A view of the Grand Canyon with clearly striated canyon walls.

View of Arizona’s awe-inspiring Grand Canyon.
Photo © Kathleen Bryant.

Summer means it’s time for the classic family road trip, and there’s no destination more classic than the one President Theodore Roosevelt urged every American to see—Arizona’s Grand Canyon.

Grand Canyon National Park kicked off 2012 with a redesigned visitor center featuring interactive exhibits that help families plan their activities, as well as a new theater screening a 20-minute orientation film. From there, it’s a short stroll (or shuttle trip) to the South Rim’s Mather Point, where most people get their first look into the depths of one of the world’s greatest wonders. But looking isn’t enough when it comes to wrapping your mind around the canyon’s vast spaces and amazing geology. The views are irresistible, but to get to know Grand Canyon better, choose from family-friendly experiences guaranteed to engage your senses—especially your sense of adventure:

Meet the canyon.

Turn the planning (and driving) over to someone else by combining a stay at park lodge with educational tours suitable for children age 8 and older. Expert guides from Grand Canyon Field Institute (GCFI) lead two activity-packed days exploring prehistoric ruins and rock art, examining fossils and geology samples, watching wildlife, and touring historic Grand Canyon Village.

Learn from park rangers.

From condor talks to moonlight walks, park rangers host more than a dozen programs a day, many of them ideal for families. The best part? All ranger programs are free. Kids 4 and older can sign up to become a Junior Ranger, learning while earning awards. Activities are age-appropriate, including a storytelling hour for the younger set, while older sibs might study animal tracking or astronomy. A summertime special is the 2.5-hour, ranger-guided adventure hike descending into the canyon via Hermit Trail.

Hike the rim.

The scenic Rim Trail extends 13 miles from Grand Canyon Village west to Hermits Rest and east to Yaki Point. Most people tackle the trail in sections, hopping on the park’s free shuttle for the return trip. Several miles of the Rim Trail are level and paved, suitable for tots in strollers. Near the village, a 3-mile section incorporates the Trail of Time, a hands-on geological exhibit that conveys the magnitude of geologic time by measuring eons in footsteps. For older children, day hikes a short distance into the canyon are a good way to experience how geology and plant life changes with elevation. (A popular choice is to hike South Kaibab Trail to panoramic Ooh-Aah Point, 2 miles round-trip.)

Bike to the edge.

Join a guided bike tour from Hopi Point to Hermits Rest, a National Historic Landmark designed by architect Mary Elizabeth Jane Colter in 1914 to look like a miner’s camp. (Tots can make the trip in pull-behind trailers.) Alternatively, you can rent bikes and plan your own adventures combining park roads and the 3-mile Greenway Trail.

Ride a mule.

Kids 4 feet 7 inches or taller can travel with adults on overnight mule trips into the canyon, spending a night or two at the riverside oasis of Phantom Ranch, another Mary Colter landmark. During the park’s busiest months, April-October, trips may be booked up to a year in advance. An alternative is to reserve a 3-hour mule ride along the rim to the Abyss, the canyon’s most dizzying overlook, boasting an almost-vertical view 4,500 feet down.

Take the train.

Grand Canyon Railway operates train service from Williams (about 60 miles south of Grand Canyon Village). The line’s vintage rail cars chug through open woodlands and shady forests for a little over two hours before reaching the historic train depot. Those who prefer to leave their cars behind altogether can travel via Amtrak’s Southwest Chief line, connecting with the Grand Canyon Railway at Williams.

Run the river.

The ultimate canyon adventure is to run the rapids of the Colorado River through Grand Canyon. Commercial outfitters offer trips from April through October, and spots may available even on short notice. Children as young as 8 years are welcome on most motorized trips, while oar-powered trips are best-suited for kids 12 or older. If time or budget prevents you from taking a whitewater river trip this summer, a smooth-water float is a great option. These gentle journeys (available year-round and suitable for children as young as 4) travel from the base of Glen Canyon Dam in Page, Arizona, to Lees Ferry. The scenic half-day trip makes a great add-on to a canyon visit and the launch point is less than three hours from either rim.

Explore the North Rim.

From mid-May to mid-October (weather permitting), Grand Canyon’s higher, cooler North Rim provides a peaceful alternative to the bustling South Rim and Grand Canyon Village. Family-friendly activities include mule rides along the rim or partway into the canyon, chuckwagon dinners under the stars, ranger programs, and lots of shady day hikes through the North Rim’s pine forests.

No matter what Grand Canyon adventures you embark on, be prepared for Arizona weather. Summer days are hot, with intense sunshine. Evenings can be chilly, especially following the afternoon thunderstorms that occur frequently from July through September. Time hikes and other energetic activities for mornings, when it’s cooler. Be sure kids have protection from the sun and their own water bottles, or plan to buy refillable bottles when you arrive. (The park recently instituted a bottle ban.) Despite the heat, summer months are the most popular time to visit, chock-full of special events like star parties, heritage festivals, or even youth art exhibits. Buckle up, saddle up, or climb aboard—and don’t forget to pack your sense of adventure!

Photo © Kathleen Bryant