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What to pack and where to stay: TPG's ultimate Grand Canyon family vacation guide

Aug. 09, 2022
16 min read
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Until recently I had only seen the Grand Canyon from the sky while flying to Las Vegas to celebrate my 40th birthday last year. I've dreamed of visiting the Grand Canyon for years and getting a small taste from 30,000 feet up in the air rekindled my desire and encouraged me to finally plan a trip.

To me, the Grand Canyon is one of those classic family vacations. I never visited as a child but, in a lot of ways, it reminds me of the road trips we would take from Florida to the mountains in Georgia or North Carolina. The scenery was completely different than what I was used to, we spent most of our time outside and our daily agenda consisted of hiking and mountain-top picnics.

Related: How to plan your 1st visit to a national park

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It was a chance to relax, connect and make lifelong memories, and I wanted to provide that same experience for my own children. What better place to commune with your family and with nature than the Grand Canyon?

I spent a lot of time researching our trip and learned a lot from our visit ... most importantly that this wasn't going to be a one-off trip. I picked up plenty of helpful tips along the way to help you plan the ultimate Grand Canyon family vacation.

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Planning ahead

How far in advance you begin planning depends on what you plan to do at the Grand Canyon. If you are hoping to stay overnight at Phantom Ranch — the only lodging below the canyon rim — you'll need to enter a lottery up to 13 months in advance. Backcountry permit applications for overnight camping and hiking in the canyon open on the first day of the month, five months in advance of your travel dates.

While Phantom Ranch is certainly on my bucket list, my three kids are all under 10 years old and probably aren't quite ready to hike to the canyon floor. We opted to stay in one of the South Rim lodges, which allow bookings up to six months in advance. The same is true for the campgrounds situated along the North and South rims.

View of the Grand Canyon at sunset. (Photo by Tarah Chieffi/The Points Guy)

There is only one lodge and one campground inside the park on the North Rim and reservations can be made up to 13 months in advance.

No matter where you plan to stay, you'll need to pay a fee to enter Grand Canyon National Park. The cost is $35 per vehicle and grants access to both the North and South rims for seven days. Lifetime and annual passes are also available.

You can buy a permit in person at one of the entrances to the park, but you'll save time by purchasing it online ahead of time. When the Grand Canyon is busy, the line of cars can be backed up an hour or more, but there is usually a designated line for prepaid permits that will help you get into the park more quickly.

View from Plateau Point. (Photo by Katie Genter/The Points Guy)

If your schedule is flexible, Grand Canyon National Park participates in the National Park Service's fee-free days when entrance fees are waived for all visitors. If you visit on one of these days, you can bypass the $35 entrance fee.

What to pack

It should go without saying that you'll want to pack lightweight, outdoorsy clothing that you don't mind getting a bit sweaty or dirty. There were a few other items that made our time at the Grand Canyon more fun and kept us more comfortable ... and a few we picked up while we were there that we didn't even know we needed.

Here's what I would recommend:

  • Refillable water bottle or hydration pack (there are a lot of bottle-filling stations around the park and in the lodges).
  • Hats, ultraviolet protection factor clothing and sunscreen for sun protection.
  • Comfortable, closed-toe shoes for hiking and walking.
  • Snacks, snacks and more snacks.
  • Daypack or belt pack.
  • Small first-aid kit for scrapes, etc.
  • Flashlight for nighttime walks (the Grand Canyon is an International Dark Sky Park).
  • A park map that details trails, bus routes, landmarks, etc.
  • Binoculars for seeing farther into the canyon and spotting animals.

Getting there

For our trip, we flew into Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport (PHX) and rented a car to drive the 3 1/2 hours to Grand Canyon National Park.

We enjoyed our scenic road trip through Arizona. (Photo by Tarah Chieffi/The Points Guy)

For most trips, I rent something practical like a minivan or three-row SUV for our family of five, but a Jeep Wrangler felt more fitting for a road trip to the Grand Canyon, so I switched things up.

