Heading to Arizona this spring? Our family has been making the trip for decades, drawn by grandparents, their heated pool and a spectacular golf course adjacency.
When my in-laws retired in the late 1980s, they eschewed popular Scottsdale, east of Phoenix, known for its tony shopping, luxury hotels and swank spas. Instead, they moved to the slower-paced West Valley. Back then, you could drive around their tiny town, Litchfield Park, or nearby Goodyear and Glendale and see acres planted with cotton or rosebushes, punctuated by horse stables and cattle barns.
In the years since, the area has boomed. Housing developments and strip malls have replaced farmland and empty desert. An expanded NASCAR track, the Gila River Arena and 2008’s Super Bowl, when the New York Giants beat the New England Patriots at the University of Phoenix Stadium, drew people and attention to the area.
Despite the growth, the West Valley has maintained its relaxed, family-friendly vibe. Here are five things my family likes to do when we visit.
Take in the desert by horseback
Estrella Mountain Regional Park, Goodyear
Corral West Adventures operates a riding stable in this park mid-October through late April, sending would-be cowboys out on trails through the desert hills.
Our guide looked the part, wearing a riding jacket, cowboy hat and boots. Before we mounted, he told us about the quirks of a couple of the horses we would ride, noting they needed firm handling. Blimpy was a biter known for nipping the rear of the horse in front of him. And Cowboy was an eater, stopping on the trail to nibble any leaves he could find.
My middle son volunteered to ride Blimpy, with my older son in front promising to keep his horse, Wizard, out of nipping range. My daughter, the youngest, was confident she could handle Cowboy.
We were just a little way down the rocky, sandy trail when the co-owner of the operation, Andy Williams, trotted up to join our group, simply because he felt like riding. As we clopped along peacefully, he pointed out mesquite trees and creosote bushes, as well as low-slung cholla and tall saguaro cactuses – the ones with “arms” and spring blossoms that are the state flower.
When Cowboy inevitably stopped mid-trail to lunge at a tasty tree, Williams told us it was a Palo Verde, which translates as “green stick.” In a drought, the green trunk and branches can carry on with photosynthesis even when its tiny leaves drop.
The horses trotted down hills and trudged up them as we wended our way deeply into the park. Ours was a sunset ride, which has been spectacular when we’ve done it before. This time, cloud cover meant the sky gently turned from gray to a purplish hue – still pretty. By the end of the 90-minute ride, our legs were a little wobbly, but we all found it easy and relaxing overall. Wagon rides are available for those who want the experience without actually riding.
More information: maricopacountyparks.net/park-locator/estrella-mountain-regional-park; for the stable, phoenixhorserides.com
Visit the Wigwam
This lush resort has its roots as a retreat for executives from the Goodyear company. During World War I, the tire-maker used cotton to fortify its rubber. The long-strand, Egyptian variety they needed grew perfectly in Arizona’s hot climate and sandy soil, and the company purchased 16,000 acres to grow it. What started as a guesthouse for suppliers morphed into the execs’ retreat center and finally, in 1929, a resort for the public.
Its groupings of Southwest-style villas are clustered on impeccably manicured grounds, with palm and orange trees lining the perimeter and flower gardens and fountains creating peaceful resting spots along pathways connecting villas, pools and the main building.
If you’re thinking of staying there, know that there’s a reduced rate for Arizona residents; our family has booked us rooms on previous visits to take advantage of these rates.
Even if you don’t plan on lodging there, walk the grounds and take in the sumptuous lobby, where Navajo rugs line the floors and Native American artwork decorates the walls. We checked out paintings of Hopi Kachina dolls, which represent spirits and are given as ceremonial gifts to children. Then we sat in front of a blazing fire on deep leather couches, admiring the heavy wooden tables and benches and impressive iron light fixtures.
We meandered down a hallway through the Wigwam bar (open to the public, serving excellent coffee in the morning and cocktails in the evening) before going for a swim and hot tub at the main pool. Sadly for us, the outdoor cafeteria was closed during our visit. Otherwise we would have ordered the seasoned fries and smoothies the kids adore.
Instead, we went to eat at the Old Pueblo Cafe across the street from the resort, in Litchfield Park’s two-block “downtown.” It serves hearty Mexican dishes, freshly made warm chips and a red salsa we’ve been known to order by the quart and pack home in our bags.
More information: wigwamarizona.com
Hike to see ancient petroglyphs
White Tank Mountain Regional Park, Waddell
Waterfall Trail in this Maricopa County park gets its name from the water that flows, only during rainy periods, from the mountains to a little pool at the end of the path. Though it rained the morning of our hike, a park ranger told us we’d missed seeing the water gush down by a few hours.
But petroglyphs that you can spot on rocks as you hike are perhaps the bigger draw – no pun intended – to this well-traveled trail. (There’s even a wide, flat viewing area called Petroglyph Plaza.) Archaeologists believe prehistoric American Indians of the Hohokam culture created most of them. These farmers built sophisticated irrigation canals to grow crops that included beans, maize, cotton and tobacco. They were also artisans who made coil pottery and decorated shells. And they left behind art on rocks that isn’t completely understood today.
Some who study the petroglyphs think that shamans controlled their creation. Others think the signs are about mundane topics such as weather or directions. But no one has yet fully cracked the code of what they mean.
As you check them out, don’t forget to also take in the scenic views. And if you want more than the two-mile round-trip walk along Waterfall, there are plenty of other well-marked trails in the park.
More information: maricopacountyparks.net/park-locator/white-tank-mountain-regional-park
Watch for planes
Glendale Municipal Airport
Tiny Glendale airport has become a favorite family stop over the years. It’s where my young children thrilled to see small planes wobble and bob their way up, up and away – or back down to the ground. Now grown, we all still get a kick out of it. Plus, we watch the small-engine drama while eating lunch at a low-cost diner tucked inside the nondescript airport building. The Something Special Aviation Cafe is a no-frills spot, open for breakfast and lunch only and serving mainly regulars and the pilots and their passengers who arrive and depart from the tarmac out back. It has big picture windows and a little patio to make your viewing easier. The food, sent out of a kitchen that doubles as a catering operation in the evenings, is fresh and satisfying – especially the dishes with Southwestern flair.
For more ambitious plane watching, be on the lookout for F-35 fighter jets taking off and landing from Luke Air Force Base (www.luke.af.mil). F-35s create a roar familiar to locals as the jets head out over the desert on training missions.
More information: ssacafe.com
Hand-feed a giraffe
Yes, at the Wildlife World Zoo, Aquarium and Safari Park, visitors can climb aboard a 12-foot-tall platform, put two quarters in a pellet-dispensing machine and feed the treat to giraffes that amble over and use their black, slobbery tongues to lick up every bit.
It’s simultaneously disgusting and adorable.
You’ll learn from signs that giraffes have black tongues so that they don’t get them sunburned as they spend their days grazing on treetops.
The zoo and aquarium offer plenty of other interactive activities for kids. At the Kangaroo Walkabout, you step into an enclosure with kangaroos that sometimes hop along next to you – or nap indifferently. At the aquarium you can reach into pools to touch stingrays and other sea creatures. There’s a train beloved by small children, a zip line that pleases older ones, a white rhinoceros, white crocodile and white tigers. Plan on spending at least half a day.
More information: wildlifeworld.com