No matter how many photographs you’ve seen, the Grand Canyon will surprise you with its dramatic beauty, awesome vistas, and fascinating natural and cultural history. Start with its size: the canyon stretches for 277 miles with an average width of 10 miles and a depth of one mile. But it’s not just the size that amazes. The shapes and colors change with the light and your perspective. When the sun strikes the canyon’s walls in the morning, it turns them orange and red and in the late afternoon and evening as the light wanes, the rock walls morph to deep blues and purples. That’s what makes it a great bucket-list family destination.
Whether or not you arrive by the Grand Canyon Railway, it’s easiest to get around the park by using the shuttles. It’s wise to reserve lodging, guided tours, and dinners, where possible, as far in advance as allowed. All sit-down restaurants offer kids’ menus. Since the park keeps outdoor lights at a low level, consider bringing a flashlight with you.
Morning & Lunch
Start your adventure at the South Rim, the most visited area of the Grand Canyon. If traveling with grade-schoolers in love with western lore, arrive at the South Rim via the historic Grand Canyon Railway, which departs from Williams, Ariz., just after a staged shoot-out with bad guys.
During the two-hour-plus trip, admire the pine forests and the high-mountain desert, listen to strolling cowboy’s playing guitars, and beware of the Cataract Creek Gang, known to “rob” the passengers. Conveniently, the train pulls into the park at the foot of the historic El Tovar Hotel, a good place for lunch. Native American murals decorate the historic lodge’s dining room. But before sandwiches and burgers, get your first look at the spectacular canyon from the South Rim.
After lunch, go to the Visitors Center, watch the film about the canyon, peruse the options in the park guide, and obtain a Junior Ranger booklet. You and your children can achieve junior ranger status by attending ranger-led activities and coloring pictures, writing your observations, and completing the other items in the booklet. Your reward: knowledge of the park and a ranger certificate. Patches are available for a fee.
Explore the South Rim (it’s mostly flat) by walking or bicycling. Bright Angel Bicycles and Café near the Visitors Center rents bikes, including children’s bikes, trailers, and tag-alongs (one-wheeled bikes that hitch to your bike). Pedal on the greenway, a paved trail for cyclists and hikers, not vehicles, to Yaki Point, 2.9 miles from the Grand Canyon Historic District. The popular lookout offers scenic canyon views.
Dinner & Sunset Views
Choose from burgers, salads, sandwiches, and pizza at the Maswik Food Court. With older children, take a park shuttle to Maricopa, Hopi, or Pima points for views of the canyon before sunset, which can be past 9 p.m. in summer. As you head back to your lodging, be sure to look up to see just how bright stars can shine.
Rise early to hike a section of the 9.2-mile Bright Angel Trail with willing your grade-schoolers and teens. Try to be on the path by 7:00 a.m. when the temperature is cooler and the trail less crowded than later in the day. The descent into the canyon reveals another perspective, that of the canyon as sea bed millions of years ago. Look carefully at the canyon wall to spot fossils of coral and sea critters that lived long ago. You can find Indian pictographs just before the first tunnel.
Remember that the only way out of the canyon is to hike back up. In general, it takes twice as long for the ascent as for the descent. Since temperatures rise as you go further into the canyon, wear hats; bring snacks and several bottles of water per person. A good turn-around point with children 9 and younger is the first Rest house, 1.5 miles from the rim. With teens, consider going to the next Rest house, 1.5 miles further into the canyon for a total trip of 6 miles, half of it uphill. The Rest houses, open May to October, have toilets and water, but be sure to bring your own drinking water.
You might spot visitors on mules trekking to the canyon’s bottom and back. If you can handle two days in the saddle and the sun, reserve a spot on the mule train well in advance. Riders must be at least 4-foot, 7-inches tall and weigh less than 200 pounds.
Lunch & Afternoon
Chow down on sandwiches at the Harvey House Cafe at Bright Angel Lodge. Afterwards, return to your lodging for well-deserved naps.
Once revived, attend a ranger-led talk at the Visitors Center — the ones on the condors are especially popular — and/or take the park shuttle to the Yavapai Geology Museum where rangers may be speaking about the canyon’s formation. Admire the panoramic views of the canyon from Yavapai Point before boarding a return shuttle to the South Rim village.
With older grade-schoolers and teens, treat yourselves to dinner at El Tovar (reserve ahead). The pace is leisurely but the fare is the South Rim’s best.
Morning, Lunch, & Early Afternoon
Flightseeing, although expensive, provides awe-inspiring views of the canyon. From the air, the canyon unfurls as a vast expanse of pinnacles and buttes carved by the winding, blue Colorado River. Reserve ahead for helicopter or small plane tours.
If you don’t flightsee or if you have an early morning air tour, explore Desert View Drive, grabbing sandwiches from the Bright Angel Fountain for a picnic before you leave. The road stretches for 25 miles along the South Rim to the Watchtower at the South Rim’s eastern edge. Several lookouts deliver iconic canyon views. From the 70-foot-high Watchtower at Desert View savor a 360-degree view of the canyon, the Painted Desert, and the San Francisco Peaks.
Park shuttles do not go to Desert View. If you plan ahead, Xanterra can assist you with transportation to Desert View.
Return to the Grand Canyon Visitor Center at the village to receive your Junior Ranger certificate. You can also purchase a patch. Board the Grand Canyon Railway by 3:15 p.m. for the 3:30 p.m. departure to Williams.
If not taking the train, attend a ranger-led activity in the village and shop for souvenirs at the stores.
Dine on steak, ribs and burgers with a Southwest flair at the Arizona Room at Bright Angel Lodge. Slowly walk back to your lodging, admiring the canyon views as the capstone to your three perfect days.
How to Explore
Grand Canyon National Park Lodges provides the premier in-park lodging, managing six distinctly different lodges. From the El Tovar hotel, long considered the crown jewel of national park hotels, to Phantom Ranch, the only lodging on the floor of the canyon, you’ll find accommodations to help you get the most out of your visit to the Grand Canyon. You can also book rafting, railway, and motorcoach tours. For more information and reservations, visit grandcanyonlodges.com or call 888-297-2757.
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For more travel experiences to Beautiful Places on Earth™ available from Xanterra Travel Collection and its affiliated properties, visit xanterra.com/explore.