Related: The 1-minute video you should take every time you rent a car

The drive was beautiful and showcased the varying terrain in Arizona, starting with the desert sands and cacti near Phoenix, leading to Arizona's mountains and forests and ending at the Grand Canyon.

PHX is the closest major airport to the Grand Canyon, making it the most popular airport for arrivals to the area. Some travelers fly into Las Vegas' Harry Reid Airport (LAS), but the drive is about an hour longer than from Phoenix.

We chose to spend two nights in Flagstaff before driving all the way to the Grand Canyon so we could explore a few sights outside of the park and devote our time at the Grand Canyon to in-the-park activities.

The kids loved playing in the pool during our last night in Arizona. (Photo by Tarah Chieffi/The Points Guy)

We also made a last-minute decision to book a one-night stay at a hotel near the Phoenix airport so that we wouldn't have to drive from the Grand Canyon to Phoenix to catch our early morning flight. It made the trip home much smoother.

When to go

There are certain times of the year when the Grand Canyon is hotter and busier, which happen to coincide with school letting out for summer vacation. If you visit in spring or fall, you'll enjoy comfortable temperatures, less rain and fewer crowds than if you visit in July or August.

Related: Tips for visiting the busiest national parks

Most of us are at the mercy of work and school schedules, though, and those hot, busy months are often the only time available to visit. I was happy to find the park only moderately crowded during our visit and the temperatures on the rim were in the 60s at night and low 80s during the day.

The crowds were more than manageable during our visit. (Photo by Tarah Chieffi/The Points Guy)

Of course, if we had hiked to the bottom of the canyon, the temperatures were about 20 degrees hotter there, which would have pushed daytime temperatures to over 100 degrees. If you are planning to hike to the bottom, that's definitely something to keep in mind.

If you are planning to visit the North Rim or want to see both the North and South rims on your trip, you'll need to also keep in mind that the North Rim is closed during the winter months.

Where to stay

In Arizona, the towns of Williams and Tusayan are located less than an hour from the South Rim of Grand Canyon National Park and have accommodations from numerous hotel brands to choose from if you are looking to use hotel points.

Though we couldn't earn or use points from one of the major hotel brands for our stay, I would still highly recommend staying inside the Grand Canyon rather than in a nearby town. In my opinion, no amount of points can measure up to waking up and being only a short walk away from the Grand Canyon.

Exterior view of Maswik Lodge South. (Photo by Tarah Chieffi/The Points Guy)

That being said, some of the Grand Canyon lodges are available through credit card travel portals like the American Express Travel portal. We paid cash for our stay at the Maswik Lodge, but the property is currently available on the Amex Travel portal on select nights for around $371 or 53,084 points per night. If you book through Amex and pay cash, you can earn 5 Membership Rewards points per dollar.

Availability through Amex is spotty, but it's worth checking if you carry The Platinum Card® from American Express, The Business Platinum Card® from American Express or the American Express® Gold Card.

There are six lodges along the South Rim and one at the North Rim. Here is a little bit of information on each to help you choose where to stay:

El Tovar Hotel

El Tovar Hotel is located directly on the canyon rim. It's by far the most elegant (by national park lodge standards) and offers the best views. It's also home to the only fine dining restaurant inside the park and, unsurprisingly, the most expensive. If I were to stay here, I would spring for one of the suites with views of the Grand Canyon, but that can run upward of $700 per night. Standard rooms are available starting at around $300.

Thunderbird Lodge

Thunderbird Lodge is set back a bit from the canyon rim, but is conveniently situated along the Rim Trail, which connects to Grand Canyon Village, the popular Bright Angel Trailhead, the main visitor center, Hermits Rest and the Kaibab Trailhead. Room rates start at around $250 per night.

Kachina Lodge

We saw lots of animals outside Kachina Lodge. (Photo by Tarah Chieffi/The Points Guy)

Though not as grand as El Tovar Hotel, the Kachina Lodge is also located directly on the canyon rim with access to the Rim Trail. Some rooms have partial canyon views and we saw elk and deer munching on the grass right outside of guest room windows while we were there, which is a huge selling point for me.

