South Mountain Park and Preserve
Within a mile of all sorts of fast-food restaurants in Ahwatukee, you and the kids can set off on the Telegraph Pass Trail and quickly feel like you've left civilization. This one-and-a-half-mile trail offers fantastic views of the Valley as well as gorgeous desert flora and fauna, rugged Sonoran terrain and even a few petroglyphs. And when you're done, suburbia is right around the corner, handy for refreshing post-hike hungry kids. Which means you can have a great outdoor experience in South Mountain Park in a quick couple of hours, then be back in the indoors before the heat hits.
Boyce Thompson Arboretum State Park
Boyce Thompson Arboretum is gorgeous and deeply informative any time of the year. But only in fall, as you walk the 1.5-mile path through the steep-walled Queen Creek Canyon, do you pass through hundreds of different tree species from ecosystems around the world changing colors together. It's a palette seen in few places on Earth. And surprisingly, most visitors come to the Arboretum in spring, leaving the paths fairly quiet during this spectacular show.

The 323-acre Arboretum, founded in the 1920s by mining magnate Colonel William Boyce Thompson, is the state's oldest and largest botanical garden. And beyond that, it's arguably the state's greatest place for a leisurely stroll.

This year, thanks to plentiful rains, the colors should be particularly beautiful. Arboretum officials estimate the peak color season will be from November 20 through December 5.

Thanksgiving weekend, the Arboretum will be hosting its annual fall color festival with music, storytellers, apple cider and numerous guided tours. It's a great event for families with guests in town for the holidays.

Picacho Peak State Park
Late February and early March is wildflower season in Arizona, something many locals had forgotten until the rains returned last winter, bringing the desert's incredible flowers this past spring.

One of the most spectacular shows of color, and one of the most easily accessed, is Picacho Peak State Park 60 miles south of Phoenix, which, if you didn't know, is that giant solitary mountain you nearly run into on your way to Tucson.

During peak wildflower season, drivers along I-10 have been known to stop along the freeway to gaze at the outbreak of Mexican gold poppies along the mount's eastern slope.

This isn't smart. Better to come into the state park and take one of several trails allowing you to stroll amid the yellow-orange meadows.

At which point you'll realize the poppies aren't alone. A host of other beautiful, albeit more subtle, flowers dot the historic peak throughout the spring.

The park is open from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. The trails close at sunset.

The narrow, serpentine Apache Trail cuts through deserts, around mountains, near cliff dwellings, along the shores of three lakes dammed up along the Salt River, past active copper-mining towns, and through beautifully eroded canyons. It's easy to see why this gorgeous 120-mile route has been a favorite of tourists since its completion in 1922.

President Teddy Roosevelt described the route as "one of the most spectacular, best-worth-seeing sights in the world." It's a gem no matter what time of year, although late summer can pose extra hazards from monsoon rains and washouts. The drive is doable by passenger car, but is best done in an SUV. The descent down a narrow gravel road into Fish Creek Canyon is one you'll never forget, and is guaranteed to scare the wits out of Aunt Minnie from Queens. Your guests may want to slit your throat before you reach historic Roosevelt Dam, but by the end of the day they will sing your praises for taking them on the drive of a lifetime.

To get there from Apache Junction, go north on State Route 88 toward Apache Lake. The paved road becomes a graded gravel surface after Tortilla Flat, a tourist trap with all the usual goodies but no pay phone. The less adventurous may want to turn around here. Otherwise, continue to Roosevelt Lake and take State Route 188 toward the twin copper towns of Miami and Globe. Go west on U.S. 60, and be prepared for a wild two-lane mountain road through Devil's Canyon, the Queen Creek Tunnel and on into Superior.

This wonderful day trip cuts through segments of spectacular cactus forest vistas interspersed with old copper-mining towns and steep mountain grades. The route is a favorite for motorcyclists and convertibles, with some choice camping and picnicking spots scattered along the way, and a couple of crusty watering holes in Florence, Oracle Junction, Mammoth, Kearney and Superior to help keep you stoked. The biggest challenge is keeping one eye on the road while gawking at the yellow, purple, orange and red wildflowers that cover the hillsides and desert floor. March through early May is the best time to see wildflowers, although the displays vary from season to season depending on the intensity and duration of winter rains.

