The Grand Canyon is the jewel of the American National Park system. A must-see on every family cross-country road trip. But here’s my confession: I just don’t think it’s great for families.
Of the 9 national parks we visited on our Epic Cross-Country Road Trip, the Grand Canyon ranks… dead last. Here are 6 reasons I would (gasp!) skip the Grand Canyon on our next family road trip.
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6 Reasons to Skip the Grand Canyon on your Next Family Road Trip
These reasons are based on our experience visiting the South Rim, we have yet to explore the less touristed North Rim of the Grand Canyon National Park.
If you are planning your own family road trip, don’t miss:
1. It’s Just Too Big to Comprehend
The Grand Canyon is huge. Larger than the state of Rhode Island huge. This means you just can’t see much of it in a few days, from a few overlooks that are close together. Without something to give it perspective, it just all blends together. Add in a hazy day or two, and your kids will find it underwhelming.
The structure of the park can feel huge as well. The visitors center can feel like a sea of nicely landscaped concrete stretching from the park store and shuttle bus depot out to the rim at Mather’s Point. There is nothing intimate about this park.
2. Most of the Hikes in the Grand Canyon are Not Appropriate for Little Legs.
Because of its size, and depth, a lot of the hikes at the Grand Canyon just don’t work well for little legs. We struggled to find a hike that was challenging, and would give us a new perspective on the canyon, but was also doable for our family. Our family does best with either loop trails or out-and-back trails with a real destination at the endpoint such as a waterfall.
Bright Angel Trail
We did part of the Bright Angel Trail, but the top few miles of the trail are switchbacks going down into the canyon, so the view itself changes very little as you go. It’s steep and slippery, so we had to hold little hands most of the time. We were aiming to make it to the first 1.5-mile rest house before turning around.
This is one of the south rim’s most popular trails. There are signs warning against trying to hike the whole trail down and back in one day. The full hike is 9.5 miles to the bottom of the canyon.
We started the hike just after sunrise and got about a mile down the trail before I took a spill and ripped two holes in my pants. Mindful of the steep mile back that stretched above us, we had a snack break and started back up. One of the nice features of this trail is that the top portion was nicely shaded in the early morning, though it got hot quickly later in the day. Be aware you will be climbing back up during the hottest part of the day.
South Kaibab Trail
This trail might be a viable alternative to the Bright Angel Trail for families. The trailhead is off of the orange shuttle bus route heading to Yaki Point. You can either hike to Cedar Ridge for a round trip of 3 miles, or to Skeleton Point for a round trip of 6 miles. Be aware that there is no water and very little shade on this hike. If you make it to Skeleton Point you’ll have a view of the Colorado River. Many hikers report that the changing views on this trail make it a better choice than the switchbacks on Bright Angel.
The Rim Trail
The Rim Trail between Yavapai Point and Verkamp’s Vistors Center is 1.4 miles of flat terrain, with an exhibit called the “Trail of Time” set up along it. We didn’t walk this stretch, though some families report enjoying it.
3. The Distances are Hard to Naviagate
If you want to see much of the Grand Canyon, you will spend a lot of time on shuttle buses. We considered going to Hopi Point for sunset, but it would have involved riding on two different shuttles to get there and then the same on the way back. With small kids, we had to drive to a shuttle stop from our room, take the shuttle, and then drive back to our lodging afterward.
We spend an afternoon riding the red shuttle line to visit various rim overlooks on the way to Hermits Rest, without initially realizing that you cannot walk between many of these stops. Don’t miss Hopi Point, one of the few places on the rim you can see the curve of the Colorado River, and even see tiny boats floating on it.
Buses arrive about every ten minutes to take you to the next point along the shuttle route. The shuttle runs primarily westbound, making all stops on the way out to Hermits Rest, and then only stopping at two places ( Powell Point, Mohave Point) on the eastbound route. You should also note that eastbound shuttles fill up fast, and may not pick up passengers at these stops if they are already full.
