Hot and Cold in Arizona – Adjusting to Life in the Desert

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“I am moving away from Arizona the minute I graduate and I am never, ever moving back,” I said, all red-faced and out of breath from my scorching three-mile bike ride from Arizona State University. My former college roommate recently reminded me that I told her this almost daily during my senior year of college. But here I am back in Arizona, 18 years after I'd departed.

My kids jumping into our backyard pool in Scottsdale, Arizona (Photo credit: Colleen Lanin)

My kids jumping into our backyard pool in Scottsdale, Arizona (Photo credit: Colleen Lanin)

After years of clinging to a California dream, my husband and I finally decided that maybe something better awaited us elsewhere. That's when we moved with our two kids to Scottsdale this past summer. In San Diego, I equated my family's happiness with our big and beautiful house, our suburban neighborhood with our fun-loving neighbors and grassy park, and the temperate weather of our beloved adopted hometown.

In our dream home, I'd had the ceilings in my kids' rooms painted with blue skies and puffy white clouds. I'd consulted with four different mural artists to select the very best painter for the project. I paid thousands of dollars for custom-sewn curtains for the master bedroom and bath, selected with the help of an expensive interior decorator. Now our walls and ceilings are white. The costly curtains are in a box in the garage. We rent. Our new place is 1,500 square feet smaller than our dream house. Are they missed? Not much.

"A" Mountain at my alma mater, Arizona State University in Tempe (Photo credit: Colleen Lanin)

“A” Mountain at my alma mater, Arizona State University in Tempe (Photo credit: Colleen Lanin)

I miss my friends, of course, but we have already returned to San Diego for a visit. And, a few of our Cali friends have come here. Plus, most Arizonans are transplants from other states, which makes finding friends here as easy as squeezing lime into a margarita.

Sometimes you need to go away to see what you were missing. And sometimes everything has to change while you're gone, too. When I grew up in what was then the northern edge of Scottsdale, there wasn't a whole lot of here, here. My parents' house was 30 minutes from the nearest grocery store. They still live in the same home but now they have a choice of several grocery options within a few minutes drive, along with a multitude of restaurants and a wide variety of shops. As a kid, there were barely any museums or family-friendly attractions of any sort. For fun, my mom used drop me off at the drugstore, where for hours I'd consider the merits of silver nail polish versus pink.

My kids enjoy riding their bicycles to school in Arizona (Photo credit: Colleen Lanin)

My kids enjoy riding their bicycles to school in Arizona (Photo credit: Colleen Lanin)

During our first summer in Scottsdale after our move from the Midwest when I was 8, my big brother and I would take our bikes out for a ride every day in the afternoon looking for kids. Every other Arizona child was smartly swimming in backyard pools or sitting inside watching TV in the cool of air conditioning.

Big excitement came the following summer when a car wash opened a few miles from our house. My brother and I rode our banana-seated bicycles to this new wondrous establishment. There we discovered a vending machine stocked with candies and salty snacks. We rode home to plunder spare change from our mom's coin stash before returning to the car wash. We bought chocolate bars and munched on them while staring at cars being doused with suds and jostled by whirling giant scrub brushes.

Collecting pumpkins with Grandma Ellen at Old MacDonald's Ranch (Photo credit: Colleen Lanin)

Collecting pumpkins with my mom and the kids at MacDonald's Ranch (Photo credit: Travel Mamas)

Rediscovering old favorites brings back happy Arizona childhood memories. I love eating the best-ever chicken taco salad at Ajo Al's. And it's a joy to bring my kids to MacDonald's Ranch, where I first discovered my love of horses and subsequently rode competitively English-style as a teen.

The Phoenix Area has changed so much in my absence, I am giddy at the prospect of new restaurant offerings to taste and things to do. My family is uncovering new treasures like Butterfly Wonderland, filled with hundreds of fluttering beauties. Then there's the Musical Instrument Museum and its noisy, joyful Experience Gallery. Best of all is the Sweet Republic ice cream shop with its astonishingly good frozen treats like sweet potato marshmallow ice cream topped with homemade salted caramel sauce.

