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Grand Canyon on a Budget with Kids

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I am a Christian. I was an 8th-grade American History teacher. I am currently a freelance writer, public speaker, & homeschooling mom of 9.

Our first stop at the Grand Canyon: Mather Point

Our first stop at the Grand Canyon: Mather Point

Before heading from Florida to the Grand Canyon with my family in June, I researched as much as I could in order to make the most of our time & money. As we ventured out west, I kept saying, "I wish I had known ahead of time..." That's why I'm writing this! Below you'll find our schedule for our trip and all the helpful tips I found out ahead of time or learned afterward. I am also including our favorite children's books, guide books, and YouTube videos we used while preparing for our trip.

Hiking down Bright Angel Trail

Hiking down Bright Angel Trail

What I wish I'd known before I went to the Grand Canyon

  • Study a good guide book ahead of time. The Grand Canyon was both amazing...and a little disappointing. We wasted a good chunk of time while there trying to figure out where to go. I wish I'd studied our guide book better ahead of time so that we would already know what to do and what to look for. I brought along about 10 guide books. I found Frommer's National Parks of the American West to be the most helpful one when determining where to go at the Grand Canyon or at the other national parks.
  • Look up the Park Ranger Programs ahead of time online. There was an early morning fossil walk we would have loved to have attended but we arrived too late. Also note many of the programs are not held at the main visitor center. A Park Ranger said the best program is the star gazing one at night. You don't have to sit through the presentation. You can just head past the Visitor Center & look through the various telescopes. You have the added benefits of no city light pollution and a high altitude. Find the list of programs here.
  • Do hike a trail...part of the way. You'll get a completely different view than you will from the rim. There are only 3 maintained trails that descend into the canyons and Bright Angel Trail is the most commonly used one, though someone said that Kaibab Trail to Cedar Ridge (3 miles total round trip) would have been a more scenic option. None of the trails are stroller-friendly (though the Rim Trail walk around the rim is). There aren't railings, so be cautious if you have little ones. Consider a baby-carrying backpack or split up. I took our youngest 3 to the ranger programs while my husband took our oldest ones (ages 6+) down & up the trail.
  • When you go on that hike, bring plenty of water because it gets hotter as you descend into the canyon. My husband and children had to return earlier than they'd anticipated because they ran out of water really quickly. There is a water re-filling station 1.5 miles down, but they didn't make it even close to that station. Bring a backpack (so you can have at least 1 hand free) and pack at least 3 bottles of water per person.
  • Avoid the buses. I wish we'd driven from the Visitor's Center to the Village. Instead we took a bus, which was great going there. Returning to our vehicle on the blue shuttle bus took an hour because of all the stops and waiting for loading & unloading!
  • Food: Bring it or go to Tusayan. We brought a backpack with PB&J sandwiches and snacks for lunch. I didn't realize that there are plenty of fast food restaurants and a grocery store just 2 miles from the entrance to the Grand Canyon in Tusayan. My kids were happy when we picked up Wendy's for dinner on the way out of town.
  • Participate in the Junior Ranger's Program. Pick up a free fun workbook at any of the visitor's centers. Have your child complete 4 of the activities. They turn it in (preferably at one of the less crowded visitor centers like Verkamp's Visitor Center) & get a shiny gold ranger badge. My kids loved it so much they didn't even ask about buying something in the gift shop.
  • Bring hats and sunglasses for everyone. Okay, I knew that ahead of time. What I didn't realize was how windy it gets. I was grateful for the hats we had that had strings to keep them from flying away.
  • Try to go to Shoshone Point, which has one of the most scenic views of the Grand Canyon without any crowds. Someone recommended this site ahead of time, but we were stuck on the bus for so long that no one wanted to attempt to go. It might be booked for weddings or other events, so do check the schedule ahead of time to make sure it is open. It's located between mile marker 244 & 245 and has a parking lot, though GPS should be able to navigate you to it. It's supposed to be a fairly easy (though not stroller-friendly) walk out to the point.

