Sprawling across 392 acres and home to thousands of unusual plant and animal species, the Boyce Thompson Arboretum is far from a standard classroom. Here, people learn through exploration rather than through textbooks; they’re able to smell the plants they study and ask native squirrels for direct quotes about soil quality. Jaunts through the park cover a range of terrain. Butting up against the northern face of Picketpost Mountain, the park encompasses canyons, hills, and trails carefully landscaped to duplicate arid environments from around the globe. The cactus garden features plants both sinuous and spiny, creating a vast collection of shapes and textures nestled into the dusty red landscape. Queen Creek Canyon provides respite from the sun, its towering trees thriving in the cool shade. Visitors pick up tips on how to enhance their own yards in the demonstration garden of drought-tolerant plants, which are relatively easy to care for except for when they demand chocolate milk. Additional education can be found in classes and lectures held at the Smith Interpretive Center.
Though the calendar maintains that it's still the 21st century, the experienced cowfolk at MD Ranch take visitors back to the Wild West with horsemanship and equestrian knowledge that's been perfected across the centuries. Joining them is a herd of well-trained horses, who itch to take riders on vigorous romps across the Sonoran Desert landscapes of San Tan Mountain Regional Park. The only outfitters in the mountains, the ranch's seasoned guides lead experienced or first-time riders along desert trails, trotting past stately cacti on all-day and sunset excursions or galloping in search of far-off coyote choruses during intense ranch rides. The herd contains a wide range of horse personalities–from horses that are safe for even the most inexperienced riders to those with enough go for seasoned cowboys. On-site trainers work with steeds and riders alike, teaching students of all ages the techniques of English and Western riding as well as basic horsemanship and equine care skills.
Charming Pony Parties elevates children’s birthday celebrations to fairy-tale status by inviting a few very special guests—ponies. Rather than making them run on horse treadmills, the staffers position ponies around a carousel or hand-lead each ride to let both children and ponies enjoy the open air. Whether the party is held at a park, at home, or on the center’s spacious ranch, the ponies dress for the occasion by donning unicorn horns, flowers, and colored hair spray, making it easy to match any princess, pirate, cowboy, or knight theme a child desires. Meanwhile, extras such as bounce castles and snow-cone machines add even more excitement to the party.
The sprawling Superstition Mountain Range has been inhabited for more than 9,000 years, but its landscape has remained the same until relatively recently. In the 19th century American settlers moved in, driven by rumors of a bountiful gold mine. The Lost Dutchman Mine spawned a range of new settlements alongside existing American Indian sites here. Though the mine's inhabitants—and the cowboy hats they wore—are long gone, their story lives on at the Superstition Mountain Museum, a 12.5-acre interactive outdoor museum and nature walk dedicated to preserving the area's history. Full-scale recreations of 19th-century buildings include a stage-coach shop, barber shop, 20-stamp gold ore crusher, and the church-turned-film museum Elvis Memorial Chapel. Each building transports visitors back in time with the help of exhibits featuring authentic artifacts and documents such as ancient rock samples that reveal local geology, or art and household items depicting American Indian life.
The dunes aren’t going to ride themselves. That’s why GoFast Rental puts off-roaders behind the wheels of buggies such as the RZR XP 4 900 EPS that seats up to four. For those trundling dirt paths, they offer similar buggies as well as quads. With dirt and sand covered, the only thing left is the wet stuff. To crest waves, they slip patrons into V-drive wakeboarding boats and jet skis.
Named as a top indoor place for kids in Arizona by AZCentral.com, BounceU in Gilbert surrounds sock-clad kids with an arena of giant, colorful inflatables. Within the supervised fun house, young ones get their cardio up by navigating air-filled obstacle courses and slipping down plush slides. On the gigantic Spider Mountain, climbers hone the skills needed to one day scale the greatest inflatable of them all, Mount Everest. The vertical climbing wall challenges children's skills, and a foam-ball shooting range and 20-foot slide provide extra enjoyment. A private party room also makes the springy stadium an ideal venue for birthday parties, field trips, and fundraisers.