The Experience Gallery at the Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix (Photo credit: Colleen Lanin)

The Experience Gallery at the Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix (Photo credit: Colleen Lanin)

My kids, however, are struggling with the change. It started before we even arrived. A week before our departure, with our lives scattered among boxes, our 6-year-old son, Leo, asked his big sister to play ‘puppies.' Uptight about the move, our 9-year-old daughter refused and stormed off to her room. I said I'd love to play with him instead. I did my best to pretend to be a dog. I panted, wagged my tail, and barked. But, I am a grown person, and two minutes of this play seemed like enough. I tried to encourage my ‘puppy' friend to come get teeth brushed. My son exhaled a deep, sad sigh and got up from all fours. He said, “I just need to go outside and think a bit.”

I followed Leo and found him with his head buried in his crossed arms, leaning on the stucco of our balcony. I rubbed his back and said, “What's going on, bubba, what are you thinking about?”

He said, “I was just thinking about when Karissa and I used to be best friends.”

Outdoor ice skating at the Fairmont Princess Scottsdale (Photo credit: Travel Mamas)

Outdoor ice skating at the Fairmont Princess Scottsdale (Photo credit: Travel Mamas)

That marked the end of it. The end of these two kiddos being the best advocates, friends and playmates. Since our move, there's been more sass, more back talk, more arguing, more tears. And there've been a lot more arguments between two children who used to love to play puppies and build forts from sofa cushions. Friends tell me, “It's a lot of change. It takes time. It's just a phase.” Is it?

Still, I am glad we moved here because San Diego was suffocating me. The weather was fabulous, but I wanted connection and freedom. I've connected with my Arizona-dwelling parents and brother. It's nice to be around people love me for who I truly am, loud mouth and all. And I have freedom here from constant worry about too-high electricity bills and a mortgage we could no longer afford.

Finding beauty in the Arizona desert (Photo credit: Colleen Lanin)

Finding beauty in the Arizona desert (Photo credit: Colleen Lanin)

I love the nature paths near our rental home. I run or hike on these almost daily, finding a desert beauty to which I was immune as a child and teen. I love driving by my parents' house for an impromptu game of HORSE with them, my kids, and their basketball hoop. I love gabbing with my former college roommate over lunches and play dates. In winter, I love skating with my children at an outdoor rink at the Fairmont Princess Scottsdale. When the weather is hot, I love splashing together in our backyard pool.

But that phrase, “A mom is only as happy as her saddest child,” remains true. It's hard to feel a true sense of joy when my kids are struggling. I am happy in Arizona. I hope someday we will all be happy here.

If you are considering moving to Arizona, feel free to ask me questions about life in the desert.

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Have you moved to another city, state or country with your kids? How did the transition go? Do you have any advice for me? Let me know in the comments below!

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About Colleen Lanin

Colleen Lanin is the founder/editor-in-chief of TravelMamas.com. As the author of her book, "The Travel Mamas' Guide," she teaches parents not only how to survive a trip with children, but also how to love exploring the world with their offspring. Her stories have appeared online and in print for such outlets as the "Today" show, NBCNews.com, Parenting Magazine, Orlando Sentinel, Chicago Tribune, Expedia, San Diego Family Magazine, and more. Colleen gives tips on television, radio, and as a public speaker. She has a master’s degree in business administration with a background in marketing. She lives in Arizona with her husband and two kids.

Comments

  1. Sara Smith says:

    I love your way of painting a picture of things. Miss you, friend. Time for a visit. xo

  2. Ellen Lanin says:

    You and your family are adjusting well to your new home. Walking the McDowell Mt. preserve is always available and very relaxing, too.

  3. I just love Arizona! Our family has vacationed there several times and now my oldest daughter is a freshman at ASU. She says she is never moving back to Chicago. I guess only time will tell.

  4. Parkstar Real Estate Group says:

    Welcome back to Arizona Colleen! We love it here!

