Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historical Park
Location: 2995 Lincoln Farm Rd; Hodgenville, KY 42748
Smashed Penny Machine: No
Lincoln Birthplace Park is about two hours and fifteen minutes East of Evansville and about an hour South of Louisville. The park consists of two properties where the Lincoln family once lived. Sinking Springs is the larger portion of the park. The Knob Creek site is about 10 miles from the main park. The Visitor’s Center and memorial is at Sinking Springs. There is a seasonally staffed ranger station at Knob Creek along with restrooms.
We chose to visit only the Sinking Springs portion of the park. We started our visit at the Visitor’s Center. The Visitor’s Center has a small museum explaining President Lincoln’s life in Kentucky and general information about life on the frontier in the early 1800’s. The museum is fairly small but had a replica of a log cabin main room and a play area with Lincoln Logs which the kids really enjoyed. The Visitor’s Center also shows a short 15-minute video and has a small bookstore/gift shop.
After completing the museum portion of the Jr Ranger books, we took the boardwalk trail behind the Visitor’s Center (this is also the handicap assessable path to reach the memorial) up to the memorial. The memorial sits on the top of the hill where the Lincoln cabin was probably located. You can also access the memorial by walking up the steps in front of the memorial from the parking lot. Inside the Memorial building sits a log cabin. It is not the family’s actual cabin but it is representative of what the cabin probably looked like. You are not able to enter the cabin. There are a few plaques inside the memorial describing the significance of some of the architectural features of the memorial.
After looking at the cabin, we decided to hike the Boundary Oak Trail, which starts just behind the Memorial. The trail is probably about a quarter mile. There is one semi-steep hill and the trail is all gravel. The trail is not hard, my three-year-old nephew, two-year-old daughter and eighty-year-old grandmother all walked it without problem. There is not a lot to see along the trail. It meanders through the trees. Some of the trees have small plaque beside them identifying the type of tree and giving a few examples of how settlers would have used this type of wood. The path does cross a small stream twice, which my nephew enjoyed wading across it with his rain boots. The trail is probably a little nicer either late April/early May when wild flowers would be blooming or October when the leaves are in Fall colors.
The Boundary Oak Trail comes back out of the woods near the base of the stairs for the memorial. Just to the left of the memorial stairs is a small set of stone stairs that lead to the spring the family would have used as a water source. From the sinking spring we walked back up to the Visitor’s Center to turn in the Jr Ranger books and get our badges
Overall: Honestly, there isn’t a lot to do at this park. Lincoln Boyhood in Indiana is a better experience with the reenactment farm and larger museum. There doesn’t seem to be much else to do in the general area either. The park would make a nice stop off if you were traveling along I-65 (park is about 20 minutes from the Elizabethtown exits) and wanted a short stop off to let kids burn some energy. You could also easily combine this with a trip to Mammoth Cave National Park (about 45 minutes Southwest). Unless you are really Lincoln history buff or trying to collect all your Jr Ranger badges (which we are both) I would not go out of my way for this park.
Location: Dallas, TX
Price: General Admission $60.95/adult; $36.95/child, kids under 3 are free but they have to sit on your lap
Smashed Penny Machine: No
Medieval Times is a dinner theater themed around a medieval style joust. The kids did an amazing job the whole week with minimal whining about hiking (and we hiked a lot) that this was a special treat for them at the end of our trip.
I would suggest you buy your tickets online beforehand for a number of reasons. First the show could sell out. Second the atmosphere at the castle prior to show time is semi organized chaos, having your tickets purchased before you arrive will help eliminate some of that chaos. Third there are a lot of add-on options. Buying online beforehand allows you to review what the up charges get you and if that fee is worth it for your situation. Beyond the general admission, there are three other tiers of packages: Queen’s Royalty, Celebration, and Royalty Package. We opted to add on the Royalty Package to our tickets. This Package comes with the following perks: Priority Castle Access, VIP Seating, Priority Seating Access, Cheering Banner, VIP lanyard. The perks we actually got to enjoy: VIP Seating, Cheering Banner, VIP lanyard. I think I would still spend the money on the higher package IF you have younger kids with you. The actual arena has stadium seating so I don’t think the higher up tables really have any worse of a view than the lower tables. The real perk of the VIP seating is being close enough to the floor to be able to interact with the knights. During the first part of the play, each knight will have about a dozen flowers that he will pass out to members of his cheering section. Since you can only throw a carnation so far seating in the first three rows gives your kid a better shot of receiving a flower but that’s not a guarantee. I don’t think you are going to miss any part of the show by going with the lower priced ticket. Finally buying online gives you the chance to look for discount codes. We found a discount code that gave us 10% off. Depending on the time of year you are going you can get tickets much cheaper.
You’ll want to arrive at the castle at least 45 minutes before show time. The castle doors will open 75 minutes prior to the show starting. We arrived about 90 minutes before our show time (we got to Dallas a little earlier than we thought) and there was already a line in front of the castle. Once the castle doors open, you will go to a cashier who will check your tickets and confirm the number in your party (if you did not go for an add on package I’m sure they’ll try to up sale you here). At this point you will be assigned to your seating section. Each section is color coordinated to a knight you will be cheering for. Seating is first come, first serve so early arrival is more likely to give you better seating (center vs a corner). After you are given you seating, you’ll be given a crown that matches your section and you’ll be ushered into the next room to take a group photo with a costume character. This picture is taken in front of a green screen so if you plan on buying the picture try not to wear green (my niece has some stone works in the middle of her shirt in our picture because of the green lettering on her t-shirt).
Once you have had your picture taken you are released into the main hall to await the start of the show. There are several activities in the main hall and several sets of restrooms. I would highly encourage everyone to use the restroom prior to the show so you don’t miss any of the action. There are also several gift shops with various medieval themed items ranging from kids toys to complete replication suits of armor. Expect to pay theme park prices for just about everything. Two full service bars on either end of the hall are available for additional costs. If you are celebrating something special there is a guest service kiosk where you can pay to have the king/queen announce your party/birthday/etc during the show. You can also pay to have a member of your party knighted by the king/queen (if you are noticing the word PAY a lot there is a reason). Each castle has its own museum of medieval torture you can tour for an additional charge. I did visit the museum at the Chicago castle once; the museum is not for young kids or people who are squeamish. The castle has an additional photo booth where your party can dress up in costume for another picture. You can also visit the kiosk to purchase the picture they took as you came in. Since it was a green screen backdrop, they had about twenty or so various backgrounds you could have applied to your picture. We did end up purchasing the photo (how often do you managed to get all four kids looking into the camera at the same time!). The cost was about $20 for an 8×10 photo and a cardboard photo frame. If you are trying to not spend additional money, you can look at the horses in their stables for free (the toddlers loved it). There are also lots of fun spots for your own photo-ops. Keep a close hand on your kids during this time as the hall is packed full of people and chaotic.
About thirty minutes to show time, they will start seating people in the stadium. You have to listen for the door that your section needs to enter. In theory, the VIP groups get to go to their seats first. In our experience that does not really happen unless, you magically end up close to your door. We were on the opposite end of the hall from our door and by the time we had worked our way against the flow of people to our entry they had already called for general admission to enter the stadium. This doesn’t really matter because your table was assigned at check in. Once you are seated, your serf (aka waiter or waitress) will come around and ask for your drink order. Included in your meal is your drink choice of lemonade, tea or regular soda. The serfs will come back through about mid-way through dinner to refill your drink. Bar staff will also come around and you can order additional drinks through them for the same price as the bars in the main hall but this time it gets delivered to your table so you don’t have to try to carry it through a sea of people. If you want to purchase a drink, you can save money by asking for your drink in a plain glass. You are not required to buy one of the special souvenir cups. Our drinks came in a basic plastic cup that was printed with the logo and I still got to keep it.
About ten minutes before the show, the serfs will come around and beginning serving your meal. The meal consists of tomato soup, garlic bread, rotisserie chicken, corn on the cob, baked potato and a desert (ours was pound cake). The entire meal is eaten with your fingers (you drink the soup). The soup is served warm so you probably want to let it cool for the kids before letting them drink it. While you are eating, the show will begin. The show is about two hours and consists of horses doing tricks, a falconer and a falcon demonstration and the main event of the jousting. The story line of the play changes every few years and each castle is doing a different story at any point. The story always ends up with something dramatic happening that leads to hand-to-hand combat between the knights so you will see other weapons than just basic jousting. The show can be loud and a little intense but nothing too dramatic but young ones might not like the loud noise from time to time.
Overall: I think Medieval Times is a lot of fun. I think it is worth the cost of admission. You do need to go into the experience realizing it is a lot like a theme park. The cast is trying to get you to buy the extras but you can still have a great time even if you turn all of those down.
Carlsbad Caverns National Park
Location: Carlsbad, NM
Smashed Penny Machine: Yes, in the gift shop
Carlsbad Caverns National Park is best known for the amazing caves. The park also offers ranger-guided tours, night sky programs, bat flight program and some above ground hiking. The park also has food options: a café upstairs and small snack bar in the caverns, a gift shop, a bookstore and interactive exhibits.
The main draw is of course the caves. There are two self-guided tours: Big Room Trail (1.25 miles, mostly flat) and Natural Entrance Trail (1.25 miles, more strenuous as you hike down into the cave). Strollers and backpack carriers are not allowed so we opted for the easier trail since we would have to carry the toddlers.
The Big Room Trail starts in the Visitor’s Center. When you pay your entrance fee, you are given a ticket with a return time for the elevator. We were at the park on a busy Friday in early August and our return time was only about 15 minutes so waits are not that long. You’ll ride an elevator down to the cave. They put about 25 people on the elevator so be ready to be kinda close with people for a few minutes. The cave is a constant temperature of about 60 degrees so a light jacket or a sweatshirt might be a good idea. Also remember to wear good walking shoes. I had on only my normal tennis shoes and I slipped twice. The ground is uneven and moisture does drip from the ceiling so watch your footing. We also saw many people bring flashlights with them. You do not need a flashlight. The caves are expertly lit so that the lighting highlights unique cave formations. It is bright enough that you can easily see where you are going. As far as I could tell all the flashlights did were blind other visitors when the flashlight users were just swinging the lights around. Also be courteous of your camera flash. The caves are lit but it’s like being in a dim room, the LED flashes on your cell phone camera are super bright. Be considerate of others.
The Big Room Trail circles around the main cavern. This is a very large space. At no point do you need to duck. The ceiling of the cave is several stories above your head for the vast majority of the walk. There are thousands of cool formations to check out. If you don’t have young kids with you plan for about two hours to complete the hike at a pace where you can stop and enjoy the sights. The toddlers were starting to get restless about 20 minutes into the hike. We spent a lot of time playing pass the baby. The older two stayed engaged with the hike until they completed their Jr Ranger scavenger hunts (about ¾ through the trail) then they too got bored.
The trail loops back to the same elevators that you came down. You will exit the elevator into the main bookstore. This connects to the museum that had several hands on exhibits explain how the caverns formed and give insight to the ecosystems both above and below ground at the park. The kids had a lot of fun with the exhibits. The toddlers especially liked crawling through the spelunking tunnel.
Overall: Carlsbad is a unique park. I have done many cave tours but none that felt so wide open. The tour probably works a little better for older kids but it was an easy enough hike young kids can do it too. It was a very busy park so be prepared for lots of people if you are coming during peak months. I would recommend this stop if you are in West Texas or Southern New Mexico.
Guadalupe Mountains National Park
Location: Salt Flat, TX
Smashed Penny Machine: No
Guadalupe Mountains National Park might be one of the least known national parks. This park is very remote on the far western edge of Texas. The park does contain the highest mountain peaks in the state of Texas and preserves many important historical sites including ancient pictographs, two historic ranches and the ruins of the Pinery Station of the Butterfield Overland Mail Coach.
This park is really a hikers dream. There are tons of trails from all day hikes that are 8 or more miles to tiny .5 mile trails. The ecology is of the park is diverse from mountain climbing to springs in the desert to rock formations. This is a large park that you could spend a few days exploring. We originally had plans to hike the Devil’s Hall Trail; however, after a much harder hike at Chiricahua the day before our group was tired.
We started our visit at the Pine Springs Visitor’s Center. The Visitor’s Center has a very nice display the gives the history of the area as well as highlighting the many different plants and animals that call the mountains and surrounding desert home. After talking with the rangers and debating as a group, we decided to make this a very easy hike. We chose to hike the Pinery Trail. The trail begins just behind the Visitor’s Center and makes a small .75 mile loop through the desert landscape. The trail is completely paved and very easy but there is not much shade so bring water. The trail also passes the remains of the Pinery Station mail-coach stop. There is not much left of the ruin except a few walls. There is a small display explaining what the station would have looked prior to railroads entering the area and why it was so important for people traveling West through this part of Texas.
Overall: It is hard to give a strong opinion on this park. If you are prepared to do some hiking, then this is must do park. If you are limited on time or are limited on your ability to hike then driving out to this national park is probably not worth it. Because the park is very remote, the park was very quiet. The park is pretty far from any city so it is probably an excellent place to stargaze. I think would like to return to Guadalupe Mountains when my kids are older and I could devote a full day to hiking this wilderness.
White Sands National Monument
Location: Alamogordo, NM
Smashed Penny Machine: Yes, behind the gift shop
In the middle of the New Mexico desert lies huge sand dunes of soft white sand. White Sands National Monument is a little out-of-the-way but is an amazing stop on any southwest journey. The park offers hiking, backcountry hiking and most importantly sand sledding. The park is adjacent to White Sands Missile Range which is an active testing facility. There are times that testing at the missile range will close the park. Be sure to check park closures before driving to the park.
Before you enter the park stop in the Visitor’s Center. The Visitor’s Center has a small bookstore, ranger station, bathrooms (I didn’t see facilities anywhere else in the park) and water filling station. Make sure you bring plenty of water. The park while beautiful offers no shade anywhere on the dunes. Attached to the visitor’s center is also a larger gift shop. The gift shop sold some premade sandwiches, some bottled drinks, normal souvenir items and they had sled rentals and wax for sale. Just a warning while we were there the sled rentals were actually unavailable. If you are able to bring your own sleds I highly recommend that. We purchased just basic round snow sleds online for about $10 each before the trip. We purchased two cubes of wax from the gift shop. These worked perfectly fine out on the dunes.
Dunes Drive is the main road through the park. It stretches eight miles from the Visitor’s Center into the sand dunes. Part of the road is paved and the remained is packed sand. The packed sand is very dense so it is very easy to drive on with any type of vehicle. Several hiking trails will take you across the sand dunes or the alkali flats. Our stay at Chiricahua that morning had taken longer than expected so we did not do any hiking.
The Ranger had suggested for the best sledding to drive Dunes Drive out past the pavement. The higher the dune the better it is to sled. Sand sledding is not quite the same as sledding on snow. Even with the wax on the sled, the friction of the sand prevents you from sledding as fast you think you would even on the steeper dunes. Also for a better sledding experience try to make a track in the sand and continue to sled down the same track.
One of the most amazing things I found was the temperature of the sand. We arrived at the park about 4:00 in the afternoon. After stopping at the Visitor’s Center for restrooms, water, Jr Ranger program, wax and souvenirs, we were entering the dunes about 5:00. The air temperature was in the high 90’s. The sand was warm but not hot to the touch. We were able to play on the dunes in bare feet. The sand is soft and if you get about two inches below the surface it is cool. We spent about an hour sledding on the dunes. Everyone had a great time.
Overall: White Sands was probably my favorite stop of the whole trip. The park was not crowded. There were a few other groups but there is plenty of room to spread out on the dunes. The sand was amazing. If I could redo our trip, I would give us additional time at White Sands. The rangers host a sunset hike across the dunes, which would have been fun. I would also have packed shovels and pails for the toddlers. The two younger kids got bored with sledding after a few times down but they loved burying their feet in the sand so I think they would have had a lot of fun with some basic sand toys. Also just like the beach you are going to take part of White Sands home with you whether you want to or not. Have a towel handy to try to brush everyone off before getting back in the car.
Chiricahua National Monument
Location: Willcox, AZ
Smashed Penny Machine: No
If you are looking for a secluded quiet national park, you need to head to Chiricahua. This is the first park that I would describe as in the middle of nowhere. The park is a 45 minute drive from Willcox, AZ and the interstate. There are no services between the park and town. You are going to be lucky if you can get cell service. This park is off the beaten path and completely worth the detour.
The park is full of Rhyolite rock pinnacles. It looks more like Bryce Canyon or Zion verses any other park in Arizona. The park has ample hiking, horseback riding trails, camping and a historic ranch you can tour. We arrived at the park shortly after opening and saw several deer. We had originally planned to hike the easy Massai Point Nature Trail (.5 miles) at the top of the mountain. After speaking with the rangers, we decided to do the moderate Echo Canyon Loop (3.3 milies).
I’ll talk about the positives of the trail. There are amazing views along this hike. You start the hike about midway up the mountain and you can see for miles the Rhyolite formations. The hike takes you through some neat rock formations including the Echo Grottoes. The kids had a ball calling down into the canyon and hearing it echo back at them. The trail also loops through the hotter and drier side of the park where you’ll see lots of yucca and agave plants. We saw tons of lizards out sunning themselves on a warm morning. We had the entire trail basically to ourselves. We had one more serious backpacker pass us early in the trail and then we passed one other couple hiking the other direction. Other than those three people it was us and the wilderness.
The flip side of this trail. I don’t know who the park service is kidding this is not a moderate trail or maybe moderate means something else in this very remote park. This trail was every bit as difficult as our hike into and back out of the Grand Canyon a few days before. The path down Echo Canyon Trail is steep and you are scrambling over large rocks (two of us with toddlers on our backs). There is not much shade on the way down so pack lots of water. Once you enter in the canyon valley there is no air movement so even though there was shade it was if anything hotter. Then to get back to the trailhead you have hike back up the side of the mountain. This hike took us nearly three hours to complete and we were all exhausted by the time we reached the top (I had to buy souvenirs to coax the older two up the mountain with me).
After surviving the hike, we returned to the visitor’s center so the girls could complete their Jr Ranger program and for me to buy the promised stuffed animals. The entire time we were in the park we only saw maybe ten other visitors.
Overall: Despite the difficulty of the hike, I did enjoy Chiricahua. The land was beautiful. The park was peaceful which was a much-needed break after the business of a few of the other parks. I would like to go back some day when the kids are a little older and explore this park in more depth. If I could go back and redo our trip I would have scheduled an entire day in this park and been much more prepared for the level of hiking offered.
Saguaro National Park – Tucson Mountain District (West)
Location: Tucson, AZ
Smashed Penny Machine: Yes in the gift shop
Saguaro National Park is split into two parts on either side of Tucson. Both districts of the park offer hiking, backcountry hiking, scenic drives and a Visitor’s Center. The big attraction at Saguaro is the abundance of saguaro cacti which the park is named for. Saguaro cacti are the tall cacti with the arms. The landscape around Saguaro is exactly what you picture when someone says Southwest. You’d expect to see a tumbleweed and a cowboy ride past you. We didn’t see either but Saguaro was an awesome stop.
We opted to visit the Tucson Mountain District of the park which is on the West side of Tucson. If you are coming to the park you need to be fully aware that this is exactly what you would expect from a visit to the desert. It was HOT (113 according to the car that day). The air is very dry. There is no shade.
We started our visit to the park at the Red Hills Visitor Center. We watched a very informative film about the history of the park and the importance of the saguaro cactus both to its ecosystem and to the native people who called this area home. The film takes about 20 minutes and it is well worth the time. The kids also spent some time exploring the small museum and completing their Jr Ranger books.
We had a fair amount of bad luck while visiting Saguaro National Park. Baby girl decided to start spiking a fever mid-way through the film. Because she wasn’t feeling great we decided that we would just take turns hiking the very short (maybe ¼ mile) loop around the Visitor’s Center. This was a very easy hike although it was a dirt path so I’m not sure I’d try to take a stroller on it. The trail walks you through a lot of desert eco system and you can get some nice up close views of the various types of cactus that call this park home.
During this time, it also started to thunder. Thunder in the desert means that you have to get under cover because normally you are the tallest thing around so lightning is a very real danger. Between the thread of lightning and a sick baby, we decided to forgo any hiking plans. We decided to take the scenic Bajada Loop Drive. This 6 mile loop is an unpaved road that takes you up close to the desert. Although the road was unpaved and a little rough in some spots you don’t need an off-road vehicle to drive it. We managed to drive the full thing in a minivan. We saw many magnificent saguaro. We helped another tourist move a desert tortoise out of the middle of the roadway. We also got to experience a summer monsoon (I have a new appreciation for that word).
Overall: Despite the horrible luck we had with weather and illness, Saguaro was an awesome park. You don’t need to be able to hike to take in the beauty of the desert. I do wish we could have gotten out among the cactus more so I would love to return in the future. If you are in the Tucson area, Saguaro is a must see.
Montezuma Castle National Monument
Location: Camp Verde, AZ
Smashed Penny Machine: No
Montezuma Castle and its sister park Montezuma Well are about an hour drive south of Flagstaff. The two parts of the park are about 10 miles apart. Neither park is very large so combined they would make a good half day visit. We opted to only visit the Montezuma Castle side of the park.
Both locations are archeological sites. Montezuma Castle has a large cliff dwelling you can view. You are not allowed up into the cliff dwelling but there are great views of it from the trail. The trail is a very easy and paved 1/3 mile. It makes a loop along the cliff base with views of the pueblo ruins. Most the trail is under the shade of the trees making the trail easy to walk even in the heat of the day.
The park also has a small museum that gives more detail on how people lived in the cliff dwellings. There is also a small gift shop. The day we visited a local Native American man was playing traditional flute music. Between the short hike and completing Jr Ranger books the stop took us under an hour.
Overall: Montezuma Castle is an easy stop and fairly close to several bigger vacation destinations. I would not make a trip out-of-the-way for this site. If you are in the Flagstaff/Sedona area, the national monument is a good way to spend a few hours.
Slide Rock State Park
Location: Munds Park, AZ
Price: $30/car summer weekends, $20/car summer weekdays and during spring/fall, $10/car winter
Smashed Penny Machine: No
In the hills just outside Sedona is an amazing state park. Slide Rock State Park about 15 minutes north of Sedona and about 40 minutes south of Flagstaff making it an easy day trip from either location. The park consists of several historic buildings that used to be a family apple farm on the land, hiking trails and nearby Oak Creek. Oak Creek is the reason most visitors are coming to the park. The main draw of the creek is an 80 foot long chute cut into the rocks in the creek bed that make a natural slide.
We arrived right at park opening with a few other cars. From the parking lot you’ll walk through the main part of the park which includes two sets of bathrooms, the historic farm buildings and a gift shop/concession stand. You will descend a flight of steps and have to scramble over a few rocks to reach the creek. The full walk from the parking lot to the creek is probably about a half a mile.
The wet rocks are very slick so be very careful in the water. Water shoes are not a requirement (the rocks are not sharp they will not cut your feet) but might help for better traction. The main water slide is not really deep (only waist deep through at most) but you are sitting to go through it so parts of it can seem very deep to shorter people. The water also moves at fast current through the slide making it hard to maneuver yourself through the slide (you pretty much go where the water takes you). I would suggest flotation devices for kids who are not very strong swimmers that are going to go down the slide.
When we first arrived the water was cool (around 65 degrees) so it was a bit of shock getting into the water; but after going down the chute a few times the water felt fine. There were also several areas were the creek doesn’t have much current. These pools were great to let the kids splash and swim in. In a deeper park of the creek people jump from the cliff into the water. I wasn’t brave enough to try that but my brother-in-law did and he said he didn’t feel the bottom when jumping.
By about 10, the creek bed had really started to fill up with people. We were there on a Wednesday morning in July. If you are planning on visiting on a weekend or a holiday, I would suggest coming early. Many groups had brought down lawn chairs and coolers (one group had a sunshade) so people clearly spend the whole day playing in the creek. The area by the creek has primitive bathrooms but no other facilities so anything you bring down you have to carry back up.
Overall: Slide Rock State Park was a lot of fun. The park offers other activities than just the creek so making a visit last a whole day probably would be very easy. We spent about two hours in the park, which gave us plenty of time to try the water slide. Our older two kids (7 and 5) didn’t care for the slide. Neither are strong swimmers and current does get a little strong. All four kids did have a good time splashing in the pools along the creek. If you are staying in the Flagstaff or Sedona areas, I would recommend checking out this great swimming hole.
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.