A visitor poses in the South Window of Arches National Park. (©NPS/Jacob W. Frank)
From the sensational formations in Carlsbad Caverns and Arches National Park to the glorious beaches of Lake Powell and South Padre Island, get a taste of the Southwest at these summer vacation spots that are ideal for families. Whether recreation, relaxation or both are on the agenda, these laid-back destinations have got it covered.
Lake Powell, Arizona
The second-largest manmade lake in the United States, Lake Powell was formed to house the overflow of the Colorado River when the Glen Canyon Dam was built in 1963. The lake is so large, it took 17 years to fill; it is 186 miles long and has more than 2,000 miles of shoreline. The picture-perfect lake—framed by more than 90 canyons and buttes—is the perfect place for a houseboat vacation; at the Lake Powell Resorts & Marinas, houseboats varying in size from 46 to 75 feet long are available.
While you could spend your entire vacation cruising the lake in comfort, water sports enthusiasts would be remiss not to take advantage of the idyllic scenery the lake affords; get up-close and personal to this beauty on a jet ski, kayak or paddle board. Another option is to rent a power boat and go water skiing, tubing or wakeboarding. Then there's the fishing, photography—the options seem practically endless.
A paradise on earth for animal lovers, a trip to Kanab most likely means a pilgrimage to Best Friends Animal Sanctuary, a haven for more than 1,600 formerly homeless and abused animals; it most famously was home to the Vicktory dogs and cat behaviorist Jackson Galaxy was married there. But beyond its celebrity connections, Best Friends' work is far-reaching, offering tender-loving care to animals who may not otherwise survive.
A trip to Best Friends can be as relaxing or as labor-intensive as you want it to be. Take a drive around Angel Canyon, or spend your days volunteering; activities include socializing cats and puppies, feeding pigs, cleaning (then cuddling) bunnies and much more. Take advantage of the on-sanctuary cabins to make the most of your time, as well as host a sleepover for the animal of your choice. Should you wish to stay within Kanab's quaint city limits, the Parry Lodge, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, has played host to the biggest names from the golden age of Hollywood, while they filmed in and around Kanab. Some rooms even have name plates indicating the star who's stayed inside; inquire about your favorites when booking.
South Padre Island, Texas
The only island in Texas, South Padre Island is known for its mild temperatures, calm waters and clean beaches. Despite its reputation as a spring break destination, these features make for a family-friendly vacation every other week of the year. Pretty much every water sport you can name is undertaken here, but the most popular are windsurfing, kitesurfing and the thrilling flyboarding, in which you shoot above the water in a contraption worthy of Iron Man.
Of course, South Padre Island also puts a premium on leisure activities: learn to build a sand castle that'll wow your friends (or yourself) with sand castle-building lessons; ride a horse on the beach or a pony in a corral at the Island Adventure Park; watch sea turtles lumber about and learn about the gentle creatures at Sea Turtle, Inc.; and verse yourself on the local flora, fauna and wildlife, as well as taking in spectacular views of the beach and sand dunes on a visit to the South Padre Island Birding and Nature Center.
After all that sunning, surfing and exploring, a great meal is at hand—and you couldn't do any better than the Beachside Bar & Grille, which serves fine seafood from the Gulf of Mexico, steaks and regional favorites nightly, as well as in a decadent weekend brunch.
Home to some of the world's most awe-inspiring red rock formations, it's no wonder that Moab is home to every type of recreation on the planet: mountain biking, road biking, off-road vehicle riding, hiking and whitewater rafting all play out against the glorious natural formations.
The natural wonderland doesn't stop there: Moab is also home to two national parks. The wondrous sandstone arches—some 2,000 of them—make up Arches National Park, which most Americans should recognize thanks to its visibility on one of Utah's license plates. The featured formation, the Delicate Arch, stands 64 feet tall and affords a great vantage point from which to look out over the park, particularly at sunset. The park offers numerous family-friendly paths for hikers of all skill levels.
Canyonlands National Park is the largest in Utah and features a 1,500-foot-wide mesa and 20 miles of paved roads with numerous pull-outs from which to see its sights. With an extensive backcountry, Canyonlands is a popular spot for camping, four-wheel driving, mountain biking and boating. Those who prefer not to rough it, however, can find a variety of lodging options from condos to luxury resorts to ranches, throughout the town.
