We visited Grand Canyon this summer, and I’ve shared some highlights over on my YouTube channel, if you fancy watching the video.
Or read on for our top tips for families visiting Grand Canyon with kids.
VIDEO DIARY OF OUR TRIP TO GRAND CANYON
Like many people, “The Grand Canyon” was always on my travel bucket list.
But until you actually start planning these things, I don’t think most of us realise just how enormous “The Grand Canyon” is. For starters, the Canyon is almost 300 miles long and spans three US states.
Like many people, we headed to Grand Canyon from California, which meant the most convenient place to visit was the South Rim of the Canyon in Arizona.
Although it looks SUPER close on the map, it’s actually around 500 miles from the coastal cities of LA or San Diego to the Grand Canyon Village. This translates into a good 9 or 10 hour drive, depending on traffic.
This brings me to tip #1…
Break the Journey
If you’re travelling with kids, driving 500 miles without a break is nobody’s idea of a good time. On our way out, we were driving from San Diego and drove 2 hours North to Palm Springs, staying in an amazing Air BnB.
I’ll be honest, there’s not a LOT to do in Palm Springs if you’re not into mid-century design, and it’s so ridiculously hot in summer (it didn’t dip below 45 degrees the entire time we were there) that you might not want to do much.
That said, if you have a pool and air conditioning, you’ll be fine. If you fancy it, there’s a cable car to the top of the mountain and you can also drive out into the desert. But we just took the opportunity for some pool time.
This might sound negative, but even a shop assistant at the mall said to us, “Why would you come to PALM SPRINGS?” when she heard our accents, then said, “Ah. Right.” like it made total sense when we told her it was a stopover.
Fill up the Car
Driving to Grand Canyon can also be tiring because, honestly, driving for 5 hours on a dead straight road with no turns, no junctions and nothing to see except desert? Gets boring. It’s also ridiculously stressful if you’re not on a full tank. Seriously.
We left Palm Springs on the I-10 in the morning without about a half tank of petrol. I guessed. My rental car was one of those without a petrol gauge needle, just some digital bars – and it looked like we had 4 out of 8 bars.
About 20 miles down the highway I saw a sign saying the next gas station wasn’t for 70 miles – so I figured, well, I’ll do that and the tank will be getting low, and I can top it up completely. Simple.
About 3 miles later we took a sudden left onto another the CA-177. A dead straight road with literally NOTHING on the sat-nav. No roads, no buildings, no nothing. No mobile signal. Just a little sign by the side of the road: “Warning: Turn off Air Conditioning”.
And my petrol marker dropped down to 3 bars.
I checked on the sat-nav where the next gas station would be, and it was over 200 miles.
I’m not going to lie. I spent the entire time doing precisely 60mph on cruise control, melting in the almost 50-degree heat and wondering if we’d be eaten by vultures OR coyotes when we absolutely, definitely ran out of petrol.
Fortunately, about 70 miles down the road by a customs checkpoint at the junction with the I-75, there’s a tiny convenience store with petrol pumps, and it was open. No word of a lie, I almost cried with relief.
But the lesson I learned was – never, ever start driving in the desert with less than a full tank. It’s just not worth the stress. And make sure you have a cooler with a lot of water and cold things, too.
Book in Advance
You can actually stay inside the Grand Canyon National Park. There are camping pitches available and – at the South Rim – a range of lodges and hotels.
But be warned, these get booked up very quickly and early in the season. We stayed at the Bright Angel Lodge, and when we booked in February for a room in August, there were only two rooms left at the lodge. It’s very basic, with a simple room, double bed, no air-con, no WiFi, and shared bathrooms. Our room did have a private W/C and sink, though.
The big plus is it’s very affordable (around $90 a night) and best of all, you’re just a few feet from the very edge of the Grand Canyon. Being able to get up in the morning and walk 20 seconds to see the Canyon? Well, it’s priceless, I reckon.
Although we stayed 2 nights at Bright Angel lodge, it’s worth noting that there’s no mobile signal AT ALL in Grand Canyon National Park and WiFi is hard to come by. For visitors, it’s paid access in the visitor centre, and for hotel guests there’s free WiFi but we found it’s only really functional in the hotel lobby.
For this reason, on our last night we moved to the Grand Hotel. This independent hotel is a 5 minute drive away, just outside the park gates. Flea got to watch TV and make use of the hotel pool, and I got to catch up on some work before we drove back to LA.
Another tip – when you check into your hotel and park your car, leave it there. Day visitors pour into the park each day, and if you abandon your parking spot, you might struggle to find another one. There are free shuttle buses that will take you anywhere you need to go within the National Park.
Set Ground Rules for Kids
It’s entirely possible I’m more neurotic than your average parent, but OH MY GOD the first time you realise that most of the Grand Canyon is just THERE without any sort of fence or barrier is a moment that made me
a bit nervous completely terrified.
Yep. In some of the bigger, more well established viewpoints there are short walls between the path and the Canyon edge, and one or two viewpoints have fences. But most of the Grand Canyon is just … there.
Did you know that at some points the drop to the bottom of the Grand Canyon is a mile deep?
I actually had to cover my eyes at regular points during our visit, watching 20-somethings on the edge of a flippin’ 1,000 foot cliff edge jumping in the air to get the perfect Instagram shot. Dear God.
