Local mom Maria Bassett reviews her family’s recent trip to the Grand Canyon. For more reviews of destinations both near to Greenville and worth the trip from Greenville, see our Travel from Greenville page.
“Hey look, there’s a hole in the ground.” That would be the statement my 6 year-old said as we approached the east entrance to Grand Canyon National Park. We had driven many hours, and finally there we were, ready to cross off a lifetime bucket list item, and my son calls the Grand Canyon a hole. It may be a national icon, but it certainly is no beach, playground, amusement park, or anything that little kids regularly associate with fun. But the Grand Canyon is unlike anything else. There’s beauty and wonder and awe that rivals anything I have ever seen. And there are many child friendly amenities and accommodations to help your family experience this amazing canyon. Here’s your guide for enjoying it with your children.
The Grand Canyon National Park
Grand Canyon National Park consists of both the north rim and the south rim of Grand Canyon. The south rim is where most people go to see the canyon. It is where the visitor center and all the hotels, restaurants and shops are located. For the purposes of this article, we’ll stay on the south rim.
Beginning at the visitor center on the south rim, the park spreads out to the west and east with the rim trail connecting observations points, and of course trail heads for the trails down into the canyon. It is not recommended for anyone but experienced hikers to hike down into the canyon. Warnings in park literature remind folks that even for experienced hikers it is dangerous to attempt to hike down and up the canyon in one day. Most people backpack and stay the night in the canyon. However, families remaining up on the rim will still see plenty. The rim trail is not strenuous and very scenic.
Grand Canyon Village, full of hotels, restaurants and shops lays to the west of the visitor center and beyond that are many scenic overlooks along the rim trail. Similarly, many scenic overlooks including the famous watchtower, as well as the ruins of a Tusayan native village, spread out along the rim trail heading east from the visitor center.
Shuttles at the Grand Canyon
The single biggest parent help at Grand Canyon are the free shuttles offered by the park. From the shuttles you can get to every major overlook point in the park, to the hotels and restaurants within the park, and to the hotels and offerings of nearby Tusayan, AZ. The shuttles on the rim of the canyon come every 15 minutes, giving guests many options. It’s hot and dry, and let’s face it, little legs are not up for big time hiking. But you still want to walk some of the rim trail? No problem. Ride the shuttle to an overlook point, the markers on the trail tell you exactly how far it is until the next overlook. Sometimes it is many miles, and sometimes it is only a fraction of a mile. You can decide if you’d like to walk the trail to the next point, or ride the shuttle. The mileage between points is also available on the park maps handed out at the entrances, so you can plan ahead. Additionally the shuttle bus drivers will be able to give you information and advice on where to walk and where to ride. Tip: The shuttles do not stop at every overlook on the return trip back to the visitor center, so double check to make sure the route fits with your plans. The drivers will be able to help you here, as well.
My family really enjoyed walking a mile long section of the rim trail west of the village in the morning before it got too hot. We hopped on a shuttle, rode to the next overlook and then walked another slightly less than a mile section. It allowed us to really enjoy the view as we walked and get a closer look at some of the amazing desert vegetation, without getting too hot and tired.
Where to Stay
Grand Canyon Village offers hotels with amazing views. These also come with a price tag to match. It is definitely the easiest to stay in the village when it comes to getting back to your hotel, or enjoying sunset, but if the price scares you off, you have other options. The nearby town of Tusayan, AZ has several hotels and restaurants. You are still dealing with tourist pricing here, but in some cases nearly half the cost of the hotels in the park. Remember those shuttles? They come right into Tusayan. So you can park your car at your hotel, and ride right into the park. You won’t have to wait in traffic at the entrance gate (shuttles have their own special entrance) or worry about running into deer or elk at dusk. This shuttle drops you off at the Visitor Center and from there you can hop on a shuttle to the west overlooks, the east overlooks, or the village. The shuttles are color coded and easy to navigate. The restaurants along the rim are available to everyone, not just the guests staying in the hotels. So if you’re looking for a more affordable option, consider getting a hotel in Tusayan, but come into Grand Canyon village for dinner so you can catch the amazing sunset over the canyon. There are restaurants in the park at every price point, from cafeteria style to super fancy.
Our family stayed in Tusayan, rather than the park. We had no difficulty navigating the shuttles to get into the park and around it. On our second day, we drove into the park instead. We did have to wait at the entrance through some traffic, but otherwise it worked well to park at the Visitor Center and ride the shuttle from point to point. Your other option is to avoid the shuttles completely and drive your car from point to point. There is some parking at the points to the east of the visitor center, so it is possible to drive your personal car to those points. However, there’s not always parking available. And this method doesn’t allow the driver to enjoy the view. We found the shuttle the best mode of transportation within the park.
What to Expect
Yes, to my son’s first glance Grand Canyon was a hole in the ground. A really, really big hole. A beautiful, vast, amazing, feel like you’re standing in the middle of a gorgeous three dimensional painting kind of hole. But, definitely not a hole you want to fall in. Many places along the rim have fences, and railings, and rock barriers. Many do not. The places that don’t have these barriers tend not to have straight down cliff style edges, but they still would be a disaster to fall from. I joked that my goal when visiting the canyon was not to lose a child over the edge. But it wasn’t really a joke. It is definitely not a place to let your children run on ahead of you on the trail.
Expect to see wildlife. We saw many elk (including babies!), mule deer and ground squirrels. It is so fun to view these animals in their natural habitat. However, do remember to keep wildlife wild. Don’t feed the squirrels, don’t try to pet the elk. Ground squirrels injure more people in the park each year than any other animal. They don’t have the weight of elk, or the venom of rattle snakes, but they do have the inability to tell the difference between a finger and a french-fry. They are bold little things near where people are eating, so be sure to shoo them away and not indulge their begging, cute though they may be.
Bring water. Lots of water. Not only is it hot, but Grand Canyon is at pretty high elevation. It’s dry. You need more water than you think you will. There are water bottle filling stations throughout the park, but not at many overlooks. Use the map to plan where you will fill up, and make sure to bring enough for all members of your party. This is another great thing about the shuttles, if you stay on the rim trail the most you’ll be waiting for the next shuttle is 15 minutes. Then you can hop a shuttle and ride to the next water station. However, shuttles only stop at overlooks.
Bring snacks. There are many restaurants in the village, and a snack bar at the east end and the west end of the park, but there isn’t much in between. Hint: There’s an ice cream shop along the rim in the village section, at the back of the Bright Angel Restaurant. We enjoyed stopping there after walking and riding the shuttle along the rim to the west.
Visiting Grand Canyon has been a bucket list item of mine ever since I was a child, and I was so happy to share the experience with my family. We only stayed 2 days, but it was unforgettable. I hope someday soon, you’ll get to experience it as well. When you do, I hope that this gives you some ideas for navigating Grand Canyon comfortably with children.
Have your kids seen the Grand Canyon?