A natural and artistic community, there seems to be no end to the fun options in Wimberley. Art enthusiasts can enjoy the work of more than 50 local artists at Art on 12, then learn about the art of fused glass and even create some themselves at the Silo Gallery & Glass Studio. Find inspiration in another type of art—the art of olive oil making—at Bella Vista Ranch, Texas' first olive oil company; the ranch has been pressing oil from its 1,200 olive trees since 2001. Orchard tours and tastings are available for those 12 and older; private tours can also be scheduled.
One of the best-loved natural swimming spots in Texas, the Blue Hole is a hidden gem in the middle of downtown Wimberley. The 126-acre park is surrounded by old-growth cypress trees that have withstood fires, floods and the developer's eye. A few short miles further lies the area's largest artesian spring. Although a vital resource for the region's wildlife, Jacob's Well is a must-visit swimming hole, open Memorial Day through Labor Day.
For a unique lodging experience, a stay at Cypress Creek Cottages is in order. These pet- and family-friendly adobes are classified by colored windows and have amenities such as private hot tubs, barbecue grills and fireplaces. A variety of packages, that celebrate romance, your pets and spa treatments, are available.
Carlsbad, New Mexico
A town full of adventure, Carlsbad is not only home to the world-famous Carlsbad Caverns, but the Guadalupe Mountains National Park and the Living Desert Zoo & Gardens State Park. All three of these parks showcase the wonders of the Chihuahuan Desert, North America's largest.
A cavern that formed 250 million years ago when sulfuric acid bubbled up and dissolved the surrounding limestone, more than 119 caves are hidden below Carlsbad Caverns. While self-guided tours are available, you'll discover a multitude of facts about the natural wonder on a ranger-led tour. Whatever daytime tour you undertake, be sure to stick around for the Bat Flight Program and witness thousands of bats flying out of the cave at sunset. July and August make for the best viewing months, as the babies born at the beginning of the summer join the migration.
When you feel the need to rejuvenate, Sitting Bull Falls features a 150-foot waterfall pouring over the canyon; the picturesque spot is perfect for picnics. Afterwards, take the whole family for a dip at the Carlsbad Water Park.
Chama Valley, New Mexico
A culturally and archeologically rich area, history is alive in Arizona's Chama Valley. The ancestral Tewa people lived here for three centuries (1250-1577), and you can learn about their traditions, visit ancient pueblos and discover some of the most panoramic views of the valley 7,000 feet above sea level (be sure to pace yourself as you make your ascent) at the Puye Cliff Dwellings.
Another great way to discover the history and scenery of the area is on a ride on the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad. The railway, which was constructed in 1880 as part of the Rio Grande's extension to Colorado, is a National Historic Landmark. One of the United States' highest railroads, it reaches an elevation of more than 10,000 feet as it makes its way through the Cumbres Pass.
In addition to bed and breakfasts, guest cabins and vacation rentals, Chama Valley is a great place to kick back in a cabin or a rustic lodge. At the Ghost Ranch, you can undertake a host of activities for the whole family, including celebrating the life and work of Georgia O'Keeffe and getting your hands dirty on a clay retreat. And anglers looking for bragging rights—or just wanting to teach the young ones their craft—will find that it's not uncommon to land a 20-inch trout at El Vado Ranch.
A town that was once a bustling copper mining camp, Jerome sits atop what was once the largest copper mine in Arizona (producing three million pounds of copper a month). Today, it is affectionately referred to as the "largest ghost town in America," although many of the historic buildings are used for present-day businesses.
One such building is the Jerome Grand Hotel, the largest National Historic Landmark building in town. Those intrigued by the paranormal can become a real live ghostbuster as part of the ghost-hunting package, or take a ride on the historic Verde Canyon Railroad.
For an additional slice of history, visit The Liberty Theatre, which functioned as a venue for vaudeville acts and silent movies until 1929. It's now home to an antique and movie memorabilia shop.
Halfway between Las Vegas and Reno, Tonopah's distance from the state's neon lights make it a prime area for stargazing—so great, in fact, that USA Today named it the best stargazing destination in America.
Tonopah's first claim to fame, however, was as a silver mining camp. Pay homage to this heritage at the Tonopah Historic Mining Park, at which you can take a voyage underground into an original discovery stope—step into the steel viewing cage for a look 500 feet straight down. Then, get out and discover the spirit of the West at the Arc Dome Wilderness Area, Nevada's largest; it's a prime spot for wildlife sightings and awe-inspiring views from the Toiyabe Crest Trail, a network of 70 miles of trails atop the ridge of the Toiyabe Mountain Range.
Sleep like the explorer you are at the Mizpah Hotel; in the wagon room, you can sleep in custom-made wagon bed.