  5. My husband was offered a job in Gilbert Arizona. We have three children. My biggest worry is my 13 year old daughter. We have not told the kids yet, because we wanted to make sure it is 100% go before we break the news. We have lived in Oregon our entire lives. I have no idea what to expect or even what do tell the kids about what to look forward to. It’s good to know that there are other families who struggle. I heard there are scorpians there!! Yikes. I am excited about a new adventure for our family but not sure where to start to look for schools and everything else. Ugh. Lots to do.

    • Colleen Lanin, The Travel Mama says:

      Hi Crystal – I find that the worry over whether to move and preparing for the move, is more difficult than the actual move or the aftermath from the move. Your kids can look forward to less rain, warmer winters, swimming (almost all houses/apartments have private pools or community pools, and even if yours doesn’t, there are plenty of public aquatic centers), waterparks, desert hikes (if they enjoy nature), delicious Mexican food, and tons of shopping opportunities…depending on their interests. If your kids are into sports or music or art, you can assure them that they can continue to pursue their passions here. School districts are open in Phoenix, which means that your kids can go to the school of your choice, rather than being limited by your neighborhood. We chose a few neighborhoods that received good ratings on Trulia in terms of low crime and good schools and looked for houses there. Then we just signed up for the school in the neighborhood where we found our rental home. Now school is just a three and a half-minute walk away! It will all come together. Enjoy your new Arizona adventure!

  6. I was on google looking for recent pheonix transplants from my home state of Minnesota and I stumbled upon your blog. I have lived in MI and then MN for my entire 27 yrs. I haaaaate winter. MN winter can last for half a year, and we stay indoors the entire time. Needless to say, I have dreamed of moving to somewhere warm. I have never even traveled to a warmer state and have no idea what to expect. My parents have decided to take an early retirement and moved the the pheonix suburbs. This has now sparked my mind and set me off into looking for a new place to call home. I look forward to hearing more about your kids adjustment and your journey in Az.

    • Colleen Lanin, The Travel Mama says:

      Mallory – I have lived in Minnesota for 8 years of my life and was born in Michigan, so I can relate to wanting to escape the snow! The heat here can be equally tiresome, but at least it’s easier to manage (no shoveling, no scraping the car windows, no driving in blizzards, etc.). A year and a half later, my family has settled in to life in Arizona pretty well. Thankfully the kids are off of school in the summer, making it easier to escape the heat by traveling. Good luck in making a decision about your move!

  7. I too said this same phrase when I graduated from ASU with my now husband..and we did move to beautiful Colorado Springs into our dream home. We have everything we have ever wanted. We live in a beautiful historic neighborhood in a cute little yellow bungalow. And now we are expecting our first child and all I want it to be back in AZ, back with my friends and family…and I actually day dream about all the time. Housing is cheaper, there is a ton of kid friendly things to do there and could raise my kids with families I’ve know and grown up with. I wouldn’t be surprised if we end back up in Gilbert in a years time.

    • Colleen Lanin, The Travel Mama says:

      Heather – It’s funny how the prospect of parenting reminds us of the importance of family and home. As young adults so many of us want to break free from our families of origin to go find ourselves and our place in the world. And then when we start our own families, we realize that our place in the world may just be in the place we started, surrounded by those people who gave us the courage and knowledge to leave. Best wishes in making your decision about a possible to move to Arizona and congratulations on joining the wonderful and wacky world of parenting!

  8. Thanks for the write up…moving to area this summer from Portland or. Would appreciate any tips on best areas to look for a home. We have 2 daughters and are planning a research trip soon. I have been looking at the Scottsdale, Tempe, central Phoenix area, and chandler. Any insight to the differences on each area. In Portland we are definitely used to great food and a unique artsy vibe. Thanks!!

