Grand Canyon and Beyond: Great Family Destinations in Northern Arizona

Between us, my husband and I have been to all ends of the earth and almost every continent (Antarctica here we come!), but somehow neither of us had ever visited the Grand Canyon almost in our own back yard.  Why?  Honestly I was sort of avoiding it, thinking it was going to be majorly overcrowded, touristy and underwhelming.  Well, we finally took the kids a few months ago and literally had one of our best trips ever.   We visited the Grand Canyon for a few days and then toured a bit around some of the historical and geological sites of northern Arizona.   We had a week but really could have taken so much more time!   I know a lot of people are making summer plans now, so here are our notes from the adventure:

GRAND CANYON

The two main websites to visit as you are planning your trip are the National Park Service and Xanterra Resorts which operates all hotels, mule rides, Grand Canyon Railroad and other concessions within the park.   The nicest hotels in the park and closest to the canyon rim are the El Tovar Hotal or the Bright Angel Lodge.  Seriously you need to reserve asap because everything books up like crazy.  You can cancel anything up to 72 hours before your trip so it’s worth it to go ahead and reserve.

Catch the Grand Canyon Railway into the park from Williams, AZ.  Your ticket includes park entrance fees, and the train drops you right in the middle of the Grand Canyon Village, with FREE luggage transfer to whichever hotel you have booked.   There is a silly cowboy shootout show before you board, and great entertainment and historical canyon information en route during the approximate 2 hour ride.   The view is not that spectacular for a lot of the trip, but do book a dome car for more fun and luxury aboard.  You can park your car and stay at the Grand Canyon hotel in Williams the night before so it’s easy to catch the train.  You do not need a car at the canyon – there are tons of free shuttles all along the canyon rim and most areas don’t allow private cars anyway.

Highlights of our visit

Hitch a ride:  If you can get a reservation, definitely book a Mule ride which is an incredible two hour adventure literally on the EDGE of the canyon.  The ride is totally safe, offers breathtakingly gorgeous vistas around the bend of the canyon, great wildlife viewing (we saw a California Condor, and a herd of rather large elk), and a truly once in a lifetime experience.  We learned a lot about mules too – they are very big, and much more compliant than their reputation suggests…

There is a height requirement for children and it is probably not for people with serious acrophobia.  They also offer overnight mule trips down into the canyon to Phantom Ranch, but you have to book AGES in advance as that sells out quickly.  Next time!

Learn from the experts:  Check in with the Park Ranger station for updates on current programs including free Ranger guided nature, geology, cultural and historical walks along the rim and into the canyon.  There are a couple of great ones for kids too, who can earn their Junior Ranger badges for attending.

Descend!  Surprisingly, the vast majority of visitors to the park only view the canyon from the rim, but it is worth it even to take a short walk down one of the trails that leads into the canyon.  The Bright Angel trail is the most accessible, and amazing petroglyphs are viewable just a few minutes into the walk.  When you are hiking, be sure to remember that you are at almost 7,000 feet above sea level, and it is over 4,000 feet down to the canyon floor.  Be smart – bring water and don’t underestimate the steep climb back out!  Rangers have to rescue well over 200 people a year in the canyon…

BEYOND THE CANYON

After a few days, when you get get your jaw off your chin and recover a little from marveling at the monumentality of nature, there are a number of other very worthwhile sites to explore near the Grand Canyon and beyond in Northern Arizona.  We really just scratched the surface, but here’s a list of some of the amazing spots we hit:

Desert View Watchtower:  Near the East entrance to the park stands this impressive structure built in the 1932 by Mary Colter “architect of the Southwest” who is also responsible for many of the historic buildings in the Grand Canyon Village.  Climb the 70 foot Anasazi style tower for incredible Canyon views.

Sunset Crater Volcano:  Meander easy to moderate trails snaking through lava flow fields, and marvel at this amazing volcano – one of 600 in the area – that blew its top just a short 900 years ago.

Wupatki Pueblo ruins:  Take a walk back through time through this beautifully preserved and very well marked Hopi dwelling site, where you can step into some of the rooms, and visit the geologically mysterious “breathing” blow hole.  The kids LOVED this stop.

Montezuma Castle National Monument: 800 years ago the Sinagua people built a high rise apartment into the cliffs along a fertile creek.  Wander the interpretive trail, learn about how the people used local trees and plants, peer into the windows, and stop for a lovely shaded picnic along the creek near the Visitor Center.

Jerome, Arizona – This copper mining town was built precariously into the hills about 30 minutes to the west of Sedona in the late 19th century.   Today it is revitalized, full of cool shops, galleries, wineries and haunted hotels.  The views all the way back across the painted desert are unbelievable at sunset.  Absolutely do not miss the kaleidoscope store!

Sedona:  The town is VERY touristy, but the red rock scenery is absolutely beautiful.  See if you can find the Snoopy rock!!  And of course you can visit a vortex and get in touch with a past life if you are so inclined…

We stayed at Kimpton’s Amara Resort & Spa which offers yoga, a lovely pool, hot tub, and a good restaurant, right on the creek with beautiful red rock views.   Other ones to consider are L’Auberge de Sedona or Enchantment resorts.   We took a very bumpy and fun 2-hour off-road ride with the locally run Pink Jeep Tours.

Restaurants – Elote for fantastic Mexican inspired dishes (go early the line is horrible but the food is great), and Shugrues Hillside Grill which has glorious sunset views.  If you want to pick up great sandwiches for a picnic/hike go to the West Side Deli.

Definitely stop by the Tlaquepaque Arts and Crafts village which has lots of lovely shops and galleries nestled into quaint cobblestone streets.

AND FOR NEXT TIME…  Here are a couple of spots we sadly ran out of time to see, but will definitely hit next time:

The Meteor Crater – The world’s best preserved meteor impact site is nearly 1 mile across, offers hiking and a discovery center that sounds very cool.

Lowell Observatory – Founded in 1894, this is the observatory credited with the discovery of Pluto, among many other things.  They offer daytime programs about deep space, and nighttime planetarium shows and star gazing events.

OK happy trails people!!

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