Southwest US vacation activities suggestions

I’m currently planning a family vacation to the southwestern states of Arizona, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico. And I need some ideas of what to do. We’ll be going over my son’s spring break, the last full week of March. We haven’t bought anything yet, but ideally we would be there the evening of Friday, 3/21 until Sunday, 3/30.

The main reason for this is to fulfill my desire to road trip through the desert. I figure a week of driving around out there should be enough to last me the rest of my life. We’re going to avoid the interstate as much as possible.

My concern is that my wife has bad knees and can’t walk very long or do much hiking. And my 13 year old son just flat out hates hiking. From what I can find, that limits a lot of non-driving activities out there.

The basic plan is to bookend our trip in Phoenix. We have family there and will be staying with them whenever we are in town.

The plan is to drive a big loop and hit the Grand Canyon (5 hour drive from Phoenix), Bryce Canyon (8 hour drive from Grand Canyon due to side trips on scenic byways), Durango Colorado (another 8 hour drive from Bryce), Albuquerque (4 hours from Durango), then back to Phoenix (yet another 8 hour drive).

The puzzle here is fitting some non-road time with the long drive times. All the while remembering that we’re on vacation and my wife and son will want to sleep in most mornings.

I have to decide if I start the road trip on Sunday evening or Monday morning. For instance, if I drive to the Grand Canyon Sunday evening, can we expect to look at the canyon in the morning and drive up to Bryce before nightfall? Stuff like that.

I really would like to get out in the middle of Utah at night and look at the sky. I also want to stop at the petrified forest on or way back to Phoenix. Other than that, things are pretty much up in the air.

What are your suggestions/thoughts?

We had a similar vacation, but we stayed in Sedona and did mostly day trips. We went to:

In and around Sedona - super beautiful
Grand Canyon
Meteor Crater - very cool
Sunset Crater - volcano, also very cool
Overnight to Vegas

Phoenix is very south, so maybe look into staying Sedona or even Flagstaff.

I will also add that driving in the west is super, crazy, stupid boring. The first hour or so is great, with sunshine and wind in your hair, the following 6 or 7 is like an exceptionally boring hell, at least on the flatlands. We are not a hiking family either, and all that time in a car is rough, especially for my 12 year old daughter (at the time).

In Truth or Consequences, NM they have hot springs. We and other family members have stayed a couple of times at a place called Riverbend. It isn’t fancy, but the hot springs are nice for a fun lazy day soaking. It’s set up so you can see the river from the pools. There are several in the town; that’s just the one we’ve stayed at.

I started a thread about an Arizona / Utah road trip a few years back. There were quite a few good suggestions: http://boards.straightdope.com/sdmb/showthread.php?t=532495. I had a great time, but I’m more into hiking than it sounds like your family is.

To each his own, but you asked for our thoughts so I’ll give you mine: That sounds like absolute torture. If my dad spent my vacation as a 13 year old doing that, I’d be plotting ways to kill him from the back seat.

There are some amazing things to see in the Southwest, but they’re really far apart and some of the best things can’t be driven up to. Also, as has been said, the space between the cool things is an endless stretch of flat, boring, sagebrush infested nothing. If you’re going to sleep in and hit the road at say, 10:30, and drive for eight hours, you’ll have maybe an hour of sunlight left to see the sights, but you’ll be more interested in getting something to eat and stretching your legs than checking out the vistas.

I’d spend some time in the cooler air in Flagstaff and Sedona, do the Grand Canyon and maybe Bryce. Durango is nice and you can stop by Mesa Verde on the way, but another full day of driving through the desert to get there? Albuquerque is right out, there’s nothing to see there, it’s an oversized Fargo.

IMHO, your plan is way too ambitious and it’s going to be five full days of complete boredom and a couple of hours of really cool things to see.

I wouldn’t plan to spend a great deal of time in either Grand Canyon or Bryce. Don’t get me wrong, they’re both lovely, but once you walk up to the viewpoint and snap some shots, there’s not a lot to do.

