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Tucson is a Desert Paradise for Families

Tucson is a Desert Paradise for Families

We partnered with Visit Tucson, Loews Hotels and Chevrolet for this visit, and the opinions expressed here are our own as always.

There’s just something special about Tucson that draws people from all over the world. Maybe it’s the spikey saguaro cactus that sticks up from the desert floor, or the purple and red mountains that surround this high desert hamlet. Or maybe it’s the darn good food? Whatever floats your boat, there are tons of things for families to do in Tucson. It really is a desert paradise.

Our recent visit here was guised as a college tour for Sophia, who is now a high school junior. At this age, juniors have to start thinking about where they might like to apply for college. Most don’t have a good concept of what they are getting into, thus the college tours. Parents like us go to great lengths to show our kids a variety of options so they can better envision themselves on a campus somewhere. We love Arizona, so we loaded up the spacious hatch of a sweet new 2019 Chevrolet Traverse and headed for Tucson.

2019 Chevrolet Traverse hatch open with luggage

The 2019 Chevy Traverse fit all of our bags and still had three rows of seats for spreading out.

Of course while there, we explored some super cool spots to share with you for your next visit.

Things for Families To Do in Tucson

Not sure why, but some people’s impression of Arizona is a bunch of retirees. Well yes, there might be some of those mixed in with the young families, hipsters, scholars, artists, adventurists, makers and scientists. In Tucson, you get all that and more. A pool of blue in a red state, Tucson is liberal, progressive and undeniably chill. It’s a live-and-let-live kind of place, where LGBTQ families like ours are welcomed with a hug.

Ventana Canyon mountain landscape

The mountains behind Loews Resort Ventana Canyon are breathtaking, especially in the bright clear mornings.

Full of history and Western lore, the city of Tucson has maintained it’s blended roots from Native American, Mexican and Spanish influences. People from all over have been attracted to this place, and now that diversity makes it really special.

If you visit here, we’ve got some recommendations on things for families to do in Tucson. And if this is not enough, check out Visit Tucson for more suggestions and ideas.

For a Taste of the Old West

Head to Downtown Tucson to catch the flavor of the Old West. In the blocks surrounding the Hotel Congress, the early roots of this town can still be seen and experienced. In fact Hotel Congress looks a lot like it did back in 1918 when it was built. The Hotel is famous as the site where legendary gangster John Dillinger was finally captured, after hiding out at the Congress from the long arm of the law. (He’s now celebrated there with his own Dillinger Days events every January). Now the Hotel is full of old-time memorabilia, hip guests with a downtown vibe, some pretty great live music, and a really great cafe (see below for more on the restaurant).

Cup Cafe interior Hotel Congress Tucson

The Cup Cafe at Hotel Congress in Tucson serves up a mean French Dip Sandwich with a southwest flair.

Fun Fact: The Hotel Congress did not have air conditioning until 2010. Say what?!? Summer temps in Tucson rise to 100-degrees+.

For the Desert Flora and Fauna

If you love the desert landscape and its scrappy critters as much as we do, you will love the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. Just so you know, “museum” is not really the right word for this place. It’s like a zoo and botanical gardens and aquarium and bird show and art gallery and nature hike all in one. Phew! There is a lot to see here, so don’t plan on doing it in 90 minutes.

burrowing owl at Desert Museum Tucson

This little dude gave us the evil eye when we arrived at the Desert Museum in Tucson, and the burrowing owl did too.

From the moment we walked in, were were greeted by a man with a Burrowing Owl on his arm. From there, it was a cavalcade of desert animals including vultures, coyotes, javelinas (wild boars), prairie dogs, rattlesnakes, tarantulas and more.  Heed the advice of the kind guides when they suggest you make your way into the gardens for the Raptor Show. As these impressive hawks and owls fly overhead, it’s fascinating to observe their delicate wingspans and learn more about their desert homesteads.

napping coyote at Arizona-Sonoma Desert Museum Tucson

We’ve seen a few coyotes in our neighborhood at home, but never as relaxed as this dude at the Desert Museum in Tucson.

Fun Fact: Great Horned Owls do not build their own nests. They lay their eggs in the abandoned nests of other birds. Squatters!

For Homage to Early Missionaries

If my Catholic mom were still alive, she would be proud we visited the Mission San Xavier del Bac while in Tucson. The thing is, we’re suckers for mission architecture and this one is pretty spectacular. Built in 1783, the Mission is considered by experts as the best example of Spanish Colonial architecture in the US.

Mission San Xavier del Bac Tucson

I promise the sky above the Mission San Xavier del Bac in Tucson was even more beautiful than this photo shows.

