One of the top destinations in the U.S., the Grand Canyon should be on your road trip itinerary through the Desert Southwest. Mingle with visitors from around the globe as all stand on the edge of this majestic landscape. Load up the family and see what to do at the Grand Canyon with kids.
What To Do on Your First Trip to the Grand Canyon
Stop by the Grand Canyon Visitors Center
Grab a Junior Ranger Booklet for Kids
Watch the Grand Canyon movie at the Visitor Center
Walk along the Rim Trail
Or rent bikes to explore
See sunset or sunrise at Yaki or Mather Point
Tour the Historic Grand Canyon Village
Walk through El Tovar Hotel
Shop for crafts at the Hopi House
Walk through Kolb Studio
Look over the Grand Canyon edge’s at the Lookout Studio
Find the Bright Angel Trailhead, it heads to the bottom of the canyon
Around the Grand Canyon Visitors Center
When you have just a few hours to explore, park near the Grand Canyon Visitors Center (open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.). After grabbing the Junior Ranger booklets for the kids, watch the Grand Canyon introductory movie. Then take a moment to look over the Junior Ranger booklet to see what’s required to earn a patch.
After exploring the Grand Canyon Visitor Center, walk outside and head to the edge of the Grand Canyon. This where to pick up the Rim Trail to Mather Point, both must-dos.
Kids want tour the Grand Canyon on a bike? Rent bikes next to the Visitor Center, all bike sizes and helmets are available. Pack a cooler and picnic. I found several picnic tables throughout the Mather Point area.
Surprisingly Grand Canyon National Park offers amazing sunsets, or sunrises for the early risers. The best spot to witness a symphony of nature, stop at Yaki or Mather Point. I’ve seen visitors moved to tears at the beauty of this experience.
If time allows, tour the Historic Grand Canyon Village. Additionally save time and take the shuttle bus or walk along the Rim Trail.
Historic Grand Canyon Village
First take a walking tour of the Historic Grand Canyon Village. Then check in at Verkamp’s Visitor Center if you missed the Grand Canyon Visitor Center.
Another must stop by the Log Train Depot to see how visitors visited the Grand Canyon 100 years ago and still do. The Grand Canyon Railroad (GCRR) offers daily departures from Williams, Arizona, along Interstate 40.
Next walk up the stairs to El Tovar and see the rustic elegance of historic landmark. If the kids are up for it, take a walk through the lobby or sit in the rocking chairs on the front porch.
Additionally walk through the Hopi House, a building that resembles a traditional Hopi structure. Designed by Mary Colter, buy traditional arts-and-crafts from the Hopi People inside.
Then the Lookout Studio is made of rock and Colter designed it to blend in with the environment. Similarily the Kolb Studio used to be a photography studio. Both studios offer unique vantage points for looking over the rim.
Next the Bright Angel Lodge features brightly painted details and walk through the lobby to appreciate. Inside find the Geologic Fireplace that displays the layers of rock as they are found in the Grand Canyon.
Finally pass the Kolb Studio to find the Bright Angel Trailhead. A well-maintained trail the famous mule train uses to get to Phantom Ranch on the bottom of the Grand Canyon.
Since it’s 12 miles roundtrip to Plateau Point or 9 miles roundtrip to Indian Garden it’s not a day hike for most families. Though the hike to the first tunnel is .36 miles roundtrip or the first switchback is .9 miles roundtrip.
TIP: Wear appropriate clothes and shoes then pack water and snacks no matter how the length of the hike.
Other Places to Explore
Desert View Watchtower
Each time I visit the Grand Canyon with my family, I see a new feature of the canyon, a new viewpoint. During my last trip, I explored the Desert View area and climbed Mary Colter’s Desert View Watchtower, her Grand Canyon masterpiece.
Looking through the tiny square windows that dot the exterior, I saw the Colorado River at the bottom, a ribbon of green water.I envision that Colter framed each view to enjoy, like a painting.
After emerging from the tower, I took a moment and absorb the surroundings. To my delight, I smelled the desert perfume of pinyon pine and sage after an afternoon rain.
Since a mule trip to the bottom of Grand Canyon is a once-in-a-lifetime adventurereservations are required. And it takes about five hours each way with lodging and meals provided.
The Market Plaza features a general store, ATM, post office, amphitheater, laundry and pay showers.
Yavapai Lodge and Mather campground are located near the Market Plaza. Find the camper services in the Market Plaza too.
What to do at the Grand Canyon with Kids
The Junior Ranger Program is the go-to program for families to learn more about this UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s free and takes about two hours to complete. My kids love the patches that the Park Rangers present them after completing their booklet.
The Grand Canyon Junior Ranger Program hands out a booklet specially designed for each age group. To earn the Junior Ranger badge, families are required to attend a Ranger Program and I found a program list at the visitors centers.
Raven Award–kids aged 4 to 7, though I’ve been helping my youngest since he was 3
Coyote Award–kids 8 to 10
Scorpion Award–kids 11 and older
For night owls, the Grand Canyon offers the Night Explorer Junior Ranger Patch. Kids attend a special Night Skies Ranger Program and complete the booklet that’s available at the visitor centers.
If a trip to the bottom of the canyon is in your itinerary, a special Junior Ranger Program, Phantom Rattler Junior Ranger Patch, is awarded at Phantom Ranch, a 10-mile journey, one-way.