4. The Maps are Frustrating
At most National Parks, when you drive into the park, the ranger hands you a map that contains everything you need to know. The main official map of the Grand Canyon is a broad overview of this huge park. Grand Canyon Village is literally a dot on the map. We were able to get a more detailed map of the South Rim specifically from the Yavapai Lodge, but even that does not include a complete map of the red shuttle stops heading out to Hermits Rest, or detailed trail information. You’ll need to research trails ahead of time, as this information is hard to find on the printed park literature. You may find trailheads marked on the map but not mileage, or even the approximate route or loop of the trail. When you get to the actual trailhead you should see a sign with more detailed information. We like to take a quick photo of these signs to reference during our hike.
5. The Facilities are Limited (especially in 2021!)
When traveling with our kids in 2021 we are choosing to only eat meals outdoors or in our hotel room, which was very limiting in the Grand Canyon. Most of the indoor dining was closed, luckily Yavapai Tavern was serving food on their outside patio. Plan to get in line to order early, as the lines get quite long starting around 6 pm. This is the only outdoor location that is currently open in the Grand Cayon, so we ate there both nights, despite the limited menu.
Because the food situation was limited, we were happy to be staying in the Yavapai Lodge close to outdoor dining. It also was a convenient location as it’s one stop from the Visitors Center and Mather Point on the blue shuttle line.
The main Lodge building contains check-in, the tavern, a gift shop, a coffee shop with limited hours, and the main dining room. All lodging rooms are located in either Yavapai East or West, single-story buildings with motel-style doors that are a short drive away. Our room happened to be a “pet-friendly room”, as it contained a dog crate and smelled strongly of dog food. It did have fantastic black-out shades that we put to use after getting up early for sunrise and an early morning hike.
We liked the location of the Bright Angel Lodge, with its proximity to the Bright Angel trailhead, and the fact that it sits at the intersection of the blue and red shuttle lines, but it would have been inconvenient to be staying there with such limited food options.
6. Park Rangers are Hard to Find
While a lot of the national parks have been reeling from budget cuts and staff reductions in 2021, the Grand Canyon was the only park where we barely saw any rangers while in the park. We stepped to the side of the Bright Angel Trail while two rangers rode a train of mules down the trail, but these were the only rangers we saw during our stay. Finding a ranger in the Grand Canyon in 2021 is like spotting wildlife, you have to keep your eyes peeled!
The Visitors Center was closed, so when we first arrived I popped into the Park Store to get Junior Ranger packets. The Grand Canyon is one of only a handful of parks where they charge for these packets. When I bought them, they immediately handed me the actual badges with the packets, so that I could swear in the kids myself after they completed them. Clearly, the staff knew that rangers would not be available to help with the task!
3 Highlights of our Family Visit to the Grand Canyon
Of course, the Grand Canyon is iconic- it’s practically a symbol of the United States. It is listed as one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World along with Mt. Everest and the Great Barrier Reef. At the end of the day, you are looking at a gorgeous sunset over the rim of an awesome canyon! For balance, here are three of the highlights from our family visit to the Grand Canyon.
1. The Sunset
The sunset from Mather Point was beautiful. The viewpoint faces generally east, but the highlights on the rocks were lovely. It was a striking contrast with the hazy blue tones of the sunrise we had seen a few long hours before.
2. The Wildlife
We saw two elk grazing just next to the main Visitors Center shuttle stop. They were clearly not at all bothered by the people or the shuttle bus engines. We also saw several colorful birds, squirrels, chipmunks, and a bunny, but the close-up view of beige elk butt was definitely a highlight.
3. The Gift Shops
The kids loved browsing several of the gift shops, especially those with large jewelry sections. Our family favorite was Lookout Studio just across from the Bright Angel Lodge, on the rim side. This stone building is an absolute gem. Designed in 1914 by Mary Colter, it has two stories with balconies built overlooking the canyon rim. The kids loved pretending it was their house and looking out the view scopes over the canyon.
There You Have It!
6 reasons to skip the Grand Canyon on your next family road trip. We’ve loved so many of our other national park experiences, this one just fell flat. With younger kids, the smaller parks are more manageable. At other parks, we were able to do more hikes that let us stretch our limits safely, and see a lot more along the way.