If you ask a Phoenician if they’ve visited the Grand Canyon, don’t be surprised if they say: “Not yet” or “I’ve been meaning to!”
Since millions of people travel from around the globe to see this bucket-list destination, how is it possible that those of us who live a mere four hours away haven’t checked it out? Maybe it’s that we think it’ll always be there, so we assume we’ll get to it eventually.
But months of working and schooling from home due to COVID-19 gave my family a new zeal for seizing the day. My husband and four kids — all of us native Phoenicians and members of the haven’t-been-to-the-Grand-Canyon-yet group — decided to turn “eventually” into “now.”
We headed north to Tusayan and the Grand Canyon South Rim for four days of outdoor recreation and local culture.
Fun fact: A road trip with four teenagers (ages 17, 15, and 13-year-old twins) stays relatively peaceful thanks to ear buds and smartphones. We leave Phoenix early and arrive in Tusayan midday.
Tusayan sits a mile from the entrance to the South Rim, and the welcoming small-town friendliness of its hotels, restaurants, and attractions solidify its status as “the Gateway” to the Grand Canyon.
We check into the newly remodeled Red Feather Lodge. The hotel offers laundry (bonus for a family of six), spacious rooms with fridges and microwaves (a must for hungry teens), and free Wi-Fi. I’d like to take credit for booking this place, but my husband is the planner in the family and he definitely did his research.
Another bonus point for my husband: He scheduled the “Grand Sunset Tour” with Grand Canyon Jeep Tours & Safaris. This means that our first foray into this geologic wonder will be via the back roads of the Kaibab National Forest.
But because the journey departs two hours before the sun actually sets, we have an important family decision to make — to eat dinner now or later?
My 15-year-old son demands now, and the twin girls want Mexican food, so we walk to Plaza Bonita. This ends up being a perfect choice for an early dinner because the portions are huge; we won’t be hungry for hours.
As born and raised Arizonans, we know good Mexican food. This place delivers: housemade guacamole, tacos with marinated pork and grilled pineapple, and chicken enchiladas topped with a sweet molé sauce.
With full bellies, we climb into the open-air safari vehicle and launch on a three-hour sunset tour. My oldest daughter spots elk along the way and our tour guide regales us with stories about the early settlers and the geology of the area.
Then we arrive at Grandview Point. The southernmost tip of the Grand Canyon’s South Rim, the vista offers an ideal spot for soul-stirring sunsets. The sun sinks slowly, bathing the canyon in hues of red, orange, and pink, and a hush falls over our group as we take it all in.
I rise early in search of coffee and then wake up the kids so we can get into the park to catch the sunrise.
When we travel, we try to avoid crowds, but in this new world of COVID, it’s even more important to my husband and me. True, the Grand Canyon is one of the most-visited parks in the country, but the South Rim stays open 24 hours a day — so we can sneak in before the throng of tourists — and Red Feather Lodge sells park passes. No waiting in lines for us.
The sunrise wows, impressing even my sleepy twins. The kids snap photos on their phones (“no filter needed!” gasps my 17-year-old daughter in amazement) and then we make a quick detour back to town to pick up sandwiches at the Tusayan General Store. My plan-ahead husband made reservations for a Hermits Rest Hike & Jeep Grand Canyon Tour with Pink Adventure Tours, and we’ll need plenty of on-the-go sustenance for the outdoors adventure.
We depart in an open-air, pink Jeep driven by an enthusiastic guide. Journeying in the jeep is novel enough to thrill my son, and perfectly comfortable, which keeps a smile on my face.
We stop at Yavapai Point for a breathtaking view of the canyon, then make our way to the Grand Canyon Village, home to El Tovar and Hopi House.
When we get to Hermits Rest, we hop out for a one-mile, round-trip hike below the rim. We feel like we have the place to ourselves — we see nary another person on the trail.
Admission for our tour also includes tickets to the Grand Canyon Visitor Center IMAX Theater. Perhaps an activity for tomorrow.
We return to Tusayan, and after showers and naps, we spend the afternoon at the bowling alley at the Best Western Premier. I’m convinced that whoever designed this place was a mother of four teenagers; in addition to the six-lane bowling alley, we find arcade games, billiards, and family-friendly eats at the Squire Pub.
My husband caps off the evening by rounding us up for stargazing. He brought his telescope from home (of course) and tells us that the Grand Canyon earned its certification as an International Dark Sky park. We see more stars than I ever thought possible, glittering lights studding an inky-black sky. Restful sleep comes quickly tonight.
Just a few days ago, none of us had ever laid eyes on the Grand Canyon. Now we’ve seen this Wonder of the World from the edge of the rim to below it. And this morning, we’ll see it from above.
My husband called ahead to Papillon to book a 30-minute North Canyon Family Tour. The “family tour” means we get the entire aircraft to ourselves (social distancing, check!) to experience aerial views of the Colorado River and the deepest and widest parts of the canyon.
When we return to land, my oldest daughter talks us into renting electric bicycles from GC-Bikes. Forget packed tours and crowded shuttles — a cycling trip along the Greenway Trail to Yaki Point provides a road-less-traveled way to see the sights.
The 20-mile trip yields few complaints from my awe-struck kids. We stop often to point out wildlife or to snap family selfies, and I can’t recall a time in recent months when we’ve felt so carefree.
Everyone is famished post-biking. My 15-year-old requests a burger, I’m craving steak, and my husband says he’s in the mood for an Old West vibe. Big E Steakhouse & Saloon it is.
I go for the ribeye, splurging for blue cheese on top. My son orders the Arizona Ranch Burger, the twins get cheese-stuffed ravioli, and my husband and daughter split the baby-back ribs.
In the middle of dinner, I remember that we haven’t used our IMAX passes from yesterday’s Jeep tour. The kids hurry through their meal once they realize they’re about to see the most-watched IMAX film of all time on a giant, six-story screen.
The 30-minute movie, “Grand Canyon: The Hidden Secrets,” takes viewers through thousands of years of Grand Canyon history — from the time of the Anasazi people to today. Now that we’ve explored so much of the canyon in person, the movie feels like an intimate look at an old friend.
Our final day starts with a morning horseback ride, clip-clopping through the Kaibab National Forest with Apache Stables. The experienced guides make sure each of us are saddled up and secure. One of the twins falls in love with her gentle horse, and she nearly cries when we have to leave.
We lunch on a pepperoni pizza at We Cook Pizza and Pasta in Tusayan, then it’s time for shopping at Grand Canyon Trading Post. Buying each kid a treasure to take home has always been a family tradition, even when the children were little. The trading post sells impressive Native American arts and crafts, including carved wood figurines, pottery, woven bags, and dream-catchers.
We each select a memento and then pile into the car. A silence fills the vehicle, but when I look into the backseat, I see that not one of my kids has their phone out.
My 17-year-old daughter turns her gaze from the window and smiles at me and says: “Mom, the Grand Canyon is literally epic.”
I settle back into my seat with satisfaction. Ask us now if we’ve been to the Grand Canyon. We’ll have a good answer for you.Come enjoy the canyon