USAFamily Travel

Socially distanced outing in the Phoenix area

The Gateway trail at the McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale.
The Gateway trail at the McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale. Photo Credit: Paul Heney

The Phoenix area, including popular Scottsdale, is well known for its multitude of family-friendly attractions. And the region's excellent wintertime and springtime weather has proved to be a bonus in Covid times, when being outdoors is more important to many travelers. My family recently spent a month there and enjoyed many open-air highlights.

For families who enjoy hiking, the metro area features a selection of impressive options. Popular trails include a variety in South Mountain Park and Preserve, the (sometimes crowded) hike up Camelback Mountain and Piestewa Peak on the north side of the city.

The McDowell Sonoran Preserve, located within Scottsdale, contains multiuse trails for hiking, biking and horseback riding across more than 30,000 acres. Here, the Gateway trail is a nice two-hour loop that includes views of the surrounding mountains and flora and fauna, not to mention panoramas back toward Scottsdale. More challenging is the renowned Tom's Thumb Trail, accessed from the back side of the preserve, with a 1,300-foot elevation gain. The views to the east -- encompassing the valley floor and distant mountain ranges -- grow ever more spectacular as you climb. And at the top, the views toward Scottsdale and Phoenix make the ascent more than worth the journey.

A few miles east of the airport, families have two intriguing choices within a stone's throw of each other. 

The Phoenix Zoo, which will celebrate its 50th anniversary next year, is home to more than 400 species, including many endangered ones. In addition to more typical zoo exhibits, families can participate in different animal encounters, such as Stingray Bay, camel rides, a giraffe experience and Discovery Farm, where kids can interact with cows, horses, turkeys, sheep and goats.

Scottsdale has a lot of new choices for traditional hotels.

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This was the only place where we felt a little uncomfortable at times with the crowds, as we went on a busy weekend afternoon with delightful weather -- and so did numerous other families. The nature of zoos is for people to press close to each other when, say, the lions start walking near the viewing window. On occasion, people seemed to forget about the six-foot recommended social distancing, in spite of the zoo's posted reminders. However, as the venue is mostly an outdoor experience, we were able to choose our next animals to see based on which direction seemed least crowded.

Right next door to the zoo is the Desert Botanical Garden, one of the loveliest spots in town. The garden features more than 50,000 plant displays in outdoor exhibits across 140 acres. Visitors are well spread out, thanks to a timed ticket entrance system. There are multiple walking loops throughout the property, and adults and kids alike will learn a lot about the desert ecosystem, not to mention how so many plants and animals are interdependent. The garden has family-friendly Dog Days at the Garden every Saturday morning through June -- a fun event whether you own a dog or just like to scratch them behind their ears. And if the parents need a night out by themselves, check out the garden's lovely "Music in the Garden" series on Friday evenings.

Taliesin West in the northeastern corner of the metro area, was famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright's winter home later in his life. The compound, which also housed many of his students over the years, today has Covid-friendly audio tours that are perfect for the whole family. The hourlong Guided by Wright tour enables visitors to wander around and through many of the main buildings. Using an app on your phone and provided earphones, you're given a fun history lesson on Taliesin's creation and construction, including recordings of the architect's own voice. Our son enjoyed experiencing the way Wright used small doorways and entry hallways to trick the mind into thinking the interior spaces are larger than they are.

Taliesin West required timed entries, limiting the number of people in any one area. What's more, the nature of the app (users stand in a particular place for a set amount of time as the narration points out landmarks or architectural features) kept the spacing intact on our visit.

The Musical Instrument Museum features more than 8,000 instrument on display.
The Musical Instrument Museum features more than 8,000 instrument on display. Photo Credit: Paul Heney

For families willing to venture indoors, the Musical Instrument Museum is an excellent choice. Open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, the decade-old institution is home to more than 8,000 instruments from 200 countries. Most of the exhibits are geographic in nature -- as you approach displays for a particular country, snippets of musical performances from that area play on video screens. 

Kids will learn how instruments changed gradually as they were adopted by different peoples but also see how some aspects of music transcend whole continents. It's easy to spend a whole day here, and the entire family will enjoy the Experience Gallery, where you can try out a multitude of drums, gongs and electronic instruments. We felt safe here, as masks were required, and the design of the space makes it easy to maintain socially distancing.

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