The Most Helpful National Park Guide

Where should we stop while driving to and from the Grand Canyon? What are the main sites we should visit? How can we save money and stick to a budget? What should we do about food? How can we keep the kids entertained while driving?

Those are some of the many questions I asked while planning our trip. Now that we've finished our travels, I can share our answers.

Photo op with a rhinoceros at the Houston Zoo

Photo op with a rhinoceros at the Houston Zoo

Houston is one of my favorite cities. Because we've visited numerous times, we didn't site see there while on this trip. If you'd like to spend an extra day in Houston, try to come on a Thursday as many of the museums are free that day. The Museum of Natural Science and the Children's Museum are my children's favorites. My husband and I also love the Museum of Fine Arts. They are all free on Thursdays. You can see the full list here. Also look up Miller Outdoor Theater which has free shows throughout the spring and summer. When we stay in a hotel in Houston, we usually book one in Stafford, which is a suburb and is usually decently priced and relatively safe compared to some of the other areas.

Itinerary & Tips

  • We left Houston by 6 am to make sure we arrived in time to enter the caverns at Carlsbad.
  • We stopped by the Alamo in San Antonio since it's right off I-10. We didn't go inside. My kids were amazed at how small the remaining building is. If you already live in Texas, you should save this stop for another time and head straight to Carlsbad, NM.
  • Be sure to get fuel in Fort Stockton or Pecos in TX! It's a long way to the next gas station.
  • You need to arrive at Carlsbad Cavern before 4:45 pm to get into the cavern, though arriving earlier would be better as it closes up at 5 pm. You can still visit the Visitor Center (open until 7 PM) even if you don't make it in time.
  • Most people stay even later (around 8 PM) to see the bats fly out from the cavern entrance. My kids loved getting to see the bats!
  • You don’t have to hike the Natural Entrance to see the cave. Just take the elevator to the main passage (The Big Room). The elevator travels down 800 feet!
  • If you have a 4th grader, your entire family can get into the cavern free if you print off the Every Kid in a Park pass! If you don't have a 4th grader, I'd recommend buying an annual National Park America the Beautiful pass (currently $80) as there are plenty of opportunities to use it on this trip!
  • The hotels are REALLY expensive (possibly because of the many oil industry workers), so we opted to camp.
  • I didn't read about Sitting Bull Falls until later. It's near Carlsbad & would have been another fun place to visit while there.

Itinerary & Tips

  • Bring a map. We left Carlsbad, NM early to arrive at White Sands National Monument before it gets too hot. We lost our GPS signal shortly before arriving & did actually have to use our paper map.
  • White Sands National Monument is the world's largest gypsum sand dunes. It's also the spot where the first atomic bomb was tested. Get in free using the Every Kid in a Park 4th grader pass or an annual National Park Family Pass. Be sure to bring sunglasses & hats because it is bright. Thankfully the gypsum sand never gets hot. We tried bringing makeshift sleds, but they didn't work. Even though it was disappointing, it was still fun to try! A friend later told me we needed wax. Oh. They do sell sleds ("sand discs") at the gift shop. Maybe those work better. My cousin said they made snow angels in the sand. We should have tried that. If you have extra time, you can also visit the Missile Range Museum which is about 20 minutes away. It's free and has a Fat Man Bomb Casing, V-2 Rocket, and a number of other missile memorabilia.
  • About an hour away we stopped at Las Cruces for lunch and to visit 3 of the free museums. The Museum of Nature & Science is definitely worth the stop! They have live animals, actual petrified dinosaur tracks, and a number of other neat exhibits. We spent about 30 minutes there, though my kids would have loved to stay longer. We could have easily skipped the small Museum of Fine Arts & Culture which housed a small modern art collection and is connected to the science museum. The Las Cruces Railroad Museum is a few minutes down the road. It's a fun quick stop if you have a child who loves trains.
  • I'd read that Tombstone, AZ wasn't worth visiting, so I didn't include it in my original itinerary. I should have run that by my husband. When he saw the sign along 1-10, he said, "We're going!" He was happy we went. I would have planned the day differently had I known & not stopped in Las Cruces. We would have tried to make it in time for the daily 3 pm shoot out and then paid for some of the kids to go on the stagecoach tour, which is a brief tour of the main strip in America's only continuously operating stagecoach since the 1880's (around $10/person). Almost everything closes at 5 pm, and we got there around 4:45 pm. We got to enjoy the historic storefronts and popped our heads into the saloon that has been in operation since the 1880s.
  • We arrived in Phoenix, AZ and headed to bed.

