Advice For A Great Grand Canyon Family Trip
As my family walked toward the first scenic overlook we came to at Grand Canyon National Park, I was more interesting in seeing 9YO Tiny Traveler’s reaction to natural wonder than I was in the canyon itself. She was suitably wowed and all the work of planning our spring road trip started to pay off. We spent the next few days exploring the Grand Canyon and Zion National Park and had a lot of fun.
As our visit unfolded though, I began to realize that the Grand Canyon is the Disney World of national parks. It gets huge crowds, but is well set up to handle them and spread them out enough that you never feel overwhelmed. Also, like at Disney World, everything books up months in advance and costs twice what it should. Unless you live out west and can drive your own car and camp, visiting the National Parks is not an inexpensive or simple-to-plan vacation.
All You Need to Plan your Grand Canyon Vacation
• How Many Days at the Grand Canyon?
• Day 1: Exploring The Rim Trail, Day and Evening
• Day 2: Bright Angel Trail and Desert View Drive
• Grand Canyon Park Ranger Tours
•Practical Stuff: National Park Passes, Grand Canyon Parking, Grand Canyon Dining, Grand Canyon Lodging
How Many Days at the Grand Canyon?
We visited the South Rim, where most people go. The North Rim is only open in summer, gets fewer visitors and has fewer facilities. The busy season on the south rim starts in April, with especially crowded weeks when California and Arizona have their spring breaks.
Two days is the minimum amount of time you need to see the South Rim from a few different perspectives. If you want to experience the ranger programs, visit the museums or do more extensive hiking then consider three or more. Bring binoculars.
Day 1: Exploring The Rim Trail, Day and Evening
We started on our first day with a walk on the Grand Canyon rim trail, which gives you (literally) a nice overview of the canyon. You can start at the main visitor’s center and follow the rim trail past the lodges and visitors centers, but keep in mind that the trail extends for 12 miles and the further you get beyond the “village” the fewer people you have with you. A canyon rim shuttle stops about every quarter mile for the first few miles beyond the lodges.
We started our rim trail walk of the Grand Canyon just beyond Bright Angel Lodge, where the rim starts to rise a bit. We walked until we got tired and then hopped on a shuttle for our return. If you’re really avid hikers or are visiting on an especially crowded day, you can take the shuttle to the last stop and hike onward from there to better escape the crowds.
The furthest shuttle stops are popular spots for watching the sunset; any ranger can tell you what time it happens. We came back to do just that before having dinner at El Tovar and were rewarding with nice views of the light retreating from the Canyon walls and tables.
Tip: If you go, bundle up with fleece, hats and gloves. As soon as the sun goes down, so does the temperature. Also, the line for the shuttle back is quite long. The shuttles come in quick succession but make it a point to get back to the stop quickly or plan to wait ten to 20 minutes for your turn.
After our afternoon hike we returned to the main visitor’s center to watch the 20-minute movie they have. It spends a bit too much time reminding you how awesome and popular the canyon is but there is some good geology and history of the Grand Canyon packed in, which makes it worth viewing.
Day 2: Bright Angel Trail and Desert View Drive
We knew we couldn’t hike all the way to the bottom of the Canyon, but wanted the experience of hiking down into it a bit. We began in the morning by hiking the Bright Angel trail. It can take up to twice as long to hike up this popular trail as it does to go down, and the lower you go the steeper the trail seems to get (plus you’ll stop for photos a lot). So we hiked about 30 minutes down, and an hour back, which seemed like just the right amount of exertion for all of us.
Families with kids old enough to handle a much longer hike can book overnight trips all the way to the bottom, with a stay at Phantom Ranch. Book well in advance and be ready for a challenging uphill return hike. You can also do a famous mule ride down and back, but we’ve heard that if you aren’t very comfortable with heights then looking over the side of the trail from atop a donkey is fairly terrifying.
Tip: A few minutes in to your hike you walk through a small tunnel where lots of people stop for photos. When you go through the tunnel look up about 25 feet high, about 30 to 40 feet from the tunnel, you’ll see some native American drawings in the rocks. They were hard to make out with the naked eye so this is just one of the moments when you’ll use those binoculars.
We went to Maswick Lodge Pizza Pub and got a pie to go, then headed back toward the exit of the park to explore Desert View Drive (route 64 toward Cameron), a road with a series of overlooks, that gives you a view of the length of the canyon rather than the width you see from the rim trail. There are several overlooks along the road, some more popular than others.
Tip: The designated picnic spots along the road are inexplicably on the opposite side from the canyon and have no view. But we stopped at Grandview Point, which had a slightly stepped group of flat rocks that made for a good picnic spot with a view that was indeed grand. Stop here with or without lunch.
