Grand Canyon National Park. South Rim
Location: Grand Canyon, AZ
Price: $35/car or $20/person if you are coming in via the train or shuttle bus (15 and under free)
Smashed Penny Machine: Yes, one of the shops at Desert View
Grand Canyon National Park is probably one of the most recognizable national parks. People from all over the world travel to come visit this park. The park is huge in terms of size. It would be almost impossible to do everything in this park in a single trip. The park offers hiking, mule rides, rafting, backcountry hiking, and several museums spread across two rims of the canyon and at the base. The North Rim and South Rim sections of the park are several hours drive apart. It’s best to pick a rim you want to visit and then narrow down what you want to do from there. South Rim is also a very busy park. You need to be prepared for crowds.
South Rim has several options for accommodations in the park but they fill up fast. We opted to stay in Tusayan, which is a small town about 15 minutes outside of the park. The park runs a shuttle service to and from the park to Tusayan. You also need to make sure you are budgeting enough money for your stay. Not only are the crowds Disney-like prices are like you are in a theme park as well. We ate at a Wendy’s next to our hotel one evening and for 3 adult meals and 2 kids meals my food cost me over $65.
Like I mentioned before Grand Canyon is a big park. You could easily fill up a week of vacation with various activities in the park. We spent a day and a half at the park but I don’t feel like we really missed anything we wanted to do.
After visiting Walnut Canyon, Sunset Crater Volcano and Wupatki, we arrived at the Desert View entrance on the East end of the park at about 3 in the afternoon. If you are driving into Grand Canyon expect a line at the entrance stations. We entered the park 4 separate times at various times of the day and at different entrances during our stay, each time there was a line. Our first stop was the Desert View Watchtower. The only way to reach this area of the park is by personal vehicle, no shuttle comes here. The parking lot was busy but we were able to find parking spots without too much trouble.
The Desert View stop offers some services including a small café, a gift shop, ice cream shop, bathrooms and the watchtower. We decided to climb the watchtower to see the canyon from up high. The watchtower was packed. There were narrow (almost one way) stairs that people were trying to go down as other people were trying to go up. There did not appear to be any A/C in the tower so it was hot inside. The view from the top was amazing (all views of the canyon are amazing let’s be honest) but I’m not sure it was worth the struggle to get to the top. If the watchtower looks busy just enjoy the view from the rim. There was a ranger desk inside the tower and our girls were able to get their Jr Ranger books here even though this was not a location listed the website.
After climbing the tower everyone was hot so we decided to have a late afternoon ice cream snack. The line for the ice cream shop was long but the team was very efficient and the line moved quickly. This is also where we located a penny machine. After our ice cream, everyone was fairly tired after a busy day and decided to check into the hotel and relax a little. We made a few stops at overviews along the route to find a good place to come back and star gaze that evening. We returned to Grandview Point after sun down but due to haze from wildfires on the North Rim and cloud cover we weren’t able to get a good view of the night sky.
Our plan for the second day of our stay was hiking. We opted to hike the Bright Angel Trail. We chose this trail over South Kaibab because this trail has a bathroom and water station on the trail. With 4 young kids in tow those are important items. If you are planning on hiking into the canyon, you need to be prepared. This was probably the hardest hike of our whole trip. You need to be make sure you pack plenty of water (we carried a minimum of 32 oz water bottle per person plus two additional water bottles), sun screen, a hat, wear comfortable hiking shoes and clothes, snacks that will help you replenish electrolytes (we had trail mix and trail bars) and a basic first aid kit just in case. I would highly suggest starting your hike early in the morning.
We arrived at the main parking lot by the Grand Canyon Visitor’s Center at 6:30 that morning. We caught the free shuttle bus from the Visitor’s Center to the Bright Angle trailhead. This early in the morning there were only us and a few other people on the bus. Later in the day, the buses will be much more crowded. We arrived at the trailhead around 7 and began our hike. Early in the morning the weather was still cool and the trail was fully shaded by the canyon walls. Hiking the Grand Canyon is dangerously deceptive because the first half your hike is very easy as it is all downhill. The trail is packed dirt so it is uneven and steep in some places. As you are hiking remember to allow faster hikers to pass you and people returning back up the trail always have the right away. We were about 20 minutes into our hike when a mule trip passed us. Be sure to get as far over as possible and come to a stop when being passed by the mules. The kids loved watching the mules go by. The trail is narrow (3 people across is about the widest it gets) so be sure to keep a close eye on young kids.
