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When the Wolf family left their home in Wayne, New Jersey, it was a typical February day on the East Coast. Four hours later, they landed in Phoenix and picked up their Hyundai Santa Fe Sport in 70-degree sunshine—perfect conditions for a weekend of playing hard in the desert. And we’re not talking golf. On the agenda: a full day of hiking, scrambling, and rappelling, followed by wrangling and riding at an Arizona dude ranch. Not bad for a family that calls itself the Wolf Pack.
Saturday, 6:15 A.M.: Hiking
Dawn hadn’t broken over the Sonoran Desert when the Wolf family got the wake-up call in their Scottsdale hotel. Luckily, jet lag was working in their favor, and E.J., 12, Camryn, 9, and Garret, 7, were practically bouncing in their seats as they loaded up their 2013 Hyundai Santa Fe and drove to South Mountain, a long, craggy ridge that forms the southern boundary of the Valley of the Sun.
The Mormon Trail climbs 900 feet in 1.5 miles, switchbacking up the side of South Mountain. The kids went out fast, with Ed and Karen and guides Chuck, Bruce, Jason, and Michelle bringing up the rear, and they’d crested the summit in just under an hour. “It wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be,” panted Camryn, with a huge smile, as she stopped to admire the view of downtown Phoenix and Scottsdale spread out below.
Saturday, noon: Canyoneering
That’s when things began to get really interesting. First the family had to squeeze through a two-foot-wide crack in the rock called Fat Man’s Pass. It was so tight they had to turn sideways to shimmy through the narrow canyon, holding their backpacks above their heads so they wouldn’t get stuck. “I didn’t think I was going to make it!” exclaimed E.J. after the whole family had cleared the slot (barely). The canyon dropped through a series of natural tunnels, past a panel of ancient petroglyphs, and over slick rock, bordered by 20-foot drop-offs. If you fell, you’d go face first, and it wouldn’t be pretty. “No pressure!” joked Garret, as Karen peered over the edge. “No pressure at all!”
Saturday, 1:15 P.M.: Rappelling
After a quick lunch break, the group arrived at a 35-foot cliff that plunged into the canyon below. This time the only way through was down—on ropes. The kids were scared but so excited they were clamoring to go first. Camryn, wearing a helmet and harness, led the charge. The rock was undercut, so there was nowhere to put her feet except dangle them in the air like a spider in a web while she lowered herself slowly to the ground. At the bottom, she had three words for her brothers: “Sisters always win!”
After the boys, it was Karen’s turn. “My heart is beating out of my chest!” she cried with relief once she’d make it back to solid ground. “I never got to do this as a kid, so to share this with my children is awesome!”
Among climbers, there’s a saying: The descent is the hardest part. After more than six hours on the trail, the Wolf Pack was tired, thirsty, and ready to hit the hotel pool. Too bad they still had to hike two miles back to their Hyundai Santa Fe. To stay energized, the kids powered granola bars and sports drinks, joked with the guides, and proved themselves nothing short of total rock stars on their first desert hike. Distance covered: seven miles.
Sunday, 10:30 A.M.: Trail Riding
Day two began with an hour’s drive north to Canyon Creek. The last half-mile to the ranch, the road turned to dirt. The Hyundai Santa Fe handled the rough terrain with ease, and the Wolfs arrived at the corral to find three cowboys and half a dozen horses waiting for them.
“What are those on your boots?” Garret asked Kevin, one of the wranglers. “Well, they’re spurs,” he replied, with a sly grin. “Sometimes the horse needs a little extra motivation—you know how that goes.” Like his siblings, it was his first time on a horse, but Garret didn’t need any extra encouragement. As he took his place in line behind the lead cowboy, Kevin, Garret sat straight and tall in the saddle as the family set off along a dusty, winding trail through paloverde and mesquite trees, past giant saguaros. “Yeehaw! This is the most natural seven-year-old I’ve ever seen on a horse!” shouted Kevin. “You gotta get this kid some equestrian lessons!”
“Watch that your horse doesn’t go off the edge!” Kevin called back, with his dry cowboy humor, as they descended a steep hill to cross the Agua Caliente wash. The horses walked nose to tail, except for Camryn’s, which pawed the dirt and bent over to eat a bush. “Give her a gentle nudge, Cammy!” Ed called from the back of the pack. “Like kicking a soccer ball, but not as hard!” And Trixie perked up and clopped into the wash to join the others.
Sunday 1:30 P.M.: Grillin’, Ropin’ and Throwin’
Canyon Creek Ranch covers more than 400,000 acres, with hundreds of miles of trails, including a precipitous route up a prominent, rocky butte called the Thumb. But all trails lead to Cold Water, a life-size Old West town that the ranch owners built a few years ago, including a hotel, jailhouse, bank, church, and saloon. It was lunchtime when the Wolf Pack rode into town, smoke wafting from the outdoor grill, so they ambled into the saloon to quench their thirst.
“You like lemonade?” Kevin asked Camryn, and when she nodded he pointed to the old-fashioned fridge, winked, and said, “Help yourself.” Yanking open the door, she shrieked: a pile of fake rattlesnakes lay in wait. “That is crazy!” she yelled, grinning. Outside, they piled plates high with BBQ chicken and burgers, coleslaw, and baked beans and warmed themselves in front of a bonfire.
Afterward, it was time to pony up for some cowboy games. First, Kevin taught them how to lasso a stationary steer. “Keep your wrist facing your face,” he instructed as, one by one, the whole family roped the fake horns on their first try, whooping in triumph. They ended the day in true Wolf Pack style: hurling tomahawks at a wooden target. Not bad for a bunch of city folk from New Jersey.
IF YOU GO:
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