Please consider:

Zion
Canyonlands
Arches
Antelope Slot, near Page, AZ.
Monument Valley
Mesa Verde

None of which require lots of hiking, but the opportunities are there.

The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum in Tucson is interesting - http://www.desertmuseum.org/

I don’t think this will fit into your timetable, but if perchance it does I would consider a visit to the Trinity (atomic bomb) test site in New Mexico. (White Sands Missile Range.) The site is only open two days per year, and April 1 is one of them, as I recall. I’ve never been there, so I’ll make no claim to how good or bad it might be, but it’s on MY bucket list. From what I’ve seen on-line it’s a drive but not much of a walk.

Not true at all, there’s plenty to see and do here. For example:

The Sandia Peak Tramway

The National Museum of Nuclear Science & History

The BioPark Botanic Gardens

The Anderson-Abruzzo International Balloon Museum

The American International Rattlesnake Museum

The New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science

Shadowfyre, after visiting the Petrified Forest National Park, I’d suggest turning south in Holbrook AZ on Hwy. 77 and driving to Show Low, then continuing south on 77/60 through the Salt River Canyon and on to Globe AZ. It’s an extremely scenic drive. Stay on 60 as you leave Globe and it will take you to Phoenix.

Actually, it’s the first Saturday in April- so this year it’s open April 5th. From their website:

I was finally going to visit the site last October (I’ve lived here 14 years) and I was very disappointed when they canceled the October dates. I’m going to try to make it in April.

March is probably too early, but Taos is a great place. Lots of art museums, and some good restaurants. Santa Fe is also a great place for shopping and curios. And Albuquerque has great restaurants.

No disrespect intended, but every city of any size has attractions and weird-ass museums. There’s probably twice as many to see in Phoenix. Driving four hours through central New Mexico to see a rattlesnake museum and eat some green chile is not my idea of a worthwhile detour.

Canyon de Chelly – fantastic! Take a two-hour walking tour with a Navajo guide (set this up a few days before, meet them at the visitor’s center). Not a tough hike, but gorgeous scenery. Our two-year-old even loved it – he did a third of the hike himself!

Monument Valley – just driving through is great. Kids might recognize it from, say, Road Runner cartoons.

Grand Canyon train from Williams, Arizona, with a few hours to walk around the south rim, and a kid-friendly little Wild West show beforehand.

Where should you go on a week-long desert road trip, starting and ending in Phoenix? That’s a a tough one to answer, considering how may different types of “desert” you can find in “The Southwest”. The classic movie vistas you think of are north and east–out towards Utah. The famous sand dunes, palm oasis and Joshua Tree Forests are in the Mojave to the west. The iconic saguaros are in Phoenix and extend southwards towards Tuscon and beyond. The towering sandstone cliffs and canyons are features of the Colorado Plateau that borders the southern Rockies to the basin and range landscapes of eastern Nevada.

You can find fabulous desert adventures all over the place, but you can’t fit all of it into a single week.

Of course every city does, that’s my point. You said “Albuquerque is right out, there’s nothing to see there”. I pointed out some of the attractions and weird-ass museums we have here.

Probably more than that, since it’s far more than twice the size of Albuquerque. I’ve enjoyed the many visits I’ve made to Phoenix and could provide a similar list of things to do there.

Apparently the OP thinks it’s a worthwhile detour since he specifically mentioned Albuquerque and a desire to road trip through the desert. I provided some suggestions for his trip, as he requested.

If you can, ride the Durango-Silverton Railroad. It is a ride on a narrow gauge steam train through a beautiful canyon with a gorgeous stream at the bottom. One leaves Durango early in the AM, then noons in Silverton ( just long enough to eat a noon meal and visit some of the local museums +/or shops). The train ride back to Durango arrives at about 17:00. If you want, you can do this trip one way and rent a car the other way. Many folks ride out to Silverton and “Jeep” back to Durango.