But the best view of the Grand Canyon that we had on our entire trip was Desert View. You can see the Colorado River. You can get a sense of how long that part of the canyon is and how it’s a collection of canyons more than one big whole. In general you feel the bigness of the canyon in a different way than you do from the rim trail. If you don’t have binoculars this is the place to spend a quarter on the one scattered along the edge.
Tip: Stop in the tower and climb to the top, it’s modern, not an original native structure, but the artwork inside is great.
The only museum we managed to visit was the Tusayan ruins on the left side of the road on the way back toward the visitors’ center. It takes no more than a half hour and is worth stopping. A one-room museum explains the ruins and what they tell us about the local tribes. The ruins are small but interesting.
Grand Canyon Park Ranger Tours
During the summer season there are ranger walks and talks throughout the day; try to make time for at least one because they’re fun and packed with information. We did the morning fossil walk before our Bright Angel hike. It was Tiny Traveler’s favorite thing (she actually took notes) and worth getting to the park early for. A ranger starts out by explaining the geology of the canyon and how it was formed. Then he takes you to a patch of ground behind the rim trail, just beyond Bright Angel and starts pointing out a series of fossils of sponges, shellfish and other sea creatures. I would never notice them on my own, but once he started pointing them out they were impossible to miss.
Tip: You’ll need to see the movie or do a ranger program for your kids to complete their junior ranger badge. Make sure to pick up a junior ranger workbook at one of the visitors’ centers or the gift shop (where there will be less of a line) on the way in. Kids love it and learn a lot and the rangers take it seriously. When Tiny Traveler got her badge the ranger announced to the whole gift shop that there was a new junior ranger in the house and everyone clapped.
National Park Passes:
We chose this year to visit the parks because as a 4th grader, Tiny Traveler can have an Every Kid in a Park pass, which gives the whole family free access to the parks from the September when she starts 4th grade to the August afterward.
If you don’t have a 4th grader and plan to visit a few parks in one year, consider an $80 annual pass. There are also discounts for military families, seniors and people with disabilities.
Grand Canyon Parking:
Signs warn you that the large parking lot at the main visitors center is full by 11:00. I would believe this unless you are visiting in the deep off-season. Plan to get to the park by 10:30 and the earlier the better. If you park here you will have to walk quite a ways or take the park shuttle to get to the main part of the park.
I would recommend bypassing the main parking lot and trying your luck at one of the lots deeper into the park, by Maswick, Bright Angel or el Tovar lodges. Before 9:00 or 9:30 this is very doable and it puts you closer to everything you want to do. By doing this we could walk to everything we wanted to do and didn’t have to bother with the park shuttle.
Many families also take the train to Grand Canyon for the day or overnight and love it, but it didn’t work with our itinerary.
Grand Canyon Dining:
The restaurants at the lodges range from a coffee stand to fine dining. They are each fairly priced for what they are and the sit-down places have good food and very nice rooms. If you aren’t lucky enough to be staying at the lodges this is a way to get a taste of the lodge experience and I highly recommend it.
We had lunch at the Harvey House Cafe at Bright Angel and dinner in the main dining room at el Tovar (reservation essential at least a month ahead). The former serves diner food and conjures up the early days of western tourism. I had a great veggie wrap with sweet potatoes, kale, avocado and more. There are a handful of tables with views of the canyon, which you should nab if you can.
The El Tovar dining room is grand (but still kid friendly); bring something better than hiking clothes if you plan to eat here. Entrees start above $20. I had duck with plum chili sauce and Richard had the historic chicken el Tovar.
We found the dining options in nearby Tusayan limited and mediocre. We had decent Mexican food at Casa Bonita one night and got pretty good breakfast sandwiches and muffins at RP’s Stage and Stop. We stopped at McDonald’s for breakfast one morning when we didn’t want to face the long line at RPs. Coffee was $4 and everything else cost twice what it would at a McDonalds anywhere else. Skip it if you can.
Grand Canyon Lodging:
If you can, plan far enough in advance to stay in one of the National Park Lodges. The hotel selection in Tusayan is limited and the half dozen options are mostly 2 to 2½-star hotels at 4-star prices.
We stayed at the Grand Canyon Plaza. The room was fine but nothing special, the key-card-access door to our building didn’t lock, the outdoor hot tub wasn’t very hot and the rate didn’t include breakfast. For $120 it would have been acceptable, but for the $250 we paid we felt they could do much better. This was the least expensive room we found and the other hotels didn’t look significantly newer or nicer for their higher rates.
In spite of some challenging logistics, the Grand Canyon is a bucket-list destination. Every kid and parent should visit it and we really enjoyed our stay immensely. How does your stay at Grand Canyon National Park compare?
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