Family Vacations to the Grand Canyon

Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona
Grand Canyon (Corbis)

Grand Canyon National Park Highlights

  • Stroll part of the South Rim Trail.
  • Hike, if you can, even a small section of the inner canyon.
  • Catch the views of the canyon and the Painted Desert from the Watchtower.
  • Go on flightseeing trip above the canyon.
  • Raft the Colorado River.

No matter how many photographs you've admired or panoramic scenes you've imagined, Arizona's Grand Canyon will impress. The cliffs change color by the hour, the river swells with the rain, and the wildlife shifts with the seasons. During the day the canyon may appear as a series of wheat-colored pinnacles and ridges striated with pink and purple; at sunset, the diminishing light ripples across the rock layers, creating waves of deepening rose, magenta, and rust until the ridgeline fades to a thin, moonlit silhouette. The canyon stretches for more than 277 miles, averages ten miles in width, and has a depth of about one mile. This just might be the definition of grand.

A visit to the Grand Canyon is not just for the adventuresome who make the 15.8-mile, two-day hike from the South Rim's Bright Angel Trail to the Colorado River and back up again (wonderful as that is for athletic teens and adults). For the best experience, take time to linger and look, something that kids do very well. Most visitors start at the South Rim, although the harder-to-reach North Rim (open mid-May to mid-October) has equally impressive views...and many fewer visitors. For stunning views on the South Rim, especially with little ones too young to venture into the inner canyon, stroll part of the flat, mostly paved Rim Trail. A good choice is a section of the three-mile stretch between Yavapai Observation Point to Maricopa Point. With each bend the canyon takes on a slightly new perspective enhanced by the contrast between the rim's green ponderosa and piñon pines and the treeless canyon formations that glow red, pink, and yellow with the sun.

A highlight of the Desert View area, east of the main village, is the Watchtower, a 70-foot-tall stone tower with breathtaking panoramic views of the canyon, the Painted Desert, and the river far below. Nearby, Tusayan Ruin is the remains of an Anasazi Indian village constructed around 1185 A.D. A small museum displays artifacts. Other scenic stops are Moran Point and Grandview Point, with views to Navajo Mountain, Utah, and Yaki Point, especially dramatic at sunset.

Hiking the inner canyon, even for a short while, gifts you with close-up views of the canyon's millennia of rock layers. A goal for many families is the Rest House, 1.5 miles from the trailhead along the popular Bright Angel Trail. Along the way you'll find fossils of corals, sharks, and sponges, testaments to the fact that this region—at an altitude of over 7,000 feet—was once underwater. Another good option is the South Kaibab Trail. Along the 1.25-mile trip to Cedar Ridge you'll pass through a geological timeline punctuated by layers of Kaibab limestone, Tarroweap formation, Coconino sanstone, and Hermit shale.

A flightseeing tour by plane or helicopter, mule trip, or raft trip makes for an unforgettable way to experience the canyon in all its eye-popping grandeur. The Grand Canyon Chamber of Commerce has a list of operators. Seven-hour mule trips go to Plateau Point and two-day trips take you to the Colorado River and back. (Riders must be trustful of the mules' surefootedness on steep slopes, taller than four-foot-seven, and weigh less than 200 pounds.) Book this popular trip up to 23 months ahead through Xanterra Parks & Resorts. Raft trips, which last from three days to three weeks, give you a taste of the whitewaters and wonders encountered by John Wesley Powell and other early explorers. The Grand Canyon National Park website has links to commercial operators. Again, be warned that you'll need to book well in advance.

Tip: Avoid hitting the trails from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., the hottest part of the day. Always carry plenty of water and snacks, wear a hat, and use sunscreen. When hiking the inner canyon, remember that it takes twice as long to hike back out than to hike down.

Recommended Side Trips: Phoenix, Sedona, Page, Petrified Forest National Park, Zion National Park (Utah)'s resident family expert Candyce Stapen has written the book on family travel, having authored some 1,400 travel articles and 27 books, 26 of them on family travel. She is the winner of the 2004 "Caribbean Travel Writer of the Year for North America" award and a three-time winner of the Society of American Travel Writers' Lowell Thomas Travel Journalism award. Her articles have appeared in publications including Nick Jr , FamilyFun , Parents , Better Homes & Gardens , Conde Nast Traveler , National Geographic Traveler , and the Family Travel Network , among others. Her book, the National Geographic Guide to Caribbean Family Vacations is available from

Published: 3 Oct 2007 | Last Updated: 17 Aug 2012
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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