If you are thinking about going to the Grand Canyon with children, read on: we took our toddler and our pre-schooler last year, and I’ll list several kids’ activities and the age requirements for each one in this post. I’ve included some useful planning tips too. We visited the South Rim, the North Rim was closed for the winter.
When I scheduled our trip to the Grand Canyon, I started researching what kind of activities would be appropriate for my little ones. My son was just 1 year old (13 months at the time) and my daughter was 5. I knew we wouldn’t be able to do hardly any hiking, much less rafting or going down the Grand Canyon on mules, but I wondered if there was anything that would be tailored for little kids.
Safety: As soon as I started googling “grand canyon with little kids”, the main thing people talked about in forums was safety. Yes, before going to the Grand Canyon with small children, you should know your kids – are they the type of kids who will let go of your hand and run away as fast as they can? Are they the running -to-the-street-in-front-of-cars type? Will try to jump from any place regardless of what you tell them? I wouldn’t go to the Grand Canyon if my kids were like that, I would probably wait a few years and avoid the risk of a heart attack while trying to control them close to the edge of the canyon (or worse). If your kids aren’t the death-seekers type, and like my 1 year old are fine in a baby carrier or stroller, you’ll be fine. My 5 year old was very impressed by the Grand Canyon (and she’s afraid of heights, wouldn’t go too close to the fences).
You might be thinking: how dangerous is it, really? Well, if you stay in the Rim Trail, which is pretty much the paved flat walkway along the edge of the Grand Canyon, you get to the various viewpoints along the way that are fenced, but in several parts of the trail there isn’t any fence at all. Pretty much all the viewpoints had fences, I don’t think I’ve seen any without a fence, but sometimes to get there you go through a path without any fences. So if your kid decides to let go of your hand and run away, it can be quite dangerous. From the rim to the canyon floor, it’s an average height of 6,800 feet. And some of the fences are very widely spaced, I saw two girls who were probably around 6-8 (sisters) sitting on the outside of the fence in one of the viewpoints (it made me so nervous thinking they could fall backward at any moment that I had to walk away). There are signs cautioning visitors about falls, but every year there are a few deaths at the Grand Canyon because of falls, usually adults who wanted to get close to the edge. I saw a few families (with pre-teens or teens) who went beyond the fence and were posing for pictures at the very edge. Too bad some people don’t take these warnings seriously, glad I didn’t get to witness any accidents.
Junior Ranger Program: It was Julia’s first time participating in the Junior Ranger Program, which is available in most National Parks across the country, for children over 4 years old. You get the Junior Ranger Program booklet at the Visitor Center, for free.
The program has activities for different age groups, and each group has its name: between 4-7 the kids are “Ravens”, from 8 to 10 they are “Coyotes”, and 11 and up are “Scorpions”. The pages in the booklet are marked with the names of the age groups for which the activity is recommended. When the kid is done with the activities required to get a badge for his/her age group, you take it to a Park Ranger to verify and sign.
Julia was a Raven, so she had to complete 4 activities to get her badge – the minimum number increases with age. Most activities involve drawing or writing something the kids learned about the Grand Canyon – geology, history or biology-related and they also have to watch a live presentation by one of the Park Rangers. There are several presentations a day, they have different themes and you can find the schedule at the free newspaper given at the Park entrance or at the Visitor Center. We chose an 11 AM presentation, which is the shorter one (30 min versus 1h for most of the other presentations), so it would be easier on Eric.
The Ranger talked about how the Grand Canyon was formed, the different types of rocks, lots of interesting geological facts – he was great, really captured the kids’ attention, explaining everything in a way the kids could follow. Julia had to write down something she had learned from the presentation (I wrote it down for her), and then take the booklet to the Ranger so he could check and sign. He went through all of the pages she had completed, wrote her name in a certificate in the back of the booklet and then after doing this for all of the kids who were waiting in line, he got them all to say the Junior Ranger pledge. Then he gave each kid the Junior Ranger badge and a sticker, the kids feeling all so important. Julia was very proud 🙂
It was her first badge, and after seeing some kids there wearing other Junior Ranger badges from different Parks, she said she wants to go to these other places and collect other badges too…That’s great, since we’ve been planning to go to several other National Parks once Eric is a bit older.
Trails: most of the trails in the Grand Canyon are fairly difficult, for one obvious reason: you walk down, but you have to come back up. The elevation makes everything harder (the South Rim is at 8,000 feet). So they are not easy trails for little kids, who will get tired and ask to be carried up – not to mention the trails are not fenced and are quite narrow, no place for a kid to trip. You can’t really go down and come back up on the same day, the easiest way for those wanting to go down to the canyon floor is to go on the mule ride – which has a minimum height requirement (55 inches). For those wanting to go on the mule ride, you need to reserve far in advance, up to 13 months ahead – read more.