Maswik Lodge

This is where we stayed and I would stay there again in a heartbeat, especially the newer Maswik South buildings that opened in April 2022. Most of the lodges have rooms that accommodate two to four guests, but our two-queen kitchenette room slept up to five. The walk to the canyon rim is about a quarter-mile, but for the updated rooms and on-site food court, it's worth the short walk. Standard room rates start at around $140 per night.

Bright Angel Lodge

When you stay at Bright Angel Lodge, you can choose between the main lodge building or the surrounding cabins for more space and privacy. Bright Angel houses the most restaurants of any of the lodges, including a burger restaurant, a steakhouse, a saloon and a shop with coffee, ice cream and grab-and-go foods. Standard room rates sometimes drop below $100 per night and cabins start around $175 per night.

Yavapai Lodge

Yavapai Lodge is located about a 1-mile walk from the South Rim, but that comes with closer proximity to the general store, bank and other amenities. The restaurant is your best bet for a hot breakfast (buffet or made to order) and the tavern serves delicious food and drinks, including locally brewed beers. Room rates start at under $200 per night and some rooms have bunk beds and sleep up to six guests.

Grand Canyon North Rim Lodge

The only lodge inside the park on Grand Canyon's North Rim, Grand Canyon North Rim Lodge offers a variety of motel rooms and cabins. All accommodations are open seasonally between mid-May and mid-October. Dining, shopping and trail access are available nearby and rates start around $160 per night.

What to do

Your kids' ages and abilities, as well as your family's interests, will largely determine how you spend your time at the Grand Canyon. These are my top recommendations based on my time there with my own family (and my wishlist for future trips):

Start at the visitor center

We were all smiles after seeing the Grand Canyon for the first time. (Photo by Tarah Chieffi/The Points Guy)

There are three reasons the Grand Canyon Visitor Center is a good first stop. First, you can pick up park maps and speak to a ranger about hiking trails and other trip-planning information. Second, once your car is parked at the visitor center, you can leave it there and use the complimentary shuttle buses to get around the park. Third, just beyond the visitor center is Mather Point — one of the best spots for a first look at the canyon. You can see for miles in every direction, including Phantom Ranch and the Colorado River on the canyon floor.

Join the Junior Ranger program

While you are at the visitor center, ask a ranger for a Junior Ranger booklet. Once you complete the activities inside (or at least make an attempt), you can turn the book in at the main visitor center, the Yavapai Geology Museum or Kolb Studio and your kids will be inducted as official Junior Rangers. My kids had to recite a pledge and then received a certificate and commemorative badge. The activities included things like writing a poem and completing a scavenger hunt.

A similar program is available at the North Rim.

Hike the (paved) Rim Trail

With young kids, I knew our time on the hiking trails would be minimal. The Rim Trail became the exception. The trail is mostly paved and flat and stretches about 13 miles, passing some of the canyon's most popular observation areas along the way. Half of our party was too tired to hike back to the car after our time on the trail, so we popped over to one of the many bus stops along the Rim Trail and rode back in comfort.

Try the Bright Angel Trail

The Bright Angel Trailhead. (Photo by Tarah Chieffi/The Points Guy)

My oldest son is 9 and hiking the canyon rim wasn't going to cut it for him. He wanted to know what it was like to hike down into the canyon. We headed for the Bright Angel Trail, which is easily accessible from the in-park lodges. We didn't go far, but the trail goes all the way to the canyon floor if you are up for it. This is also the trail used for many mule trips, so you may see some furry friends along the route. Watch out for their droppings and remember that they have the right of way.

Visit the Yavapai Geology Museum

There is a topographical map of the Grand Canyon inside the museum. (Photo by Tarah Chieffi/The Points Guy)

Your kids might roll their eyes when you say, "Let's visit the geology museum," but it's more fun than it sounds. In addition to the interesting educational displays, the panoramic windows at the museum provide some of the best views of the canyon. The museum was built in its spot along the Rim Trail specifically to preserve the view.

