8 affordable and fun family road trip destinations in Arizona

8 affordable & fun family road trip destinations in Arizona

Photo courtesy of Canyon Coaster Adventure Park via Facebook.

By Trinity Murchie

May 31, 2024

“Are we there yet?” “I need to pee.” “I’m so bored!”

Taking a road trip with kiddos can get repetitive and exhausting. Not to mention expensive. Little bodies need places to sleep, have strong opinions on what to eat, and seemingly want every snack that you didn’t already pack, driving the spend at those gas stops up, up, up.

If you can relate to this, that means you are a parent that still likes to travel. Either you go stir-crazy, need getaways, want to show your kids the world, or are just plain crazy (but hey, the best of us are). Whatever the reason, there are so many enchanted explorations right here in Arizona that can cost way under $1,000 for a family of 4. Yes, they include many outdoorsy activities, but the outdoors is part of what makes Arizona such an enchanting place to live!

So if you are ready to explore the wonders of the Grand Canyon State on a family budget, grab that overly full snack bag, a tent or two, and some binoculars and get to exploring. Here are some of my tried-and-true recommendations.

 

1. Safford

Things to do: Rockhounding, BLM camping, hot spring soaking, and yummy eats
Price estimate, family of four: $200

8 affordable & fun family road trip destinations in Arizona

Photo courtesy of Salty Heifer Grill via Facebook.

However far out of the way, Safford is a rural gem. There are Bureau of Land Management (BLM) camping options, one for free and one for $3. The free one is in the middle of nowhere and very primitive, requiring a shovel for bathroom needs but worth it if you wish to save the dollars. The $3 option, Hot Well Dunes Recreation, comes with pit toilets, large sprawls to ride any ATVs or dirt bikes that you may have, and unlimited soaks in one of two hot tubs full of natural hot springs water!

If the stay isn’t enough to get you excited about Safford, there are also plenty of rockhounding spots with the promise of fire agate, as well as amazing food. For breakfast, there is Jerry’s, where the only thing better than the food is the service (and the prices match that, too!); for lunch, there is Taylor Freeze, which is technically in Pima but is a staple of the area complete with burgers, burros, and milkshakes; and for dinner, there is The Salty Heifer, which I believe to be reason enough to travel to Safford. Although located behind a bar, the seating area has misters and a large Connect Four to play with, and the food is unforgettable with very fair pricing. Try their ribeye, the green chili mac n’ cheese, the jalapeno popper grilled cheese, the tots, or whatever! You cannot go wrong, and there is a kids menu as well.

Safford is an affordable destination that leads to scenic driving and some natural, inexpensive fun.

 

2. Benson

Things to do: Cave exploration, Dragoon Settlers Museum, Tombstone, and Bisbee
Price estimate, family of four: $500

8 affordable & fun family road trip destinations in Arizona

Photo courtesy of Arizona State Parks via Facebook.

The Benson KOA is tucked away off of a main road and has a small playground, a pool, and plenty of cabins to stay in. Each cabin accommodates four with a full bed and a bunk bed; just bring your own linens. There are fire pits, too, so roasted marshmallows are a must. Nightly rates are typically under $75.

Benson itself has a yummy Denny’s (I know, a chain? This one is the best Denny’s I’ve been to), a couple of Mexican food restaurants, a locally-owned ice cream shop, and the Mescal Bar and Grill. Plates here vary, but they typically cost around $10/person.

For fun, Benson has the Kartchner Caverns State Park, where for an entry fee of $3 you can hike around the park, and for $5-23/ticket, you can participate in an insightful tour around the caves, which were only discovered in the 70’s!

If caverns are too deep for you (cave pun!), Benson is also conveniently located only 20 minutes from Dragoon, where you can see a pioneer cemetery and settler’s museum; 30 minutes from Tombstone to experience a taste of the Wild West; and 40 minutes from Bisbee where you can see art, walk the 1,000 steps, and have some artisanal eats (shoutout to The Table). Benson is also 30 minutes south of Tucson, so you can have rural, affordable accommodation sans light pollution while exploring state parks and other Tucson delights.

 

3. Cottonwood

Things to do: Camping, swimming, fishing, hiking, shopping, museums
Price estimate, family of four: $250

8 affordable & fun family road trip destinations in Arizona

Photo courtesy of the City of Cottonwood, Arizona via Facebook.

Nestled between Sedona and Jerome, Cottonwood is almost too good to be true. It has all the beauty, accessibility, and peace of Sedona, and the quirkiness of Jerome, but at a price that families can appreciate.

