I am going to take this part of our winter road trip adventure and put it into guide form, the Family Guide to the Grand Canyon! The only reason I am doing this is because as I was going through our photos I couldn't help but think, "man I really wish I stumbled on a blog while planning this trip to outline all the MUST SEES and MUST DOS of our trip". So, I'm paying it forward and maybe a family is trying to plan their adventure to the Grand Canyon and I'm going to tell them where they can eat the best food in the park, and give them a list of 'don't forget to pack this'.
.STAYING. When we went to Yellowstone and the Grand Teton National Parks in 2015 I was bummed we couldn't stay INSIDE the national parks. I have read that national parks book one year in advance for summertime. Although we were traveling to the Grand Canyon in December, I didn't take any chances, back in December 2015 I booked our room for December 2016. I did some research and Maswik Lodge was what we chose for accommodations based on price and reviews, and I specifically booked for the North units. I read that the South was basic. Now the North units were basic too, but I can't even imagine what MORE basic looked like haha. Don't get me wrong, our room was rustic, but it was clean and had everything we needed, heat, fridge, hot water, housekeeping, rollaway bed, TV, etc. And we are really die hard national park tourists, up by 7am and don't come back to the room till 8pm kind of tourists. If we are in a park we want to see it all, dawn till dusk. So I don't need luxury for sleeping arrangements. We stayed 3 nights total here.
.EATING. Since you never know where you'll be during mealtime and my kids get hangry fairly quickly, I always have packed snacks on hand. We were in Flagstaff before this part of our trip so we stocked up at Whole Foods on beef jerky, trail mix, power bars, etc. You'll want to be sure to have your refillable water bottles with you in the park. We packed our Swell bottles, one for each of us, and they have refilling stations everywhere, but no bottled water is sold in the park. Yay for being green National Park service! Maswik has a cafeteria-like restaurant where they have different stations, and they also have a pizza pub which was where we ate one lunch, and it was delicious. Each night we stocked up on breakfast items since we wanted to eat in the room so we could get going quickly. They have dry cereal, milk, oatmeal, gluten free options even!, hard boiled eggs, muffins. Then we would make hot oatmeal and have cereal, or protein bars before heading out for the day. The Keurig was great for heating water. All faucet water in the park is pumped in from the North Rim and safe for drinking. I really recommend this, you aren't rushing in the am and it never hurts to skip a restaurant meal. The one dinner option I had to make dinner reservations for was at El Tovar. It's their oldest, most historic hotel, and their dining room is pretty fancy. It's a really nice treat, and it was our first dinner in the park. I booked dinner a few weeks/maybe 2 months in advance, but I'm guessing in summertime you'll need a few months to get a reservation. The second night we went to the Arizona Room at Bright Angel Lodge and it was fantastic too! It's southwest menu made everyone happy and the views of the canyon cannot be beat. Their chili was wonderful! It's a little cheaper than El Tovar but definitely nicer than your regular cafeteria meal. Go at dusk, and early, it's first come first serve seating so to avoid the rush, be there when they open. Our last meal was at the Bright Angel dining room and it was pretty good, not like the other two nights, but no complaints. I have to say that the kids' menus in the park are really reasonably priced, so take advantage of that. Gunnar tried to sneak an order off the kids menu (or two) whenever he could, sometimes you just can't beat two of the kids burgers versus an adult burger. The above picture of the five us is just outside El Tovar Hotel.
.HIKING. There was a lot of snow on the ground when we were there, they had just had a storm and it was beautiful! But it made hiking a little tricky. We hiked the Bright Angel Trailhead for a little bit and the views are just stunning! Be warned, if you go in winter time and they just got snow, you'll need good traction on your feet. I did not have good shoes along with, so I had to hold on to Aaron's elbow for the duration of the hike. But the kids had no problem. There are mules that use this trail although we didn't see any. But if you encounter one they get right of way, so you have to go way close to the wall to let them pass. They usually take off down the trail in the early morning. They have a ranch down at the base of the canyon that you can only get to by mule or on foot, called Phantom Ranch. It's about 6-7 miles down to the ranch. All photos above were taken on Bright Angel Trail. There is another hike I really wanted to do, Kaibab Trail, which is a switchback zig zag trail, but it is steep and it was icy this week, so we didn't go. If you go during other parts of the year, be sure to add that to your hiking list! The South Rim trail is really more like a walk, and I highly recommend it for the views of the canyon. We walked from the main Visitors' Center down to the Geology Museum, which is less than a mile. But there's points all along the way to stop and admire the view. Mather's Point is just a short walk from the Visitor's Center as well.