To get there from Phoenix, take U.S. 60 east to Florence Junction, then head south on State Route 79 through Florence (which becomes Pinal Pioneer Parkway). Continue on to Oracle Junction, then go east on State Route 77 toward Mammoth, where the route turns northerly and follows the San Pedro River. Just north of Dudleyville, veer left on State Route 177 and continue to Superior and the intersection with U.S. 60.

This is what P.E. was meant to be: stretching, training for races, and -- get this -- having fun. Some of the kids we've seen running around at the two parks where Racelab operates aren't in the best of shape. But they're getting there, and seem to be having such a good time that they forget they're -- yuck! -- exercising.

The program is all about coaching children to enjoy running with fun activities in a safe, motivating, noncompetitive environment. The folks who run this junior race marathon know what they're doing, and all they ask in exchange is about $35 monthly for one session a week, or less than $9 a session. That's a hell of a lot less than most sports that kids are involved in these days. As for the "equipment," a pair of sneakers, a ball cap and a bottle of water about covers it.

No experience necessary; just a smile and a willingness to run around for an hour or so. On many weekends, the kids get to see how they're doing at race competitions all over the Valley. Then they get to eat pizza.

Bravo Bistro
Kids will be kids, but do they have to have lousy table manners, too? Not according to Katie Hamati and Kim Frampton, founders and teachers of this hands-on, interactive class on proper table etiquette. Table Graces teaches Johnny and Janey (and perhaps their manners-impaired parents as well) which fork to use, when it's okay to use your fingers, and why it's best not to drink from one's finger bowl. Besides the art of table manners, children will learn proper etiquette for dining out -- mastering how to order, eat, and deal with an errant napkin or that pesky row of forks beside their plate. In the real restaurant setting of Bravo Bistro, Katie and Kim role-play with kids about the best way to maneuver around that "thing" on your plate; who takes the first bite at a dinner party; and who orders first when dining out. We wish this sort of instruction was mandatory at every grade school, but in the meantime, we're grateful for Table Graces.
Every weekend night, a sea of teenage boys and girls makes its pilgrimage to this user-friendly outdoor mall. There, in what the mallsters call The District, the teens engage in the north Valley equivalent of the Mexican paseo, strolling around and around the outdoor heart of the mall to see and be seen. The teens are most welcome here, for the obvious reason that many of them seem to have money to burn. Parents lurk nearby, doing their own middle-aged stroll without being overly intrusive. On most Friday nights, the band shell features live music, usually an age-appropriate (anything under 25 will do) electric combo. And don't worry about the elements -- the misters work well all summer long, and a faux fireplace near the movie theater keeps the young'uns warm in the winter. One more thing: Professional security is everywhere, which is a good news for kids, parents and shoppers alike.
Great Arizona Puppet Theater
We all know that the mass media dangle the strings of our little ones' minds -- must we utter the word Barney to make our point? But there are alternatives to the onslaught, and they're fun ones. Since 1983, the nonprofit Great Arizona Puppet Theater has been thrilling young audiences all over the state with its year-round performances. Puppet shows would seem to be passé in this age of Xbox, but a look-see at any of the shows proves otherwise. With their enduring theme of Arizona as a great place to be -- hey, why not? -- the puppeteers embrace ancient fairy tales, Native American themes and desert life with their lovable little characters. The theater features summer puppet classes for kids through the sixth grade and more. If given the chance, it'll also make your kid's birthday party a memorable one.
We have to admit that we thought this was one of the dumbest inventions we'd ever heard of -- 'til a hot August afternoon when we scorched little thighs with seat belts, trying to coax our toddlers into the car, and thought, "Gee, why don't we have a Cold Seat or two?"

Shari Griffin was tired of strapping her own two young sons into molten car seats in the summer, in Phoenix. What could she, a stay-at-home Ahwatukee Hills mother of two, do to make those contraptions kinder to her babies' bottoms? She could put ice packs into a cloth cover, and then put her creation in the car seats before putting her children into them, that's what she could do. Voilà! The Cold Seat was born. The car-seat-size ice pack comes in four patterns, and can be rolled up and stored in the freezer between uses. Griffin sells her invention for $49.95 a pop through her Web site and over the phone. Sure, cooling hot seats with ice packs seems obvious in hindsight, but you didn't think of it. Besides, you have to give Griffin a lot of credit for figuring out a way to sell ice for around $25 a pound.

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