Ride the bus to Hopi Point to watch the sunset

There's no bad spot to watch the sunset at the Grand Canyon, but for an unobstructed view, head to Hopi Point on the Hermit Road shuttle route. You can also hike to Hopi Point and either walk back or hop on a shuttle.

Visit the Desert View Watchtower

We had fun with our bald eagle puppet from the gift shop at Desert View Watchtower. (Photo by Tarah Chieffi/The Points Guy)

It's a bit of a drive (about 30 minutes) from the South Rim lodges, but you'll be rewarded with a view that's distinct from what you'll see at Mather Point or the Rim Trail, and access to the watchtower, the Tusayan Pueblo site, a market and deli and a gift shop with art from Native American artists.

Getting around

Because it wasn't busy during our visit, driving our rental car around the park was easy and we never ran into traffic issues or lack of parking.

The South Rim shuttle bus system is extensive, with multiple routes that make frequent stops around the park. For the most part, the shuttle buses are optional, but between March and the end of November, Hermit Road is closed to cars and can only be traveled via bus. Your park map should display the bus routes and stops.

If you enjoy exploring new areas via bike, bring one along or rent one from Bright Angel Bicycles near the visitor center. There are 13 miles of roads and greenway trails designated for bicycle use along the South Rim.

Bottom line

It's difficult to put into words the way I felt when I finally saw the Grand Canyon up close and in person. Probably the most surprising thing was that even seeing it in person wasn't enough to comprehend just how vast this natural wonder of the world is.

Luckily, I have plenty of words at my disposal to help you plan a vacation to the Grand Canyon that will let you experience its majesty in the way that's best for bringing home your own family memories. And maybe even finding words worthy of describing the Grand Canyon.

Featured image by (Photo by Tarah Chieffi/The Points Guy)
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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Card Rating is based on the opinion of TPG‘s editors and is not influenced by the card issuer.
4 / 5
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3XEarn 3 Points per $1 spent at Restaurants and Supermarkets
3XEarn 3 Points per $1 spent at Gas Stations, Air Travel and Hotels
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  • Intro Offer
    For a limited time, earn 80,000 bonus ThankYou® Points after you spend $4,000 in purchases within the first 3 months of account opening

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  • Annual Fee

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  • Recommended Credit
    Credit ranges are a variation of FICO© Score 8, one of many types of credit scores lenders may use when considering your credit card application.

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Why We Chose It

The Citi Premier’s 3 points per dollar spent across a wide range of popular categories is one of the more lucrative offerings in the world of points and miles. The Citi Premier comes with a $95 annual fee and is currently offering a solid sign up bonus of 80,000 points after you spend $4,000 on purchases within the first three months. It also has some valuable transfer partners to make the most of your rewards. Add in access to Citi Entertainment plus a $100 hotel credit for any single-stay hotel booking that exceeds $500 or more, excluding taxes and fees, booked through the Citi travel website, there are few reasons why the Citi Premier should not be in every traveler’s wallet.

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  • Earns 3x points on restaurants, supermarkets, gas stations, air travel and hotels.
  • $100 annual hotel savings benefit (on single hotel stay bookings of $500 or more, excluding taxes and fees, booked through thankyou.com)
  • Points transfer to 16 airline programs, from JetBlue to Virgin Atlantic.
  • World Elite Mastercard benefits, extended warranty, damage and theft protection.

Cons

  • $95 annual fee
  • Lacks travel protections that other travel rewards cards come with
  • For a limited time, earn 80,000 bonus ThankYou® Points after you spend $4,000 in purchases within the first 3 months of account opening
  • Earn 3 Points per $1 spent at Restaurants and Supermarkets
  • Earn 3 Points per $1 spent at Gas Stations, Air Travel and Hotels
  • Earn 1 Point per $1 spent on all other purchases
  • Annual Hotel Savings Benefit
  • 80,000 Points are redeemable for $800 in gift cards when redeemed at thankyou.com
  • No expiration and no limit to the amount of points you can earn with this card
  • No Foreign Transaction Fees on purchases