From the exterior, it looks unfinished – like the builders never got to the second bell tower. But from the inside, the frescoes and tile work are truly impressive. Combined with the flickering votive candles and the voluminous ceilings, the effect made me feel like I was in Europe. For those feeling perky, there is a nearby path that climbs to a cross on the hilltop. We did not make that pilgrimage though, opting instead for some warm and delicious Indian Fry Bread purchased from locals in the courtyard.

Fun Fact: This Mission was built in New Spain, which transferred to Mexico and ultimately became US territory.

For Your Empty Stomach

Tucson has a broad range of culinary options to match any taste. In fact, the city was recently named the first UNESCO City of Gastronomy in the U.S. Here’s a few of our favorites:

Tucson, and Arizona in general, is known for some pretty great Mexican food. And so we did have to try it out, and headed to dinner at El Charro Cafe. Touted as the oldest family-owned Mexican restaurant in the US, El Charro lived up to the hype. The carne seca was delicious, and so were the enchiladas, tacos, chile relleños and more.

family dinner at El Charro Cafe Tucson

It’s nice to have family in Tucson that takes us to great places like El Charro for delicious Mexican food.

If a modern take on diner food is more your game, then Welcome Diner is the place. The kids loved the kitschy 1950s architecture, which the owners had updated and funkified from a previous Sambo’s Restaurant location. And the food! Oh that food  – it was a collection really inventive and delicious version of diner food. We viewed fried chicken, chicken fried steak, mashed potatoes, and several kinds of pie.

exterior of Welcome Diner in Tucson

The architecture of the Welcome Diner in Tucson is so kitschy and fun, and so is the food – so delicious.

Back at the Hotel Congress, the lobby restaurant Cup Cafe is something of a local legend. With some staff members on the team here for more than 50 years, Cup Cafe and the hotel bar have stood the test of time. The food here is dependable and tasty. My French Dip sandwich had an interesting southwest flavor twist, and the kids loved their breakfast-for-lunch omelettes. But here, save room for dessert because they are famous for it. An old-fashioned spiraling display case shows guests a variety of sweet treats. We chose to try the coconut cream pie and the carrot cake with cream cheese frosting.

Carrot Cake at Cup Cafe in Hotel Congress Tucson

The carrot cake at Cup Cafe is just one of the desserts that called our names at the Hotel Congress in Tucson.

For Your Sleepy Heads

It was a real pleasure to stay at the luxurious Loews Ventana Canyon Resort, and we highly recommend it. The rooms are large, and some are connected to a full suite with living room, dining room and even a working fireplace! It was just the right amount of cozy and chic at the same time. We slept on the Murphy bed in the living room suite, letting the girls each have one of the queen beds in the bedroom. Both Ava and Sophia said they were the comfiest hotel beds they had ever experienced.

Front entrance Loews Ventana Canyon Resort Tucson

The architecture of the Loews Ventana Canyon Resort was designed by one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s students.

One of our favorite things about this hotel’s public spaces was all the enormous amethyst crystals and geodes on display. And by enormous, we mean museum-quality sizes. We were told the hotel was designed by one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s students. That influence was strong in the unique architecture of these buildings inside and out.

Loews Ventana Canyon Resort Tucson Arizona

The lobby of the Loews Ventana Canyon Resort in Tucson.

Tucked up against the Catalina Mountains at the entrance to Ventana Canyon, the Loews Resort in Tucson has some gorgeous views of the high desert. From the hotel’s entrance, guests can look down towards the lights of downtown Tucson. We loved the grounds surrounding the hotel, and walked the paths to have an up-close look at the local flora and fauna.

So beautiful.

pool view Loews Ventana Canyon Resort

The view from our room at the Loews Ventana Canyon Resort was pretty spectacular.


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9 Tips for Planning College Tours for Your High School Kid

9 Tips for Planning College Tours for Your High School Kid

It’s really hard to believe that Sophia is a Junior in high school already. It was just the other day we were pushing her around in the stroller while she gummed a handful of Goldfish Crackers. Now as a high school Junior, she has to start thinking about college. But where to go? Many parents have to help their kid visualize potential college options by actually going to visit them. We’re starting this now, and wow is it fraught with questions and landmines. Turns out planning college tours for your high school kid is no walk in the park!

This past week, we loaded up a sleek 2019 Chevrolet Traverse (#brandpartner) on loan for our family to test drive, and headed to Arizona. First up on the college tour schedule were Arizona State University in Tempe, and University of Arizona in Tucson.

Chevrolet Traverse with desert background in Tempe Arizona

With the Arizona desert landscape of Tempe in the background, the Chevy Traverse showed up nicely. #brandpartner

9 Tips for Planning College Tours for Your High School Kid

As we prepped for beginning this process, we learned some things about planning college tours for your high school kid worth sharing. Already we’ve made a couple of mistakes, so let us help you avoid some of our pitfalls and learn from our experiences. I imagine this will be an ongoing series, because we still have a lot to go!

