Epic Roadtrip Stop #5: Grand Canyon

Grand Canyon

Image and text by Gabrielle.

This was an especially fun stop for me because I hadn’t been to The Grand Canyon since I was very small, and only had vague memories of it. As I write this, I can see my thoughts on The Grand Canyon are a bit scattered, so I’ll write things up in a list form. That way, I’m less likely to forget things — and I can skip from topic to topic freely. : )

– First, The Grand Canyon is BIG. So much bigger than it was in my head. In fact, while we were there, we read that you would have to rocket up into the Earth’s atmosphere several miles in order to see the whole canyon at once. So when we took in a view from the edge, the canyon seemed massive, and yet we knew we were just seeing a bit of it.

– I’m not particularly afraid of heights, but peering off the edge of the rim, down into the canyon made me catch my breath. I kept feeling like it was the view from an airplane. The canyon is so deep — a mile deep in places — that being on the edge of it feels insanely high.

– From what I could tell, if you’re at The Grand Canyon for one day, it’s mostly about taking in the views. Even the hikes we went on were on the surface and were all about ending at a great view looking down into the canyon (at other National Parks, even in one day, you can interact with the park a bit more). If you want to go below the rim and really get into the canyon, plan on a multi-day commitment or maybe even a legit backpacking experience. Someday, I’d love to hike with the whole family into Havasupi Falls. I hear you have to get hiking permit reservations over a year in advance! (But that could totally be a rumor.)

– We were on The North Rim. The South Rim is much more popular and touristy than the North Rim, and most of the famous photos you’ve seen are taken from The South Rim. But we loved the quieter option! We picked it because it was less driving based on where we were coming from, but we were delighted with our choice. The North Rim still has a grand lodge, grand views, a visitor center, food options, and a gift shop — but it feels calm, and there are fewer people than at any other National Park stop we’ve made. The North Rim and South Rim are only 12 miles across from each other, as the condor flies — but the drive between the two is over 5 hours.

– It was a super hot day, so after we’d taken in some of the short hikes off of the Visitor Center, we hung out at the lodge and listened to the Ranger talks. One was about the California Condor and one was about the Grand Canyon Rock Formations. We learned that at a few years ago, the California Condor population was down to 22 birds, and predictions of total extinction were everywhere. But hopeful conservationists have brought the population up to over 400 birds. They are still endangered, but the progress is good! The rock formation session was essentially a geology class and we loved it. Flashbacks to middle school earth science class! All the ranger talks are free.

– Speaking of the Lodge, the old school National Park lodges are fantastic, and this was no exception. Grand views, huge old leather chairs, an amazing dining room.

– Many of the National Parks have a Junior Ranger program specifically geared toward that park. Oscar and Betty did the program at Yosemite and another one at The Grand Canyon. The programs are free. The kids pick up a booklet with instructions and after they fulfill the requirements — things like taking in nature observations or asking a question of a Park Ranger — they are sworn in as a Junior Ranger and receive a badge. My kids LOVED this.

– The drive coming to The North Rim surprised us. The landscape changed from red rock desert to forests and grassy plains and grazing bison. It felt like I was in Yellowstone land!

– We had originally planned on staying two days at the Grand Canyon, but switched up our plans so that we could fit in Lake Powell as well. And that was good. We took in the views, hung out at the lodge, took advantage of the Ranger talks, and had a more physically relaxing day than we’ve had at other parks.

– We stayed at Jacob’s Lake that night. It’s a hotel about 15 minutes outside of the park, famed for it’s homemade cookies! The next morning, as we went to the little shop to round up some breakfast, we ran into our niece Lindsey, who is working at Jacob’s Lake for the summer before she heads to college. The best sort of surprise!

Yay for the Grand Canyon! Have you ever been ? North or South rim? Any tips?

17 thoughts on “Epic Roadtrip Stop #5: Grand Canyon”

  1. I LOVE visiting the North Rim! As you say – it feels less “touristy”, more old school. Which is pretty funny, considering that everyone visiting either the North or South Rim is most definitely a tourist. It’s the smaller crowd that makes the North Rim special. I daydream about renting one of the cabins right on the rim trail…

    Don’t tell Oscar & Betty, but there’s a Junior Ranger Program at Zion’s too… one more badge! Maybe next year? My nephews and I have collected quite a few and we put them on our backpacks. Great reminders of fun adventures!

    1. I felt the same way about those cabins. I wonder how far in advance you have to book them?

      And yes, we didn’t mention the Zion Junior Ranger program to the kids because we knew we didn’t have time to do it during our Zion trip. Ssssh. : )

      1. I stayed in one of the cabins and I think I had to book it a few months in advance. It was back in 2005 though so I don’t recall how tricky it was to get one. I was booking everything well in advance though as I was coming all the way from Australia.
        Also, I stayed there in October (1 week before the north rim closes for winter) and it didn’t seem to be a super busy time of year there. I imagine you’d need to book much further in advance for Summer.

        Oh, and aren’t those ranger programs such a great idea? We did the one at Muir Woods a few weekends ago and my kids loved it. They were so excited when they were sworn in and given their badges. Plus they received certificates in the mail last week too :) We’ve also done the Alcatraz junior ranger program so they’re starting to get a little collection of ranger badges – although they probably shouldn’t really include their Fashion Police Joan Rangers badges in their collection!

