Take a Grand Trip on the Grand Circle
I often joke that my kids are not hikers and that they start complaining about walking before we've crossed a parking lot. But they love to clamber over rocks and skip stones in streams, as long as no one mentions the dreaded "h" word.
By the time they hit ages 7 and 10, we decided it was time to introduce them to some of the grandeur that our national parks have to offer. The stunning beauty and otherworldly landscapes of Southern Utah and the Grand Canyon seemed the perfect place to start hiking, without them knowing we were actually doing it.
While the area known as the Grand Circle – which covers Southern Utah, Northern Arizona and parts of Colorado and New Mexico – has so much to offer that it can take weeks to explore, you can cover a lot of ground and see many highlights in just a week by taking a short flight in and out of Las Vegas.
Last spring break, we followed the popular “small loop” from Las Vegas to Zion, Bryce and Grand Canyon national parks. It meant we gave up visiting Arches National Park – an amazing place but about a four-hour drive each way from Bryce – in favor of a stop in Page, Ariz., for the fantastic Antelope Canyon slot canyons and a raft trip in the gorgeous Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. While the stop was initially designed to break up the long drive to the Grand Canyon, it ended up being a highlight of the trip.
Summer is popular in these parks, but fall and spring are great times to visit to avoid extreme summer heat and crowds. Just be prepared for possible snow in higher elevations such as Bryce Canyon.
Here are some of the highlights from our trip:
Zion National Park
After an early morning flight into Las Vegas, we rented a minivan (to make some of our longer drives more tolerable for our kids) and headed straight to Zion National Park. In less than three hours, we were among Zion’s striated red sandstone cliffs.
Zion has plenty to offer any adventurer, from beginning hiker to expert.
One of the highlights for my 10-year-old son was hiking the Narrows, a well-known hike into a slot canyon that requires wading in the Virgin River. Because the weather, and the water, were cold during our late March visit, my husband and son rented dry suits and booties through Zion Outfitters, just outside the park.
While they fended off freezing rain, my 7-year-old daughter and I hung out by the fireplace in the historic Zion Lodge.
But we all enjoyed several other hikes suitable for beginners, including the Lower Emerald Pools Trail and Canyon Overlook, a sometimes steep and narrow walk to stunning views on the road leading from Zion to Bryce Canyon. We decided the popular Angels Landing hike, which requires following a chain to reach the summit, would be too much for our group this time. The hiking guide you receive upon entering the parks is useful for its difficulty ratings and estimated times for various hikes.
As is the case with most national parks, whether to stay inside or outside the park is a matter of personal preference. You can often find cheaper, and more luxurious, accommodations outside the parks, but you may have to wait in traffic to enter or put in longer days to see sunrises and sunsets. (If your kids insist on swimming while on vacation, you will need to stay outside the parks.) Also note that from April through October, plus weekends in November, most areas of Zion are accessible only via free shuttle.
Zion Lodge, open year-round, includes hotel rooms, cabins and suites. But the bordering town of Springdale has lots of nice accommodations to choose from, as well as many restaurants. We stayed at Cable Mountain Lodge, the closest hotel to the park, and have also enjoyed the Desert Pearl Inn. The La Quinta Inn & Suites at Zion Park, with a pool with water features, is another good option for budget-conscious families.
Bryce Canyon National Park
With countless red and white rock spires jutting from its canyon, Bryce Canyon is a place like no other. But you can get a great sense of the landscape, and hike down into the oddly shaped hoodoos, with a stop of a few hours or overnight.
As we headed into Bryce on the last day of March, about a 90-minute drive from Zion, we began to see snow along the roadway as the elevation rose. We stopped at one point for an impromptu roadside snowball fight, a thrill for our snow-deprived California kids. Little did we know that there would be plenty of the white stuff surrounding our room at the park’s historic Bryce Canyon lodge, which had just opened for the season, or that we would leave the park the next day in a bona fide snowstorm.
Due to snow, the lodge is typically open only from late March through early November. There are also fewer lodging options outside the park than in Springdale. The Best Western Ruby’s Inn, which offers Western-themed activities including horseback riding and a rodeo, is popular with families.
One reason to stay in the park is for its renowned stargazing (weather-permitting) and related programming, as the park is one of only three International Dark Skies Parks in the United States. The restaurant in the historic lodge was also very good and had a great kids’ menu.
From Bryce, we headed south to Northern Arizona and Page, best known as the jumping off point for boating on Lake Powell and in the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. While the town of Page itself does not offer much in non-summer months, it is a good place to stop midway while en route to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, which is about a five-hour drive from Bryce. Page is also conveniently located to Antelope Canyon, one of the most photographed slot canyons in the world.
