A Grand Canyon Family Vacation Guide

Grand Canyon Family Vacation Guide

Planning a family vacation to Grand Canyon National Park? To get the most out of a trip to the planet's most famous chasm, you may need to do a bit of research. This guide provides savvy tips on how best to get there, where to sleep and eat, and what to do once you gaze out at the geologic masterpiece and wonder, "What next?"   

Nearest Airports to the Grand Canyon

You have three options to fly and drive to the Grand Canyon:

Flagstaff Pulliam Airport

Distance from Grand Canyon: About 80 miles southeast
Drive Time: 75 minutes
Directions: Drive from the canyon along U.S. Highway 180 and State Route 64.
Travel Tip: This tiny airport is closest to the Grand Canyon. Its only commercial carrier, American Eagle, offers flights from Phoenix.

Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport

Distance from Grand Canyon: Roughly 230 miles
Drive Time: 3 Hours 15 minutes
Directions: Take U.S. Interstate Highways 17 and 40 and State Route 64.
Travel Tip: As an alternative, opt for this longer, more scenic route from the airport: From U.S. I--17, detour on State Routes 179 and 89A to admire the striking, red buttes and mesas of Sedona, Arizona. Not including stops, this route adds about 45 minutes to your driving time.

Las Vegas' McCarran International Airport

Distance from Grand Canyon: About 270 miles
Drive Time: 4 hours
Directions: Travel southeast via U.S. Highway 93, Interstate Highway 40 and State Route 64.
Travel Tips: If time permits while driving I-40 through Arizona, consider a side trip to explore Grand Canyon Caverns via State Route 66. (Budget about two and a half hours for drive time and 45 minutes for a cavern tour.) Kids will be wowed by the 21-story elevator descent below the desert to the largest dry caverns in the United States, which are illuminated to show off the unique rock and crystal formations.

Driving to the Grand Canyon

Where to Stay at the Grand Canyon

Families will love the convenience of staying inside the park, near the canyon rim. But be aware that you'll need to reserve rooms at the grand 1905 El Tovar Hotel or any of the other four lodges in Grand Canyon Village six months to a year in advance.

Outside the park, the town of Tusayan has a handful of large hotels offering reasonably priced rooms with less need for advance booking.

Prefer to go camping?

Roast marshmallows over a crackling fire and sing songs, then sleep under the stars at the Mather or Desert View campgrounds inside the park, or at the Ten-X Campground or Grand Canyon Camper Village just outside the park.

Grand Canyon Must-Do Activities for Families

Once you've arrived, first stop by the Grand Canyon Visitor Center to gather intel on the park and watch a 20-minute orientation movie. Pick up a Junior Ranger Activity Booklet if your little one is age 4 or older. After you walk to nearby Mather Point for your first awesome view of the canyon, check out some of the park’s other amazing highlights.

Mather Point at the Grand Canyon

Scenic overlooks to capture the best views

You'll be hard-pressed to find a canyon overlook that doesn't knock your socks off, but the best place to start is Grand Canyon Village. From there, drive east on scenic Desert View Drive (25 miles one way), where Grandview and Navajo points are must-sees. Your grand finale, Desert View, is home to the Desert View Watchtower – a circular, 70-foot-high, stone structure built in 1932. Remember, your best photo ops will be at sunrise and sunset, when softer light, shadows and rich colors make for great shots. The National Park Service website has a roundup of photo “hot spots.”

Viewpoint Watch Tower at the Grand Canyon

Best trails to hike with young children

Your best bet for hiking with little ones is the mostly flat, largely paved Rim Trail, which begins in Grand Canyon Village and has several scenic overlooks. The 13-mile trail travels west, parallel to Hermit Road, ending at Hermits Rest. Don’t be deterred by the trail's daunting length. From March 1 through Nov. 30, Hermit Road is only accessible via the park's free shuttle bus (private vehicles are permitted only in winter months). That means your family can ride the bus to various drop-off/pick-up stops, picking and choosing bite-size portions of the trail to hike. On the trails, watch for lizards and squirrels and even bighorn sheep.

Best Grand Canyon Trail with Young Children

Best trails to hike with older kids

The canyon's wonders truly reveal themselves below the rim. The South Kaibab Trail is a terrific choice for a steep, 3-mile round-trip hike to the appropriately named Ooh-Aah Point and Cedar Ridge. Get an early start to avoid midday heat, then budget about three to four hours for the hike. Carry plenty of water and don't forget a picnic lunch.

Best Grand Canyon Hiking with Older Kids

Best spot to take a mule trip

Saddle up for a three-hour ride along the canyon rim. A classic Grand Canyon experience, mule rides have been offered since 1887. The fun Canyon Vistas ride follows the East Rim Trail, revealing impressive views while a mule does the walking for you. If your clan is up for a big adventure, book a one- or two-day mule ride into the canyon, where you'll stay overnight at Phantom Ranch. Note: Riders must be at least 4 feet 7 inches tall.

Mule Trip Along the East Rim of the Grand Canyon

Tips for Grand Canyon Family Travelers

Best eateries to dine as a family

After a day of hiking or mule riding, take your hungry family for a meal. Try salmon tostadas on organic greens at the El Tovar Dining Room, or go for burgers at the Bright Angel Restaurant, or pizza at the Maswik Food Court. For snacks, picnic lunches or camping provisions, head to the Canyon Village Market (in the park) or the Tusayan General Store (outside the park).

Escape the crowds with a short hike

In summer, the Grand Canyon’s South Rim can be the  spot most heavily populated by tourists in the entire Southwest. The only places to escape the masses are along hiking trails that dip below the rim. In most cases, you only need to hike an hour into the canyon to lose the sights and sounds of the hubbub at the rim and create lasting family memories.

About the Author

Eli Ellison is a travel writer who specializes in the American Southwest. His work has appeared in numerous publications, including the Los Angeles Times, AAA.com and WorldHum.com.