Everything to Know About Family Vacations to the Grand Canyon

Last updated 21st May 2018

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Why Go

As one of the original seven natural wonders of the world, the Grand Canyon really needs no introduction. It’s lure is natural and it draws visitors from all over the world. Anyone who hasn’t seen it in person will always wonder “can a gash in the earth really be so big?” And, of course, the answer is yes.

It is big, it is beautiful, and it will amaze kids and adults of all ages. (Okay, so maybe yearlings will be immune to the grandeur, but they will beam with pride in later years upon their return visit to know they had already been there.) How big is it really? It’s 277 miles long and up to 18 miles wide, though the average width between the north and south rims is around 10 miles. At it’s deepest, from rim to river a stone would fall 6,093 feet before splashing into the Colorado River—a sparkling silver sliver that in many ways is the cause for the canyon to exist in the first place.

While the native Pueblo people have known of and inhabited in and around the Grand Canyon for thousands of years, the first European, García López de Cárdenas of Spain, came across it in 1540 and never ventured down to the river. It wasn’t visited by Europeans again for 200 years. But in 1776 European and American exploration of the area ramped up and Civil War veteran Major John Wesley Powell made the first river expedition through the canyon in 1869. Then in 1903 President Theodore Roosevelt visited the Grand Canyon which led to Federal protection in 1908 as a US Monument and then as a National Park in 1919.

Where to Go

The majority of visitors to the Grand Canyon hit the South Rim. Lodging options near the South Rim range from the half dozen or so lodges that are actually in the park along with an RV park and a few campgrounds. Beyond the park there are hotel and motel options in the nearby towns of Tusayan (7 miles from the park), Valle (30 miles), Red Lake (43 miles), Williams (60 miles), and the nearest city is Flagstaff (80 miles).

Even with all of these options, it’s best to book as far in advance as possible, especially for lodging in the park. There is also a smaller and slightly less crowded portion of the national park on the North Rim where there is only one lodge and one campground. Outside of the park on the north side there are just a handful of hotels and motels along the road to the park

The closest towns, which have some lodging are Fredonia in Arizona (77 miles) and Kanab, Utah (84 miles). There are also a few established campgrounds on the north and south side of the canyon and there is also the option of dispersed camping in the Kaibab National Forest for completely self-sufficient travellers.

What to Do

There are so many ways to enjoy the Grand Canyon, even as a multi-generational family. Here’s a quick breakdown:

  • By Car. The easiest way to take in the view is to drive the length of Highway 64 that runs along the South Rim from the East Gate to the South Gate. There are literally dozens of places to pull off the road to see the canyon itself. Some of them involve a little more walking than others and most of them are wheelchair accessible. There are also a number of non-viewpoint stops along the way where you can learn about the area including the indigenous residents like at the Tusayan Museum and Ruin, the Train Depo, the McKee Amphitheater, and a number of visitor centers. There are also some off-road tour outfitters on the south side that take children of all ages. The North Rim also offers driving viewpoint stops along the two main roads on the plateau above the canyon rim, including the main road to the North Rim Visitor’s Center and a side spur to the Walhalla Overlook and the parking area at the trailhead to Cape Royal.
  • By Foot. Along with all the little walking paths from the various viewpoints there are also a few hiking options like the Rim Trail that runs 13 miles along the South Rim. It passes through most of the major viewpoints that are also accessible by car and shuttle but then goes beyond the bulk of the crowds to lesser visited areas and viewpoints. Since it parallels the shuttle bus route it’s easy to just hike what’s appropriate for your group and shuttle the rest of the way. Then there are the two trails that go down into the canyon. The NPS website is good about providing warnings that only those prepared for the exposure to the sun, heat, and the effort required to hike back out of the canyon should attempt these trails. It’s easy going down, but people often get themselves in too deep and then need help getting back up to the rim. The North Rim has over a dozen day hikes of varying lengths including the Kaibab Trail which goes down to the Colorado River and connects to the South Rim via Phantom Ranch (not a day hike). There are other access points into the canyon from the national forest, but they go into the park and often a backcountry permit is needed.
  • By Boat. Interestingly, the most relaxing and thrilling way to experience the Grand Canyon is by boat. Starting at Lee’s Ferry, boaters embark on multi-day journeys floating down the Colorado River, camping along the way. Boat types range from huge motorized rafts to small oar powered wooden dory’s. Some brave the waters in kayaks and on stand-up paddleboards. While there are no age restrictions for private boating parties, commercial outfitters often limit the motorized raft trips to 8 year olds and the oar powered trips to 12 year olds.
  • By Air. While the Grand Canyon can be seen from jet airliners (actually, it can be seen from the International Space Station, too!), a more intimate aerial experience can be had via both charter airplane and helicopter tours.

Getting Around

While the North Rim is primarily a self-drive (or road bike) area, the South Rim offers a shuttle system and has a number of bike specific pathways which help alleviate traffic during the peak season. Two of the four shuttles run all year and some areas are only accessible by shuttle, especially during the peak season of March through November. There’s even a shuttle that comes into the park from Tusayan to serve those lodging options.