What do cowboys, cacti and the Cold War have in common? They’re all inextricably linked to Arizona, one of the wildest states in the USA. Whether your students want to explore the wonders of the desert, mine for gold like the state’s first settlers or be awed by nuclear weapons that could have destroyed the world as we know it, Arizona has it all.

Conquering the Grand Canyon State

The only things wilder than Arizona’s cowboys are the creatures and critters who call its deserts home. Come face-to-face with over 12,000 mammals, fish, birds, reptiles and bugs at Tucson’s Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum.  Celebrate harmony between people and the natural world in interactive exhibits, and unearth the desert’s rich history in the museum’s gem and fossil collections. Before you leave, make sure to wander through the Cactus Garden and learn about the plants’ important relationships with bees, moths and bats.

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Students discover the types of gems and fossils that are hidden in the Sonoran Desert. Credit: Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum

Pack your water shoes and beat the desert heat at Slide Rock State Park. Centuries of river erosion have taken their toll on Slide Rock and formed “nature’s water slide,” an oasis of fun in Sedona’s Red Rock Country. Swim in the river, hike the trails and stroll through the park’s apple orchard. If you visit in October during the Slide Rock Apple Festival, make sure to pick your own fruit and scoop up a few treats from the visiting vendors.

Continue your adventure at Saguaro National Park, a 143-square-mile site that’s split into two separate regions. Visit the Tucson Mountain District for a fascinating program on how Native Americans used the saguaro cactus in their daily lives, and marvel over ancient petroglyphs carved into the boulders at Signal Hill. Come back another day to hike through the Rincon Mountain District and learn how early homesteaders battled the desert elements to survive in the West.


A mountain looms over the cacti who give Saguaro National Park its name. Credit: Wikipedia.

No trip to the Grand Canyon State is complete without visiting the Grand Canyon. Whether you explore the national park using donkeys, kayaks or your own two feet, the experience is guaranteed to be rewarding.  Take part in one of the ranger-lead programs and get the chance to explore fossil sites, sift for artifacts, explore ancient ruins and learn about the ancient people who called the Grand Canyon home.

The Wild, Wild West

Walk the same streets as legendary cowboys in Tombstone, “The Town too Tough to Die.” Tour the silver mines that put Tombstone on the map, then swing over to an old-time photo studio and “say cheese” while dressed as an outlaw. Visit the infamous OK Corral and get a front row seat to a gunfight, then go for a nighttime stroll through the Boothill Graveyard and come face-to-face with the lost souls of the West.

Take the stage at the Rockin’ R Ranch, a pioneer ranch in Mesa that’s home to wranglers, ghost riders and some of the best barbecue in Arizona. Sing and dance in the center of town, or dazzle an audience as part of the nightly extravaganza. In addition to the show, you and your students can pan for gold, create individual cattle brands and discover what it takes to be a blacksmith.

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Students strike gold at the Rockin’ R Ranch. Credit: Rockin’ R Ranch

What were a cowboy’s responsibilities? How did sheriffs keep the Old West in check? Who visited saloons? Old Tucson Studios strips away the Hollywood sparkle that surrounds the Wild West and delivers facts, giving your students a dose of the danger and hardships that early Arizonians faced. After an interactive history lesson, catch an Old West stunt show or check out the costumes worn by actors in Bonanza and other Western TV series.

The Science of Wings and Rings

From finding water on Mars to using airplanes in the hunt for enemy submarines, Pima Air and Space Museum in Tucson offers almost endless information about the incredible machines that soar through our skies and beyond.   Learn what WWII and Vietnam were like for American pilots. Meet the first bomber unit to fight the Germans through their photographs and stories. See models of the plane that broke the sound barrier, browse through artifacts from the Space Race and peruse countless other aeronautic treasures.

Stay in Tucson and delve into the world of dendrochronology at the University of Arizona Laboratory of Tree Ring Research. Tour the lab and learn how tree rings provide a peek at what the climate was like decades ago, and how scientists use the rings to create timelines. Students can visit the massive sequoia tree slab that’s kept on display in the lobby, then try their hand at cross-dating and learn how to read tree rings in their very own backyards.

Only one Titan II missile is available for public viewing, and you can find it at the Titan Missile Museum in Green Valley. Built during the Cold War when the threat of nuclear retaliation loomed, the 103-foot-tall missile still sits in its launch silo and attracts thousands of visitors every year. Visit the underground launch control center where engineers monitored the missile, then sit back and enjoy a simulated missile launch.

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Buttons still glow in the control room for the Titan II Missile. Credit: Titan Missile Museum

Hands-On History

Travel back in time to 1885 and go to school at the Old Tubac Schoolhouse. The immersive experience allows your students to write on individual chalkboards, sit in desks with inkwells and wear period-appropriate clothing. Spend a morning on various lessons, then go to recess and shoot marbles or jump rope like real Tubac students. After the break, end your day with a spelling bee and a visit from the superintendent.

Stay in the late 1800s and visit the Rosson House Museum, a restored home that gives you a glimpse into the lifestyles of early Phoenix families. Take part in a scavenger hunt as you learn about territorial Arizona, or  discover Victorian America while making an “artifact” to bring home as a souvenir. Whether you’re searching for clues or piecing together fancywork, the Rosson House is sure to entertain you and your students.

Combine history and science with a visit to the Nevada-Arizona border, home of the Hoover Dam. Tour the dam and wander the passageways that snake through it, then head to the Penstock Viewing Platform and watch 90,000 gallons of water hurtling through the pipes every second. Make your way to the Nevada Powerplant Balcony where 17 massive generators turn the dam’s water into power, and be sure to check out the various exhibits that explain the dam’s history.

The treasures that Arizona has to offer are endless.  Whether it’s exploring canyons, watching gunfights, learning about WWII spy planes or marveling over ancient petroglyphs, Arizona is sure to amaze and excite students of all ages. Visit the Heart of the Southwest and explore the Wild West for yourself.