Located on a Navajo reservation outside town, the canyon is privately owned and accessible only through tours. There are separate tour operations for the upper and lower sections of the canyon. We opted for the less busy Lower Antelope Canyon and could not have been more impressed as a young Native American guide led us down a steep metal staircase through a crack in the earth into undulating red rock. Tours cost $28 for adults and $20 for children ages 7-12 (6 and under free); reservations are not necessary but you may have to wait for a tour, and make sure to get there in plenty of time before the last one.
Also keep an eye on the weather, as heavy rains during monsoon season can cause flash floods in the canyon. A memorial plaque at the end of tour marks the spot where 11 tourists were killed by a flash flood in 1997.
Another highlight of our Page stop was a half-day motorized raft trip on the Colorado River from the Glen Canyon Dam and into the canyon, around the famed Horseshoe Bend, with a stop to see ancient petroglyphs along the way. While we again faced inclement weather – rain and cold winds – the tour was still a family favorite and a great way to get on the water for those of us who can’t spare the several days or weeks it takes to raft in the Grand Canyon itself. Colorado River Discovery is the only tour operator with permission to lead tours in the area. Half-day tours cost $91 for adults and $81 for kids.
Page has a huge number of chain motels, but if you’re traveling outside the summer months, consider the Comfort Inn, which has the only indoor pool in town. Many hotels don’t open their outdoor pools until later in the spring due to high winds blowing dust.
Few travelers would consider visiting the national parks of the Southwest without including the Grand Canyon, one of the country’s most famous natural scenic wonders. In fact, nearly 5 million people visit every year to see the mile-deep canyon, which is up to 18 miles across in places and extends 277 river miles long.
Nearly all visit the more popular and more easily accessible South Rim, which is open year-round. The North Rim is open only May 15 through October 15 and is more difficult to reach even in good weather.
Even in the off-season, the Grand Canyon feels busy, with shuttle buses transporting visitors to different points of interest along the rim. A round-trip hike to the canyon’s bottom and back is recommended only for serious hikers who have at least two days. But there are still gorgeous views to be had all along the rim and interesting museums and interpretive centers along the way, as well as free ranger programs. My children especially enjoyed doing the free Junior Ranger program.
We also enjoyed a short, but sometimes steep, hike to Ooh Aah Point, to get an in-canyon perspective. You can also ride a mule into the canyon, either for three hours or overnight. Tours can be booked up to 13 months in advance and fill up early, and riders must be at least 4 feet 7 inches tall.
Befitting its size, the Grand Canyon has several in-park lodging options, ranging from rustic cabins to motel-style rooms to the historic, high-end El Tovar Hotel, which can cost more than $450 a night. Lodging also books up early. We were happy with a recently remodeled room in the mid-range Yavapai Lodge, though the lack of air-conditioning could have been a problem in summer. We did splurge on dinner at El Tovar, but our table was so far away from the windows in the dim room that we had to leave the restaurant and walk outside to view sunset in the canyon.
After so much natural splendor, it was time to show our kids the manmade spectacle that is Las Vegas. Given we had chillier weather than we expected much of our trip, it was also nice to end on a warmer note with some pool time.
This was the longest – and most boring – car ride of the trip, at about five hours, but we did make an amusing pit stop along historic Route 66 at the kitschy Delgadillo’s Snow Cap burger joint.
Tahiti Village, which is near the airport but not far off the Strip, is a great choice for families in Las Vegas. The large Polynesian-themed property has suites with kitchens, a heated lazy river, a huge pool area and a reasonably priced Denny’s on-site. It also has a free shuttle to the Strip. A little farther south, the all-villa Cancún Resort is another popular choice for families. Some also like the fun of Circus Circus, with its circus-themed entertainment and indoor amusement park, but be warned that it’s at the north end of the Strip, far from many other attractions.
Our children wanted to see Vegas’ versions the of Statue of Liberty and Eiffel Tower (made famous to them by Despicable Me), and I wanted them to see Bellagio’s free dancing fountain show and the gondolas at the Venetian. The four-story M&M store was also a hit.
But as anyone who has visited Las Vegas knows, the distances between hotels are a lot longer than they look, and even longer with children in tow. Walking the Strip at night also means that while your kids may delight in seeing costumed Minions and Hello Kitty’s, be prepared for more risqué costumes as well. My 10-year-old summed it up as “appalling, but nice."
We had come full circle on the Grand Circle, from wading in a chilly natural river to floating on rafts in a warm manmade one, and it was time to wrap up our adventure and head home. But the trip left our now-certified little hikers wanting more, and we know visits to more national parks will be welcomed, without any complaints, in the future.