Exploring Northern Arizona

SEDONA, Ariz. -- Matt stared at the water cascading over the smooth, sloping rocks and gave me that you-really-blew-it-this-time look parents know too well.

It's that look we especially hate to see on vacation, when we've tried so hard to make the kids happy, to convince them -- for a few hours, anyway -- that Mom and Dad can come up with some pretty cool ideas occasionaly.

``No bathing suits in the car?'' Matt asked, clearly hoping he'd misunderstood me. ``No towels either? No extra clothes?''

No matter that it was barely spring, the water icy cold and the air chilly enough for even a kid to want a jacket.

We were a few miles north of Sedona at Slide Rock State Park, standing at a truly awesome spot and one irresistible for a boy who loves action -- a natural water slide on Oak Creek, where the current carries swimmers downstream between red rock walls and the mountains. The littlest travelers can splash in natural wading pools. Originally settled by farmers a century ago, 13 kinds of apples still are grown here on the old Pendley homestead where Frank Pendley developed an irrigation system 85 years ago that's still used today.

Matt, not at all interested in farm history, turned his attention to the noisy collegians whooping it up as they slid down the rocks, despite the chill. All I could do was promise we'd come back.

We haven't returned yet, but friends in Arizona tell me the 43-acre state park on Highway 89-A is a popular spot for summer picnics and hikes. So, if you can, visit on a week day on your way to or from the Grand Canyon.

(Call 520-282-3034 for information on special programs and camping. Don't forget water shoes, a fishing pole -- Oak Creek is stocked with trout -- and, of course, a bathing suit!)

Matt and I did agree on one thing that day as we drove away munching Arizona apples. Scottsdale may have luxurious resorts with to-die-for swimming pools (and up to 50-percent-off summer deals). However, away from the glitz and golf courses, Northern Arizona has plenty of attractions to please any kid and his budget-minded parents who have had their fill of Grand Canyon crowds and are seeking new sights to explore together.

Take the university town of Flagstaff, less than an hour north of Sedona and just 85 miles from the Grand Canyon. While we couldn't quite pick up the natural, New Age energy in Sedona, we felt right at home here. The decidedly family-friendly college town is a great place to teach the kids about Native American culture, geology and telescopes, all in one fell swoop. I'm not kidding and no, they won't beg to go elsewhere.

That's because Flagstaff is home of the Museum of Northern Arizona (with its first-rate natural history, dinosaur and Native American exhibits) and the Lowell Observatory (where Pluto was discovered, the only planet ever discovered at a U.S. Observatory). It's also within a 30-minute drive of some natural sights -- from ancient Indian cliff dwellings to a meteor crater that looks like the moon -- that are so unusual even kids steeped in television's weirdest phenomena will be impressed. Call the Flagstaff Convention and Visitors Bureau at 800-217-2367 or the Arizona Office of Tourism at 800-842-8257 or visit the Web site at www.arizonaguide.com.

Another plus in the summer: Because its elevation is about 7,000 feet, temperatures are far cooler than in Phoenix or the Grand Canyon. On many summer evenings, the Lowell Observatory is the happening place for families in Flagstaff. We spent a Friday night along with other parents and kids taking turns peering through the huge Clark telescope. (I admit I couldn't make out much, but it was fun to try.)

Don't miss the new Steele Visitor Center with hands-on ``Tools of the Astronomer'' exhibits. (Call 520-774-2096 for times when night sky viewings are scheduled and ask about children's programs.)

At the Museum of Northern Arizona, we shifted our attention from the heavens to history. We checked out the Kiva Room, where we could see a ceremonial, underground meeting place for Hopi men. (Ask about special Native American artist and dance demonstrations during the summer. There's a Hopi Marketplace scheduled for July 4-5. Call 520-774-5211.)

One morning, we headed 10 miles out of town to Walnut Canyon National Monument, where the Sinagua Indians, who were accomplished masons, built more than 300 small cliff rooms in the canyon's walls. We climbed the 185-foot stairs so we could enter some of the rooms that have survived for nearly 1,000 years. It was spooky, we agreed, to walk amid the spaces children helped their parents carve out so long ago (Call 520-526-3367).

It was equally spooky at Meteor Crater, just east of Flagstaff, where a 1,406-pound meteorite traveling more than 43,000 miles per hour crashed into the Earth. It left a hole 570 feet deep -- so big that A 600-story building would fit inside and so wide that at least 20 football games could be played simultaneously on the crater floor. Take time to hike the three-plus miles around the rocky rim and make believe you're on the moon. The astronaut-wannabes in the family will be impressed that the eerie terrain so closely resembles the moon that NASA astronauts trained here for their Apollo missions (Call 520-289-2362).

Matt, by the way, is anxious to return to Arizona. He's already campaigning for an early spring visit next year. I suspect he's thinking more about watching his beloved Chicago Cubs get ready for the season than he is about another shot at that rocky water slide.

But he knows he's got me. I promised.

(Look for Eileen Ogintz's books from HarperCollins West: ``A Kid's Guide to Vacation Fun in the Rocky Mountains'' and, for parents, ``Are We There Yet?'')

(Send your questions and comments about family travel to Los Angeles Times Syndicate, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053 or e-mail to eogintz@aol.com. While every letter cannot be answered, some of your stories may be used in upcoming columns.)

(c) 1997, Eileen Ogintz. Dist. by Los Angeles Times Syndicate

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