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When planning to visit the Grand Canyon with kids, I had a secret fear. (Is it actually a secret if I told my husband, my therapist, and several friends?) I was worried that one of my kids would fall off the edge. That’s right, I’m a seasoned mom and traveler, my kids are 11 and 13, and I was still worried about losing them at the Grand Canyon.
Fortunately, Grand Canyon National Park offers plenty of adventure for visitors of all ages, whether you need safe spaces for small children or a bit of adrenaline for teens and tweens. With bike trails, ranger talks, and even mule rides, parents and kids can plan a visit full of fun, with gorgeous canyon views as the backdrop. Here’s how to plan ahead to find the right itinerary for your family trip, and enjoy a visit that is hopefully free from worry with memories to last a lifetime.
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Grand Canyon Village
When I first visited the Grand Canyon years ago, we stopped at a quiet overlook on the North Rim. There were no other people around, and my friend and I gazed out over the canyon quietly, contemplating life (just kidding, we took selfies).
On our recent visit, my family decided to stay in Grand Canyon Village on the South Rim so that we could spend plenty of time in the park. Grand Canyon Village is bustling and crowded at times, with hotels, restaurants, shops, and lots of tourists.
To my surprise, I loved it.
We heard almost a dozen languages as we walked along the rim of the canyon. We saw all sorts of families and groups. The vintage buildings, many of which have been there since the early 1900s, felt quaint, not tacky. And anything we needed was just a short walk or drive away – not just souvenirs, but also groceries and hiking supplies.
Like most national parks these days, the Grand Canyon is extremely popular, with millions of visitors every year. To avoid large crowds, I’d say the best time to visit is early in the morning before most tourists arrive or late in the evening after many visitors have left the park.
The Visitor Center was one of the few places that actually felt crowded during our visit. We were there around noon, and people were streaming everywhere, filling the areas that overlooked the canyon. Happily, with a landmark this large, everyone who visits has plenty of space to enjoy the view.
Summer is the peak season, so visit another time if you want to avoid long lines. I have a friend who visited the South Rim of the Grand Canyon in January and happened to see the canyon covered in snow. She said it was breathtaking!
A big surprise of our visit was all the wildlife we saw. As soon as we entered the park, we noticed mule deer and elk grazing along the side of the road.
Wandering along the rim trail at sunset, we were startled by a timid mule deer clambering up over the side of the canyon and walking right in front of us. As dusk fell over the park, many elk and deer wandered into Grand Canyon Village, where they apparently like to spend the night in the grass outside the hotels.
When we went for a short hike the next morning, we saw a bighorn sheep scrambling up the canyon walls just off the trail. And at one of the overlooks off of Desert View Road, a giant elk was competing with the scenic views for attention from photographers.
In many areas, the wildlife didn’t seem to mind being around people. And while that’s fun for photos, I wouldn’t recommend getting anywhere near those sharp antlers and hooves. During your visit, be sure the humans with you keep their distance even (and especially) when the animals decide to come close.
Things to Do at the Grand Canyon with Kids
Bright Angel Trail
Bright Angel Trail is a historic trail that is popular with beginner and expert hikers. While it does descend all the way to the Colorado River and to the canyon floor, that trip is a 13-mile hike that only advanced hikers should attempt. (Thirteen miles one way, that is. You’ll have to spend the night at the bottom of the canyon.)
When you enter the park, you’ll receive a map of the canyon’s trails, along with a helpful color code showing which trails are best for beginners. If you’re traveling with children, I recommend staying within the green areas of the map. We hiked the green portion of Bright Angel with our teen and tween. And while we did see families with children as young as six on parts of the trail, it may not be a good fit for many families due to the sheer cliff drop-offs along the path.
Mather Point and the Grand Canyon Visitor Center
Mather Point is one of the busiest areas of the Grand Canyon, but it’s worth parking at the Visitors Center and then walking the short, 5-minute trail to see this beautiful lookout. While you’re there, chat with the rangers outside the Visitor Center or pick up a Junior Ranger booklet at the Park Store.
Stop at Bright Angle Bikes by the South Rim Visitor Center and rent bikes for the whole family. There are several family-friendly trails along the rim, and families with younger children can even rent bike trailers and tandem bike add-ons. (They also offer stroller and wheelchair rentals, as well as grab-and-go snacks. So yes, it’s family heaven.)
With hikes, bike trails, ranger talks, and even mule rides, Grand Canyon National Park offers adventure for visitors of all ages.
Grand Canyon Shuttle
Shuttle rides are included with park entrance fees, and they are one of the best ways to get between various areas. If you struggle with maps the way I do, then it may take some time for you to adjust to the vast scale of the Grand Canyon. Even the various parts of Grand Canyon Village are a good distance apart, and shuttle buses are the easiest way to get from place to place. Bonus: they also allow access to areas that are closed to private vehicles. Strollers are allowed on the shuttles as long as they can collapse, and the park shuttles are wheelchair accessible.
The North Rim
Want to drive from one rim of the canyon to the other? Plan on a 4.5-hour drive! While it’s not going to make a good day trip, one of the best things about the North Rim is that it’s the perfect destination for anyone wanting a quieter Grand Canyon experience. According to the National Park Service website, only 10% of Grand Canyon’s visitors stop at the North Rim yearly because the location is so remote. Services at the North Rim are only open May 15 through October 15 due to heavy snow, so don’t plan a spring break trip to this area!
