The Grand Canyon–an American icon as big as the canyon itself, finds its way onto every southwest road trip itinerary. Visitors from around the globe stand at the edge of its majestic landscape letting their eyes wander from the rim to the river. Gazing at the desert-hued layers that resemble a Native American blanket defines the spirit of the West and has been my family’s favorite for years.
Each time I visit the Grand Canyon I see a new facet, a new viewpoint. My love affair with the top 10 national park never seems to end. During my most recent and sixth trip to Grand Canyon National Park, I explored Desert View, just inside of the eastern entrance of the south rim.
As I climbed Mary Colter’s Desert View Tower, her Grand Canyon masterpiece, I scanned the view that Colter wanted to showcase. As I looked through the tiny square windows that dot the exterior, it’s the Colorado River that draws my eye through the layers of the canyon.
A ribbon of vitality whose green growth offers an oasis to the hikers who dare to tackle the 10-mile trail. When I emerge from the tower, I take a moment to absorb my surroundings and smell the desert perfume of pinyon pine and sage.
History of Grand Canyon National Park
The Colorado River carved the Grand Canyon to measure 18 miles wide, one mile deep and 277 river miles long. Human artifacts have been discovered in the Grand Canyon that date back 12,000 years.
First protected as a forest reserve in 1893, then as a national monument in 1908, Grand Canyon earned national park status in 1919. The United Nations declared it a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979.
The Fred Harvey Company, a NPS concessionaire, defined the look of Grand Canyon National Park when it built the El Tovar Hotel, the Bright Angel Lodge, the Phantom Ranch, the Hopi House, Hermits Rest and Desert View Watchtower.
Mary Colter, the lead architect at the Fred Harvey Co., designed buildings that blended seamlessly into the environment by using local materials. In the Bright Angel Lodge, she designed a Geologic Fireplace that displays the layers of Grand Canyon’s rock as found on the canyon wall. Her buildings are registered National Historic Landmarks and the majority are located in the Historic Village.
What to do in 2 hours
If I have just a few hours to explore, I start at the Grand Canyon Visitors Center (open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.), grab the Junior Ranger booklets and watch the Grand Canyon introductory movie. Outside the visitor center, I walk to the Rim Trail and Mather Point, both must-dos. If time allows, I attend a ranger program or tour the Historic Grand Canyon Village.
Grand Canyon National Park offers amazing sunsets and sunrises. For the best spot to witness this symphony of nature, stop at Yaki or Mather Point. I have seen visitors moved to tears at the beauty of this experience.
What to do in Half-a-Day
Mary Colter’s Desert Watch Tower stands erect at the eastern entrance of Grand Canyon National Park. To see the Colorado River at the bottom, climb the spiraling staircases to the top and look out one of the tiny square windows. As I peer out, I envision Colter framing each view for visitors to enjoy, like a painting.
Take a walking tour of the Grand Canyon Historic Village and stop by the log train depot to see how visitors visited the Grand Canyon 100 years ago. Walk up the stairs from the railroad depot to El Tovar Hotel and see the rustic elegance of the historic landmark. The Hopi House and the Bright Angel Lodge offer more examples of Mary Colter’s work along the south rim. Stop by the Lookout Studio and Kolb Studio for their unique vantage points of the Grand Canyon.
Ride the shuttle bus out to Hermits Rest to see the charming building at the western end of the Rim Road.
Lodging at Grand Canyon National Park South Rim
The South Rim of the Grand Canyon features more than 900 rooms or cabins. I found several options ranging from historic suites to family-pleasing cabins to modern hotel rooms.
El Tovar Hotel, built in 1905, is the premier property on the South Rim and built of local limestone and Oregon timber. Take a peak and walk through the lobby.
Bright Angel Lodge and Cabins, built in 1935, offers a more budget-friendly option and my choice for families. It features locally sourced materials and colorful Southwestern motifs. My kids loved staying along the Rim Trail and the historic rooms offer amenities modern travelers need like in-room coffee.
The Phantom Ranch, built in 1922, requires a 10-mile hike to the bottom of the Grand Canyon or riding the famous mule train. Book reservations early, as many as 13 months in advance, for this popular bucket list destination.