The easiest “trail” for those with small children is the Rim Trail, which is the flat and mostly paved walkway along the rim – it starts on Mather Point (the most accessible and popular viewpoint), next to the Visitor Center. You can even use a stroller on several parts of the Rim Trail. As I said before, the walkway is not fully fenced, so there are areas where you will be walking along the edge.
Wild Animals: the kids loved seeing the Elks and deer several times walking around the streets in the Grand Canyon Village and along the shuttle routes. We stayed in Tusayan, a small town just a few miles from the Grand Canyon Village, and when driving there at dusk we always saw a few deer. Other animals we’ve seen: crows and squirrels, too bad we didn’t get to see any coyotes or condors.
Rafting: There are many options for those who want to go rafting, and for some of the more tame trips the minimum age is only 4. Julia didn’t like the idea though, and since Eric couldn’t go, we didn’t push it. Most of the same-day boat rides depart from Page, which is 3h away from the South Rim. The Colorado River Discovery company is authorized by the Park to offer the boat tours. For longer boat trips (3-18 days) check this list, the age requirements vary according to the tour. My husband went on a several-day rafting trip when he was around 10, he doesn’t remember what company organized it, but he says it was pretty awesome.
Camping: Another way to visit the Grand Canyon the kids will probably enjoy is camping. There are campgrounds inside of the Grand Canyon Village, which is where the hotels, restaurants and other facilities are located in the South Rim. The Trailer Village is the choice for those who are going to use a RV. We decided against camping because of the very low temperatures at the time of the year we visited (below freezing at night at the end of November – Thanksgiving week). We’re not big on camping anyway (despite lots of camping trips growing up), but we do want to try a RV with the kids one day.
Biking: I looked into bike rentals too but the minimum age is 8. If you rather bike around than drive or take the shuttle, you can rent a bike and a trailer to pull the kids along. In our case Julia is too old for the trailer and too young for the rental. You ride the bikes through the paved roads in the Grand Canyon Village or along the Rim Trail, can’t really go down any trails on a bike.
Viewpoints: the easiest way to see the Grand Canyon for those traveling with little children is to go from viewpoint to viewpoint by driving your own car (going east, towards Desert View, with its cool watchtower) or to take a free shuttle that stops along the Hermit Road, to Hermits Rest (you can also drive there from December to February). The buses are wheelchair accessible, and have a place next to the driver for strollers, which have to be folded when you board.
Yavapai Geological Museum: this small geological museum is inside Grand Canyon Village, right next to the edge of the canyon, see the museum website. We ended up not visiting the museum, but I heard good things from the children attending the Ranger presentation about it.
Movies: at the main Visitor Center they play a 20 minute movie called Grand Canyon: A Journey of Wonder, but Julia is not a big fan of movie theaters so we didn’t see it. In Tusayan there’s an IMAX theater which shows a National Geographic movie called Grand Canyon: the Movie, 30 minutes long.
Helicopter ride: there’s no minimum age for the helicopter ride, you can take a baby on your lap and s/he flies for free. So it’s up to your kid if s/he is afraid to fly or not. My daughter refused to go, so my husband stayed with the kids while I went on a 45 min ride (sponsored by Viator) – which was incredible! I flew with a father and his 3 teenagers, they really enjoyed the flight. The views are stunning, and the moment the helicopter flies from the top of the rim into the Grand Canyon is amazing. I think my daughter would be fine once we were flying, but I tried to convince her to go for 3 days and she refused, we’ll have to do it again one day.
Food: restaurants, snack bars and a small market at the South Rim are located in the Grand Canyon Village. At Desert View there’s a snack bar which offers a few hot sandwiches, and at Hermits Rest there’s a snack bar with cold or pre-packed options available. Since you will likely spend quite some time going from a viewpoint to another, it’s a good idea to bring along some snacks (although you’re not supposed to eat on the shuttle). The Park offers free drinking water, and they tell everybody to bring their own bottles to re-fill as much as you want.
Bathrooms: not every viewpoint has a bathroom, so it’s a good idea to tell the kids to use the bathroom when there is one nearby. Most of the Park bathrooms had a diaper changing table inside of the women’s bathroom in the larger stall for disabled people. There are a few Family bathrooms here and there. The bathrooms were mostly clean and didn’t smell, but we visited in late Fall, not sure how it is in the summer time.
Lodging: try to stay in the Grand Canyon Village, but you have to make reservations far in advance. When we decided to go to the Grand Canyon all the accommodations at the Village were already sold out, 4 months before the dates we wanted. Not all the lodges have rooms big enough for the kids to share with the parents. Another option is to stay in Tusayan, just a few miles from the Village. There are a handful of hotels there, we stayed at the Canyon Plaza Resort, which I don’t recommend.
Have you been to the Grand Canyon with your kids? Do you have any other suggestions that I haven’t covered?
I originally wrote this post in Portuguese, right after we came back from our trip (December 3, 2012), original post here.