We hiked down to 1.5 Mile Rest house. As the name implies, the rest house is 1.5 miles down the trail. Here you will find a small shade shelter, a primitive style bathroom and a water refill station. It took us about 45 minutes to hike to this point. We took a 15 minute break to eat a snack, use restrooms, let the toddlers walk around out of their backpack carries (you aren’t getting a stroller up and down the trail – I saw someone attempt that, they turned around really fast) and refilled water bottles.
The hike back out of the canyon is very hard. By about 8:30 the sun had risen high enough that the canyon walls were not providing much shade. There is not much breeze along the trail and as the rocks heat up they reflect the sun’s heat back up at you. As a result it is MUCH hotter on the trail than at the rim. Take your time hiking back up. This is why it is very important to really know your limits and turn around at your stopping point. Take breaks as you need them. Make sure you stay hydrated. On our way down earlier in the morning there had only been a handful of hikers on the trail with us. By the time we began our climb back to the rim the trail was much busier. I was amazed at the number of people we passed that were simply not equipped for the hike (flip-flops, no water bottle, etc). Hiking into the canyon was an amazing experience as the views further down are very different from the views from the rim, please be smart about hiking.
It took our group between 2 to 3 hours to hike back from 1.5 mile rest house (since we were such a large group we were able to break down into smaller groups for the hike up based on pace). It was a wonderful but grueling hike. We had prepared all summer for the hike (hiking our hilly, rural country roads in 95+ heat with 90% humidity) but we were exhausted when we reached the top. By 11 the area around the trailhead was very busy with people. We caught the shuttle bus back through Grand Canyon Village to get some lunch. We opted to get grab and go sandwiches and have a picnic lunch by the Visitor’s Center.
After lunch we went to the main Visitor’s Center and watched a short thirty minute film about the Grand Canyon to complete the girl’s Jr Ranger books. Unlike Rocky Mountain National Park, there is not a dedicated Jr Ranger station at Grand Canyon. To turn in your book you will have to wait in the main information line. Since it was the height of tourist season, we stood in line for about thirty minutes. After completing the Jr Ranger pledge, the kids were allowed to go to the main gift shop (there are several throughout the park) and pick out souvenirs (they earned them with that hike in the morning). We then decided to go back to the hotel to allow the toddlers a chance to nap, give the girls some pool time and do some laundry.
After eating dinner at a local pizza shop, we drove back to the park for an evening hike. Still a little worn out from our morning hike we opted to hike the Rim Trail. We took the shuttle bus again to Bright Angel trailhead to hike back to the Main Visitor’s Center along Rim Trail. Rim Trail is completely paved and mostly flat. This trail is completely stroller friendly.
From Bright Angle Trailhead Rim Trail follows along the edge of the rim behind the main part of Grand Canyon Village. We took our time along the way stopping to shop at Lookout Studio, Bright Angel Lodge and Hopi House. Even though Rim Trail is an easy hike be sure to bring water to drink and there were several water refill stations along the trail. Through this area, the trail is crowded. The trail area is wide and the rim has a waist-high wall but still keep a close eye on kids as it would be easy to lose them in the crowds.
After leaving Grand Canyon Village, Rim Trail moves a little way back from the rim and turns into the Trail of Time. The Trail of Time has several geological exhibits showing the types of rocks that form the many layers of the Grand Canyon and how far back in time they would have formed. This section of the trail felt secluded. There were far fewer people hiking through here and a large band of trees blocks the main road from view. If you are looking for a quieter experience I would suggest a stroll along the Trail of Time. By the time we reached Yavapai Point and the Geology Museum it was reaching sunset. Because the kids were getting tired most of the group decided to take the shuttle bus back to the Visitor’s Center and return to the hotel. My brother-in-law opted to join the crowds that were staying for sunset and took the shuttle back to Tusayan later.
Overall: The Grand Canyon is a majestic place that I feel everyone should visit at least once. There is so much to do that we barely scratched the surface with our stay. However with planning I do think you can accomplish a lot in just a day or so. We saw tons of wildlife including lizards, squirrels, and elk. If you come prepared for the weather and the crowd levels this is a very enjoyable park to explore.