A word of caution is in order here, BOOK NOW!! There is often a waiting list for this excursion, so reserve your seats.

Although I have not ridden on their trains yet, there is one out of Chama, NM. It is called the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad (C&TS) They may be less busy, I do not know. Further research shows that they also are requiring reservations. They go from Chama, NM. to Antonito, Co. with a stop at noon in Osier, Co., there one can either continue through or return to their starting point. If they chose to ride the entire route, a bus will return the tourists to their starting point.

If it were I, I would not go to Phoenix at all, I would fly into Denver and take I-70 over the summit west to Grand Junction, Co. You get to see the Eisenhower Tunnels, Glenwood Canyon, and soak in the hot springs in Glenwood, CO. There are several museums along the way. The train museum in Idaho Spring, is worth the time. Colorado National Monument is just outside of Grand Junction CO.

I would then go to Moab , UT. Spend a day or two there, Arches National Park, Canyonlands National Park, and Dead Horse Point State Park, are very near Moab. I would spend two days minimum in and near Moab. Plenty of desert and the Colorado River runs through it. In the area is Lake Powell, Capital Reef National Park, and Gobblin Valley State Park. None of these requires you-all to hike very far, much can be seen out of the car windows. Unless you want to rent a boat, you may want to give Lake Powell a miss.

Hook down through Monticello, UT. to Durango CO. Ride the train and explore the town. Then filter your way back to Denver on two lane blacktop roads. Beautiful scenery and loads of things to do and see with very little walking. Of course the weather is still iffy at that time in the spring, but you will want the AC to work well in the car and at the hotels in the desert.

Although if you are dead set to see the Grand Canyon, I understand that. You choose, but seriously, you do not want to drive for HOURS just to see one attraction. It gets very boring to most folks, yourself included.

IHTH, 48.

I have family in Phoenix - my mom’s sister and her family. My cousins were like a brother and sister to me for the first 13 years of my life. We lived a few blocks from them and we were always at each others house on a daily basis. Since they moved to Tuscon, they would come up (to Chicago) about every other year, on average, for funerals, weddings and other stuff. I’ve been to Arizona twice in my life. So I would feel bad heading to that area without visiting them. Also, they’ve been a bit vocal about us not visiting them. So, I guess Phoenix is the most important part of my trip.

One of the items on my bucket list is to visit all 50 states. As I just mentioned, I’ve already been to Arizona, but I’ve never been to Utah, Colorado or New Mexico. So I hope to knock those three off my list. From a threadI started about 5 years ago, we determined that - at the very least - I need to eat in a restaurant that is not a chain, at a rest stop or in an airport for me to consider that state visited.

As for my son plotting ways to kill me from the back seat, I’m convinced that he’s doing that already. :smiley:

As long as he has his Nintendo 3DS, a working cell phone and some books, he’ll be plenty happy to sit in the back seat and block out the world. That’s how he spends his time now when I’m not dragging him somewhere that I consider more interesting “for his own good.” He’ll get to see the sights when we stop, so I won’t force him to look out the windows and play bumper bingo the entire time.

That Silverton Railroad sounds pretty cool, but if we do that I think we’ll be stuck in the cheap car with small windows. Has anybody been in that cheap car before? How are the views?

The views are spectacular! However, I like to ride in the open gondola cars, so I can not tell you about the “cheap cars”.

I understand the need to visit Tuscon. Those folks are very important.

Just so I have this right, Eating in a local restaurant that is not a franchise of a larger chain is THE criteria for determining whether a state has been visited or not? Oh and it must not be near an airport or a rest stop to count? How about near a bus station?

If I have it correct, then, I agree that this is one of the criteria to count a state visited. I would add, one must visit a local attraction. Grand Canyon would count as would the Durango-Silverton Railroad, or the local snake museum.

It always amazes me how many folks do not visit other states. Or the amount of folks who have never been to the local attractions. For example, the people we bought our house in Grand Junction from had never visited Colorado National Monument, even though they had lived less then three miles from the entrance for over twenty years! I spent some of my childhood in the northern part of California. I met many people who had never visited Sequoia National Park, even though they lived less then 10 miles away! Weird!