For only $20/night, Dead Horse Ranch State Park has camping spots complete with (clean) communal restrooms with showers. This $20 goes even further than just a stay, though. Dead Horse Ranch State Park is large and is home to 4 lagoons (3 of which you can fish in), several walking trails, and access to swimming in the Verde River! If there are equestrians in your group, there are also horseback riding options available, at an extra price. Go down to the ranger station and you can purchase (for less than $5) books that identify plants, birds, and bugs in the area, making it both fun and educational for the curious kiddos.

When it’s time to eat, drive 10 minutes into town and check out the cozy downtown that is complete with boutiques, wineries, coffee and boba shops, art studios, rock and gem shops, and several delicious restaurants. We were all very fond of Red Rooster Cafe for the dog-friendly patio, delicious food at good prices, and friendly staff. The quaint town itself was just cute to walk around in, too.

If this town isn’t everything you had hoped for, Jerome is only 30 minutes away and has mine tours, puppet shows, and rich history for the family to explore. If that still isn’t enough, drive 20 minutes into Sedona and check out Vortex hikes, ice cream shops, and so much more. Cottonwood is my family’s favorite quick getaway during the warm weather; swimming in the Verde River is a true treat on those hot days!

 

4. Tonto National Forest

Things to do: Shopping, eating, camping, fishing, and history hopping
Price estimate, family of four: $300

8 affordable & fun family road trip destinations in Arizona

Photo by Janet Ward courtesy of NOAA.

Located in the Pinal Mountains, the Tonto National Forest is stunning and feels like another world, despite being less than an hour from Phoenix.

For a free camp space, complete with pit toilets (bring your own water for washing, though!), stay at the Oak Flat Campground between Superior and Miami. Here, you will have access to everything that the surrounding towns have to offer, with the added beauty of a quiet night of rest.

For fun hiking, boutique shopping, and a quaint farmers market, check out Superior on Saturday morning. They have a water run that you can hike down into and is safe for rock and mineral exploration. Later in the day, stop in Miami at the Lyric Soda Fountain for a sweet treat and a light eat that won’t break the bank and will introduce you to kind people. You can peruse art galleries, go antiquing, and play volleyball at the park, all within two minutes of walking downtown.

Go a little further into Globe and check out Besh-Ba-Gowah ($5 entry to see native ruins), the Pickle Barrel Trading Post, and a quirky downtown with fun thrift stores. Head back and make a right to check out Roosevelt Lake for swimming, hiking, fishing, boating, and anything else you could want refreshing water play for. This area is a gem where everything is within 30 minutes of driving.

 

5. Patagonia

Things to do: biking, fishing, swimming, and wildlife viewing
Price estimate, family of four: $200

8 affordable & fun family road trip destinations in Arizona

Photo by Alan Schimierer courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/CC0.

This trip is for true outdoor lovers as it offers the chance to completely escape into nature. Patagonia Lake State Park offers trails, wildlife viewing, swimming, fishing, and close proximity (about 30 minutes) to the border if you wish to do some shopping in Mexico! Campsites start at $25 for up to 2 tents and lakefront cabins start at $119.

If you work up an appetite, there are plenty of local restaurants; stop at Ovens of Patagonia for amazing baked goods, and check out the Wagon Wheel Saloon for simple American fare.

Be sure to bring your binoculars on this trip as Patagonia is home to a bird sanctuary and makes for a fun identification challenge. Like Benson, you will also be close to Sierra Vista, Sonoita (wineries for those days), and Bisbee, if you need a little more civilization added to your trip.

 

6. Navajo Nation at Window Rock

Things to do: Museums, zoo, marketplace, fairs, and food
Price estimate, family of four: $500

8 affordable & fun family road trip destinations in Arizona

Photo by Ben FrantzDale courtesy of CC BY-SA 3.0.

With several campgrounds in the area and culture to explore, visiting the Navajo Nation at Window Rock is a must. Full of natural beauty, this trip promises so much more than that.

Navajo Nation is the only portion of the USA where the number one spoken language is the original native language of the area. It’s also home to a rich history that every Arizonan should explore to appreciate the land we live on that much more.

While soaking in the lessons of the area, there are plenty of attractions, as well. There is the Navajo Nation Zoo and Botanical Park, where you can see Southwestern Flora and Fauna. Ch’ihootso Marketplace & Flea Market promises yummy food and plenty of chatting with locals. The Navajo Nation Museum and Library examines the history of the area.

Visiting between July 4-October means prime time for the Fair Season, where you can witness parades and celebrations that are one of a kind. If you get hungry, keep your eyes open for side-of-the-road vendors to try authentic Navajo food (and maybe drown in fry bread, yummm). Prices vary for each leg of this vacation, but you can expect the cost to be lower than in the bigger cities.

 

7. Canyon Lake

Things to do: Steamboat cruise, waterside camping, and Goldfield Ghost Town
Price estimate, family of four: $600

8 affordable & fun family road trip destinations in Arizona

Photo by Smiles1479 courtesy of CC BY-SA 3.0.

