An Epic Southwest Family Adventure

Over my kids’ April break, our family of four from Connecticut drove 1,300 miles on an epic trek across the American Southwest. There were so many places I wanted to go but with only a week to spend, I carefully curated destinations to balance history, culture, nature, and fun.

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Day 1: Albuquerque, New Mexico

We landed late at night in Albuquerque and stayed in an airport hotel.

Day 2: Santa Fe, New Mexico

It’s only an hour to Santa Fe so we got there in time to have a wonderful lunch at Tomasita’s, tour the small but excellent Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, and explore Meow Wolf’s engaging and wacky House of Eternal Return. We stayed at Villas de Santa Fe by Diamond Resorts, which is an apartment hotel, so there was a lot of space.

Day 3: Santa Fe to Cortez, Colorado

After a hearty breakfast at the well-known Plaza Café, we strolled the plaza area and spent some time in the fascinating New Mexico History Museum. We then took a quick turn around the Canyon Road Arts District and got on the road to Colorado. After a stop for a late lunch, we arrived in Cortez in time for a swim before dinner at the fun, small Loungin’ Lizard restaurant.

Day 4: Cortez / Mesa Verde

We saw the informative movie and looked through the galleries at the Canyon of the Ancients Visitor Center before a 1:30pm tour of Mesa Verde. We were planning on eating at Mesa Verde’s restaurant but it wasn’t open for lunch in April and there were no other options at the top of the mountain. A wonderful staff member saved the day. She conjured up some sandwiches and chips, gave us waters, and told us we could eat in the restaurant, which has amazing views.

Thus fortified, we embarked on a memorable guided tour, learning about the Ancestral Pueblo people who lived here for 700 years, leaving behind thousands of archaeological sites including cliff dwellings and kivas. It was powerful to walk in their abandoned villages and imagine life a thousand years ago.

Back in Cortez, we had dinner at Farm Bistro and headed right to bed.

Day 5: Four Corners / Grand Canyon

It’s only an hour from Cortez to the Four Corners, the spot where Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah meet. The kids did cartwheels through four states and a kind soul photographed all four of us in various goofy poses. The site is surrounded by Native artisans selling high-quality jewelry, textiles, and other goods. There’s a small snack stand and bathrooms and that’s about it.

We pushed onwards for nearly three more hours until we saw a handwritten cardboard sign on a dusty road outside of Tuba City that said “Dinosaur Tracks.” None of us had ever seen dinosaur tracks outside of a museum before and it was exciting to literally walk in the footsteps of these creatures. I couldn’t believe we were able to tread right on top of them but the Navajo guide we hired in the parking lot said “They’ve been here for millions of years. They’re not going anywhere.”

We got to our hotel just outside the South Rim of the Grand Canyon in time for dinner, ready to wake up and explore one of the wonders of the world bright and early in the morning.

Day 6: Grand Canyon

Let me underscore how important it is to get to the Grand Canyon as early as possible in the morning, because crowds really start building up after breakfast so much so that in the afternoon, the main rim walkway outside the lodges was as busy as Fifth Avenue at Christmas. We spent the better part of the day on a tour that stopped at numerous lookout points with a guide who shared a lot of fascinating information. We were all humbled by the majesty of this amazing place. It’s on bucket lists for a reason: It is truly awe-inspiring and I felt so fortunate to be able to share it with my children.

Day 7: Sedona / Scottsdale

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I did not expect to see snow in Arizona. This is en route to Flagstaff, leaving the Grand Canyon. Photo by Anastasia Mills Healy

We drove through Flagstaff and on Route 89A before Sedona we passed an area around Oak Creek Canyon and Slide Rock State Park that was lined with charming little cabins, coffee shops, and cafés. After lunch in Sedona, a spin around shops, and a surprise wine tasting (I had no idea that Arizona produced wine, and quality wine at that), we pulled into our Scottsdale hotel and enjoyed some well-earned pool time.

Days 8 and 9: Scottsdale

When were able to extricate ourselves from the pool, we spent the better part of one day at the incredible Musical Instruments Museum. I don’t play an instrument so I was not thinking it would be terribly engaging, but it turned out to be the biggest surprise of the trip. Anyone who enjoys music should come here. Any type of music. The curators should get the highest awards possible for accomplishing the daunting tasks of researching, documenting, and acquiring thousands of musical instruments, clothing, and film and photos of people around the globe playing said instruments. Audio headsets know where you’re standing and interpret what you are viewing against a soundtrack of the particular instrument in action. My kids enjoyed the experience and liked ending up in an area where they could try out different instruments.

Another highlight was Cave Creek. An old school, authentic Western-at-its-core community, Cave Creek has a strip where I saw a tractor pulled up to a pump at a gas station, a place advertising a free live rodeo and buffalo show every Sunday, a store selling eight-foot metal chickens, and a man riding a horse to a saloon. We ate dinner at Harold’s and attended Easter Sunday service at the outdoor, dog-friendly, sit-at-picnic-tables Church at the Chip (the Buffalo Chip Saloon). It was a welcoming, lively, cross section-of-life gathering that we will stay with us for a long time.

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