Here is our favorite answer, submitted by Scottsdale, Ariz., resident Eric Jay Toll:
One day at the Grand Canyon is tough. Forget the tours, there just isn’t time. Period.
So here’s how to do the I’ve-got-one-day tour.
One day at the Grand Canyon is really tough because of its isolation. Another factor is the time of year. I’d recommend that you try to spend the night at the Canyon and, if possible, spend it in a hotel in Grand Canyon Village, not Tusayan, Williams or Flagstaff. The cost difference is worth the driving time saved.
Even Tusayan, which is advertised as being “on the border of the Grand Canyon,” is actually a good 45 minutes from the Canyon although it adjoins the park. Distances are different in the Southwest. Just doing a “drive through” from one end of Grand Canyon South Rim to the other is three hours. This would mean you’d be in the car for 14 to 16 hours on that one day.Looking at those travel times, I highly recommend you stay overnight at the Canyon. Yavapai Lodge and Maswik Lodges are reasonably nice places and walking distance to the rim. Bright Angel Lodge is on the rim, and priced accordingly. El Tovar and the Bright Angel cabins are usually booked a year in advance—although a friend of mine caught a cancellation at El Tovar the night before his arrival. Xanterra handles all of the reservations in the park.
Fill your tank before you go into the park. Look for Pilot, Flying J, Love’s, Maverick, Circle K, QuikStop, or Safeway gas for cheapest. Williams tends to be more expensive than Tusayan, the last stop before the park.
What to do with one day in the Grand Canyon…
If you leave Las Vegas very early in the morning, you’d get to Grand Canyon Village at lunch time. There are various places to dine, so take the time, eat, stretch, and walk to the Visitor Center and Mather Point. Stroll along El Tovar and Bright Angel, and check out the Kolb Brothers Photo Gallery. By then, it will be time to check in at your Lodge.
Are you and your family easy hikers? If so, go back to Bright Angel and walk down the trail for about 20 to 30 minutes to experience being below the rim—only 25% of Park visitors go below the rim. As an alternative, you can take the free shuttle bus from the Visitor Center to S. Kaibab trail 1, and walk down that about 45 minutes to Oo-Ah Point. It will take twice as long to walk up as it did to walk down. Carry at least 1 liter of water, not soft drinks or juice, for each hour you’re hiking.
If you want to splurge for dinner, make reservations at the El Tovar. For a semi-splurge, Bright Angel Lodge. Otherwise enjoy dinner in the Village. There is usually a Ranger program about the stars after dark. It’s worth going to see any Ranger program.
The next morning, enjoy breakfast, and then head east on Arizona 64 to Desert View. Allow 2 hours to stop and see the museum, the native culture ruins, and the various overlooks. Stop and go up the tower at Desert View. Be sure to use the East Overlook to see the Painted Desert. There’s a place for lunch at Desert View. Then continue east; it’ll be about noon.
Go east on 64 to U.S. 89, turn right to go south. When you leave the park at Desert View, you are on the Navajo Indian Reservation. Somewhere along the way, stop with your kids at one of the trading posts—there’s a big one in Cameron and another at Two Gray Hills. The roadside stands—depending on weather and time of year—are individual Navajo and Hopi with their jewelry for sale.
As you climb the mountain and drop into Flagstaff, there’s a Circle K and Maverick on your left a couple of miles after the divided highway ends. They usually have the cheapest gas, although about 2 miles further on the left is a Safeway gas.
Follow U.S. 89 to I-40. Take I-40 West to I-17, then south to Phoenix and Tucson. Watch your speed on U.S. 89 and I-40 in Flagstaff area. The speed drops and the patrol only gives 11 miles over. It’s posted 45 on U.S. 89 when you get close to town—meaning keep it under 55. I-40 is posted 55 between U.S. 89 and I-17, keep it under 65.
Drive safely to Tucson. You’re going to hit Phoenix near Rush Hour on this excursion. On I-17, you’ll be going against traffic once you’re south of Anthem, so that should help, but I’d recommend getting off the freeway around Happy Valley Road , go east and take your time with dinner. I-10 and I-17 through Phoenix are parking lots from around 4:30-6:00 pm.
Eric also cautions parents about keeping a watchful eye on kids of any age. The edge of the canyon can be treacherous. Observe all fence lines, you can fall into the canyon.
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