One of the priciest on the list, this trip will leave you feeling classy and happy. The Canyon Lake Marina Campground is the perfect stay and costs around $130 for 2 nights (the minimum). This may sound somewhat steep, but each site holds up to 3 tents and is waterfront. Yes, camping with water less than 100 feet away as the wake-up view — what a dream! This is fun in and of itself.

Bring the marshmallows and camp stove and plan an outdoor meal to make the most of the stunning surroundings. Be sure to book a cruise on the Dolly Steamboat during your stay to explore the lake in all of its glory. The Scenic Nature Cruise runs for around $30/person and the Twilight Dinner Cruise runs for roughly $80/person and includes a meal. Both options include wildlife viewing (bighorn sheep, javelina, birds, etc.) so bring the binoculars!

During the day, if you’re not busy swimming and playing lakeside, drive about 25 minutes to the Goldfield Ghost Town to explore museums, pan for gold, go on a mine tour, eat yummy treats (love the lemonade!), and if you go during the fall, you can even see live shoot-out reenactments!

 

8. Williams

Things to do: Stay in a covered wagon, Bearizona, Lowell Observatory, Canyon Coaster Adventure Park, Grand Canyon, and Flagstaff
Price estimate, family of four: $800

If you feel like splurging, for around $500, the Circle Pines KOA Holiday offers three-night minimum stays in covered wagons. If this is a little steep, there are also campsites and cabins at much lower prices. This campground has a pool, hot tub, mini golf, and many other fun activities on-site that allow you to relax as the kiddos burn off that crazy road trip energy.

For activity outside of the campground, check out Bearizona, a wildlife park where tickets start at $20/ kid and $30/adult; the Lowell Observatory to get a state-of-the-art view of the night sky for $17/child and $29/adult; and Canyon Coaster Adventure Park where you can ride the one-of-a-kind canyon coaster for $10/child and $20/adult.

If these attractions aren’t of interest, please note that this campground is less than 60 miles from the Grand Canyon, offering you the chance to finally see one of the wonders of the world. If you’re Arizona-born and raised, it’s time to go to the Grand Canyon — time to change the running joke that not seeing the Grand Canyon is proof that you’re a local. Williams is also near Flagstaff for lake play, shopping, and thrifting. Food options are abundant here and if you like pizza, be sure to go to the Pizza Factory.

 

Closing thoughts

These trips are just a few ideas to get you primed for exploring different portions of this amazing state that we call home. Even with a monthly getaway, the to-see list in Arizona is pretty much never-ending; from hikes to retreats to water formations to innovative businesses, there is something exciting for everyone. For a small state, Arizona sure has big adventures awaiting!

If you are new to traveling with the family, here are some pro tips:

  • KOA memberships stack up if you plan to visit KOAs 5+ times yearly.
  • A National Parks Pass makes exploration affordable and pays for itself if you visit three national parks in a year (there are 22 in Arizona!).
  • If you have access, watching an episode or two of “Naked and Afraid” or “Alone” seems to get kids hyped to travel and “survive.”
  • Pack a camping box ahead of time and never be let down. Be sure to include: a blow-up bed, sleeping bags, a camp stove, lanterns, an ice chest, a flashlight, a deck of cards, marshmallow roasting sticks, binoculars, an extra blanket, a few dishes (silverware and plates), binoculars, and some drawing pads. We also never go anywhere without a 5-gallon jug of water in the back because, well, hydration. If possible, we bring the mini telescope with us, too, to enjoy the rural skies.
  • The most engaging car games are on-the-spot kid-made, but here are some tested ones you can try: “Car Rainbow,” where you work together to find cars of every color of the rainbow (purple and orange may have you stumped for a while); “States License Plates,” where you count how many states you can see in an hour; “ABC’s of Signs,” where you find every letter of the alphabet, in order; “I Spy,” where you take turns guessing what the other is seeing; and “Favorites,” where each member asks “What is your favorite ___” and everyone takes a turn answering. Having a few engaging games for all to play helps quiet down some of the moans and groans of “How much longer?!”

This article first appeared on Good Info News Wire and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.8 affordable and fun family road trip destinations in Arizona8 affordable and fun family road trip destinations in Arizona

 

READ MORE: From hieroglyphics to hot dogs: 12 Arizona trails for every wanderer

Author

  • Trinity Murchie

    Teacher, writer, and traveler, Trinity lives in a small town and enjoys gardening, cooking, and exploring all things bizarre. Catch her at local ruins exploring haunted histories, in quaint towns with creatives, or at the farmers markets hunting for unique ingredients. Wherever you catch her, be sure to say hi; she’ll want to hear your story, too.

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