I hope you enjoy your trip, it sounds like you will. The kid will probably never admit it, but I’ll bet he will too!

I wouldn’t love to do that drive - mainly because enough of it will be slow going, and some of the roads can be winding in that part of the country and might not be easy to do at night.

I don’t know the route from South Rim to Bryce - but a better bet might be from the North rim.

The North Rim is much less touristy - there is a fair bit of easy walking around the South Rim as long as you don’t try to hike down into the canyon. Bryce is stunning - but there’s not a lot to do if you can’t walk much; my knees were also bugging me the year we went, and between that and the fact that I was pretty out of shape (partly the knees) we did very little there.

Another place to visit if you’re going to Utah would be Zion National Park. Beautiful, surrounded by very tall mountains but it’s a canyon with a lot of greenery and the Virgin River is just plain pretty. There’s a shuttle bus that takes you to all of the scenic overlooks, and there’s a spot at the uppermost end of the shuttle where you can take a short walk on level ground to a place to paddle and splash in the river. I don’t know what the weather will be like when you go (we went in July) but both my kids enjoyed that part of the day. The road access is tricky to get there and one of the routes closes at dark, so consider that in your plans.

One activity that nobody has mentioned is a half-day smoothwater rafting trip that puts into the Colorado River at Glen Canyon Dam. You meet up at the rafting company in Page, Arizona, they put you on a bus that goes down an access road to the base of the dam, you get on huge rafts, and putt-putt down the river for 2 hours or so. Then you get off, get back on the bus (this is the same spot where the whitewater trips put in for the Grand Canyon), and drive back to Page. We did this and loved it. Suitable for any fitness level - OK, maybe not good for someone in a wheelchair, but my bum knees were no hindrance.

With just a week, I have to say you won’t have time to do that much. Drive somewhere, wave at it, get back in the car, with all the places you’re talking about. We had two weeks and wished we’d had three. We flew into/out of Las Vegas, then (on a fellow Doper’s suggestion) drove the next morning to Kanab, UT and made day trips to Zion, Bryce and North Rim before heading to Page for the smoothwater rafting. Then to Phoenix to visit friends for 3 days, then back up to the South Rim for 2 nights, then back to Vegas for 2 days.

Bryce Canyon is out. Monument Valley is in. Thanks JKellyMap and chacoguy. That is exactly the kind of desert I want to see.

48Willys, the criteria is not in an airport. Near is fine. For instance, my wife and I had a layover in Houston. We never left the airport and ate at one of the restaurants in the airport. Doesn’t count as a visit, so I still need to get to Texas at some point.

Also, national chain restaurants like Olive Garden or Chili’s don’t count. But local chains, say like In-N-Out Burger, do count as a visit.

I think we’re homing in on an itinerary. Friday, Saturday and Sunday night we are staying with my cousin at his house in Maricopa, AZ.

Monday morning we head up to the Grand Canyon and take some pictures. Then a long ride to Cortez, CO. We setup shop in a hotel there.

Tuesday we take a day trip Monument Valley for a couple hours then up to Natural Bridges National Monument. Grab a bite to eat along the way and Utah is visited. Go back to the hotel in Cortez.

Wednesday is another day trip to the Four Corners National Monument and get the obligatory pictures of everyone with one appendage in each state. Grab a bite to eat in New Mexico on the way back to the hotel and check that state off my list.

Thursday is Colorado day. Maybe take a ride to Telluride. :smiley: We’ll have eaten plenty in Colorado by then. So check that one off.

Friday is the long drive back to Maricopa with a trip through the Petrified Forest.

Hang out with my cousins again on Saturday and fly back to Chicago on Sunday. But we still have a month and change to solidify it.

Thanks for all your suggestions. And again, thanks for that heads up on Monument Valley. I can’t wait.