“Are we there yet?” the children, asked impatiently from the backseat of the car.
Gazing at the road ahead, my husband smugly smiled, knowing this winter family getaway to the Grand Canyon South Rim would be more than their usual adventure: It would be a cherished lifetime memory. Traveling to Grand Canyon National Park on a wintery day brings pleasures like no other season. Brisk winter air tingles the skin. Views of vast cliffs, rock strata, buttes and temples are all made more spectacular by a dusting of glistening white snow. And all the favorite year-round activities like Grand Canyon mule rides and hiking. Bright Angel Trail still awaits, without the large summertime crowds.
Anticipation grew to a fever pitch as we unpacked our cozy winter sweaters and tasseled knit caps at the Grand Canyon Plaza Hotel, a family-friendly stay located one mile from the south entrance of Grand Canyon National Park and seven miles from the South Rim. The road trip, from California, sparked hunger pangs and a zest for adventure, so we headed to a Grand Canyon restaurant that is a real kid pleaser –
We Cook Pizza and Pasta, known for its 14 specialty pizzas (including gluten-free options) made with hand-tossed dough, located a mere two miles from the entrance to the South Rim in the tiny town of Tusayan. After eating some pizza margherita and homemade macaroni and cheese, we plotted our first outdoor adventure, a mule ride. Then we promptly headed back to the hotel to get some rest before our big day.
After brief negotiations we, children included, agreed to wake up early – 6:30 a.m. – to catch a sunrise and eat breakfast before the highly anticipated mule rides.
We enjoyed delicious coffee and breakfast sandwiches, not to mention amazing coffee cake, at Bright Angel Bicycles’ coffee shop. Everything we ate was truly out of this world. As we were leaving the shop, the kids looked at me and said if we hadn’t made plans to do the mules rides, they would have “been ok” with us renting bikes, and going for a ride. At which time my husband chimed in, “Well, now we know for next time.” And off we went to ride mules.
The mule is a trusty, sure-footed hybrid (donkey/horse) that allows riders to take in breathtaking views while traveling along the rim of the canyon. Grand Canyon National Park Lodges offers a four-mile, three-hour mule ride (two hours in the saddle) that departs five miles east of the historic Grand Canyon Village. The trek entertained and educated all of the youngsters – including my husband – as wranglers stop along the trail to talk about everything from geologic formations and human history to fire ecology.
Our tour guide recommended we check out Kolb Studio, a National Historic Landmark, sitting at the head of Bright Angel Trail, just as it has since 1904. I thought it would be good to take in as much of the Grand Canyon as we could, and as we stepped inside the ramshackle five-story building perched precariously on a canyon wall, it felt like we stepped back in time to meet brothers Emery and Ellsworth Kolb, whose fearless, death-defying antics made it possible for them to capture the splendor of the Grand Canyon in the displayed black-and-white photography that remains as timeless as the canyon itself. One photograph depicts Emery, feet spread between two towers, lowering Ellsworth by a rope as he nonchalantly dangles in space, camera in hand, to photograph Cheyava Falls, a towering waterfall on the North Rim. The kids were so captivated by the history of these adventurous pioneers, they both asked for “old” cameras for their birthdays, and the youngest said he wanted to take more trips around the country.
For now, the kids enjoyed driving out on the Hermit Road with nine overlooks, enabling you to enjoy the surroundings from many angles. The views alone were enough to keep your heart rate up. Hermits Rest caught the kids' eyes and imagination. At first glance, it looks like a natural rock formation. However, this National Historic Landmark was built in 1914 as a rest stop for the short stage line, designed by famed architect Mary Elizabeth Jane Colter. Its porch entrance, made of peeled log posts, tie-beams and vigas, leads to a gift shop inside with: distinctly Southwestern keepsakes, park souvenirs, Native American handicrafts and a snack bar.
I smiled at the kids' new-found thirst for adventure and asked if they wanted to join the Grand Canyon’s Junior Ranger program. It offers a perfect, safe way to start their quest. And the best part for us: it’s free of charge and geared to different age groups. Children ages 4–7 can earn the Raven Award; ages 8–10 gain the Coyote Award; and ages 11 and older are rewarded with the Scorpion Award. The children decided they wanted the special award only given to those who make it to Phantom Ranch – the Phantom Rattler.
For our last night at the Grand Canyon we decided to fancy it up a bit at the historic El Tovar Dining Room, which is in the El Tovar Hotel. This awe-inspiring room constructed of native stone and Oregon pine and set about 50 yards away from the edge of Grand Canyon’s South Rim offers breathtaking views. The restaurant’s signature dish – a salmon tostada made with wild-caught Alaskan salmon, organic greens, lime sour cream and roasted poblano black bean rice – offers a unique taste of the Southwest. Murals on the walls depict customs of four Native American tribes: the Hopi, Apache, Mojave and Navajo – and further pique the children’s curiosity.
On the drive back home, we discussed our latest adventures. The exhilarating feeling of the brisk winter air. Hiking and riding down paths less traveled throughout one of the nation’s most visited parks. The quieter, more relaxed pace with ample time to catch a gorgeous sunrise or sunset. And not to mention those goofy mules. After a quick "I told you so" from my husband, I smiled and agreed. Winter is indeed the best time to visit the Grand Canyon South Rim.