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.
North Pole Experience shovels in family fun with an interactive trip to Santa’s toy-building workshop. Personalized golden tickets, written by Santa, arrive in the mail ahead of time to beseech young ones to visit the wintery world of elves. Ticket holders drive up the 8,500-foot White Mountains the day of their North Pole Experience, where they can board the Candy Cane Express for a quick transport to the North Pole. Once inside Santa’s inner sanctum, children learn trade secrets and build toys under the tutelage of crafty elfin foremanship. The intricate décor and extensive woodwork animates countless pop-up books and movies, allowing kids to live out their fantasies of the snowy holiday without the burden of submitting blueprints to the city council for a building permit.
Situated amid the ponderosa hills and Sonoran scrub valleys of Tonto National Forest, Cherry Creek Lodge tucks visitors into upscale accommodations that mirror the rustic environment. Although richly appointed guestrooms and gourmet meals may entice some to remain indoors, the postcard-worthy surroundings pull most sojourners into Pleasant Valley, which plays host to hunts for the 11 different game species—including elk, quail, and mule deer—that populate the region, as well as activities such as sporting clays, cattle drives, and fishing Lake Sharon’s largemouth bass.
Although today's lodge inhabitants can be found regaling one another with fishing stories or roasting pinecones over the hearth, the Pleasant Valley scene wasn’t always so tranquil. In the late 1800s, the valley provided the setting for an infamous dispute between the Graham and Tewksbury families that became known as the Pleasant Valley War. The conflict garnered national media attention at the time and generated numerous unresolved theories concerning its causes.
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.
The highly trained guides at Canyon Rio Rafting spearhead half-, full-, and multi-day expeditions down the Salt River, Rio Chama, and San Juan River. Certified in first aid and versed in advanced wilderness medical and rescue training, they ensure that trips run as smoothly over Class II–IV rapids as a mustache over the foam of a cappuccino. Following romps on oar rafts, paddle rafts, and inflatable kayaks, guides nourish excursionists with gourmet meals.
Alternatively, Canyon Rio Rafting's certified instructors help foster future whitewater navigation by staging courses for guides, rescue technicians, and kayakers.