For nearly 2 billion years, wind, water and other forces tore away at an Arizona rock surface, leaving behind 277 miles of canyon that plunges up to a mile deep in places, offering spectacular views from the rim. No wonder the area, now an expansive national park, is called "grand." Located in the northwest part of Arizona, the Grand Canyon draws upwards of 4 1/2 million visitors annually.
To make the most of your time, try to stay overnight either within the park or in the nearby town, Tusayan, which is just outside the Grand Canyon National Park's South Rim entrance. While there is a park entrance on the North Rim, this area has fewer available services (the North Rim is a five-hour drive away, too). Entry is $25 per vehicle and is good for seven days. If you happen to go on Aug. 25, the National Park Service Birthday, entrance is free.
Once inside, there are free shuttles for visitors. These shuttles can go into parts of the park cars aren't allowed, and they'll drop you off right at the trailheads. There are four bus routes designated by color, depending on where they go in the park.
Exploring the Grand Canyon
There's no way to explore the entire Grand Canyon in one visit – so you're going to have to pick and choose. To get an overview, plus maps, stop at the National Geographic Visitor Center right outside the park. Here, your kids can learn about the area's history in exhibits and displays. Watch the IMAX movie, too, which delves into how the canyon was formed. Your kids will be mini geology experts by the time they get inside. Pick up info guides, too. Center entrance is free; the movie costs $13.72/adults, $10.42/ages 6-10 and free/ages 5 and under.
Head through the South Rim entrance and make a loop of the 25-mile Desert View Drive out to the park's east entrance and then back to the Grand Canyon Village before you park your car. The drive includes several viewpoints where you can stop for pictures. Then, park your car at the visitor center. Stroll through the indoor and outdoor exhibits and check out the observation points.
From here, it's time to start hiking. Grab a shuttle to go to the trailhead of your choice. For younger kids, you may want to stay on the rim trails versus descending into the canyon. There is little shade on the trails and they're much tougher going back up than down!
While there are mule trips down into the canyon, they are pricey and require your child to be 4 feet 7 inches tall – plus reservations are usually booked well in advance, so you can decide whether your family wants to hoof it or walk.
Another popular option for families is to rent bikes – tandem and stroller attachments available.
Try to catch a sunrise or sunset at the dazzling Hopi Point, offering wide vista views.
Become a Junior Ranger
Park rangers offer programs for families. For example, a "family adventure hike" departs at 9 a.m. every day except Sundays and Thursdays with a guide, starting at the Hermit's Rest trailhead. At the visitor center, check out a "discovery pack" between 8 a.m. and noon, which includes field guides, binoculars and more (packs must be returned within 24 hours). All these amenities are free.
Six Family-Friendly Hikes in the Grand Canyon
The Grand Canyon offers an array of hiking experiences, from paved walkways to steep hikes. Rangers suggest you dress in layers and bring plenty of water, sunscreen and salty snacks.
- The Rim Trail: Take your pick of smaller trails that are part of the larger 13-mile route, which is paved.
- South Kaibab Trailhead: Within the Rim Trail, take the paved path from this trailhead to Mather Point.
- Mohave Point: Also along the Rim Trail, start at Mohave Point and end at the Monument Creek Vista on this two-mile unpaved trail.
- Bright Angel Trail: A popular hike, this one goes down 4,460 feet to the canyon base. The entire trail is too long for one day, but you can venture through just a part of it and then head back. At the one-and-a-half-mile point, there's a rest house with water and toilets; four to six hours roundtrip.
- Hermit's Rest Trail: There is some rough terrain along this trail that's better for older kids. The 2.8-mile trip to Hermit Basin will take you two to four hours round trip.
- Desert View Watchtower: Walk a quarter mile from the parking area to the four-story Watchtower, which is free to enter and explore.