With Flea, our rules were simple.
Six feet from the edge at all times.
When you’re walking along a path, I will always be between you and the edge.
If you’re climbing on something and I haven’t said it’s okay, I will personally hurt you.
Oh, and I put her phone on one of those rubber cords attached to her belt, so that if she dropped it, there was no temptation to reach out to try and catch it.
Your kids might roll their eyes but about 12 people a year die falling into the Canyon, and most of those aren’t deliberate. Including a guy who died reaching for his hat, after he dropped it, and a four year old who fell off while walking on a path with her parents.
Basically, you know your children. If they’re old enough to follow rules and be sensible, you’ll be fine. The paths are very well maintained and level, and there are lots of viewpoints with barriers where they can get closer to the edge.
If your kids are lively and giddy, or if you own one of those kids that likes to run off? Honestly? This isn’t the destination for you. Even if your kids survive, you’ll likely have a stroke from the stress of it.
Head for Tusayan
When you arrive at the Park, you’ll go through the small town of Tusayan.
Here you’ll find a whole bunch of independent and chain hotels, along with every sort of restaurant you can imagine.
I’m not going to lie, we’d been on the road for almost three weeks. And sometimes on a long road trip with kids, there’s a lot to be said for heading to McDonald’s for lunch and using the free WiFi while you chomp down burgers. But I chatted with other visitors who told me there are some decent Mexican restaurants and great steakhouses.
While you’re in Tusayan, do stop off at the National Geographic Cinema to book tickets at their IMAX movie theater. During the day, they show a really fun movie about the history of the Canyon, and in the evening they show regular movies in IMAX format – while we were visiting they were showing Dunkirk.
Book a Helicopter Tour
For many of us, seeing the Grand Canyon is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, so you might as well make the very most of it, and book a helicopter tour.
There are multiple firms offering tours, and the local firms will fly from Grand Canyon Airport, which is a 2-minute drive on the edge of Tusayan. We flew with Papillon and the experience was really seamless. I will say the phone service isn’t the friendliest, but we got a great deal, so I can live with that.
We booked online, then had to telephone the day before to confirm our booking (since we had zero phone signal we had to beg our hotel receptionist for use of the phone).
When you book, you’ll need to provide everyone’s full details and weights, so if you’re travelling with kids, it might be worth weighing them before you leave home. When you check in at the airport, you’re weighed (it’s very discreet, you just stand on some footprints and the agent behind the counter can presumably see the display) and then there’s a short safety briefing. We were also told to bring Photo ID, but it wasn’t checked at any point.
Our pilot came to collect us from the waiting area and along with four other passengers we took a 30-minute flight over the Canyon, which was just… spectacular.
It can be a bit nerve-wracking, especially when the helicopter tilts to the side as it turns, but it’s a unique way to really see the Canyon and the variety of the landscape.
Book a Jeep Tour
If you’d rather keep your feet on the ground, then I do recommend Big Pink Jeep Tours.
We took a sunset tour, which lasted around 2.5 hours, and took in various viewpoints along the South Rim of the Canyon, culminating in the most spectacular view of the sun setting, from a quiet ridge away from the crowds.
Our tour guide was Native American, and it was amazing to hear the legends and history of the native people, and how they viewed the Canyon.
On a Budget? Take the Bus
One of the things I really loved about the Grand Canyon National Park is how easy they make it to get around.
When you check in at your hotel or at the Visitor Centre, you’ll be given a map showing the free bus shuttle routes. There are multiple buses that travel along the Canyon stopping at key points of the South Rim, as well as various campsites, hotels, restaurants and the village centre.
All the buses and the visitor centre were fully accessible.
If you’re heading out to the Rim from the Visitor Centre, look for the Express bus that skips all the village and hotel stops along the way. The visitor centre has a fun 3D movie experience and it’s also handy because it shows the best times and places to see sunrise and sunset, along with key weather information and storm warnings.
The free shuttle map also shows how far the walking distance is between the different Rim bus stops – so you can easily take the bus and know that you can walk 1 mile or 4 miles, then pick up a bus again. I think that’s invaluable if you’re with children, who might not be up for doing a very long walk in the hot sunshine.
The great thing is you don’t HAVE to do organised tours or bus trips. You can simply roll off the bus, walk along the well-marked Rim trails that take you along the top of the Canyon, with your picnic, and get back on a bus at the end of the day. Simples.
Food and Drink
Inside the National Park there are a range of restaurants and cafes where you can buy food. The bike hire shop also sells sandwiches and picnic items although be warned – the range for vegetarians is basically non-existent.
Personally, I’d suggest bringing your own picnic supplies because a) the kids will eat it and b) who wants to sit in a restaurant when you could grab a seat on a bench along the trail, and look at The Grand Canyon??
Also don’t forget reusable water bottles because the shops and cafes in the National Park won’t sell ANY bottled water. If you have your own bottle (or buy one) you can top up for free with Grand Canyon Spring Water at any of the dozens of taps located along the trails.
Bonus tip – bring some sanitiser because the wildlife use those taps, too.
I hope you found these tips useful, but if you have any questions, do let me know in the comments!