At 277 miles/446 kms long and up to 6,000 feet/1,829 meters deep, the Grand Canyon, cutting through Arizona, Nevada and Utah, is truly spectacular. It’s so enormous that some families mistakenly believe there is enough room for all who come to admire it. Not so! America’s second most popular national park (behind Great Smoky Mountains) welcomes over 5 million visitors per year. However, if you avoid the July-August high season and can spend a few days, your family will have a much better chance of seeing what’s wonder-full about this natural wonder.
Go Slow With Kids
Younger children will certainly appreciate the Grand Canyon’s natural beauty (if only because thousands of others are making such a fuss) but showing them the sites can be hair-raising. The rim-side lookouts top the Canyon’s steep sides, and the sometimes-unreliable handrails are easily ignored. Since paths are crowded and slippery, parents packing infants in child carriers should go slowly. Adults must be on guard at all times. Families with older children will be freer to explore; you can estimate that reasonably fit children will be able to hike about 1 mile per day, per year of age, after about 3 years. (We know of one Mom who trained her 4-year-old daughter on a Stairmaster in front of the TV for three months so she could keep up with her older brother!)
Hikers should remember that the Canyon rim is about 7,500 feet above sea level, and that hiking back up from any trail will take about twice as long as the descent. It’s not an activity suitable for young children, or for occasional athletes, who will tire easily between the lack of oxygen and high temperatures. And remember, although the Colorado River looks so close, it takes two days of hiking on the River Trail to reach it!
The Grand Canyon South Rim
This area attracts 90% of the park’s visitors simply because it’s much better developed (most would say overdeveloped), with hotels, motels and fast-food restaurants. Some families prefer it because the region’s medical clinic, pharmacy and other conveniences are nearby. Once you park, your family will be able to walk or use the free shuttle buses. You can arrange a donkey ride down into the Canyon, short hikes near the rim, and aerial flightseeing tours (more than 8,000 per month during the busy summer season according to Outside magazine).
Although it may be fun to try all these activities, the South Rim can be pretty depressing if you’ve brought the kids to appreciate nature’s beauty, so get out and explore! Despite the noise, visual pollution, real pollution of the Colorado River, and the increasingly smog-clogged air, there is much to be appreciated.
The Canyon’s most luxurious housing is found in the traditional El Tovar, a ca.1905 classic National Park lodge. It’s a stately, casual place perched on the rim in Grand Canyon Village, with a good restaurant which welcomes children. At the Maswik Lodge and the East or West Yavapai Lodges (West is adjacent to the Visitor’s Center, about 1.5 mi/2.4 kms from the rim) you’ll find moderately-priced cafeterias and a food court.
One of the most popular South Rim trails include the South Kaibab Trail near Yaki Point on the East Rim Drive, Bright Angel Trail which leads down from the village into the canyon, and Hopi Point, the gathering spot for a legendary sunset view. Donkey dung is ubiquitous (little kids love to scream “Donkey Poop!”) so be prepared with boots for everyone.
Not far from the South Rim visitor center is the Yavapai Observation Station, whose canyon iews and exhibits on the region’s fascinating geology should engage school-age kids. From here, do your own rock hunting along the easy-going, approximately three-mile-long Maricopa Point Nature Trail.
An amazing, seven-hour hike down into the Canyon earns you lodging at the Phantom Ranch (888/29-PARKS), if you reserve it up to two years in advance. This lodge, built in 1922, is the only lodge at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. Accommodations in the Phantom Ranch’s cabins come with mule trip packages, while backpackers stay in dorm-style rooms. Be sure to reserve food far ahead also (meals cost extra) from the Phantom Ranch Canteen, which features hearty breakfasts, hiker’s stew, sack lunches, and steak dinners.
The Grand Canyon North Rim
Serious hikers and outdoorspeople hoping to get away from the crowds should drive on to the North Rim, facing Utah, where there is much less development. However, there are very few facilities, the temperatures are more extreme, and you can expect greater rainfall year-round.
Experienced camping families with their own gear will have the most fun here. As for hotels, the best around is the Grand Canyon Lodge (877/386-4383), with motel rooms and cabins with wonderful vistas. The Kaibab Lodge (928/638-2389), about 18 miles north of the North Rim entrance, rents only simple log cabins. If you don’t mind a bit more driving, some visitors chose to stay in Jacob Lake at the Jacob Lake Inn, about 44 miles from the North Rim.
Experienced hikers 12+ will enjoy the North Kaibab Trail, not far from the ranger station. Families with kids 8+ should look into the half-day mule rides down the rim to Roaring Springs, or the easy-going 5-mile Widforss Trail. The best of the nearby lookouts is at Point Imperial, about 11 miles from the Grand Canyon Lodge.
At Cape Royal, about 50 miles south on the Walhalla Plateau, you can picnic while enjoying views of the Colorado River below. From here, you can hike the mile-long Cliff Springs Trail which passes the remains of an Anasazi granary on the way to Cliff Springs.
A driving trip to the East Rim offers wonderful vistas, but as with everything natural out West, the distances are farther than they seem. Flagstaff, Arizona is about 80 miles away, the mysteriously dappled Painted Desert several hundred.
For families with school-age children, river rafting should be the first choice activity after hiking. Although there are several other rafting companies, O.A.R.S. ( 800/346-6277) gets top marks for its guides and great camp cooking, and offers reduced family rates.
Grand Canyon West is another area that draws visitors because of its Skywalk (888/868-WEST), the 4,000 foot-high glass bridge that towers above the Colorado River and the edge of the canyon. Those that are brave enough can walk onto the bridge and look down for spectacular views. Grand Canyon West also offers an educational experience at the Indian Village where both kids and adults can learn about four different tribes.
There are also many concessionaires for horseback riding, flightseeing, dozens of shops and small arcades in Grand Canyon Village, as well as several small museums highlighting Native American culture and local flora and fauna. There are even an IMAX and a multimedia theater offering virtual tours of the Canyon for those too weary to descend from the overlooks! Ranger lectures are often given about the park’s natural history; call the Grand Canyon National Park (928/638-7888) for more information about these and about their “Junior Ranger” program, where even preschoolers can earn a Junior Ranger badge by studying the Canyon.
Doing the Grand Canyon – Travel Tips
Reserve Ahead! should be the Grand Canyon mantra. Try to book your trip at least three months in advance. For reservations or information on any of the Grand Canyon area hotels, you must contact Xanterra Parks & Resorts (303/600-3400); they set annual fees and allow children under 17 to stay free in a parent’s room. For campground reservations, you must contact the National Park Service (877/444-6777).
Don’t forget: Hikers should wear protection from the sun and the cold year-round, and carry plenty of drinking water. Always ask a park ranger for a free trail map and information about current trail conditions before setting out.
This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question, and stay up to date with current events to ensure a safe and successful trip.