A place that is on most people’s bucket list is the Grand Canyon. This natural wonder is a must-see destination for families who love to hike and be outside.
The Grand Canyon was carved over 6 million years ago by geological activity and erosion by the Colorado River. It was first protected in 1883 and became a National Park in 1919. It’s a mile deep and is at a high elevation (7,000 feet on the south rim; 8,000 feet on the north rim). It’s massive – larger than the state of Rhode Island at 277 miles long and 18 miles wide. It takes over five hours to drive from the South Rim to the North Rim!
It’s the second most visited park in the National Park system (only surpassed by the Great Smoky Mountain National Park) and is visited by almost 6 million people a year. The oldest human artifacts in the Grand Canyon are over 12,000 years old, and many Native American tribes still call the region home.
The Grand Canyon is so massive, it’s hard to describe. My younger son kept saying it looked like a green screen; it didn’t look real! It is hard to comprehend just how big it is even while standing on its rim. You cannot see all of the sites in one trip, so it’s important to pick your top must-sees before you go. Choose either the South Rim or the North Rim to visit unless you have time to drive the five hours between rims!
We visited the South Rim in April for spring break, and this information is based on that trip. We only scratched the surface of visiting the Grand Canyon so know that this is not a comprehensive guide to a multi-day visit. For more in-depth coverage, I encourage you to look at the guides listed in the Books to Read section at the end and check out the NPS guide to the North Rim if you’re interested in it. Also be sure to use the NPS guide to planning your vacation safely.
Our goal was to experience as much of the South Rim of the Grand Canyon as we could in 3 days. Visiting the South Rim is fairly easy with little to no hiking needed to see down into the Grand Canyon. Plus it’s convenient from Phoenix (3.5 hour drive). The North Rim is more convenient from Las Vegas but note that the North Rim is closed for snow most of late fall through spring/early summer (expected opening in 2023 is June!).
Lodging in the park fills up one year in advance so be sure to check out the South Rim’s only lodging company, Xanterra, if you want to stay in the park itself. The grand dame is the El Tovar Hotel which opened in 1905 (poke your head in the lobby if you’re not staying!). Note that most of the hotels in the park are rustic and not luxurious.
You can also easily stay in the little town of Tusayan just one mile from the southern entrance to the park. There you’ll find more accommodations and restaurants. We stayed at The Grand Hotel at the Grand Canyon in the little town and enjoyed our stay. It is one of the few hotels in the area with a pool, and it’s nice to be around a variety of restaurants.
Another fun option with kids is to take the Grand Canyon Railway to the park. This is best for young families who won’t be doing a huge hike but want to get an unforgettable experience for both adults and children. The railway begins at the quaint little town of Williams (of Route 66 fame!), and there is a hotel linked to the railway. You take the 2 hour, 15 minute train ride from Williams (including entertainment and a Wild West shootout!) and get deposited in the middle of the Grand Canyon Village. You can stay for just the day or spend the night at a hotel in the Village before taking the train back. It’s a unique and memorable way to get to the Grand Canyon!
When planning your trip, be sure to research the typical weather during your dates. I knew summer isn’t great (it’s so hot and full of torrential storms!), so we chose to visit in early April during spring break. However, with the elevation, the canyon is still very cold and snowy in early April! We weren’t able to do many of the outdoor activities we had planned, including biking and a half-day float down the Colorado River.
Also note that going into the canyon affects the temperature. It gets hotter as you descend, especially in the summer! Just pack accordingly and know that layers are best!
The Grand Canyon is best seen by car, but in the high tourist season, it can also be best seen by bus. Even if you’re taking the train or staying in Tusayan, you can use the buses (buses from Tusayan only in the summer). In fact, if you want to visit the Village and aren’t staying there, I recommend parking at the Grand Canyon Visitor Center and taking the bus to the Village. Parking at the Village is extremely limited.
Note that if you are staying in Tusayan, you must enter the park before 9 am to avoid huge hours-long backups at the entrance. This happened during our spring break trip, well before high season! Not having to go through the entrance is one of the best reasons to stay at a park hotel. Pro tip: Buy a 7-day Grand Canyon pass or the America the Beautiful pass online, and you’ll be able to use a special line – once you get in sight of the entrance!
Be sure to download the Gypsy guide driving app to learn all about the history as you’re driving.
There are several visitor centers/museums at the South Rim. Begin your trip at the main Visitor Center, which is the first place you’ll come to after entering through the southern entrance. The Visitor Center is huge (but was unfortunately closed during our visit!) and includes a 20-minute orientation film. You can talk with park rangers here, get your Junior Ranger booklet, and visit the park store (separate building). This is also the location of the Blue Angel Biking Company (see more in the biking section below).