Grand Canyon Mule Rides
The iconic mule rides at the Grand Canyon vary depending on which area you visit. On the South Rim, mule trips are available only for riders ages 9 and up. The two-hour rides on the East Rim Trail are a great way to see different views of the canyon and have a bit of adventure. Prefer to go down into the canyon on your mule? Then you’ll need to sign up for the overnight ride to Phantom Ranch at the base of the Canyon. Weight limits apply for both rides.
Mule rides are also available on the North Rim, and they are a terrific choice for families who want to go down into the canyon without the overnight commitment. The minimum age is 10 for a 3-hour ride that descends partway into the canyon. For families who want a similar experience for younger kids, there’s a one-hour ride along the rim available for ages 7 and up.
The Rim Trail
The Rim Trail is a flat, 13-mile path along the rim that presents beautiful views without the difficulty of hiking into the canyon. Parts of the trail are handicap and stroller accessible, and there are frequent shuttle stops for whenever you’re ready to call it a day. Plus, it’s dog-friendly! Many sections of the trail do not have barriers between the path and the sides of the canyon, however, so keep a careful eye on young children and pets.
Yavapai Museum of Geology
Want to see the Grand Canyon, but worried about little feet dashing off the trail? Parents will love the Yavapai Museum of Geology, which has big picture windows that allow families with young kids to view the canyon with no worries about fences or drop-offs. The museum has scale models of the North and South Rims as well as a hands-on topography map that will bring the canyon to life for little ones.
Desert View Watchtower
This one is more for the adults on the trip, although kids can tag along too. Drive out to visit the historic Desert View Watchtower, which was built in 1932 and designed by architect Mary Colter (who also designed Hopi House and Bright Angel Lodge in Grand Canyon Village). Colter based the tower on the architecture of the Ancestral Puebloan people, and at times the park service hosts cultural demonstrations from tribal artisans in the tower.
Grand Canyon National Park offers ranger programs at the North Rim and South Rim, covering topics including astronomy, geology, wildlife, and conservation. Ranger programs are a great way to learn interesting facts from the people who live and work at the Grand Canyon.
I had heard about the Skywalk, the glass bridge that extends out over the Grand Canyon. But I was surprised to learn it’s located about five hours from Grand Canyon Village. The Skywalk is in the area known as Grand Canyon West, located on the lands of the Hualapai Tribe. There’s lodging and food available nearby, as well as other activities for adrenaline-seekers like ziplining and whitewater rafting.
When You Go
Where to Stay
I highly recommend staying inside Grand Canyon National Park. There’s a wide variety of lodging options, from the mid-century hotel rooms of Thunderbird Lodge, Kachina Lodge, and Yavapai Lodge to the RV and tent campsites of Mather Campground. Spending the night in the park means you can experience canyon views late at night or early in the morning when many of the crowds are gone.
El Tovar Hotel is the luxury option inside the park, and it has hosted multiple presidents, Paul McCartney, and Oprah. Our family loved staying at the moderately priced Mazwik Lodge, which felt a bit like a summer camp. The Mazwik North buildings are older, with camp-inspired names like “Acorn” – these rooms tend to be cheaper and often have more availability. For the next step up, stay in one of the newer buildings of Mazwik South, which feature interior entry rooms and have adorable names like “The Burrow.”
Another easy option is to stay in the nearby village of Tusayan. The area has several hotels, including a Holiday Inn, and during the summer a shuttle system will take you right to the visitor center within the park.
Where to Eat
Dining options at the Grand Canyon range from fancy steak dinners to quick sandwich stops. During our visit, we enjoyed the Mazwik Food Court. This restaurant offers several choices for each meal, a casual setting, and plenty of seating. We were able to find something to please everyone without a lot of hassle or planning. Another good option for families is Fred Harvey Burger, which is an easy walk away from the canyon rim and has a special kids menu.
While many of the restaurants are located near the historic lodges in Grand Canyon Village, you’ll find snack bars at various points of interest. Desert View Trading Post offers ice cream, coffee, and a view of the old watchtower with the canyon in the background. Hermit’s Rest and Bright Angel Bikes offer pre-packaged sandwiches to travelers on the go.
The Grand Canyon Village Market is a general store with a wide selection of groceries for travelers who want to cook their own food. Hidden just inside the door you’ll also find a deli sandwich counter; this is a great place to grab a quick lunch when other restaurants are overcrowded.
How to Get To The Grand Canyon From LA
Flagstaff Pulliam Airport is an hour and a half away from the Grand Canyon and has connecting flights from Denver, Phoenix, and Dallas.
The closest major airports are in Phoenix and Las Vegas. Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport is a 3- or 4-hour drive away from the park, and Harry Reid International Airport in Las Vegas is a 4.5-hour drive. Both airports offer direct flights from Los Angeles on several major airlines.
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Another excellent discount site for flights (and cars, hotels) is Expedia!
If you are driving a car into the park instead of taking a shuttle, know that entrance lines to Grand Canyon National Park can be long at peak times during the summer. Try to arrive in the early morning or late evening to avoid a significant wait. (If you have an America the Beautiful pass, you can join the express line when it’s open.)
For an extra bit of fun, climb aboard the Grand Canyon Railway in Williams, Arizona. The train ride will take you straight into Grand Canyon Village, and you may even experience an Old West holdup along the way.
If everything the Grand Canyon offers feels a bit overwhelming, remember: the main thing is to show up with your family and enjoy the view. You don’t have to plan expensive outings or fancy meals to make a worthwhile trip. The Grand Canyon will bring that special vacation magic all on its own.
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