Free National Park Days: Exploring Casa Grande Ruins and the town

Phoenix, Arizona is a unique place, utterly different from where I was raised. I am not alone in that sentiment as Phoenix has always drawn outsiders looking to start over. Because of the growth, sometimes it is hard to see what this dusty town was like 100 years ago. The maps of the region point to growth and sprawl. But if you look a little closer you can see vestiges of what was once here.

If you need to run around somewhere, I can't think of a better place.

Casa Grande is nearby and features the Casa Grande Ruins National Monument. I’ve visited the Casa Grande Ruins several times with my boys. The entrance fee for Casa Grande Ruins National Monument is charged per person and is valid for 7 days from date of purchase.  Each adult (16 years or older) will be charged $5.00.  Children 15 and younger are free. Which means I can spend $5.00 and pop in and out all week with the boys or I can wait for a National Park day (likely more crowded) and go for free.

The free National Park days in 2012 are:

  • April 21-29 —National Park Week
  • June 9 —Get Outdoors Day
  • September 29 —National Public Lands Day
  • November 10-12 —Veterans Day weekend
The best time to visit this park is in the winter when the weather is gorgeous. The Casa Grande Visitors Center is wheelchair and stroller friendly. This new visitor’s center features restrooms (accessible from outside), a museum and a gift shop. Before we visited we downloaded the activities from the park website and built the paper models.
The Great House is sheltered under a metal canopy, peek up and you can spot two owls. Ask the rangers about them. The Ruins are surrounded by low walls and the foundations of buildings long gone. We had fun playing hide and seek popping in and out of chambers. The Clan House has a tiny door that I wasn’t going to go through but the boys could not get enough of. Best of all my children have spent hours playing in Hohokam Ruins which blows me away. I think visiting a place like this many times helps connect them with their past — I felt lucky we could walk around the ruins. I imagine someday a place like this would be only viewed through a fence, like Stonehenge is today. I am grateful for our parks.

playing with the Please Touch times at the Visitor's Center

Other items of interest in the area:

Casa Grande publishes a list of structures eligible for the National Historic Register that are still standing. If you are interested in looking at homes from the late 1800s and turn of the 20th century this list will keep you busy. Casa Grande is a quiet town and quite old with respect to my corner of Gilbert, it is like a time capsule. The Casa Grande City Hall “Old Main” is also listed on the local legacies page in the Library of Congress. I would like to visit and find out what makes it so special.

Further Reading

I turn to  Marshall Trimble, the Arizona State Historian to tackle Arizona State history. I learned about Mr. Trimble backwards, the way I learn most things. I was researching the list of Arizona specific items on the Library of Congress list of  local legacies. Marshall Trimble is on the list. I thought, what is a person doing on that list? He had me at “Will Rogers of the West”, his books are easy to read. If you want to try your hand at researching local history, this how-to pamphlet put out by the Arizona State Parks is a good reference. I like it because it organizes the state history so I can track down the source material. I would love to read Prehistoric to Historic Transition Period in Arizona 1519-1692 to organize all of the ruins and early settlers that dotted the area. I need something to give me the big picture.

Marshall Trimble, AZ State Historian

Natural Vegetation of Casa Grande Ruins National Monument by Karen Reichardt

Museum: Phoenix Children’s Museum

When we moved to the Valley of the Sun, I was a new mom with a 9 month old and a 3 year old. One of the best thing I did for my sanity was buy a membership to the fabulous Children’s Museum of Phoenix. In the 3 years since I moved here the membership doesn’t discount that much. They have a few times a year when it drops in price a bit. Around Thanksgiving and Christmas, some car dealerships will offer free admission if you drop off canned goods. And on the First Friday of the month in 2012 the museum is free from 5PM to 9PM.

What can you expect from a visit to the Museum? Some of the exhibits are fixed, while others rotate.  In the atrium there is the magnificent 50 ton 37 foot Climber. Both my boys love it, and as a parent, I can position myself nearby and keep my eye on them both the whole time. The museum is 3 stories of fun, the building is a former school and the classrooms are now exhibit spaces. There is a model grocery store and restaurant perfect for playing pretend. Lots of beans and grains to sift, spices to sniff and packages to carry back and forth on conveyor belts and check outs. The ballroom is a favorite with my older boy, and served as the inspiration for a ball drop at our house (that he has played with like twice since we built it, but you know how that goes). My younger boy loves the Noodle Forest, the race car track/car wash area. You can put on a smock and get dirty painting or doing crafts.

My best tips for visiting the museum:

  • If you can, come around noon. The museum slows down at lunch as most people come in the morning and head home for nap time.
  • Holiday and break time are very busy…not really a tip as much as a fact
  • If you have two different age ranges (toddler and preschool) you will want two adults as the kids will pull you in different directions
  • The museum closes periodically to change exhibits so check the website and verify they are open before you come down. I’ve pulled in on a Monday or in the Fall to discover it was closed.
  • The race track/car area is hazardous for toddlers as they will stick their faces and hands near the track and can get hurt. Best to avoid that area until they outgrow that stage.
  • This museum is accessible and wheelchair friendly 🙂

I’m Impressed Fact: the Museum has a great policy for adults unaccompanied by children, they band adults and have great systems in place for monitoring and ensuring child safety. How do I know this? They have clipboards hanging on the wall with emergency plans and policies and I read it because I read everything I can find. There are loads of helpers in lime green shirts stationed everywhere to engage your child in play and keep everything peaceful. I love their focus on play and safety. A very special place! The gift shop has a great selection of unusual toys. A gift certificate to the museum makes a great gift.

AzTAP Department of Services for Persons with Disabilities conducted an accessibility evaluation in August 2008 and summarized, “the Children’s Museum of Phoenix is the most exceptionally disability-aware arts institution this evaluator has ever surveyed.”

I haven’t ever done more than visit the museum and go straight home. Is there a family friendly restaurant you like or another attraction that you recommend to extend this outing?

Atrium of Children's Museum