Explore Arizona: a 24 Hour Northern Ariz. Turnaround Trip with Kids

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As a proud Arizona native, I pride myself on being well-versed in all things Arizona.Last summer, I realized it had been nearly a decade since I explored Flagstaff and beyond, and immediately felt the need to be in a higher elevation. 

Since this was mid-Covid, we were strapped for time and wanted to keep it budget friendly, so we decided to do a 24(ish) hour trip to Northern Arizona with the kids. My mom and I packed up the kids (and SO much stuff) and hit the road before 6AM on a Thursday morning. 

We planned on going to Bearizona that same day, which would be about a 3 hour drive. Other than that, we didn’t really have much else planned for the trip. 

It ended up being one of the most fun trips I have ever been on and I think part of it was letting go of my Type-A, Control Freak tendencies and going with the flow.

Read on to hear about our (unexpected) jam-packed turnaround trip north!

xo,

Cara

Preparation

I tend to over pack and over prepare for trips, but I am who I am. I love using packing cubes for trips and try to pack both kids in the same duffle bag. For short trips like this one, we didn’t need too much, but had to account for the cooler weather once we got up north. In August, the day temps are usually 70-80, but at night is dips pretty low (by my standards) and can also be a bit windy. Light jackets and long sleeves worked and we managed to stay warm.

My mom is the pro at kid activities in the car and had coloring books and a new toy for each kid to play with once we got in the car. I made sure the iPads were charged and packed the headphones the night before so we could have some quiet on the ride. 

I also mapped the coffee shops I wanted to stop at along the way, because no road trip is complete without coffee.

Parent tip: For long road trips, I pack each kid a gallon-sized Ziploc bag of snacks. I put their name on it and for some reason that makes them feel special. I try to mix some fresh fruit and a treat or two. I make sure to keep the bags within their reach and it helps pass the time in the car (and allows for some silence while they’re eating). Also, iPads. 

Oak Creek Canyon

Somewhere along the I-17, we decided to take a detour through Sedona and Oak Creek Canyon. I have many fond memories of my childhood there, so I wanted to make some memories with my own children. 

I don’t know about you, but I can’t think of many things more beautiful than Sedona and driving that windy road through Oak Creek Canyon. Seeing it as an adult gave me much more appreciation for this beautiful place we get to call home. It’s that transition from desert to pines that is so uniquely…Arizona.

As we were driving through Oak Creek, we made the decision to pull over and take the kids down to the creek. We pulled off into the Pine Flat Campground and took a short hike down to the water. The kids threw stones in the creek, we took in the crisp morning air (this was August, so it was a much welcomed temperature drop) and I had flashbacks to my childhood of picking blackberries, falling down in the creek and drinking fresh spring water. 30 minutes later we were back on the road and headed north.

Parent tip: If you plan on stopping in this area, bring some water shoes/shoes with good grips on the bottom that can get wet and dirty. We made the mistake of packing such footwear and wearing sandals in the car and had quite the adventurous hike down to the creek. It is not stroller friendly, so be prepared to carry babies and young toddlers down and keep them within arms reach.

Bearizona

Bearizona was our destination and reason for going on the trip. We arrived around 10AM and purchased tickets when we arrived. It’s very well-thought out and you drive up to the window to purchase tickets and they are very thorough with the explanation of the rules and what to do once you’re in the park. It’s a slow, leisurely drive and my kids were PUMPED they could unbuckle from their car seats and move freely in the car.

Windows are allowed to be down for some of the animals, like the deer and Rocky Mountain Goats. They must be rolled up for the bears and wolves for obvious reasons.

We worked our way through the park in about 45 minutes and then went around a second time. Having the wildlife walk around and so close is truly amazing. I can’t think of another (safe) experience where you are able to get so close to bears, wolves, bison and other large animals.

After we drove through we stopped at the walking part of the park called “The Fort” and got to see more animals, including a very interactive jaguar. They have so many unique animals to see.

We stayed for lunch at the Canyonlands Restaurant on-site and really enjoyed sitting outside on the patio in August. The food was actually pretty good and they even had a bar so we could have a glass of wine with lunch. 

We stayed at the park for about 4 hours and both kids were sad to leave. 

Grand Canyon

As we were leaving Bearizona, we saw a sign that said “Grand Canyon 50 miles” and made a split second decision to keep driving on Highway 64 and take the kids to see the Grand Canyon. When else would we be less than an hour away from it?

The drive is beautiful. As I said earlier, one of my favorite things about Arizona is how quickly the landscape changes. On our way there, it went from the desert we live in, to tall pines in the forest, then the expansive plains and before you know it, you’re looking at the Grand Canyon in all it’s glory. 

It took about an hour, but before we knew it we were parked and taking the walk to the canyon. We definitely didn’t do any hiking, but we were very thankful for the park and how well-maintained it is. There are paved sidewalks, fenced viewing areas and so many signs with education and history of the canyon. I hadn’t been since I was about 12, so it was amazing to see how much it had changed and grown. As an adult, it was easy to understand why it’s a Natural Wonder of the World and why millions of people visit it every year.