  2. Jacob Lake is the best. My uncle’s family owns it and we have spent many summers soaking up the amazing atmosphere and taking day jaunts to the Grand Canyon and Zion.

    I’m with you, I prefer the North Rim because it is less crowded, but you still get to see those incredible views. My favorite part is watching a thunderstorm roll in.

  3. My favorite part of the North Rim is the Cape Royal Drive. If you go again, don’t miss it! The views north show the Colorado River’s progress across the plateau, east the Little Colorado merging in, and south the South Rim. It is truly amazing!

  4. My husband and I visited both sides of the Grand Canyon back in 2005 and we were amazed at the difference between the two sides. I guess that extra altitude makes a big difference! So much greener and cooler on the north side.
    We stayed in the log cabins in the park and took a mule ride down into the canyon. I can’t wait to take my kids there some day soon.

  5. So fun! I have been to the South Rim, never the North, and now I have it on my list!

    My kids have done the Junior Ranger program at 6 parks so far, most recently at Acadia in Maine last month (best.park.ever. – I say that after each visit to a new one – but Sand Beach should be on EVERYONE’S list). We put the patches on their backpacks as well. Such an amazing program, and too few people know it exists. I am so glad you wrote about it!

    The Yellowstone Junior Ranger is the bomb (as you would expect). It is actually much more difficult and time-consuming, and the exam the ranger gave my three at the end was pretty intense. :> The rangers at Yellowstone encourage all kids 1-100 to do the work. That is one patch worn with pride.

    So fun to read about your adventures!

  6. Love the old lodges as well. Reminds me of being a kid and visiting National Parks. I’m so going to learn more about the Junior Rangers. What a cool idea and a great way to get kids more involved. Thanks!

  7. If you ever get a chance to do a river trip through the Grand Canyon, that’s another amazing way to experience it. They are pretty comfortable with really good food and you are well taken care of by the guides. I went to college in Flagstaff and was able to work as an assistant on a commercial trip and work on two science trips and those trips were a serious highlight of my life (each one was about ~2 weeks long). There are so many beautiful hikes into sides canyons, to caves, cliff dwellings, and waterfalls. It is like another world down there. I do love the North Rim but have spent more time at the South Rim, including a backpacking trip in college for 5 days which was one of the more physically intense things I’ve done. It’s always worth taking even a short hike down one of the trails since you almost immediately leave the crowds and can have some solitude. The Grandview Trail on the South Rim is one of my favorites.

  8. Thanks for this beautiful essay, Gabby! You write so well and make all the totally perfect observations! Glad there’s lots of cold water for all of you!!!!
    Eager to see you this weekend.

  9. My father and I went to the Grand Canyon over Spring Break in 1991 when I was in college. We rode the mules from the South Rim down to Phantom Ranch on the canyon floor, spent the night, and rode back up the next day. This was in March and the weirdest thing was that it was cold and icy on the rim and total springtime (leaves out, warm temps) on the floor.

    It was AMAZING. I’d love to do it with my husband and daughter, but it’s definitely not cheap and I think the bookings for this can be filled months in advance too. I was absolutely floored by the size and scope of the canyon. The first time I glimpsed it as we drove in it truly took my breath away.

    My dad, sister, and I took a trip to the Badlands of South Dakota, Mount Rushmore, Yellowstone, Grand Teton, and Salt Lake City when I was 17. From SLC, I flew to LA for a college interview, but they continued on to Dinosaur National Monument. Your trip keeps reminding me of our “epic roadtrip”!

  10. I still remember getting up early to see a sunrise – watching the sunlight flow bit by bit into parts of the canyon below. I don’t know when our family went, but I’d guess it was about 60 years or so ago. It’s still a fond memory.

  11. My family did the Havasupi trip about 7 years ago. We booked for over Memorial Day weekend a few months in advance (I think it was January). I know people really love to go there but it was not my favorite. The falls and pools are very beautiful but I wouldn’t want to stay for more than a day or two.

    Here’s the stuff I didn’t love: The campground has outhouses but judging from the smell and some obvious physical evidence, many people did not use them and instead did their business in the campground. Ugh! I would suggest going right after the rainy season to try to avoid this. Also, to avoid the heat while backpacking down you leave before sunrise and walk through the same trail as the pack mules. Too dark to really see the canyon around you and you spend a lot of time looking down to avoid stepping in excrement. I think it is a 10 mile hike down the canyon. Unless you want to pay extra to fly down in a helicopter or ride a mule (not really sure the mule ride is available) it would be tough for little ones to walk that far and keep a good pace, especially on the way back up.

    The good stuff: the pools and waterfalls look exactly like the pictures you see and a lot of fun to swim, jump, and slide into. They are convenient to the campground and because there is a limit on the number of people around it is not too crowded. The lower falls are not far at all and most people don’t go down there so we ended up having the area to ourselves, which was probably the most fun. We hiked in on a Sunday and arrived just in time for the meeting at the local LDS branch. It was run by a couple of senior missionaries and was almost standing room only with all of the visitors packed in the room.

    It was memorable and maybe something to do once but I wouldn’t really want to go back. Kind of a “been there, done that” experience for me.

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