Best Family Road Trip: The Grand Canyon From Phoenix To Las Vegas

This great American family road trip, the Grand Canyon road trip, takes you through Phoenix, Arizona and Las Vegas, Nevada past red rocks, blue skies and desert on the way to the remarkable Grand Canyon.

Grand Canyon lake
The Grand Canyon surprises with its variety of ‘grammable vistas.

Passing through and around canyons, deserts, lakes, mountains, ruins and cacti forests, a family road trip from Phoenix to Las Vegas will give your clan excellent insight into the American Southwest.  Despite Arizona’s vast and desolate landscape, it is home to Phoenix, one of the country’s largest cities; while a quarter of its land is occupied by the Native American reservations of 20 tribes including the Navajo, Apache and Hopi.

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The most famous natural attraction in the United States, the immense Grand Canyon, will leave you stunned and in a state of wonder. And, no tour of the southwest would be complete without a stop in outrageous Las Vegas, a desert city surrounded in all directions by rocky mountains, and in close proximity to Lake Mead, the largest reservoir in the United States.

Phoenix’s Sky Harbor International Airport and McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas make both cities easily accessible, with car rental for traveling around the area readily available.

Our suggested 6-day itinerary follows:

Day 1:  Phoenix
Day 2:  Phoenix to Sedona
Day 3:  Sedona to Willliams
Day 4:  Circling the Grand Canyon
Day 5:  Williams to Lake Mead, Nevada
Day 6:  Lake Mead to Las Vegas

Day 1: Phoenix

The largest city in the Sonoran Desert, Phoenix averages 310 days of sunshine, making climate the primary reason that visitors venture to the city. However, Phoenix has much more to offer than just fabulous weather—it’s home to one of the largest municipal parks in the world, an innovative art scene, inimitable restaurants, great shopping and prime spas. There is plenty for the family to do, both in and outdoors and the Phoenix Convention & Visitors Bureau will provide maps and lodging ideas.

For some recreational fun, South Mountain Park and Preserve covers over 16,000 acres and has more than 50 miles of biking, hiking and horseback riding trails; a great way to explore the unforgiving desert terrain!

A neighborhood comprised of artists living and working spaces, Roosevelt Row offers monthly events including arts festivals, street vending, live music and great food. The Pueblo Grande Museum and Archaeological Park is an opportunity to learn about the prehistoric and historic cultures of the area, offering changing events and activities such as discovery hikes and archaeology workshops, and an outdoor trail containing ruins and replicated housing of the Hohokam, the prehistoric inhabitants of the Southwest.

Internationally recognized for its exhibits and events, the Heard Museum is dedicated to the accurate portrayal of Native American arts and culture. With six to eight changing exhibitions, interactive activities such as beading and basket weaving, and live performances and presentations by local American Indian artists, this is one place your family won’t want to miss.

Day 2: Phoenix to Sedona – 115 miles

En route to Sedona via I-17N, make a stop at exit 289 for Montezuma Castle National Monument, the well-preserved ruins of an early cliff dwelling built around 700 AD by the pre-Colombian Sinagua people.

As you continue along, pick up AZ-179N towards Sedona, a 19 square-mile city surrounded by stunning red sandstone formations. Known as “red rock county,” Sedona is an outdoor wonderland for hikers, with two city parks, Posse Ground and Sunset Park. There are several hiking trails suited to all ability levels that will allow your family to get closer to these formations, many of which were thought by the Indians to have spiritual energy.

Alternatively, explore the area aboard a trolley with Sedona Trolley, offering a 55-minute narrated tour of the historic landmarks and scenic overlooks, or book a guided jeep tour with A Day in the West for a bit of a more off-road experience.

If you’re not up for camping at one of the area’s many campgrounds, book a stay at one of the quaint and casual inns or small hotels in the area, many of which are noted in the Sedona Tourism website. There are also many options at Booking.com.

Day 3: Sedona to Williams – 61 miles

As you head out of Sedona towards Flagstaff along the breathtaking AZ-89-ALT, you’ll find Oak Creek Canyon. The 12-mile-long river gorge is often described as the “younger cousin” of the Grand Canyon because of its colorful rocks and unique formations. While it’s possible to enjoy the beauty of the area from your family road trip, I suggest you stop at Slide Rock State Park for a short hike or a picnic.

Picking up I-40 N at Flagstaff, make a stop at the Arboretum at Flagstaff, just three miles south of I-40 on the scenic Woody Mountain Road. A 200-acre botanical garden, the Arboretum, home to 2,500 plant species, is one of the largest collections of mountain plants and wildflowers in the world. Additionally offering changing outdoor workshops, craft and gardening classes and live birds of prey performances, this is a great activity for families with children of all ages for your next family road trip.

Other places of interest near Flagstaff are the Museum of Northern Arizona which focuses on the natural history of the Colorado Plateau, whose thrilling rock formations bring visitors from all over the world, as well as on the native cultures of the area.  Finally, future astronomers will enjoy a visit to the Lowell Observatory, a research center established in 1894 which offers tours to the public and night sky viewings from a huge telescope.

Bearizona, at exit 165 off of I-40 is a drive-through wildlife park committed to connecting visitors to North American wildlife in a natural environment. Leave yourself an hour to drive through the park, as you’ll spot various mountain animals including black bears, bison, mountain goats and gray wolves, all from within the safety of your car. Here’s a place I don’t think you should be hiking.

The family will be ready for a good night’s rest once you’ve reached Williams, a quaint mountain town known as the “Gateway to the Grand Canyon.”

For more information and lodging suggestions on your next familiy road trip, visit the Arizona Tourist Guide.

Day 4: Circling the Grand Canyon

Hermits Rest Shuttle map
Hermit’s Rest Loop is served by a free NPS shuttle so you can park and just watch the view.

