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The Great Outdoors: Grand Canyon National Park, Grand Canyon, Arizona
A visit to one of America's great national parks is likely to include hiking, biking, splendid waterfalls and amazing animal encounters. And then there's Grand Canyon National Park, where you get one big hole in the ground made ever so deep by the Colorado River over millions of years...and not much else. Is this giant rock formation enough to satisfy energetic young travelers whose favorite refrain is "Mommy, what's next?" The answer is a resounding yes.
Begin your journey to the Grand Canyon with a stop in Williams, Arizona, a town stuck in time on fabled Route 66. Ten points to mom and dad if the "Cars" video is playing for the kids in the back seat as you drive in, with trusty pal Lightning McQueen tearing up the local blacktop at every turn. Williams may not have as much action today as it did a hundred years ago, but it still has a terrific ice cream shop, Twisters (order a root beer float or a sinful chocolate shake), and the Grand Canyon Railway, an old-line railway still going strong thanks to its recent purchase by the Xanterra Corp., the country's largest park-management company.
The Grand Canyon Railway is much more than a train, albeit one that will take you directly to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. It's a mini-village and makes for an ideal overnight stay. Arrive mid-afternoon, the better to settle in and be on hand for the trains that will arrive at the depot in the early evening. Kids will positively squeal as the trains clamber into Williams station, horns a-tootin' and steam a-blazin'. Dinner is at Max and Thelma's, where the cowboy-styled buffet features dishes such as pork and applesauce, barbecued chicken, baked beans and au gratin potatoes. Rooms at the beautifully restored Grand Canyon Railway Hotel call in the high desert's palette, a melange of blue, green and rust. Creature comforts are readily apparent and a view of the depot and train tracks will charm the kids into restful slumber.
After a quick visit to Max and Thelma's breakfast buffet the next morning, hightail it to the Wild West Shootout -- really! This fifteen-minute revue has the local "sheriff" chasing ne'er-do-well "cowboys" out of town, prompting our young son to ask "Mom, why are they called cowboys and not horseboys?" Indeed...and then you're off on the morning train to the Grand Canyon, a three-hour ride among high-desert brush accompanied by beautiful vistas at every turn. Our car's steward, Carol, regales us with tales of the historic railway for much of the ride, a pleasure punctuated by the generous snacks served on board. If there's a better way to make it into one of America's greatest national parks, it hasn't been thought of yet.
Arriving at Grand Canyon National Park in the summertime, when most families will visit, is something of an assault on the senses -- good and bad. The bad: it's HOT here. Summer temps can easily reach a hundred degrees or more, so pack plenty of water at ALL times, wear a hat and slather on the sunscreen. The good: you and your kids will be stunned by the splendor of it all. The canyon itself is deeper, wider and more colorful than anyone ever imagines. Looking at it from assorted angles becomes a game, and a fun one at that. You really need not do much more than stare at the canyon morning, noon and night to have a good time here.
While the canyon's vistas won't be beat during your visit, take the kids exploring a bit. A hike along the Rim Trail from Grand Canyon Village to Maricopa Point is less than a mile long but will prove to be plenty for young hikers in the high desert heat. At this point, hop on the shuttle bus toward Hermit's Rest, a bumpy route where you are free to get off at assorted overlooks and get back on the next bus. Stop for a while at the last stop, the eponymous Hermit's Rest, to soak in the view, raid the well-stocked souvenir shop and indulge in an ice cream treat.
Heading back to the Village will be doubly pleasurable if a room at the El Tovar Hotel awaits. This stone and pine edifice calls to mind the hunting lodges of Old Europe and boasts a prime South Rim location. Repair to the veranda off the cocktail lounge for a chilly margarita (lemonade for the kids) overlooking the canyon and a rest for weary feet. The Dining Room at the El Tovar is a white-tablecloth fantasy where the play of light and shadow off the dining room's walls in the early evening is reason enough for a visit. The chef is quick to top it, however, with richly satisfying, classic American cuisine.
Set an early alarm (6 a.m.) for the next morning, despite the kids' protestations, and take the family for a sunrise hike along the Rim Trail toward Yavapai Point. While the midday and late-afternoon sunshine tend to wash out the canyon's vivid colors, all is as nature intended in the early morning hours. Plan on two hours round trip and about two hundred pictures. More adventurous souls may want to follow breakfast at the Bright Angel Lodge (excellent muffins, coffee and juices) with a hike into the canyon along the Bright Angel Trail. The hike down will be half as long as the hike back and kids are likely to squirm along much of the way so don't plan on spending more than a couple of hours on this trail unless your brood is exceedingly trail-savvy. The Hopi House, adjacent to the El Tovar Hotel, is a fun post-hike shopping stop where the shiny silver things will be especially appealing to teenage girls. Assorted Native American crafts, all of extremely high quality, round out the selection.
Families can easily spend two, three or four days at Grand Canyon National Park. While the variety of activities isn't huge, the simple pleasures provided at this most fabled of national parks will not disappoint.
For additional information, rates and reservations on the Grand Canyon Railway and Hotel, visit www.thetrain.com. Detailed information on Grand Canyon National Park, including lodging options and rates, can be found at www.nps.gov/grca/.
Elaine Sosa Labalme is a food and travel writer based in Pittsburgh, PA. When she's not busy as a domestic goddess she's out traveling with husband Fen and six-year-old son Steven. She hopes to be the next Charles Kuralt.