The Kachina Lodge and the Thunderbird Lodge were both built in the 1960s along the Rim Trail with modern travelers in mind. The Maswik Lodge and the Yavapai Lodge were built at the same time, though aren’t on the Rim Trail.
I found restaurants at El Tovar Hotel and Bright Angel Lodge. Snack bars at Maswik Lodge, Desert View and Hermits Rest offer options as well; the Village General Store stocks basic groceries for families wanting to picnic.
If spending the night, park your car near your lodge and use the complimentary shuttle bus. Since the majority of the lodging is located near the Grand Canyon Historic Village, check in at Verkamp’s Visitor Center (open 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.).
Family-Fun Activities at Grand Canyon National Park
Kids want to tour the Grand Canyon on a bike instead of hiking? I found bikes for rent next to the Visitor Center. All bike sizes and helmets are available.
A mule trip to the bottom of Grand Canyon tops many a bucket list. Lodging and meals can be reserved at the Phantom Ranch with advanced reservations required. For the families wanting the mule train experience without the trek to the river, four-hour rim rides are available.
For families looking to ride the river, Xanterra, Grand Canyon’s South Rim concessionaire, offers smooth and white-water raft trips. Guided bus tours of the south rim offer another option for discovering the Grand Canyon.
Kids at Grand Canyon National Park
The Junior Ranger Program is the go-to program for families to learn more. It’s free and takes about two hours to complete. My kids collect the patches and badges that they’ve earned during our national park adventures.
The Grand Canyon Junior Ranger Program has a booklet specifically designed for each age group. To earn the Junior Ranger badge, families are required to attend a Ranger Program and I found a program list at the Visitors Center.
For night owls, the Grand Canyon offers the Night Explorer Junior Ranger Patch for kids who attend a special Night Skies Ranger Program. Booklets are available at visitor centers.
If a trip to the bottom of the canyon is on your itinerary, there’s a special Junior Ranger Program. Phantom Rattler Junior Ranger patch is awarded at Phantom Ranch, a 10-mile journey, one-way.
Getting to Grand Canyon National Park
Grand Canyon National Park offers two entrances for the South Rim, the South Entrance and the Desert View Entrance. The South Entrance, 59 miles north of Williams via Highway 64, is the most popular gateway and enters the park just minutes from the Grand Canyon Visitor Center.
The Desert View entrance provides a less-busy alternative at the South Entrance and offers a scenic drive along the rim from Desert View Watchtower to the Grand Canyon Village. At Flagstaff, head north on U.S. Route 89 to Highway 64, just south of Cameron, Arizona, another town for a quick fill-up.
Williams, Arizona, (WMA) is an Amtrak destination and a stop for a regional bus service. The closest airport with commercial flights is Flagstaff, Arizona (FLG), 80 miles away. Several private tour operators offer tours of Grand Canyon, like Viator, that depart from Las Vegas.
Getting Around Grand Canyon National Park
Grand Canyon National Park is open 365-days a year and 24-hours a day. Use an America the Beautiful annual pass ($80) or purchase a 7-day pass for $30 per private vehicle.
The Grand Canyon Visitors Center offers the most parking with four large lots and shuttle buses. For day visitors, park at the visitor center and use the shuttle bus; remember to grab your daypack and water bottles.
The shuttle buses offer color-coded routes and a route that continues onto Tusayan, right outside the park. Please check the Grand Canyon National Park website for all current routes and times.
Tips from a TravelingMom:
- Tusayan, right outside the South Entrance, offers food, gas and lodging.
- Williams, Arizona, on Interstate 40, offers more services for travelers.
- The South Entrance can have a line to enter during daylight hours.
- Got rowdy kids that will make you nervous near the unfenced edge? Stay close Mather Point, it offers 4-foot fence for your peace-of-mind.
- Pack a daypack with a water bottle, a hat, protein bars or other snacks and sunscreen. I use a cinch sack for my younger kids so they can carry their own stuff.
- Hiking to the bottom of the Phantom Ranch requires a backcountry permit and two days. NOT A DAY HIKE.