A great way to access the canyon is via the Grand Canyon Railway, departing daily from Williams at 9:30am, arriving at the South Rim entrance to Grand Canyon National Park at 11:45am. The train winds through all kinds of landscapes, from Ponderosa pine forests to dry, open deserts, venturing through drastic changes in elevation before reaching the park entrance.

At 277 miles long, 18 miles wide and 1 mile deep, the Grand Canyon reveals the magic wrought in this region by two billion years of geological time, and it’s massiveness is sure to amaze you. The Colorado River split and formed the canyon 17 million years ago, and today you can experience the splendor of the canyon by plane, train or automobile.

Just south of the entrance to the park is the National Geographic Visitor Center, a comprehensive mall offering information, guides, and retail shops, as well as an official outpost of the Arizona tourist office. The center also sells tickets to the national park for your family road trip, and features a 34-minute IMAX film, uncovering for viewers the development of the canyon over time. The National Park Service South Rim Visitors Center provides free guides, maps, displays, and audiotours you can play on your cellphone.

Pygmy Guides offers a number of day hikes to different parts of the Grand Canyon, while Grand Canyon Jeep Tours offers back-road excursions to some of the less-traveled and all the more breathtaking areas. Be sure not to miss the train back to Williams, which departs Grand Canyon Depot at 3:30pm, arriving at 5:45pm, just in time for dinner.

If you’ve driven here, you may want to think about the options available to see the Grand Canyon from all sides. First, let us say, the traffic can be crazy. Families should consider the Hermit’s Rest Trail Loop, a free shuttle bus that makes nine very scenic stops over a 7-mile tour of the South Rim.

There’s lodging all over, within the park and in nearby Tusayan, but you have to book that months ahead of time; however, sleeping this close allows you to drive both the East Rim Trail and the West Rim Trail without too much grief.

Very fit families may want to hike from the south to the North Rim, an arduous 21-mile expedition that requires a camping overnight in the middle. There is only one way to cross the canyon by automobile, and that drive is 137 miles from South Rim Village (at Marble Canyon, Arizona) via the Navajo Bridge, a few miles downstream from Lees Ferry, where the Canyon is only 400 feet wide. Not many families will choose to stay on this side.

From Lees Ferry, it is about an hours drive to the town of Page, Arizona and beautiful Lake Powell, the second largest manmade lake in the US.  Located on the border of Utah and Arizona in Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, it offers nearly 2,000 miles of spectacular shoreline with towering red rock sandstone cliffs, more than 90 major canyons, blue-green water and sandy beaches. It’s best viewed from the water and is an ideal family recreation area, where houseboating is very popular.

Over 8,000 feet above sea level, the North Rim of the canyon is pristine and primitive. However, lodging, gas stations and visitor centers in the area are few and far between. For those adventurous families looking to explore the North Rim on the way to Vegas, pick up 89-N to 89-ALT and take AZ-67 heading southwest for about 40 miles until you reach the North Rim entrance. After your stop, you can backtrack and once again pick up 89-ALT and eventually I-15 which will lead you directly to Las Vegas, although this will take a significantly longer amount of time than it would coming from the South Rim.

Day 5: Williams, AZ to Lake Mead, NV – 192 miles

Get an early start out of Williams for Nevada. If you leave town by Grand Canyon Avenue, you’ll be able to drive Historic Route 66. Stay on it for as long or as little as you’d like.  Here Route 66 is signposted as Route 161, and at many points flying west across Arizona desert to Kingman you’ll have a chance to access the much faster but less interesting I-40 W. After all, you have a big drive ahead.

Around Dolan Springs, you’ll head north to the eastern side of beautiful Lake Mead National Recreation Area. At an elevation of 1,221 feet, Lake Mead extends approximately 110 miles upstream toward the Grand Canyon and about 35 miles up the Virgin River. The width varies from several hundred feet in the canyons to a maximum of eight miles, making it one of the largest water reservoirs in the world.

While some families choose to camp in this area (and there are many RV and tent campgrounds), I suggest you park the car and rent a houseboat. There are several marinas where you can rent one with home-like amenities, plus a small power boat, inner tubes, floats and more fun water toys. Houseboats are a good value, too. Whenever you’re ready to move on, the next stop will be the outlet for Lake Mead: Hoover Dam.

Day 6: Lake Mead to Las Vegas – 130 miles

The Hoover Dam is at the Arizona/Nevada border, about a 90-mile drive from the eastern shore of Lake Mead. Situated in the Black Canyon of the Colorado River at 726 feet high, the Hoover Dam is one of the highest concrete dams ever built and an engineering feat that kids will enjoy.

Las Vegas — just 35 miles away — is just as much a paradise for children as it is for adults. Funky museums, outrageous amusement parks and plenty of outdoor activities are just a few of the things for families to do in Vegas. Be sure to check out wax figures of the most popular TV and movie stars, musicians and athletes at Madame Tussauds wax museum.

Springs Preserve is a 180-acre cultural institution featuring museums, galleries, outdoor concerts and events, gardens and trails. Living collections of native mammals and reptiles and an eight-acre botanical garden generate an understanding of the Mojave Desert, within which Las Vegas is situated, all making for a fun and interactive experience for kids of all ages.

Don’t miss one of the headline shows at Caesars Palace, or the Manhattan Express roller coaster reaching heights of 200 feet in the air over a replica of New York Harbor. It’s also worth getting tickets for Cirque du Soleil, one of the permanent attractions MGM Grand.

There are endless amounts of things to do and places to go in Las Vegas, and there are incredible hotel specials that can make this a bargain family destination. Do your hotel price comparison planning at Booking.com.
 

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