Grand Canyon National Park History
The first human artifacts found in Grand Canyon National Park date back 12,000 years. Though the Colorado River started carving the Grand Canyon long before that. To date, it measures 18 miles wide, one-mile deep and 277 river miles long.
First protected in 1893 the Grand Canyon was proclaimed a national park in 1919. The Fred Harvey Company, a NPS concessionaire, defined the look of this park, along with others in the area.
One of the most notable buildings is the El Tovar Hotel (1905). Built with local limestone and Oregon timber the hotel offers rustic elegance. As I walked through the doorway, my eyes glanced up to the rough-hewn logs that surround me in the lobby. I can only imagine the relief of a well-heeled, dusty traveler upon finding this oasis of luxury in a land of harsh extremes a century ago.
Mary Colter, the head architect at the Fred Harvey Co., designed buildings that blended seamlessly into the environment by using local materials and motifs of the Southwest. She designed the Bright Angel Lodge, the Phantom Ranch, the Hopi House, Hermits Rest and Desert View Watchtower, all registered National Historic Landmarks.
The Civilian Conservation Corps worked in the Grand Canyon during the 1930s to make it more hospitable to visitors. They worked on improving the Rim Trail and the trails to the bottom of the canyon.
Spending the Night at the Grand Canyon
If you are spending the night, park your car near your lodge. Then use the shuttle bus to get around. Since the majority of the lodging is located around the Historic Village, check in at Verkamp’s Visitor Center (open 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.).
For our adventure at the Grand Canyon, I chose the Bright Angel Lodge (1935) located steps from the El Tovar on the south rim. A historic property that’s the perfect backdrop for my kids to conjure up a western adventure.
First find brightly painted, hand-carved doors of the lodge. Then the log and stone cabins sprinkled along the rim, kids love rambling through this property. In the Bright Angel History Room, find the Geologic Fireplace. Then show the kids the rock layers of the Grand Canyon as they are found on the canyon wall.
The cabins feature modern bathrooms and furnishings though it’s a tight fit for most families. Unfortunately most Bright Angel cabins have one queen bed with room for a pack-n-pack or rollaway. At the Bright Angel Lodge, we enjoy breakfast featuring Southwest-inspired items along with traditional items and kids’ menu.
El Tovar Hotel is the premier historic property on the South Rim. Each room or suite is individually decorated, a great choice for adults.
One day I hope to take the famous mule train to the Phantom Ranch (1922) on the Grand Canyon floor. For this once-in-a-lifetime adventure, the trip takes about five hours each way. Lodging and meals are provided and reservations are required.
Or stay at one of the four modern lodges built in the 1960s. The Kachina Lodge and the Thunderbird Lodge are on the rim. The Maswik Lodge and the Yavapai Lodge are not. A good option for families who need more space.
Where’s the Grand Canyon
The Grand Canyon is divided by the North Rim (open seasonally) and the South Rim. I’ve visited both and recommend the South Rim for your first visit.
The Grand Canyon South Rim is located 59 miles north of Williams, on Highway 64. The South Entrance is the most popular gateway taking visitors through Tusayan, a tourist town full of food and lodging.
For the East Entrance, drive north from Flagstaff on U.S. Route 89 to Highway 64. This route is a great alternative to the South Entrance and provides a scenic drive along the rim from Desert View Watchtower to the Grand Canyon Village.
Make it a National Park Vacation.Grand Canyon National Park is 250 miles from Zion National Park, 280 miles from Bryce Canyon National Park and 200 miles from Petrified Forest National Park.
Williams (WMA) is an Amtrak destination and a stop for a regional bus service. The closest airport with commercial flights is Flagstaff, Arizona (FLG), 80 miles away.
For a unique experience, visitors can take a historic train into the park with the Grand Canyon Railroad. With several packages available the GCRR offers daily departures from Williams. Then arrive at the historic Grand Canyon Train Depot, located across from the El Tovar Hotel. The Grand Canyon Train Depot is a log building train station, the only one in the U.S. still in operation.
Getting Around Grand Canyon
Grand Canyon National Park remains open 365-days a year and 24-hours a day. Admission is $30 per vehicle for a 7-day pass or you can use an America the Beautiful annual pass or other park pass($80).
And find the most parking at the Grand Canyon Visitor Center. Depending on the season, Grand Canyon runs several free shuttle buses traveling along the south rim. Please check with GCNP for all current routes and times.
Need More Information
Since I own several National Park Guides here’s what I recommend. I use a combination of Moon Travel Guides and National Geographic Maps. Both offer more information if you need plan an extended trip. Or course, the National Park Service website is another source of information, especially for current conditions and closures.
Know Before You Go
- Make reservations for lodging and tours as soon as possible. So make lodging reservations to 13 months in advance.
- Since the cabins are cool in the summer they don’t feature air conditioning for summer guests.
- The North Rim of the Grand Canyon is closed from October 15 to May 15 due to seasonal road closures.
- Most importantly be prepared for winter weather including several inches of snow.
- Suprisedly the roads in Grand Canyon National Park are not plowed as frequently as the highway leading into the park.
- Find year-round campgrounds for winter camping and a full-service RV park.
- I found restaurants at El Tovar Hotel and Bright Angel Lodge. Or try the snack bars at Maswik Lodge, Desert View and Hermits Rest.
- For the Phantom Ranch Mule ride, riders must be 4’7” and weigh less than 200 lbs.
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