A must-visit is the Yavapai Point and Geology Museum (a few minutes away by car; 0.7 mile hike from Visitor Center). This was one of my favorite stops at the Grand Canyon! It’s a small museum all about the geology of the canyon, how it was formed, etc. There is a small park store here as well.
The best part of the museum is the stellar views you get from its windows! You can see some of the best views of the canyon from a temperature-controlled building (since it was freezing and windy while we were there, this was important to us!).
If you’re not going down to the river, this may be your only chance to catch a glimpse of it from the South rim. Look closely to see it – it looks so small because it is that far away!
Take the bus to the Village, which is quite historic – read this detailed history of all of its historic sites. Unfortunately, it was too cold for us to see much of the Village on our visit. The Verkamp’s Visitor Center is at the edge of the Village and is housed in a historic home. Its displays discuss what it was like to live and work here in the early 20th century, including the famed “Harvey girls.” There is a small park store here as well.
Don’t miss the chance to see the canyon from a different angle in the Village!
Your hotel can help you with setting up activities and adventures, but be sure to secure any reservations well in advance of your trip. Check out the Xanterra recommendations for tours and activities for more information.
The Grand Canyon is a hiker’s dream – but it’s also a very dangerous place. Even if you think you’re an experienced hiker, the trails here will put that to the test, especially on hikes down into the canyon. If you want to go there, I recommend hiring a guide (we used Only Grand Canyon Day Hikes and highly recommend it!). I can’t stress enough that it is impossible to judge the distance you will be able to hike from the rim. Pay attention to signs and NPS notifications about water availability, weather, etc. It is not a place for novice hikers and small children with narrow, steep trails and no guardrails. My children are teens, and I was still worried! If you want to scare yourself silly, check out the book listed below about all of the deaths that have occurred on the trails. I am glad I read it AFTER our hike!
The easiest hike to do is the Rim Trail, a mostly paved 13-mile pathway along the South rim. This is best for families (there are railings all along the rim but still hold tightly to children!) and is mostly stroller-friendly with no guide needed. If you’d like a guide, check out the NPS-approved Grand Canyon Conservancy 3-hour guided rim hike or Only Grand Canyon Day Hikes rim hike.
- Park at the Visitor Center and walk the Rim Trail to the Yavapai Point and Geology Museum (0.7 miles each way). Come back and then take the bus to the Village where you can walk along the rim and/or take the shuttle bus to additional observational points along Hermit Road.
- Hike the 1.4 mile part of the Rim Trail from Yavapai Point to Verkamp’s Visitor Center to do the Trail of Time geology walk. We didn’t get to do this since it was so cold on our visit.
- Be sure to see sunset at one of the overlooks on the Rim Trail. We went to Mather Point, and it was spectacular!
To go down into the canyon, you can take the Bright Angel Trail or the South Kaibab Trail. Both of the trails are accessible without a guide but be warned, they are steep and challenging, especially in the winter/spring with snow and ice on the trails! I highly recommend using a guide if you plan to go down into the canyon! Our guide provided us with the food, water, and hiking gear needed (especially the crampons for our shoes!) and gave me the security I needed to be able to attempt this hike. Note these trails are not recommended for young, active children as the trails are narrow with no guardrails.
The Bright Angel Trail is accessible from the Village. We did not do this trail, but use a guide if you want to go past the NPS-recommended turn back for families (see NPS guide above).
The South Kaibab Trail is accessible via the shuttle bus just east of the Visitor Center. Note there is no parking at the trailhead. We took this trail on our guided hike, and it was gorgeous but challenging. We hiked almost 2 miles down into the canyon, stopping just past Cedar Ridge (there is a bathroom here). And then we had to make the 2 mile hike back up – it was extremely hard! Thank goodness for our amazing guide and the hiking gear he provided (crampons, poles, etc.). Note the narrow trails in the pictures below.
For additional info on the hiking trails and latest news updates, be sure to check out the NPS website before your hike.
If you don’t want to hike down into the canyon, a mule ride is an alternative. We saw a pack of mules taking tourists down into the canyon on the South Kaibab Trail. They look sure-footed and safe, but I don’t know if I could handle being on its back, staring down into the abyss! Be sure to tell your children to stay far away from the mules as they will kick! For the South rim mule rides, book through Xanterra. Note that the mules have the right-away on the trails.
The Colorado River lies at the heart of the Grand Canyon. However most people only get to see glimpses of the river from the rim since the river is miles away. One of the most memorable ways to see the river is on a guided raft tour.
In the Grand Canyon itself, you have to budget for at least 3 days on the river (camping out along the way), so I don’t recommend that for families – unless yours is more adventurous than mine! Check out this link for more information on these multi-day tours.