Itinerary & Tips

  • We woke up early to hike up & summit Camelback Mountain. It's a tough hike, so we only took our oldest 2 children. (We're blessed to have wonderful family in Phoenix who kept our younger ones.) Hats would have been a good idea. We should have brought more water, probably 4 bottles per person.
  • If you need something more family-friendly, head to Hole in the Rock. It still has the wonderful views, but the trail is easy enough that even my 3 year old was able to make it to the top by herself.
  • Because we were passing by First Christian Church, we stopped to take a photo, & then we discussed a bit about architecture. It was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright to be a seminary but was eventually made into a church.
  • We headed to the suburb of Cave Creek to stop by Rare Earth Gallery. It's like a Natural Science Museum, except it's a store. They have amazing gemstones, fossils, petrified wood, stone carvings, and more. We LOVED it...and were praying the entire time that our kids wouldn't accidentally knock down anything. We held our younger children's hands the entire time we were there. If you love gemstones, you'll love this store! My husband & a couple of my children said this was their favorite site in Phoenix.
  • Because it's next door to the Rare Earth Gallery, we paid a brief visit to Frontier Town, which has mainly shops in a recreated Old West town complete with a small cemetery, gallows, & tepee. My younger kids loved the pond with turtles and fish. I wish we'd coordinated it so that we could have watched their daily shoot out or their weekly rodeo.
  • We next headed to downtown Phoenix to visit the Wells Fargo Museum. It's free, though you'll need to pay a small amount for metered parking. This museum was wonderful! It had so many hands-on activities and plenty of historical exhibits that were engaging. It also has a nice Western art collection and pistol display. My kids loved getting to pretend to ride in a stagecoach and also ride on a free kiddie ride stagecoach.
  • We ended the day at the Phoenix Museum of Art, which is free every Wednesday afternoon and evening. If you can't make it on a Wednesday, you can also get in free using a NARM reciprocal museum privilege. (You can read more about that at my post Free Museum, Zoo, Garden, & Park Tickets.) The museum has a decent collection of European, Renaissance, & Asian art. I was most impressed by the Thorne Miniature Rooms, which are exquisitely done and are something I've never seen anywhere else.
  • I'd hoped to also squeeze in the Heard Museum, which we would have gotten into free using our NARM reciprocal museum privilege, but we went shopping instead.
  • (We actually spent an extra day in Phoenix visiting family. Unless you also have family in Phoenix, one day there should be sufficient.)