Parent Hack: Let the kids explore, but keep them close. If you have babies and toddlers, you’ll want to keep them buckled in or attached to you. There are places where the edge is open and it’s a long way down. For the most part, it is pretty safe and fenced, but littles are small and quick, so take caution. 

Home through Snowbowl

We stayed at the Grand Canyon for about an hour and then decided to head back down to Flagstaff through Snowbowl. We took Highway 64 back down, but instead of taking it to the 40, the way we came in, we took Highway 180 through Snowbowl. It was a little slower, but there was hardly anyone else on the road and driving through Snowbowl offered some pretty spectacular views of the San Francisco Mountains and Humphrey’s Peak. The kids finally fell asleep and my mom and I turned up our music and enjoyed the ride. 

Flagstaff

Once we arrived in Flagstaff, we checked into our hotel, changed into warmer clothes and headed out to dinner. We stayed at the Hampton Inn, which is pretty central in town. It was very clean, up to date and we chose it based on my mom’s available hotel points. There are quite a few hotels to choose from in Flagstaff. We knew we’d just be sleeping there, so we weren’t too picky on amenities. They did provide breakfast, which due to covid, was grab and go, but it was much appreciated and the kids enjoyed it.

Dinner downtown 

My husband and contributor Kate went to NAU (she introduced us!), so I asked both of them for restaurant recommendations. It was peak-covid, so we knew dining out was going to be a little difficult.

We decided to go to Pizzicleta based on Kate’s recommendation. It did not disappoint! The wood fired pizza was amazing and they even had a nice selection of wine to choose from. 

We ate outside and the patio allowed for the kids to move around and we enjoyed the atmosphere in Downtown Flag. 

 

DQ

On our way home we spotted the cliche small-town Dairy Queen and decided to treat ourselves. The line was so long, the kids whined the whole time, but the Blizzard waiting for us at the end were worth it. It really went with the theme of spontaneity we were going for.

Breakfast downtown

The next morning we decided to venture back downtown for breakfast and went to the Toasted Owl (Pizzicleta utilized their patio space for dinner to allow for extra outdoor dining spaces, so we knew there would be plenty of space for the kids to move around). The Toasted Owl is so charming and quickly became one of my favorite restaurants. The menu has all the typical breakfast options, but also a few unique things to try, like the prosciutto and brie omelette that was worth every mile we’d driven to get there…and $3 mimosas. I took home one of their signature tie-dye coffee mugs, too!

Snowbowl

Flagstaff is home to Snowbowl, which is a popular skiing and snowboarding destination, but in the summer months, it’s open for recreation, too. We drove up there after breakfast and it took about 20 minutes from downtown. Once you pull in, you’re immediately stunned by the beautiful pines and views. We came to ride the ski lift that runs daily, so we bought tickets and loaded up the kids in the lift and enjoyed a beautiful, slightly terrifying jaunt up the mountain.

The views are breathtaking and it’s so quiet up there. The kids really loved it and compared it to rides at Disneyland (#momwin). We came back down the mountain and enjoyed some ice cream sandwiches from the concession stand. The whole adventure took about an hour, but was such a fun experience.

Parent tip: The ski lift is just that, a ski lift, so you’ll want to hold on tight to littles. My kids were 4 and 5 at the time and did just fine. They did recently open up a gondola that is enclosed and meant for a scenic tour. We want to go back to check it out this summer!

Back down to the Valley

Snowbowl was the last thing on our very loosely planned agenda. We decided it was time to head back down to the heat and face reality that it was over 110 degrees back home and we couldn’t stay up there forever. 

On our way back, we decided to take the scenic route back down through Oak Creek Canyon and Sedona. It sort of breaks up the trip and its such a beautiful drive, it was hard to pass up going through it one more time. Highway 89A is such a gem. 

Once we were back down in Oak Creek Canyon, we pulled over at Grasshopper Point to stretch our legs and hike a little. Little did we know that it was a full on swimming hole, so the kids jumped in, clothes on, and we had an impromptu swim in the creek. We ended up staying for a few hours and it tired out the kids for the rest of the ride home. 

Parent tip: pack swimsuits and towels no matter what. 

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Cara is a thirty-something, Arizona Native with a deep love of the East Valley. She grew up in Northeast Mesa and is a Red Mountain High School Alum. She moved around the state a bit before planting roots in Scottsdale with her family. She has been married to her husband, Joey, since summer 2014. Together they have two kids, Braylin (6) and Joel (4). During the COVID-19 stay at home orders, they welcomed their Aussie/lab mix, Thor, to the family.  Cara started writing for East Valley Moms Blog in 2018 as a way to reconnect with the East Valley after living in Tucson for a few years. She took the position as Editor in early 2020 and added Site Manager to her resume in September 2020. She loves makeup, skincare (all things beauty, actually) and being a mom. She is an Artist with Seint Beauty as hobby. In her free time, Cara enjoys trying new restaurants, happy hour with friends, binge-watching true crime, shopping and traveling. She loves supporting local, small businesses, but is also a huge fan of Target and Starbucks. You can follow her on Instagram @caralespron.

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