Ventana the last time we were in town, but the kids were too young to remember back then. It’s in the same shopping center as Basha’s. So it seemed like a fitting conclusion to celebrate the last night of our trip.
Activities (After Dinner)
Ended the night in the pool again!
Day Five (Tuesday) – Heading Home
- Drive home via I-8 (~7 hours) after a last view down the Window Walk
- You drive through some cool sand dunes, see the border fence with Mexico on this drive, and also see the canals from the Colorado River feeding agriculture in Imperial Valley. We stopped in Yuma for In ‘N Out for lunch and refueled the car. There’s a big climb out of the valley to drive through the mountains behind San Diego. In fact, we’ve even had a light dusting of snow on this drive – just not this time.
And just like that our trip was over!
Here are the links I promised at the end of the post . . .
Where We Stayed in Phoenix and Tucson
- Home2 Suites by Hilton in Chandler, AZ (Phoenix area)
- Loews Ventana Canyon Resort
- I have a post coming soon about Family-Friendly Places in Tucson where you can gather alternate ideas if these don’t suit your price range or needs. We just did so much research and I have a list for when we go back!
Where We Ate in Phoenix and Tucson
- Sauce Pizza & Wine
- Press Coffee Roasters (never made it here, but it’s right across the street from the hotel)
- Sentinel Peak Brewing Company
- Cascade Lounge at Loews for appetizers – get the Sangria! (Try Flying V Bar and Grill for tableside guacamole or dessert.)
- Gentle Ben’s Brewing Company
- El Charro Ventana
- Common local craft brews: Sentinel Peak, Barrio (Gentle Ben’s), and Dragoon
What We Did in and Tucson
- Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum
- Sabino Canyon Tram Tour & Hiking
- Pima Air & Space Museum (next time!)
- Saguaro National Park Visitor Center (Red Hill Visitor Center)
- Biosphere 2
- University of Arizona Tucson (Alternates: Arizona State Museum and/or Arizona History Museum)
- Bookman’s East
We did all our own research and paid 100% of our own way on this trip. We did get a complimentary stay at Loew’s Ventana Canyon back in 2011, but it just goes to show how much we loved it by coming back.