The Grand Canyon is even better than you think

See the cute little Rock Squirrel in the foreground?

Visiting the Grand Canyon national park has been on my wish list for many years based on other people’s travel stories and photos I’ve seen online.

Truly though, I didn’t know what to expect. I think a tiny part of me was worried that it might not live up to all the hype.

I needn’t have worried. The Grand Canyon is utterly breathtaking, absolutely magical and completely awe-inspiring. Our road trip there was wonderful and the Grand Canyon itself was the glorious cherry on top.

It’s easy to see why the 11 native American tribes who called this area their home considered the Grand Canyon to be a highly sacred place. It truly was, and still feels that way today.

If you’re thinking about visiting, I’ll share a little about where we stayed, what we did and how we made the most of our time at the Grand Canyon – along with a few things we’d do differently next time.

Where to stay

When you visit the Grand Canyon, you can either stay very close to it inside the actual park; nearby in the Tusayan area; or farther away in the cute little town of Williams, AZ on Route 66. This article does a great job summing up all the available lodging options.

Because the Grand Canyon was part of an overall bigger trip for us, we opted to stay in Williams, aka the Gateway to the Grand Canyon, which is about an hour away. Hotels there were plentiful and the rates were reasonable. We enjoyed our time in Williams and visited other nearby attractions such as the Route 66 shops and Bearizona to maximize our time there.

That said, next time I would opt to stay as close to the Grand Canyon as possible – ideally, at the historic El Tovar hotel right there in Grand Canyon Village. Next time we go, I want more time at the Grand Canyon. I want to watch Grand Canyon sunrises, sunsets and even do some hiking right down into the beast. For that reason, we’ll stay right on site even though it’s far more expensive and there are fewer things to do.

Critter encounters

Most of what we did at the Grand Canyon can be summed up as enjoying the views. We drove, walked and hiked to various scenic view points; took tons of photos; and oohed and ahhed repeatedly. There other things to do there, including mule trips down into the canyon, helicopter rides and Jeep tours, but for our first time we kept it simple.

The Grand Canyon is the second most visited national park in the country (second only to the Great Smoky Mountains of NC and TN, which we’ve also visited and loved). With about 6 million visitors each year, it pays to get there early. We experienced some traffic already, even though entered the national park soon after 8 am and were parked and enjoying views by 9 am. When we left the park in the early afternoon, the traffic coming in was miles long and did not look like good times.

Crowds weren’t too bad at the time we went. Once we got away from the main viewing area at Mather Point, the crowds thinned and it was easy to find vantage points where we could take photos and enjoy the view without other people in our way.

What made our Grand Canyon visit even more fun, especially for our critter-loving family, were the many wildlife close encounters we had while in the national park.

At our first viewing spot at Mather Point, Z was approached by some very friendly rock squirrels. There were signs all around warning visitors not to feed these little guys, but they sure wanted a snack. One came right up to Z, reaching out its hands for Z like a tame little pet, even though we didn’t have any food on us. They were adorable and we had fun watching them scramble around the rocks and cliffs, digging holes and then coming back to beg for treats.

Our second critter encounter was a small herd of elk enjoying their lunch (aka eating everything in sight) inside the park, just past the Canyon Village Market. We pulled over to watch them and they came pretty close to our car – they seemed fearless and unbothered by us talking to them. It was cool to be so close to such big animals out in the wild.

Not long after seeing the elk, E spotted a small band of horses running wild. We pulled over and saw that one of the mama horses had a very small baby foal with her. The little foal was absolutely adorable! The mama and baby horses let us get pretty close to them but we didn’t attempt to approach or touch them, of course.

Family fun near the Grand Canyon

After a morning of sightseeing and exploring at the national park, we headed back to the Williams area and our hotel. The drive back was scenic as it passed through several national forests with mountains in the background. As we drove, we agreed the animal encounters had been fun – and that’s when I suggested we head to Bearizona drive-through wildlife park for even more critter close-ups. The fam agreed!

Bearizona was, in a word, awesome. There’s a drive-through portion and a walk-through area, and the entire property is located within a gorgeous Ponderosa pine forest. More than half of the animals are rescues and all have really nice, large habitats to run, play and explore.

The drive-through part was our favorite. At first, you go through large habitats of deer and elk, and you’re thinking “hmm, this is okay.” But then you start seeing big warning signs about wolves and bears. You have to keep your windows all the way up and doors locked. That’s when things get interesting!

The one wolf we saw was beautiful and HUGE but very well-behaved. He walked past our car but never attempted anything untoward. Then we got into bear territory and there were so many bears! First, you go through the junior bear area with dozens of smaller (but still pretty big!) bears of all colors and varieties. It was so fun to watch them walk, run, snack, snooze and play – as well as get pretty close to many cars.

Then we went through the big bears area and these guys were HUGE. They were literally car size in some cases! Most of the bigger bears were eating or resting, but a few were walking around. I can see how the place got the name Bearizona – we have never seen so many bears up close in a near-wild habitat. What a great experience!

Other family fun near Williams includes the shops in little downtown Route 66 area, a zipline which we saw but didn’t try, and the Grand Canyon Railroad which is a train ride from Williams to the Grand Canyon and back. Then, of course there are the hotel pools. Our hotel pool wasn’t open, but Z did enjoy the hot tub both evenings.

There’s one regret I have from our trip, and that’s not stopping at the Wupatki National Monument. We passed it on our way from Page, AZ to Williams; I saw the sign, but didn’t know how cool it was until later when I read an article about it at our hotel.

Wupatki National Monument is about an hour outside of Williams off Route 89 and it contains the protected ruins of five prehistoric villages or pueblos. Surrounded by gorgeous scenery including red rock cliffs and the Coconino National Forest, the pueblos are a perfect collision of history and nature. First inhabited around 500 AD, the protected space spans about 35,000 acres. The villages once served as a bustling center for trading and living for several cultural groups, including the Hohokam people. Next time, we’re definitely making the stop to walk through the trails and see these ancient, native villages.

Have you visited the Grand Canyon yet, and if so what was your favorite thing to do there? We’re already dreaming about another visit there so let me know if you have any tips or recommendations for next time we go.

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About the author

Proud and loving midlife mama. Lucky and devoted wife. Dog, cat and snake mom. Travel nut. Natural born writer. PR and social media pro by day - tattoo doula by night.
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