    • Colleen Lanin, The Travel Mama says:

      Hi Nicole – I lived in Tempe during college. It’s got a cute little downtown (Mill Avenue) with a young, fun vibe. Tempe is home to the massive Arizona State University so college students making up much of the population. I live in Scottsdale, which is a suburb of Phoenix but is quite large itself with many different neighborhoods, each with its own feeling. You might want to look at living near Old Town Scottsdale, which is full of art galleries and is near the Civic Center grassy park and outdoor sculptures. Be sure to check out Thursday night Art Walks in Old Town when all of the galleries remain open in the evening. Honestly, I don’t spend much time in Phoenix beyond going to see sporting or cultural events (like the Nutcracker) downtown because the drive is far and we have so many restaurants and things to do in Scottsdale, so I don’t know what it’s like to live there. But I do have a high school girlfriend who lives in Phoenix and she says her neighbors tend to be more liberal (like Portland) than what you’ll find in Scottsdale. Phoenix is a very republican state, so it may be difficult to find an artsy vibe like what you may be used to in Portland. Some of my husband’s family lives in Chandler but we haven’t explored it much – it feels more like a standard suburb to me. Of course, I prefer Scottsdale because that’s where I live! I’m not sure if that helps…let me know if you have any other questions and I’ll do my best to help out!

  9. stephen steele jr says:

    You have a really profound way of looking at things. We’re weeks away from a big move ourselves (moving to phoenix/scottsdale) and I’m mortified by the sheer amount of pessimism that I run across online when researching apartments, areas, etc…I was initially excited about the prospect but the more I read that the phoenix area is full of unhappy people who long to live in southern california the more my enthusiasm wanes. I’d like to recapture that early exuberance but would really like to hear from anyone who lives there in order to determine if there is much validity to what I’m reading on the blogs? Or if the vocal minority is simply louder…

    • Colleen Lanin, The Travel Mama says:

      Hi Stephen – Recent pessimism might be due to the summer heat! It’s sort of like asking a Minnesotan if they love their state in the midst of a blizzard. Spring, winter and fall are lovely and temperaments settle as the temperatures cool! I loved living in Southern California but have no desire to move back. I like having more money in my bank in Arizona and Cali is just a road trip away (about 6 hours from Phoenix to San Diego). Many people who live in AZ vacation often in California but most of the people I know here, really enjoy Arizona life and aren’t clamoring to move away. I hope that helps! Good luck in making your decision!

  10. You mention high electric bills in Ca. so does that mean it doesnt cost a fortune to run the a/c in Arizona all summer? What are the pros and cons of living in Az. versus just north of San Diego,Temecula is where I am currently? How do I find out the facts? The house seem really nice for the money.

    • Colleen Lanin, The Travel Mama says:

      Hi Debbie – Our house was 1,500 square feet larger in San Diego than it is in Scottsdale, so that plays a role in our lower electric/gas bills here. Still, we were paying $600+ per month in the summer for electricity in San Diego, rarely running the a/c. Here we have a pool and run the a/c allllll day and night and we pay maybe $200 – $250 per month in summer. I have never lived in Temecula (and have only visited once for dinner maaaaany years ago), so I can’t really compare and contrast the two places for you. I would say that compared to San Diego, the Phoenix area is MUCH more affordable. Politically, most people are republicans here, whereas there were more democrats in San Diego. Most people are friendly and fairly easy to get to know in Scottsdale. In summer, not surprisingly, people tend to get cranky in the Valley of the Sun, with car crashes and all types of crime going up. I try to get out of Arizona as much as possible June – September. The schools rank really poorly – 48th in the nation – in Arizona. It really depends on where you live, though, because my kids’ schools in North Scottsdale are very good. The kids are a bit rougher/more sassy here, though. There is less to do in the Phoenix Area for kids since San Diego has SO MUCH to offer. But still, there are lots of water parks and museums. I love the plentiful hiking and biking trails here too. Good luck with your decision!

  11. Hi Colleen! I am wondering about acclimating to the extreme heat . I’m from Pasadena California where we have a variety of heat. It does get pretty hot at home. I’m visiting Arizona now with seriously considering affordable housing, starting a family away from a liberal drenched state, and just having affordable living. I’m wondering how long it will take to get use to the summer heat?

    Warm regards,
    Kristin

    • Colleen Lanin, The Travel Mama says:

      Hi Kristin – I’m not sure you ever get used to the heat. You just learn to spend a lot of time in air conditioning or a swimming pool. My advice is to live somewhere with a pool – either in your backyard or a community pool you can use. Good luck with your decision!

