Last year (June 2014) Junior Adventurer and I took a trip to the Grand Canyon. Disclaimer: My sister lives in Phoenix, so we had lodging in Phoenix and a car available to us. However, since we embarked on a Grand Canyon road trip that included a few other sites and activities, we did have to plan lodging accordingly. My sister did travel with us, but I handled all of the planning and booking. Had she not been able to join us, I would have rented a car for myself and JA. See the trip itinerary here.
I started planning the trip in mid-February, about 4 months out from our travel dates. The first thing I did was check the Grand Canyon lodging website for availability only to find that the choices were quite limited. I wanted to stay in the park, and the only on-site hotel with any availability was Yavapai Lodge. At the time, I booked the room through the GrandCanyonLodges.com website, which is the website for Xanterra Parks and Resorts. Xanterra is an L.L.C. that operates multiple resorts at the Grand Canyon as well as many other U.S. National Parks. However, according to the GrandCanyonLodges.com website, Xanterra no longer operates Yavapai Lodge. You can still book other Grand Canyon resorts, including El Tovar, Bright Angel Lodge, and Phantom Ranch through GrandCanyonLodges.com. Yavapai Lodge can be booked through Delaware North Companies Parks and Resorts.
The nice feature of the GrandCanyonLodges.com website is that it searches for availability at ALL of the Grand Canyon resort hotels that Xanterra manages. When I booked our room, Yavapai Lodge was the ONLY hotel with availability during the dates we wanted to travel. Not all of the hotels at the Grand Canyon have air conditioning, and Yavapai Lodge has rooms with and without A/C. The rooms with A/C cost a little more. The moral of the story here is to book early, as even at four months out, I pretty much got the last room with A/C that was available on our dates of travel. The booking policy required a deposit equal to the cost of one night of lodging, which was $186 including taxes.
In addition to booking the room, at the suggestion of my sister, I also pre-booked a 1/2 day rafting trip on the Colorado River with Colorado River Discovery. These trips can only accommodate a limited number of people each day, so I recommend making this reservation in advance, too. I made ours in late February, and a deposit was required. Page is a bit of a remote town, and the river trip may start early in the morning (depending on what tours are available), so you should plan to arrive in Page the day before and spend the night prior to the rafting trip. We stated at the Comfort Inn and Suites, where the rate was $194 per night including taxes. Page is a small town that relies heavily on seasonal tourism, so the lodging is comparatively very expensive here. However, the rafting trip is well-worth the time, effort, and expense associated with getting to Page.
We traveled to Phoenix on a direct flight from our hometown airport in Texas. The first day of our visit included an “adults only” activity…which was a sunset tour of Taliesin West, a house and working architecture school created by Frank Lloyd Wright. We did the Night Lights Tour, which is not intended for children under the age of 13. The house and grounds are lovely and full of history, and the guide was top-notch. This is a very informative and enjoyable tour that gives you an up-close look of the very unique architectural features of the property. Tickets for this tour (as well as other tour options) can be purchased on-line here. Advance purchase is recommended.
After spending one night at my sister’s house in Phoenix, we embarked on our road trip. The 1/2 day rafting trip is actually in Page, AZ, which is in the NE corner of the state, approximately a 4.5-5 hour drive from Phoenix. I arranged our three-day itinerary around the trip to Page and back, stopping at the Grand Canyon on the way back to Phoenix. We drove from Phoenix to Page on the first day, stopping at the Out of Africa Wildlife Park in Camp Verde, AZ. This came recommended to me by a friend, and we were not disappointed. General admission includes an African Bush Safari on an open air bus (where you get to feed a giraffe) and several interactive animal presentations and shows. For an extra cost, you can book a tour of the park via Unimog, a zip-line excursion, and other activities. The highlight of this park was a live-animal show called Tiger Splash™ (also included in general admission). I’ll let the pictures describe the show.
After spending a few hours at Out of Africa, we continued our travels to Page, and arrived at the hotel just in time for dinner. We were there on a Sunday night, and the town was pretty dead. Unless you want fast food, you will have to rely on local restaurants (we ate at a Mexican place).
The rafting tour meets at the Colorado River Discovery Welcome Center, a building in town where you are able to leave your car. You are then transported by bus to the Glen Canyon Dam, as access to the river at the dam is controlled by the Department of Homeland Security. Because of Homeland Security Policies, anything you bring with you on the trip must fit in a clear plastic bag. We essentially only brought cameras and left everything else in the car. The Glen Canyon Dam separates Lake Powell from the Colorado River. The access point to board the rafts gives a quite amazing view of the dam and the raft trip itself is a very unique experience with stunning views of the canyon. Hands down, this was the best single-day travel experience that I’ve ever had. The canyon is unlike any place I’ve ever visited, and the amazing Colorado River Discovery tour guides provide fantastic commentary. There is absolutely nothing I would change about this trip, it was that perfect. Since words can’t adequately describe the experience, I’ll let a few pictures do the talking.
The Glen Canyon Dam
The Glen Canyon and Colorado River
Don’t be intimidated by the fact that this is a rafting trip…it is a VERY calm and non-strenuous. The rafts are inflatable and powered by a small out-board motor. There are no rapids, so the minimum age requirement for the trip is 4 years. Life jackets are required (and provided) for kids age 12 and younger and are optional for guests older than 12.
At about the half-way point of the trip, you are taken ashore to a “beach” for a quick excursion to see some ancient petroglyphs on the canyon wall, use some very unique (and clean!) solar powered bathrooms, and take a quick swim in the river…if you like swimming in 47 degree F water!