9 Tips For Planning College Tours
  1. Talk with you kid about what they want to study. I know this seems obvious, but when we started planning this process Sophia did not have an answer to this question. Without knowing what she wanted to study, we were flying in the dark on choosing college campuses to visit.
  2. Know your budget in advance. One of our mistakes was planning to visit schools before we had checked on tuition and other costs. Well THAT was a shocker. We live in California, and out-of-state tuition and associated costs like housing, books, etc comes to $44,000/year for ASU and $48,000 for UofA. Not to get into anyone’s personal finances, but that might be a lot for some people to shoulder for 4-5 years. PER KID.
  3. Buy this book: Fiske Guide to Colleges. It lists every college in the US, complete with important stats like tuition costs, GPA/SAT requirements, strong areas of study, acceptance rates, financial aid and more. We’ve been pouring through this book, looking for potential college fits for Sophia using a list of criteria combining her desires and ours. It has been immensely helpful in narrowing down on great options.
    Fiske Guide to Colleges book cover

    This book, Fiske Guide to Colleges, is the bible for kids (and parents!) researching which colleges best suit their needs.

  4. Consider hiring a college coach. This may seem like a luxury for some, but we have found it to be money extremely well spent. You know that thing your teen does, where she looks at you like you are an idiot and know absolutely nothing about anything? Yeah, well they don’t pull that with a neutral third party. The college coach has gotten more information out of Sophia than we have. Plus she’s helping Sophia prepare for writing entrance applications, essays and more.
  5. Plan your college visits to include an actual school day. It may be hard to drag your kid out of school to miss a day for touring, but it will be good to see the campus with actual students and activity. On our recent tours, school was out on vacation and the colleges were deserted. It was a chilly way to see what is normally a bustling campus. Part of the reason for touring is to see the other students, and have your kid determine if they like what they see. Can they be friends with these people? Are these people they could be dorm roommates with?
  6. Make appointments for your college visits far in advance – the dates book up quickly. Most college websites have a built-in scheduling function so you can request your chosen day and time. The tours are very full, and no walk-ups are allowed.
  7. Encourage visits to large and small campuses, colleges and universities, public and private, small town and big city. This will help you kid start to envision themselves in this place, living here for most of the year. Do they like the energy and bright lights of the big city? Or maybe they prefer a quieter, less active country location.
    University of Arizona sweatshirts

    Waiting at the UofA bookstore for our tour of the campus, it was hard not to purchase a signature sweatshirt.

  8. Don’t stress if they hate it. This touring business is as much about helping your kid determine what she doesn’t like as what she does. Just like you, they are not going to like or feel comfortable in every location. Some will naturally drop off the list after touring.
  9. Have your kid keep a notebook for writing down pros and cons of each college you visit. Good advice given to us by our coach was for Sophia to ask herself the same four or five questions after each campus tour.
Tucson mountain landscape

The landscapes in Arizona are breathtaking, like this one in Tucson.

Arizona College Overview

Arizona State University

ASU is located in a sweet little town called Tempe, a suburb of Phoenix. Located right next to downtown Phoenix, Tempe is a mix of hotels, retail, residences and the Arizona State University campus. Our tour started at the Welcome Center, and was extremely well organized and planned. Starting in an auditorium with a slide show and video, our host guided us through a great amount of information. She was warm and personable, and Sophia felt instantly at ease.

family entering Arizona State University Welcome Center

The ASU Welcome Center was, well, extremely welcoming! Great way to start a campus tour.

After that 30-minute orientation, we were split into groups by major or interest, and off we went to tour the campus. Because it was holiday break, we did not see lecture halls or dorm rooms. However, we did tour the sports center and student union buildings – both were very impressive. Sophia’s eyes were wide open, taking it all in.

University of Arizona

A more informal tour, this one started at the bookstore on the Tucson campus. We were split into random groups and assigned to a guide for our walking tour. Since there was no orientation, the guide became the source of information about all things University of Arizona in Tucson. Our guide was knowledgeable and funny, but not overwhelmingly personable. We toured the student union, sports center and even a dorm building.

Old Main building at University of Arizona

The Old Main building at UofA was the original university structure, and now houses administration offices.

Sophia was not feeling this one, and I think maybe seeing a dorm room was the clincher. She will get used to it, but at first glance these rooms are S-M-A-L-L. She did not like the idea of having the shared bathroom down the hall either. We will be encouraging her to shake off the princess attitude, but this first tour was not the time to address that.

After a very brief comparison of pros and cons, Sophia decided that she did not want to pursue either of these colleges in Arizona. We’ll see if that view changes after touring more!

red 2019 Chevrolet Traverse in driveway

This sweet red 2019 Chevy Traverse was our loaner car for our Arizona college tours, and it was the perfect fit for our family. #brandpartner