A little bit of adventure goes a long way toward a successful family vacation. By sharing an out-of-the-ordinary experience and tackling the challenges together, kids and adults build bonds. The pocket of the Southwestern United States that includes Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah is especially well-stocked in outdoorsy things to do together, including rafting, hot air ballooning, sandboarding, stargazing, and more. Take a chance on one of these vacation ideas—afterward, the conversations at dinner will only get better and better.
Jeep Tours, Arizona
Hold onto the grab handles—these tricked-out Jeep Wranglers buck and leap through Sedona’s legendary red rock landscape. On this real-life, off-road thrill ride through the Coconino National Forest’s Broken Arrow Trail, you’ll slide back as your vehicle crawls up boulders and then pitch forward when it descends steep slopes. Expect to scream happily as the driver bounces down staircases of rocks and tilts sideways to maneuver down stone slabs.
On breaks during the two-hour tour, you’ll catch your breath by posing for photos against the scenic background of Sedona’s signature red spires and buttes. The path is open to hikers and individual, off-road vehicle drivers, but Pink Jeep Adventure Tours has the exclusive right to operate tours on Broken Arrow. The company also operates other Sedona area Jeep tours.
Hot Air Ballooning, New Mexico
Picture it: The landscape around Albuquerque, a swath of greenery cut through by the Rio Grande, unfolding below your feet. New Mexico’s biggest city claims to be the hot air balloon capital of the world, and few would argue because of the phenomenon known as the Albuquerque Box. Here, air currents pour off the mountains and combine with breezes coming off the river to create a predictable pattern that allows pilots to lift off, drift, and return near the same spot they took flight. The best times to glide are at sunrise from April to October. Although it’s no easy task to wake up cranky kids before dawn, they will eventually thank you after floating like angels above the landscape.
Children should be tall enough to see over the basket’s rim and brave enough to try—a wicker bucket hanging in the sky is no place to hold a squirming kid. Rainbow Ryders is one of the city’s many hot air balloon companies, but there are plenty of respectable outfits in town. Tickets to the renowned Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta in October go on sale in April.
The Wave, Arizona-Utah Border
In a region known for stunning rock formations, The Wave, on the border of Arizona and Utah, rates among the most spectacular. Created by wind and water erosion, the Wave’s red, pink, and brown sandstone bands swirl through a U-shaped chute and rise on the adjacent buttes like crashing surf. Being inside it is like standing in a waterless sea that ripples in the sunlight. The relative lack of visitors to this remote site adds to the enchantment.
The mild months of April, May, September, and October are among the best times to undertake the hike to the Wave. As part of the Coyote Buttes North region of the 112,500-acre Paria Canyon-Vermillion Cliffs Wilderness, it requires a six-mile round-trip walk over rocks and sand with no discernible trail and few signs. You’ll navigate by map, compass, or GPS.
You’ll also need preparation. The Bureau of Land Management issues only 64 daily permits—48 via online lottery four months ahead (eight people max in a group), plus 16 more to walk-ins to the Kanab BLM center one day in advance. (New guidelines are under review, so double-check the latest rules.)
If your family craves the scenery without worrying about getting lost, hire an approved guide. Some companies even provide transportation from gateway cities Page, Arizona, and Kanab, Utah, each about 46 miles from the Wave’s entrance.
Sandboard down 10,000-year-old dunes at Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park, which can be done on the same vacation as Zion National Park. Coral Pink, a 3,730-acre park between Kanab and Mt. Carmel Junction, has some 1,200 acres of dunes to lure sandboarders, hikers, and ATV drivers. Sliding across Star Dune, with pink sand swirling around you like fairy dust, is a great way to share an adrenaline thrill with your grade-schoolers and teens. Getting back to the top of Star, which is some 120 feet high, is a workout for your glutes.
The park rents sandboards, which are lighter than snowboards, and also sit-down sleds if you want to temper the rush. April and May are prime times for gliding down the dunes because of mild air and sand temperatures.
Rafting the Salt River, Arizona
Bond with your preteens and teens by tackling Class III-IV rapids on a raft trip through the Upper Salt River Canyon. The lesser-known gem, affectionately called Arizona’s “other canyon,” winds through a scenic wilderness area. You’ll paddle past 2,000-foot canyon walls, hillsides dotted with saguaro cacti, a nesting site favored by bald eagles, and more rapids per mile than any other Arizona river. Trips start in early March—mid-March for high water—making the river a good choice for an early spring adventure. The season typically ends in late April, depending on the water level.
Mild to Wild Rafting & Jeep Tours offers day-long, half-day, and shorter outings. The high water minimum age is 12 years old but 8 years old for low water days. The put-in point for trips is Whiteriver, Arizona, about a 2.5-hour drive from Phoenix and about 3 hours from Tucson.
The night sky sparkles at Dead Horse Point State Park, which is designated as an International Dark Sky Park. Here, there’s limited skyglow to block the dazzle—the closest city, Moab, is 32 miles away. At an altitude of 5,900 feet, the park gifts you with a vast expanse of space to observe. Rangers show you star clusters, galaxies, and nebulae through telescopes at star parties, held March through October. Make the wonder last longer for you and your kids by gazing up from the deck of your private yurt (pictured above)—or from your campsite.
By night, you’ll see the Milky Way as the ancients did—as a brilliant blaze of light—but don’t miss the park’s signature daylight view, Dead Horse Point Overlook. The iconic western panorama takes in the Colorado River snaking back upon itself 2,000 feet below, plus a 180-degree sweep of red rock mesas and canyons. Nearby, you’ll find Canyonlands, another Dark Sky Park.
Historic Cliff Dwellings, New Mexico
Discover centuries-old cliff dwellings by hiking New Mexico’s spectacular high mountain desert. The drive to Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument, one of the U.S.’s most remote national monuments, takes you past canyons, rivers, and mesas of the surrounding 3.3-million acre Gila National Forest.
Of the region’s many ancient inhabitants, only the Mogollon (pronounced “MUG-e-own”) built stone shelters with walls that divided the caves into chambers for gathering, ceremonies, and storage. A 1-mile loop trail, part uphill and rocky but doable, leads to (and from) the massive cliffs that harbor five dwellings. The Mogollon inhabited these from around 1280 to the early 1300s. No one knows why they left. The lack of crowds makes it easy to listen to the canyon winds and to imagine long-ago families gathered by the fire, and picture their children peering out at the dazzling starry sky.
Avoid the rainstorms of July to September and the chill of winter by visiting in spring or fall. Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument is 44 miles north of Silver City.
Off-Roading in a Scenic Canyon, New Mexico
Go off-roading in a stunning New Mexican landscape with towering rock formations you might have seen in 2003’s The Missing and other western thrillers. On a Santa Fe Mountain Adventures outing, you ride in a Swiss Army Vehicle through the Diablo Canyon Recreation Area, a classic setting of arroyos (dry riverbeds) laced by piñon pines and juniper bushes, to dramatic vertical cliffs. Along the way, listen to tales of the traders who once used the route to get goods from Mesoamerica to the Rocky Mountains. At the canyon’s mouth, you’ll hop out to scramble over boulders and take a short hike with your kids.
Since the iconic desert landscape unfolds a mere 20 miles from Santa Fe, the 2.5-hour tour fits families who also want time in the city or at a resort.