8 family-friendly things to do in Tucson

From horseback riding to learning about desert wildlife (all while munching on chimichangas), Tucson has something for everyone in the family.

1. Visit a dude ranch

Your kids will feel at home at White Stallion Ranch, just 25 minutes from downtown Tucson. The resort is intimate, with only 43 guest rooms and a five-bedroom house, and the owners, the True family, live and work on the ranch. The focus here is on horseback riding—kids ages 5 and up are able to go on scenic trail rides and take part in ranch activities like cattle sorting. Older kids (8 and up) can try more advanced riding techniques, rock climbing, flat-tire e-biking and learning to shoot Cowboy style Henry Yellowboy .22 caliber lever action rifles and Ruger .22 caliber single action pistols. Other amenities include an outdoor pool, air-conditioned games room with foosball and air hockey, a small movie theatre, petting zoo, as well as basketball and tennis courts. Meals, included in your rate, are served three times a day (you’re called to dinner—barbecued and served outside—with a bell) and nightly entertainment could include an astronomer, line dancing or a cowboy singer. We recommend staying at least five nights to fully take in the different horseback rides, hikes and other activities the ranch has to offer.

Kids examine different droppings Photo: Courtesy of Claire Gagne

2. Meet an elf owl, a javelina and a road runner

If your kid watches Wild Kratts, chances are they’re familiar with the Sonoran desert. The hot, dry area that crosses Arizona, California and Northwestern Mexico is used as a home base in many episodes of the nature show. Those episodes come to life at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, which is actually more of a zoo/science centre. Explore the replica limestone cave, mine for rocks and check out the daily live animal presentations. Families will love the patient volunteers who will teach the kids (and you!) about animal tracks, wildlife and the dessert as you meander along the paths to see the animals, reptiles and birds.

The museum opens at 7:30 a.m. and it’s recommended to get there early when it’s cooler and more animals are out. Regardless, the air-conditioned Packrat Playhouse will be a welcome stop along the way.

Fancy resort sitting in the desert during sunset Photo: Courtesy of JW Marriott Tucson Starr Pass Resort

3. Relax at a resort

Whether you use it as a home base to explore Tucson, or spend a few days just relaxing in the desert warmth, there's much to do and plenty to eat at the JW Marriott Tucson Starr Pass Resort & Spa. Kids will love the lazy river and waterslide while parents will appreciate the spa and three Arnold Palmer-designed 9-hole golf courses nearby. The setting is gorgeous—the hotel sits on 50 acres in the foothills of Saguaro National Park and you'll get to take in the view while noshing on Mexican food at Salud, the hotel's outdoor patio restaurant complete with fire pits. (The menu includes fixings to roast marshmallows and make s'mores—which we highly recommend.) Don’t miss the nightly complimentary tequila toast. If you’re an early-bird, the resort offers daily hikes at 6 a.m. where the wonderful guides will teach you about the various cacti and what animals you may come across in the dessert. Be sure to wear closed-toe shoes.

People wait in line for ice cream at the HUB Photo: Courtesy of Visit Tucson

4. Go for ice cream

Let's face it: the desert is hot. And what better way to beat the heat than delicious hand-crafted ice cream? Hub Ice Cream Factory is located in the city centre and offers a rotating menu of 300 flavours, featuring 24 flavours at at time. Apple a la Mode, Key Lime Bar and Peanut Butter M&M Party are all possibilities to indulge in. If you're looking for a dining option, Hub Restaurant across the street serves up yummy pot pies, hamburgers and mac and cheese and has its own ice cream bar inside.

El Charro restaurant Photo: Nicci Radhe, courtesy of Visit Tucson

5. Eat at one of the oldest Mexican restaurants in America


El Charro in downtown Tucson has been operated by the same family since it opened in 1922 and they claim to even have invented the chimichanga—tried and approved by our editor's 11-year-old daughter. The restaurant is kid-friendly, with a menu for those 10 and under that includes tacos, quesadillas, nachos, and gluten-free chicken nuggets. Try the carne seca—beef dried right on the roof in the desert sun, and be sure to order some churros for dessert.

Large colourful planes stand beside each other Photo: Courtesy of Visit Tucson

6. Get up close and personal with airplanes

Granted, the Pima Air & Space Museum isn’t geared to kids specifically, but there's plenty here to hold your little one’s interest. Check out the historical aircrafts, including a replica of the Wright flyer and the Bumblebee, a tiny plane built solely to claim the record as the world’s smallest airplane. Kids will love climbing in and out of some of the different planes and sitting inside a flight simulator. The hangars are air-conditioned, but the museum is vast, and lots of the planes are spread outside on over 80 acres—you can book the one hour tram tour to take it all in. The museum also offers complimentary guided and self-guided tours. 

Old saloon hotel in Tucson Photo: Pete Gregoire, courtesy of Visit Tucson

7. Take a train ride through the sets of Old Westerns

Old Tucson—a movie set-turned amusement park—is sure to delight the little ones in your group with its live action shows and vintage rides (think train, carousel and antique cars), while the more, ahem, senior traveller will want to take part in a guided tour, learning about the location's 75 years of film history. A new 350-foot zipline crosses the area while you shoot targets with a laser gun. (Not included in admission price.) Be sure to stop by Phoebe's Sweet Shoppe for some prickly pear lemonade on your way in—and on your way out!

Plants in the desert against a bright blue sky Photo: Courtesy of Claire Gagne

8. Go on a hunt for lizards

The giant Saguaro cactus—which symbolizes the American west—can be spotted all over Tucson, but nowhere is the view quite as breathtaking as when you're driving through Saguaro National Park. If you've got time, the park offers multiple hiking trails and picnic areas. But if you're short on time—or dealing with short legs—hop out at the Desert Discovery Nature Trail, a short drive past the Red Hills Visitor Centre (Tucson Mountain District). The half-mile trail is stroller-friendly and there are lots of shady spots to stop for a break. The interpretive signs teach about various cacti and wildlife and if you keep your eyes focussed, you may spot a lizard or rodent scampering about.

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