We recently took an epic, 4500+ mile road trip in a loop around some of the western United States, attempting to hit a number of requested stops on our way to and from a family reunion in Wyoming. Since our time was limited, we often managed only one day at each of our stops along the way. Despite the fact that ‘Love’s idea of a vacation is a three-hour drive to the cottage followed by a week of sedentary relaxation, I think we managed pretty well on our whirlwind trip. In case you have a similar time crunch and are wondering how to spend your precious hours at some of these same stops, here was our experience.
We drove to the Grand Canyon from our hotel in Gallup. While this was a four-hour drive, we gained an hour en route because Gallup participates in Daylight Saving Time, while the Grand Canyon does not. And since our bodies were still used to CST, we were able to easily be up, breakfasted, and out of the hotel by 7 am, bringing us to the Grand Canyon by 11 am–or 10 local time. All this to say–if you can’t get a hotel close by, don’t despair!
While we would have loved to visit both rims, we finally settled on the South Rim, both because it has the more popular views and trails and because it meant two fewer hours in the car (both ways!). We had read that the East Entrance has less traffic, and since it was a mere five minutes longer to drive that direction, we opted to start our park experience on that end. We were only the fourth car in line when we pulled up to the gate around 10 local time, but it still took nearly 20 minutes to get into the park.
Desert View Watchtower
Right near the East Entrance is a large parking lot for the Desert View Watchtower, a canyon-edge structure inspired by ancient architecture. There are bathrooms, drinking fountains, and a snack bar between the parking lot and the Watchtower.
After the short walk past the bathrooms (where we paused briefly), the wide, paved path curved past a market and a snack bar (which were either not open or not popular at 10 am) and led to the Desert View Watchtower. While the outdoor views from the base of the Watchtower are an inspiring introduction to the Grand Canyon, a climb to the room at the top of the Watchtower–up a series of crowded, slowly-spiraling staircases–allows you a better vantage point for admiration. The kids enjoyed the climb, though I think ‘Love felt a bit claustrophobic.
The base of the Watchtower held a gift shop as well as a table for Jr. Ranger information. We picked up three of the free Jr. Ranger booklets, and the kids were delighted that they were also given stubby, red pencils that even had erasers.
Tusayan Ruins and Museum
While the ruins aren’t all that impressive to look at–the foundation of a series of small, rectangular rooms and a kiva–the National Park has done an excellent job of making it an educational stop. Little signs along the short, crushed-gravel path through the area attempt to help kids imagine life long ago by pointing out various native plants and described their uses. My kids had fun looking for more samples of the noted plants.
I almost didn’t go into the museum at this stop. It’s a tiny little building, and there was someone standing right in the way of the door when I first walked past. I’m glad I did go inside, though. They had a nice little collection of artifacts found locally, including pots, animal figures, tools, and even a sandal. This wasn’t a long stop, but each of my kids found something interesting to look at here.
Grand Canyon Village Visitor Center
Though there were many overlooks where we could have stopped along the way between the entrance and Grand Canyon Village, having seven people crowded into a minivan makes “quick stop” an oxymoron. We decided it would be more worthwhile to get out of the vehicle when we wouldn’t have to all pile right back into it again.
We were just in time to watch the 20-minute movie (which plays on the hour and half-hour) at the Visitor Center. Since the kids needed to either watch the movie or attend a ranger program for their Jr. Ranger badge, we took the time to view the movie and had stopped by the Jr. Ranger station to have a ranger sign off on that requirement.
Trail of Time
In front of the Visitor Center in Grand Canyon Village is the main station for the many shuttle buses that run through the park. After inspecting the signs, we stood by a bus stop for a few moments before riding to the Yavapai Geology Museum. This was another small museum that held some fossils and a scale model of the canyon. Since the kids were excited to walk along the canyon, we didn’t spend much time in the museum.
Honestly, the Trail of Time was a disappointment. While the kids liked checking out the markers on the ground that indicated how far back in time we had walked and they admired the stone samples that were placed along the route to indicate when those portions of the Grand Canyon were formed, it wasn’t really all that meaningful for them. If we were more interested in geology, perhaps it would have been a win. But this was a stop everyone lauded as a “must-do” that pretty much fell flat for us, redeemed only by the fact that we were walking along the rim and could enjoy the view.
Unfortunately, this was the 1.3 miles that seemed never to end. When we saw a little side path that said it would lead us to the Shrine of the Ages and a bus stop, we decided to abandon ship. DO NOT make that same mistake. What looks like a teeny line on a map is actually a .6 mile path back to civilization–and since it would have been only .62 miles to reach the end of the Trail of Time at Verkamp’s Visitor Center, we should have just stayed the course.
Bright Angel Trail
After our too-long trek through the woods back to civilization, we managed to find a bus headed to the Hermit’s Rest Route Transfer. (Be careful–though the route looks like a loop, there are buses going both directions, so you’ll want to make sure you get on one going the right direction!) The bus stop here is right at the base of the hill leading to the trailhead.
If there’s one thing you do at the Grand Canyon, this should be it. It was the favorite stop of everyone in our family. While it’s cool to walk along the rim of the canyon, there’s something magical about hiking down into it. We didn’t go far–less than half a mile–but it was exhilarating nonetheless. ‘Love would have liked to hike further down the path, but we were trying to be sensitive to little legs (and our own, unused to uphill hiking!). Even our short hike down made for quite a workout going back up!
The first half-mile of the trail (through the first tunnel and up to the first switchback) are supposedly the most family-friendly, having a nice, wide path and a fairly gentle slope. Beware, though, that there are no railings. Don’t take a child that you can’t trust to behave wisely! And watch your step, since there are plenty of mule droppings decorating the path left behind by the groups taking mule-trips into the canyon.
I’m told that there are fossils visible in the rock near the beginning of this trail, and I meant to look for them with the kids, but we were so enchanted with our hike that we never thought to look for fossils. I’m not too broken up over it, though!
We ended our day at the canyon by stopping back at the Visitor Center to turn in the kids’ Jr. Ranger packets. The ranger who talked to us took plenty of time looking through each child’s packet and asking questions about their experiences before swearing them in with a long (and slightly silly) oath and presenting them each with a plastic badge.
One of the biggest surprises at the Grand Canyon was how long it takes to get from one place to another. Since the Grand Canyon Pocket Map I’d looked at (the same one they hand you as you enter the park) didn’t indicate mileage on any of the roads or paths, I had it in my mind that everything was reasonably close together in real life (especially given the term “village”). This, however, is not the case. Driving from place to place, finding parking in Grand Canyon Village, walking in from the parking lot to the Visitor Center, waiting for buses, and riding from place to place all took way more time than I anticipated.
To put it in perspective: When we were done with our Bright Angel hike, we headed back to the bus stop near the trailhead. The express bus back to the Visitor Center was too full for us to board, so we had to wait for the next bus. The ranger in charge of helping people board recommended that we wait 15 minutes for the next express rather than boarding the regular bus, since the express would arrive at the Visitor Center before the regular bus even with the 15-minute delay. Plan plenty of time for transit!
All in all, we were at the Grand Canyon for six hours. While I could have easily stayed longer and experienced it in more depth, our single day provided a good overview and was enjoyable for the kids. After six hours we were tired of sunshine (even with the blessing of an overcast sky for most of the day), footsore, and ready for the 2-hour drive to our hotel, the nearest we’d been able to book four months in advance.