We wanted to experience the river and planned a half-day float on the Colorado River through Wilderness River Adventures out of Page, Arizona (2.5 hour drive from South Rim or a short plane ride – see here for more details). Unfortunately, a delayed flight and cold, blustery weather prevented our tour. It looks great for families and seems to be a memorable experience!
We also rented bikes to use along Hermit Road (which is closed to vehicles from March – November). However it was too cold and windy to do this in early April! You can rent bikes from Bright Angel Bikes located at the Visitor Center and choose for a guided tour or to strike out on your own. In high seasons, it’s recommended to rent in advance.
There are lots of other activities (motor coach tours, Jeep tours, skydiving, helicopter rides) so check out the guidebooks below for more details.
Day Trips from the Grand Canyon
If you get tired of the canyon (or it’s too cold to enjoy as in our case!), there are plenty of other things you can do in the area.
Watch an IMAX movie about the Grand Canyon:
At the visitor center in Tusayan, you can watch a National Geographic IMAX movie about the canyon.
Have fun along Route 66 in Williams (1 hour drive):
We visited the small town of Williams, Arizona, which was the last town on Route 66 bypassed by I-40, and had a lovely day walking its quaint streets, shopping its cute stores, and eating at its throw-back diners. You’ll feel like you are in Radiator Springs (from the Cars movie!). Don’t miss the amazing pies at Pine Country Restaurant! Stop into the visitor center here as well. Outlander fans note – this is where Diana Gabaldon was born!
Visit the wild animals at Bearizona (1 hour drive):
This was our kids’ favorite activity! Bearizona is a drive-through wildlife park and zoo with bears, wolves, and other animals. You drive through the park and then walk around a fun zoo (kids will also love the train exhibit in the gift shop!). Your entrance fee (while steep at $30-35/person) lets you drive through as many times as you want. We did a second loop and were thrilled (and a bit scared!) when a bear sauntered on the road right in front of us! This can be done in conjunction with a visit to Williams.
Visit the Arizona Snowbowl for skiing or great summer views in nearby Flagstaff (1.5 hour drive):
It was too snowy for us to venture here as non-skiers but it looks fun!
Venture to the famous Skywalk over the Grand Canyon (5 hour drive):
This tourist attraction on the Hualapai Reservation allows you to view the canyon on a glass-bottomed walkway 70 feet from the rim. I’ve heard it’s amazing but also terrifying! Note this is on the way to the Grand Canyon from Las Vegas.
- One Day: Take the Grand Canyon Railway from Williams and walk around the Village. Eat lunch in the famous dining room at the El Tovar Hotel (make reservations!). Take the bus to the Visitor Center and walk the Rim Trail to the Yavapai Geology Museum. Take the train back to Williams and eat dinner at a cute diner on Route 66.
- Three Days:
- Day 1 – Start at the Visitor Center and take the bus to the Village and museums/visitor centers along the route. End the day with sunset at the beautiful Mather Point or another overlook.
- Day 2: Hike the Grand Canyon. Hire a guide and go down into the canyon. Rest after lunch and go out for stargazing at night.
- Day 3: Rent bikes and travel Hermit Road (closed to vehicles), stopping at the overlooks. Spend the afternoon in Williams, Bearizona, or Flagstaff, coming back for dinner in Tusayan (kids will love the pizza at We Cook Pizza and Pasta restaurant or have a steak at The Grand Hotel’s steakhouse).
- For additional days, add in a half-day float on the Colorado River from Page, Arizona.
The Grand Canyon is one of those places everyone needs to see at least once! It’s truly a wonder of the world.
- Cost: $35 entry fee (free with the Every Kid in a Park pass for 4th graders); to save time, buy your pass (a 7-day Grand Canyon pass or the America the Beautiful pass) online before your trip
- Recommended: all ages
- Tour time: 2-3 days
- Gift shops located at all hotels, visitor centers, and museums in the park or online here
- Dining options: Each hotel has its own restaurant, the most notable being the dining room at the El Tovar. See your options here. Tusayan has several good options, including The Grand Hotel’s steakhouse, We Cook Pizza and Pasta, Big E Steakhouse, and Plaza Bonita. The food at the canyon is quite expensive so you might want to stock up on breakfast or snacks before arriving.
- Nearby hotels: Xanterra is in charge of all lodging on the South rim of the park, which ranges from campgrounds to the historic El Tovar hotel. To stay outside the park, check out The Grand Hotel in Tusayan. We loved our room, which was spacious and nice!
- Nearby attractions include: Williams, Arizona, Seligman and Peach Springs, Arizona (inspirations for Pixar’s Cars movie’s Radiator Springs), Flagstaff, Arizona, and Bearizona
Books to Read:
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