Itinerary & Tips

  • After breakfast we drove from Phoenix to the Verde Valley Archaeology Center in Camp Verde, which is free to visit. It displays a small collection of the local textiles & tools that had been made in the area by the Sinagua people along with pottery, weapons, jewelry, and other items they found that had been traded. The woman working there was quite friendly and shared a bit about the Sinagua and Hohokam peoples. She also gave the children free workbooks and story books on the history of the area.
  • At Montezuma Castle National Monument, which we got into free using our National Park Pass, the kids enjoyed earning National Park badges by completing activities in their free Junior Ranger workbooks. While we all thought this was an amazing structure that is conveniently located on the way to the Grand Canyon, everyone in my family was in agreement it could have been skipped as there are a number of other similar cliff dwelling structures in the area where you can actually climb into the structure.
  • Nearby is Montezuma Well National Monument, which is free to enter, was actually more fascinating than the castle. It contains a large well with ancient cliff dwellings built into the sides. The well has no fish but is home to 5 small creatures (leech, diatom, water scorpion, snail, & shrimp) found nowhere else in the world. What I found to be more amazing was the unexpected sharp contrast of what came next. After hiking up to that hot desert-like region surrounding the well, we headed down a staircase next to a natural spring & river. The temperature dropped by about 20 and green vegetation abounded. The park ranger did caution us to not drink the water as it has toxic levels of arsenic. The hike isn't stroller-friendly, but is is easy enough that my 3 year old walked most of the way herself.
  • We arrived at a rental cabin in Sedona in the afternoon and enjoyed the nearby creek. We stayed in Sedona only because we were spending time with family, so we didn't site see while there. If we'd needed something to do while there, two free good options include Cathedral Rock and Chapel of the Holy Cross, which was designed by a student of architect Frank Lloyd Wright and has some amazing views of Verde Valley.
  • Three big changes we'd make: If we hadn't been spending time with our wonderful family (though we completely enjoyed the time with them!), we would have made 3 big changes: 1) We would have gone gold mining at Lynx Creek near Prescott (which is free and open to the public) instead of visiting the Camp Verde and Montezuma sites. 2) We would have stopped by V-V Petroglyph Site, which has one of the most extensive collections of petroglyphs in AZ. 3) We would have stayed in Flagstaff and visited Lava River Cave (bring jackets & flashlights or head lamps), Museum of Northern Arizona (free entrance as part of the NARM reciprocal museum membership privilege), Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument (free with National Park pass), & maybe Walnut Canyon National Monument (free with National Park pass).

Itinerary & Tips

  • We headed to the Grand Canyon after breakfast. I'd initially planned for us to be there 4 hours. Unless we'd been hoping to do a longer hike, I think that 3-4 hours is ideal. You can see most of my tips at the beginning of this article. We'd initially planned to spend the morning at the Grand Canyon and the afternoon and evening in Flagstaff. Because the park ranger had spoken so highly of the evening telescope viewing, I changed out plans and decided to see if we could stay all day. That resulted in tired, cranky children. Most of my children said their favorite part of the Grand Canyon was getting to see all the elk.
  • Instead of going to the telescope viewing at the Grand Canyon, we went to the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff (free entrance as part of the ASTC reciprocal museum membership privilege). This is the observatory at which Pluto was first observed. It was disappointing and I wouldn't recommend trying to go. They only had 3 telescopes among hundreds of people there to view the skies, and the main telescope is an older, less powerful model. My children thought it was neat getting to see some lines on Jupiter and a few fuzzy circles that were some of Jupiter's planets, but we were in agreement that the few seconds of viewing wasn't worth the hour long wait in line.
We enjoyed our short time at Petrified Forest National Park.

We enjoyed our short time at Petrified Forest National Park.

Itinerary & Tips

  • Because today was Sunday, our schedule was a bit different. After attending church, we spent a bit more time visiting with family and then headed to the Petrified Forest National Park (free with National Park pass) in the Painted Desert. We didn't get to spend as much time there as I'd hoped. Frommer's National Parks of the American West does a wonderful job describing what you can see along each of the trails. If we'd had more time there, we would have hiked the Agate House Trail (1 mile round trip) to see the pueblo made of petrified wood, the Giant Logs Trail (.4 mile round trip) to see the enormous "Old Faithful" petrified tree, and Puerco Pueblo Trail (.3 mile round trip) to roam through the 100 rooms and see some of the petroglyphs.
  • Before you get to Petrified Forest National Park, be sure to note that you'll be on Historic Route 66 and will be passing one of the famous landmarks, the Wigwam Village Motel.
  • Had we not been had our wonderful family to visit while in AZ, we probably would have added other sites to visit today such as Canyon de Chelly National Monument, which would be free with our National Park pass.
  • Santa Fe or Albuquerque? We opted to drive to Santa Fe instead of Albuquerque because we'd be spending the day there on a Monday. Most of the museums we would have visited in Albuquerque using our museum reciprocal privileges were closed on Monday, so we decided to spend the night in Santa Fe. I was sad to miss out on Petroglyph National Monument and Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument.