Visiting the Grand Canyon with a family: Where to camp, stay and play

Oct 2, 2020

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Editor’s note: As the travel industry reopens following COVID-19 shutdowns, TPG suggests you talk to your doctor, follow health officials’ guidance and research local travel restrictions before booking that next trip. We’ll be here to help you prepare, whether you’re traveling next month or next year.

When our daughter was 7 months old, my husband and I took her on a road trip through the Southwest. We flew to Las Vegas (LAS) from Boston (BOS), and planned on visiting California’s desert parks over 10 days. What commenced was an unforgettable camping and hiking experience that brought us through not only California but also Nevada, Arizona and Utah. One of our stops was Grand Canyon National Park.

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The first time I saw the Grand Canyon was in early fall, nearly a decade earlier. It was a stormy evening when my then-fiancé and I arrived, and we quickly set up our tent and hunkered down for the night. We fell asleep to the sound of wind and torrential rain. At one point, we were awakened by a small herd of elk stampeding through our campsite. In the morning, we made our way in the fog to a secluded lookout. We weren’t sure what to expect. It blew our minds when the fog finally lifted.

We returned to this spot 10 years later as new parents. It was early December, and we hadn’t planned on going to the Grand Canyon. We didn’t pack the right gear for colder temperatures and higher elevations. Improvising, we put the seats down in the back of the rental car and created a cozy nest, cradling our young daughter safely between our warm bodies.

Related: Family camping adventures in Yellowstone National Park

The two trips were vastly different. The Grand Canyon is like that. You might feel as if once you’ve viewed the canyon, you’ve seen or know enough. But the layers in the canyon walls aren’t meant to be seen just from the rim. There are numerous trails to bring you into the depths of the canyon or around the edge for a fascinating look at the tangible history of our world’s early creation. Visiting with your young children is a must-do at least once in their lives and, if they’re lucky, more. We know we’ll be back again when our daughter is older.

Grand Canyon
Photo by Daniel Cicivizzo/EyeEm/Getty Images

Getting to the Grand Canyon

Most visitors to the Grand Canyon fly into Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport (PHX), the closest major international airport to the South Rim. Airlines usually flying to PHX include Alaska, American, Delta, Frontier, Hawaiian, JetBlue, Southwest, Spirit, Sun Country and United. If you have companion fares, such as the ones that are given on card anniversaries with the Alaska Airlines Visa Signature® credit card (from $121, $99 fare plus taxes and fees from $22) and Delta SkyMiles® Platinum American Express Card, you can use them to offset flight costs. Or, look into Frontier’s Kids Fly Free promotion, Southwest’s Companion Pass or JetBlue’s flash sales to save money, points or both.

You could also fly into Las Vegas McCarran Airport (LAS), which is about 4.5 hours to the South Rim and is served by Alaska, Allegiant, American, Delta, Frontier, Hawaiian, JetBlue, Southwest, Spirit, Sun Country and United. If you have the Spirit Airlines World Mastercard from Bank of America, you have access to Spirit’s off-peak award flights from just 2,500 miles each way.

Grand Canyon entrance fees

As with many major U.S. national parks, there’s an entrance fee. The current cost is $35 per vehicle on the North and South rims. The West Rim is not a part of the National Park Service; different fees apply.

There is an annual Grand Canyon National Park pass ($70) that’s valid for one year from the purchase date.

Additionally, if your family plans to visit more than one national park, it’s likely a better deal to consider one of the America the Beautiful passes, which include a special pass for fourth-graders, annual passes and senior passes. This is what you need to know to visit America’s national parks for less.

When to go

The Grand Canyon is wildly popular during the summer, as a stay during those peak vacation months often means warmer weather. Spring and fall, however, are my personal favorite times to visit because it’s less crowded. The South Rim is open year-round, while the North Rim is open seasonally from mid-May through mid-October. Grand Canyon West is open year-round.

Related: When to visit the Grand Canyon

Travelers eyeing a trip to the Grand Canyon in the near future, of course, need to be mindful that not everything is open and operating as normal. Many shuttle bus routes remain closed, as are certain information desks, campgrounds and more. Before traveling to the Grand Canyon, before to check the most recent service update.

The rims of the Grand Canyon

Dividing the rims is the actual canyon itself; from the North Rim to the South Rim, there are 277 miles of carved canyon walls. The average distance across the canyon is only 10 miles, but it will take five hours to drive from the North Rim to the South Rim.

Because the Grand Canyon is massive, it’s usually tackled by visiting one specific rim. There are three main rims — the North, South and West — as well as the inner haven of Havasu Falls. Below are some of the unique attractions in each area.

The South Rim

Grand Canyon National Park, South Rim (Photo by Getty Images / benedek)
Grand Canyon National Park, South Rim (Photo by Getty Images/benedek)

The South Rim is the most popular area in the national park, with 90% of all visitors coming to this rim. Most families opt to stay and camp here. It’s open all year, and has campgrounds, lodges, restaurants and museums, as well as natural attractions and hiking trails.

You can reach the South Rim via Highway 64. Despite heavy congestion from visitors during the summer season, the South Rim is still home to abundant wildlife. Hikes into the canyon offer a reprieve from the crowds; there are plenty of routes to take. If you want to enjoy the amenities of the South Rim but could do without the throngs of visitors, try coming in the fall, winter or spring, during the off season.

The North Rim

Grand Canyon North Rim
Watch the sun rise at Toroweap Point at the Grand Canyon’s North Rim. (Photo by Images)

The North Rim is a more remote area of the park and is accessible via Highway 67. It’s only open from mid-May through mid-October. With fewer visitors, there’s less impact on the environment, so wildlife viewing is considered superior here.

Simply put, views on the North Rim are outstanding. From most points along the South Rim, it’s impossible to see the Colorado River that created this masterpiece in the first place. Within the North Rim, you’ll have a fuller view of the canyon below, including the river. There are many wonderful day hikes in the North Rim.

The West Rim

Photo by Radius Images / Getty Images.
The Skywalk at the West Rim of the Grand Canyon. (Photo by Radius Images / Getty Images)

The West Rim is not a part of the national park; it’s managed by the Hualapai Indian tribe. The most popular attraction here is the Skywalk, a horseshoe-shaped glass walkway that cantilevers over the canyon.

Visitors can also soar 500 feet above a side canyon with the relatively new zip line experience, making the West Rim the definitive Grand Canyon destination for adrenaline junkies.

Where to stay

Let’s take a look at the camping options at all three rims. Remember, due to the pandemic, not all campgrounds or lodges are open and operating as normal, so be sure to check directly with your preferred accommodation provider before making any travel plans.

Where to stay on the South Rim

Open year-round, Mather Campground ($6 to $50 per night) is in Grand Canyon Village. Sites are nestled in the shady pinewood forest, with fragrant Ponderosa pine, Pinyon and Juniper trees separating tent sites for privacy in an otherwise busy campground. Elk and deer are frequent visitors. There are 327 campsites, and although RVs are welcome, there are no hookups. Reservations are accepted six months in advance; you’ll want make sure you plan ahead.

First come, first served Desert View Campground ($12 per night), is a smaller, quieter campground, with more rustic facilities. Reservations are not accepted and the campground typically fills by noon for the day. The season for Desert View varies, but is roughly from mid-April to mid-October. Because of COVID-19, it remains closed for the 2020 season.

National Park Service campgrounds in the park do not have RV hookup capabilities. Trailer Village ($41 to $51 per night), in the South Rim’s Grand Canyon Village, is a full hookup RV campground that’s open year-round. You’ll want to book well in advance during those busy months.

Where to stay on the North Rim

There is one lodge, The Grand Canyon Lodge, as well as a campground, North Rim Campground ($6 to $50 per night) within the North Rim. There are 90 campsites tucked among the pine trees and aspens, and squirrel, elk and deer frequent the grounds. The lodge and campground both book well in advance, so it’s highly recommended to book at least six months out.

North Rim Campground Grand Canyon
The North Rim Campground is open from mid-May to mid-October and is operated by the National Park Service. (Photo by Michael Quinn/National Park Service)

Where to stay on the West Rim

Packages within Grand Canyon West start at $39 per person. For lodging, there are cabin rentals available for a cozy stay on the West Rim, at Hualapai Ranch & Western Cabins (standard cabins start at $129 per night).

Must-see Grand Canyon attractions

Visiting the Grand Canyon shouldn’t be limited to a few stops along the rim road to take in the view. The Grand Canyon offers spectacular opportunities to see wildlife, breathtaking trails you can do on foot, bike or train and a vast panorama of geological history.

Wildlife viewing

More than 90 different mammals call this park home, including elk, bighorn sheep, bison and mule deer. Mountain lions also hide within the canyon walls, and they are the largest predators of this area. Reptiles, birds, insects and amphibians also inhabit this special land. Bison and elk are the two animals I saw the most during my stays at the Grand Canyon.

Elk at the Grand Canyon
Elk are frequently seen in and around Grand Canyon Village. (Photo courtesy of the National Park Service)

Hiking, biking and train riding

What’s my personal favorite way to see the Grand Canyon? Rent a bike. There are a few great bike paths on the South Rim: Hermit Road is a 7-mile scenic roadway closed to private vehicles from March 1 to Nov. 30 (which makes it a fantastic family-friendly bikeway). The Canyon Rim Trail is a highly accessible trail, with most of it paved.

South Rim Grand Canyon bike rentals
On the South Rim, bicycle rental services are located near the Visitor Center — close to Mather Point. (Photo by Kristen M Caldon/National Park Service)

The park also offers museums, the junior ranger program, hikes and mule rides that wind down into the canyon. For the train lovers out there, consider a ride on the Grand Canyon Railway.

Grand Canyon Railway (Photo by Buddy Smith/The Points Guy)

Mule rides

If your family has older children, you can consider taking a memorable mule ride into or around the canyon, but you need to make an advance reservation. On the South Rim, children must be aged 9 or older (and 57 inches) for the different rides. Overnight rides to Phantom Ranch from the South Rim have extremely tight availability (enter a lottery 15 months in advance). On the North Rim, mule rides are seasonal and riders can do a one-hour ride around the rim (7 and older) or a half-day trip into the canyon (ages 10 and older).

Travelers visiting the South Rim can also choose from one- or two-hour trail rides through the Kaibab National Forest with campfire and wagon rides available.

Havasu Falls

(Photo courtesy of Gilles Baechler/Getty Images)
(Photo courtesy of Gilles Baechler/Getty Images)

Instagram has made Havasu Falls a popular stop for nature tourism if you’re willing to hike 10 miles into the canyon to get your perfect vacation photo. This is one place that fully lives up to the hype of social media. Havasu Falls is one of the most famous waterfalls in the world, and for good reason: Its turquoise waters are sensational against the red-orange backdrop of the canyon walls.

Learn more about how to plan your trip here. This is not a day trip and will not be accessible for many families as camping reservations for the year are often sold out on the first day and the only ways to access the falls are: hike, mule or helicopter.

Bottom line

A camping trip to the Grand Canyon is a wonderful way to see and experience this special area. Spending time with your children in the outdoors gives them the opportunity to fall in love with our natural world.

If camping seems out of reach for your family right now, you can still visit the Grand Canyon. The Best Western Premier Grand Canyon Squire Inn (from 40,000 Best Western Rewards points) and Holiday Inn Express & Suites Grand Canyon (from 40,000 IHG Rewards Club points) are both near the South Rim. If you are planning a multi-night visit, keep in mind that the IHG Rewards Premier Credit Card will give you the fourth award night free.

To use points near the North Rim (OK, about two hours away), there’s the Holiday Inn Express Page – Lake Powell for 30,000 IHG points per night or the Days Inn Page – Lake Powell for 15,000 Wyndham Rewards points per night.

If you’re new to the great outdoors, here are TPG‘s top tips for visiting national parks with kids. If you need to start earning some points to cover your next vacation, here are some of the top rewards credit cards for traveling families.

Featured image by Images

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