  12. Samuel Polston says:

    Hello,
    I am very interested in moving to Arizona, however I have a phobia of rattlesnakes. I was told that there are rattlesnakes everywhere in Arizona, including in the toilet.

    • Colleen Lanin, The Travel Mama says:

      Hi Samuel ~ LOL! I’ve NEVER heard of someone in Arizona finding a rattlesnake in their toilet! I don’t know how it would get in the toilet since they are not aquatic animals. I have only seen 2 rattle snakes since moving here 3 years ago. One was alive in a neighbor’s yard (and quietly moving away from the humans who had gathered to take a look) and another was dead in the road. They are shy animals who would rather not see you too. I saw the same number of rattlesnakes living in San Diego, CA (granted, over a longer period of time). They like to hide under rocks to stay cool and are most active in spring and fall when temperatures are moderate, especially at dawn & dusk. They hibernate in winter and they hate the heat in summer. You are most likely to see a rattlesnake when hiking the many beautiful desert trails here. If you stick to more crowded trails and/or paved trails, you should be pretty safe. Be careful stepping on large rocks under which a snake could be hiding. Otherwise, you should be good to go. I totally understand your fear of rattlesnakes, but I don’t think it should deter you from moving here. The closer you are to the mountains/open desert, the more likely you are to see bobcats, mountain lions, scorpions and rattlesnakes. The closer you are to the city center, the less likely you are to see wildlife. Good luck with your move!

  13. Thank you for your post! I found it comforting as I am a San Diego native and just moved here to Phoenix with my husband 6y/o son and 5 month old daughter. My son is going through the same emotions as your kids did. We moved here in January and every time I tell someone I’m from San Diego they always say the same thing… “just wait for summer.. hahah”. Any tips you can give a newbie with kids for surviving our first summer?

    Thanks!
    Desi

    • Colleen Lanin, The Travel Mama says:

      Your kids will adjust, Desi. It just takes time. Hang in there! As for summer, plan to spend a lot of time in the pool – whether you have one in the backyard or you will be visiting a community pool. Water parks are plentiful here, so make use of those too. My family loves Glow Putt minigolf in North Scottsdale – a great way to play in the cool air conditioning in summer. Also, plan to travel in summer if you can! You need not do long or far trips, either. Prescott, Flagstaff and other AZ destinations are much cooler than the Phoenix Area and will provide a welcome reprieve from the heat. Hope that helps!

  14. This article was wonderful and the comments are equally helpful! We live in NorCal and are recent Empty-Nesters as our last kid joined the Navy. He’s stationed at Port Hueneme in SoCal but will be overseas a lot. We have acreage here with a pool on which we were to built our retirement home, but permits, fees, and taxes and future fees and taxes are forcing us to reconsider building. We are heartbroken. Since my best friend, Michelle, lives in AZ now, we are going to look in the Scottsdale, Chino Valley area for some acreage for the horses, dogs, and us. We’ve traveled through the area of Sedona, Flagstaff, and Phoenix area so it’s not alien to us. Im just worried about missing my mountains, trees, and lakes, as well as being 1.5 hours from my ocean. Must have Ocean. It will be an adjustment for sure, but the prospect of retiring and having money to travel or visit family n friends frequently is appealing. Thank you for the article and thanks to all the contributing commenters.

    • Colleen Lanin, The Travel Mama says:

      Maria – I can understand why you’d feel heartbroken about giving up on your dream home in your dream destination. You do get A LOT more for your money in Arizona, though. North Scottsdale is one of the most expensive areas in the state and we just bought a similar house to what we had in San Diego for literally half the price. You’ll get even more for your money if you look outside of Scottsdale. And, there’s no need to miss the mountains since we have those here! Not only can you enjoy the view of the mountains & hiking the mountain trails here in the Valley, but also you can drive to see leafy and pine trees and lakes in Sedona, Flagstaff, Prescott and beyond. Plus, although we don’t have ocean here, almost everyone owns a pool or at least has a community pool that they can enjoy. We literally go in our pool 5+ days per week in summer here and it’s something that we really love about living in Arizona. Good luck in making your choice and know that you can be happy wherever you land!

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