.JUNIOR RANGER PROGRAM. I highly highly recommend the first stop of your entire visit to be at the visitor center. We headed there first thing when we entered the park, before even checking in to the hotel. We talked with a ranger about what hikes they recommended, what days and times ranger programs were, and the kids got their junior ranger booklets. I do this because they are the best source to tell you what is open or closed and what must see items to add to your list. They also know the weather forecast and the kids get started immediately on their books. I cannot tell you how much they learn from this program, it's amazing. And it's free. Each national park gives junior rangers who complete the program a little badge or a fabric patch, depending on the park. They get sworn in as junior rangers when they complete their booklet. I would also recommend asking them how many ranger booklets they have available. On the second to last day Sawyer discovered there was a special paleontologist and centennial booklet that he could complete, so he and Greta did 3 booklets in all, getting 3 badges their final day. But it was a rush that final night to finish those extra 2 books. And it keeps the kids REALLY busy during dinnertime and off screens. Win win.
.ACTIVITIES. About two weeks before we left, again you'll want to do it further in advance during peak season, we booked a mule ride for Aaron, Gunnar and Greta. Sawyer is allergic and I volunteered to stay back with him. It was a 2-3 hour total adventure, and they loved it! They did the South Rim Mule ride and although I don't have many photos, except a few iPhone photos, I do have video and that will be coming hopefully later this month. While they were enjoying the mule ride, the non-riders went to the Geology Museum and hit up the geology ranger program which was great. At the Geology Museum there's a small view of the Colorado River from the observation windows. We took a 3 hour bus tour one morning which cost $60 per adult, free for kids, and it picked us up at Maswik Lodge and drove out to Hermit's Rest, with stops all along the way to get out to take photos and see the different views of the canyon, and you get a lot of history about the canyon and the architects. Once you get to Hermit's Rest there is a little snack bar and souvenir shop and bathrooms along with a lookout post. The last major activity we did was the 25 mile drive to Desert View Watchtower. They have plenty of parking, so we took our car and we wanted control on where to stop along the 25 miles. I had been on the fence about this activity but am SO GLAD we did the drive. It was one of the highlights for me, and the views of the Colorado River were the best here! And be sure you go INSIDE the Watchtower. It is just the neatest thing. If you're a little claustrophobic, beware because the staircase is spiral and it's busy and tight. We hit up one more ranger program so the mule riders could get their books signed. We did the Critter Chat at the main Visitor Center.
Here's our quick activity schedule:
Mon.- 3pm enter park and head to Visitor's Center, get booklets, check in to hotel, unpack, head to dinner at El Tovar Hotel dining room
Tues.- morning hike on Bright Angel Trail, quick lunch at Bright Angel Lodge before mule ride at noon, Geology Museum/South Rim trail/Ranger program for non-mule riders, clean up and shower the mule hair off :) before dinner at Arizona Room
Wed.-9am bus tour to Hermit's Rest, back to Maswik by noon for lunch at Pizza Pub, afternoon spent driving out to Desert View Watchtower, stops along the way to and from, back by 4pm to Critter Chat at Visitor Center, then watch final sunset at Bright Angel Lodge and dinner there. Shopping and photo ops all throughout the day :)
.WILDLIFE. Hands down one of the best parts of being inside a National Park is the wildlife. The Grand Canyon has one of the largest populations of elk and it did not disappoint! We saw wildlife everyday. A lot of mule deer, and elk! Look how close they all were. Elk is the first photo and mule deer the bottom.
