Visiting the Grand Canyon with kids is more than staring at one of the world's most incredible natural wonders. A Grand Canyon family vacation is all about adventure. It's about the journey, whether by car or train (or both!). It's about stopping along the way to enjoy the desert's beauty and mysteries. Check out what you need to know before you go and learn how to score some free potato chips for your summer road trip from Cape Cod Chips, no matter where the road may take you!
This post is brought to you in partnership with Cape Cod Chips.
When to Visit the Grand Canyon
Beautiful year-round, there's no bad time to visit the canyon. Keep in mind, though, that winter conditions can be extreme with snow and ice causing road closures. Conversely, on weekends in high season you may need to contend with heavy crowds both within the National Park and on the roads. Summer and spring break is especially popular, with loads of visitors making their way to the Grand Canyon during school breaks. In summer, add Phoenicians escaping the Valley's soaring temperatures for the relatively cool temps of the Canyon's high desert. Expect temperatures at the South Rim around 50-80 degrees Fahrenheit in summer months, with much toastier temps within the inner canyon. Most travelers will visit just the South Rim of the Canyon. The North Rim is only open from mid-May to the end of October (or the first good snow fall).
What to do at the Grand Canyon with Kids
If visiting the Grand Canyon with kids, honestly, a few hours is all you need to explore the South Rim unless you're a family of serious hikers. First order of business is oohing and ahh-ing at nature's magnificence.
Next up, snap a family photo in front of the canyon, of course! Be ever watchful when visiting the Grand Canyon with kids. If traveling with young children, this may be the time to invest in a safety harness or toddler carrier, for peace of mind. Do not take any risks to grab that selfie, either. On average two people die by falling into the Grand Canyon each year. The instances are rare – about one per every 400,000 visitors – but they usually occur when people are acting careless in order to capture the perfect picture or who are hopping about from rock to rock.
If you're thinking you'll hike down the canyon and back in a day, think again! It takes about four hours to climb to the bottom of the Grand Canyon and another six to eight to climb back up. If this is on your family's bucket list, you should spend a few months training for the strenuous climb, bring strategically packed daypacks, and make camping reservations at the bottom or mid-way one year in advance.
My husband, daughter (age 11) and son (age 8), opted for a 20-minute hike down the Blue Angel Trail and 25-minute hike up, with promises of ice cream at the top. My son was scared of the edge, so the boys did an even shorter hike than us girls. Believe me, going up is MUCH harder than going down!
When visiting in summer, check the sign by the Hopi House for traditional Native American dance times. The Navajo troupe performs authentic dances traditionally featured at powwows at scheduled times throughout the day.
If you've got more time to spare, a helicopter tour of the Grand Canyon is something your kids will surely never forget. Meanwhile dare devils would dig a stroll on the SkyWalk, a horseshoe-shaped glass-bottom bridge on the edge of the west side of the Grand Canyon. (This is something I'd love to do!)
Getting to the Grand Canyon
The drive from Phoenix to the Grand Canyon South Rim will take you about four hours if you don't encounter heavy tourist traffic or make any pitstops. Oh, but what a shame it would be to not stop along the way! There are some serious treasures to be found on your road trip from the Valley of the Sun to the Grand Canyon.
You could stop in gorgeous Sedona to hike among red rocks or cool off in summer months at the Slide Rock State Park, a natural waterpark of sorts. Or visit impressive Native American ruins at Walnut Canyon or Montezuma Castle. A trip to Meteor Crater near Winslow is a bit off course, but well worth the extra drive to see the massive hole that could fit 20 football fields, which was created by a flying space rock around 50 thousand years ago. These side trips are part of the joy of the journey to the Grand Canyon.
Train to the Grand Canyon with Kids
For a unique way to reach the Grand Canyon with kids, climb aboard the Grand Canyon Railway in Williams, Arizona (a little over 2.5 hours by car from Phoenix). The vintage train offers a variety of classes of cabins, from an non-air conditioned pullman up to a luxury domed-roof car that serves complimentary sodas, snacks (cheese and cracker tray, veggies and hummus, and an array of fruits) plus cocktails for purchase for parents.
The train is much more than transportation. Before boarding, train riders watch a live Old West shoot-out. On the way to the Grand Canyon, expect live musicians strolling through every class of car. On the way back, there's a make believe train heist, with actors riding their horses alongside the train before it stops so they can board and snag tips from riders. My grade school kids found the hold-up to be a fun diversion but be forewarned that a preschooler in our car found the whole idea terrifying. Watch the video below for a sampling of the live entertainment on board the Grand Canyon Railway.
Where to Stay at the Grand Canyon with Kids
Accommodations at the rim of the Grand Canyon are limited. Plan to make your hotel reservations about a year in advance if you want to stay within the National Park. If there's a hotel you really desire, my family has had success with calling daily for cancellations to snag a room. For more affordable and easier-to-book options a few miles outside the Grand Canyon National Park, consider hotel options in Tusayan instead.
El Tovar is the oldest and grandest resort at the rim, made of limestone and pine in 1905 to evoke a Swiss chalet. Growing up in Arizona, I made many visits to the Canyon as a child and I always dreamed of staying at El Tovar. On this last visit with my kids, however, we ate lunch at the El Tovar Dining Room and I was surprised by the low quality of the food and the surliness of the service. Still, the views can't be beat.
Why Visit Williams, Arizona
If you plan to do the train route as we did, you can bed down for the night in Williams. The Grand Canyon Railway offers hotel and train packages. The hotel isn't anything fancy, but the town sure is cute. Disney imagineers visited the towns along the old Route 66 for inspiration for the Cars movies and subsequent Cars Land at Disneyland. It's obvious they spent a night or two in Williams, which lights up like a scene from Cars with neon lights along its 15-mile-per-hour main drag. It's art-imitating-life-imitating-art at its finest.
Food near the Grand Canyon doesn't get high marks on Yelp for a reason. The same is true of Williams. Your best bet is to grab a table at the Historic Brewing Company, either indoors to watch the games on TV or on their outdoor patio. They offer EtchAsktetches for kids to borrow, plus an array of beers on tap and Grand Canyon Wine Co. wines for mom and dad. (Try the Arizona Pink wine for a sweet sips of strawberry and honey flavors.)
Wander through the town's kitschy shops for a Route 66 souvenir. For a little thrill, top off your night with a ride aboard the High Flying Family Adventure Zipline, which soars right over the wee town of Williams.
Make a Side Trip to Bearizona
My children's favorite part of our family Grand Canyon trip had nothing to do with the canyon itself. Instead, Bearizona is what they got all excited and squirrelly about telling their grandparents and friends after their first visit to Northern Arizona. This drive-through wildlife park near Williams affords guest the opportunity to see 17 species of animals including Arctic wolves, bison, dall sheep, and of course, bears.
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Do you have any questions or suggestions for visiting Grand Canyon with kids? Let us know in the comments below!
A Note from The Travel Mama: I received compensation and free product from Cape Cod Chips related this post. This story also contains affiliate links.