The inflatable rafts
At the “beach”
Yes, 47 degree water is COLD!
Our trip started at 7:30 am and we were back at the Welcome Center in time for lunch. There is a small café called The Rivers End in the Welcome Center and the food there is delicious! We had the walnut chicken salad sandwich, the roast beef wrap, and the Thai chicken wrap (which was fantastic!). Lunch isn’t included in the cost of the 1/2 day raft trip, but the food really is gourmet and worth the extra cost.
After finishing lunch, we got back in our car and made a short drive up to Lake Powell to view the lake, upper portion of the dam, and Rainbow Bridge. We stopped for a few pictures before departing for the South Rim of The Grand Canyon, which is a 3-3.5 hour drive from Page. After checking into Yavapai Lodge, we headed to Bright Angel Lodge in time to see a presentation about the California Condor.
The Grand Canyon is a very organized tourist destination. Upon arriving we were given a newspaper with information about regularly scheduled events. This is how we found out about the California Condor presentation and planned our activities for the next day. The park also has an extensive bus system. Guests are allowed to drive their vehicles in the park, but only up to a certain location. Personal vehicles are not allowed past the area where the El Tovar and Bright Angel Lodge are located, however, there is ample parking in this area. There is also a bus stop with buses running at regular intervals that take guests up to the various viewing points (where personal cars are not allowed). A map of the South Rim with information regarding the bus routes can be found here. This site also provides links to the current schedule of various activities, including nature presentations and guided hikes, that are held at the park.
In addition to the California Condor presentation (which is very educational and well-done), we did a short self-guided hike on the Bright Angel Trail and enjoyed dinner at the Bright Angel Lodge. After dinner, we rode the shuttle up to Hopi Point to view the sunset. The informational newspaper publishes the estimated time of sunset and sunrise each day and gives suggestions as to the best places for viewing. Sunrise in June is VERY early, so for us, sunset was much more manageable. After sunset, we rode the shuttle back to where we parked the car and then retired to our room at Yavapai Lodge. The rooms at Yavapai Lodge are older but plenty spacious for 2-4 people, clean, and well cared-for. Considering I didn’t have a choice in accommodations, I was not disappointed in our room. It was similar to a Hampton Inn/Holiday Inn Express and suited our needs just fine.
Since our trip to the Grand Canyon was less than 24 hours, we did not do any extensive hikes down into the canyon. If you want to hike to the bottom and stay at Phantom Ranch or camp, reservations to do so must be made WELL (up to a year or more) in advance. The National Park Service only issues a specific number of permits allowing visitors to stay overnight in the canyon. For a single-parent family vacation, it is much more practical to do a guided da-hike, and there are several different options for these, depending on exactly when you are visiting.
Based on the availability of activities the next day, we decided to opt for a (free) family adventure hike that originated at Hermits Rest. Hermits Rest is the most remote overlook/trail that is accessible to the public. In order to get there, we parked the car near the Bright Angel Lodge/El Tovar area and then rode the shuttle to Hermits Rest. We were joined by several other families and a guide who shared lots of wonderful history about the canyon and the development of the park. The Hermits Rest trail is the least-traveled of all the trails, so it was neat to travel a path that only a tiny percentage of all Grand Canyon visitors ever see. The two-mille hike was not terribly strenuous and offered some great views/picture opportunities. After the hike (which took about 2 hours), we took the shuttle back, stopping at several look-out points, including Powell Point, along the way. Powell Point has a monument and a great picture opportunity that shouldn’t be missed! Because we wanted to start the trip back to Phoenix by about 1 pm, we were not able to stop at every overlook.
Other options for activities at the Grand Canyon include walking or renting bikes to travel along the rim, taking a trail ride on a mule, visiting a geology museum, and attending park ranger presentations (some of which are geared specifically for “junior rangers”). In addition to the beauty and history of the canyon itself, the park is composed of a number of historical and architecturally important buildings. Tours are offered for just about anything you might want to know about the canyon and the park, and there is a assortment of both free activities as well as those with an additional cost (such as bike rentals and mule rides).
We ate lunch at a cafeteria-type restaurant in the park and spent some time at a large gift shop (one of several) before departing. We also stopped at a small grocery store on-site to pick up some snacks. The prices at the grocery store are a bit higher, as you would expect at a limited-access location, but the selection is great and it is convenient. Overall, I thought the prices for food, souvenirs and lodging at the Grand Canyon were well within reason, considering the benefits you get from staying in the park (namely, access to the free bus system). Since the entry fee to the park is minimal and there are so many free activities to do at the park, I didn’t mind paying a slight premium for food and lodging. The park has to make money somehow to subsidize all of the free amenities!
We departed the Grand Canyon early because we wanted to spend some time driving around Sedona and still arrive back in Phoenix in time to miss rush-hour traffic. I really wanted to stop at Slide Rock State Park; however, in the weeks leading up to our visit there were some severe wildfires in the Sedona area that resulted in some extensive road closures. Since she wasn’t sure what roads were open, we didn’t make plans to visit Slide Rock Falls. But, since I have it on good authority that this park is beautiful and a lot of fun, I will provide the information.
Our driving tour took us along highways 89A and 179. Highway 89A runs right along Oak Creek, and we were able to stop at an overlook near Midgley Bridge for some great photos. The scenery in Sedona is quite striking and diverse and is well worth even a short side-trip. There are plenty of options for overnight stays and guided tours, if you want to plan a longer visit to Sedona.
Even though we didn’t stay in hotels in Phoenix or Sedona, I added some suggestions that I think would be great for single-parent family travel to the itinerary.