.SHOPPING. Yes, I have a shopping category! Because souvenirs are one of the best parts of vacationing in a national park. Every visitor center and hotel has a gift shop and every shop has different items! Yes, that means I have to stop in and see what is at each place. That way I don't feel pressured to buy a t shirt I like at the first stop because what if I like one better later?! This way I see what is available at each of them and come back to get my favorite. I collect little wooden postcards from national parks, and there was only ONE shop that sold them, it was at Bright Angel Lodge and Sawyer spotted them. They had a really good souvenir shop with great t-shirts if you ask me. Our other favorite souvenir shops were at Maswik Lodge, Greta found her hat and t-shirt there, and the Desert View Watchtower has a general store, not their gift shop, but a large general store in a separate building. It's half market and half souvenir shop and they had great items. I found my mug which is also what I collect on vacation, Gunnar a t-shirt, and Sawyer found a hoodie he had been searching for. But don't take my word for it, pop in each souvenir shop and take a look around, you won't regret picking up at least a few postcards. My loot is pictured in the photo above.
One last thing to share in this category, I really loved this idea I had about souvenir money for the kids. I shared it in an Instagram story but it's worth mentioning here. We always budget terribly for souvenirs for the kids, and they end up costing a fortune by the end of the trip. So I thought ahead this time. We really wanted to use our Amex points as much as possible on this trip so I ordered ahead a bunch $25 gift cards using our points, 6 cards in all. 2 for each kid. We explained before we left that they each had $50, $25 on each card, and that was their spending money for souvenirs. They were all excited with the dollar amount which was a good start, and then I was so impressed how they budgeted for the entire trip. We made three stops on our road trip: Sedona, Flagstaff, and Grand Canyon. And they mostly spent their money in Sedona and Grand Canyon, and they were so thoughtful about what they spent their it on. When they took their items to the register they felt so adult pulling out their little Amex card and handing it over to the cashier. They even got to sign the slip of paper and then they could see how much they had left on the cards. I highly recommend this for large families when it comes to vacation shopping.
.PACKING. It was cold! Definitely warmer than our time in Flagstaff, but still it ranged from 30-48 degrees most of the day, and dipped into the 20s at night. I recommend layers! As you're walking or standing in the sun you'll heat up and can peel off your beanie or scarf or maybe take off your jacket. I asked the ranger about summer and she said it gets up in the 90s during summer and they have flash floods and sudden rainstorms, so I would put rain slickers on my list if I was traveling in the warmer season.
.CROWDS. Compared to our other National Park adventures to Yosemite, Yellowstone and Grand Tetons, the Grand Canyon this time of year was not bad at all. I remember in Yellowstone a long line of cars to get from point A to point B or being stuck in one place because of a stubborn buffalo in the road. But the only time we waited in the Grand Canyon was for a parking spot to see the Vishnu Temple (which is one stop you can make on the way to the Desert View Watchtower and worth stopping to see!). The main Visitor Center gets really full in the afternoon too. I think there's a lot of buses that travel in from Vegas and drop people off to see the sun set on the canyon before they head back on the bus to go back. I don't know what it's like other times of year, but I'm guessing holidays and summer it's packed. But I'm pretty sure the buses travel year long and bring in crowds every day of the year. Also I should mention we were there midweek, Mon-Thur, between Christmas and New Year's. So I'm sure the week we were there was a little busier than a typical winter week, but still it wasn't too crowded at all. The third night we popped back into the Arizona Room for dinner again but the wait was too long, so we dined at another restaurant and no wait. So overall, no waiting for any meals our entire trip. Which is unheard of if you ask me when it comes to restaurants in National Parks. I remember one lunch in the Grand Tetons having us wait over an hour. Although, the view when waiting ain't too bad...
I hope this helps if you're planning a trip to the Grand Canyon soon! And I'd love to hear if you have any other tips and tricks that you can share with me. Or any traditions or things that you do in a National Park. Would love to hear in the comments.