Few stand before Arizona’s Grand Canyon unmoved. The spectacle that coursing water gouged into eons of sedimentary build-up dives a mile deep, revealing stunning striations of purple, ochre, and gold farther than the eye can see. Natural history meets Native American life and Western lore in the canyon, providing jaw-dropping panoramas from every angle that make a child of the beholder, no matter his or her age.
Parents keen to show their kids the wonder of the natural world — and regain their own sense of awe — flock to the Grand Canyon each summer, snapping Instagram shots at the South Rim overlooks in the National Park, daring to walk onto the horseshoe-shape glass-bottom Skywalk suspended 4,000 feet above the canyon floor, chartering helicopter flight-seeing trips from Las Vegas or Phoenix, and even, with ample planning and training time, attempting the rigorous rim-to-rim hike.
Less DIY and more immersive, outfitter trips to the canyon combine the convenience of supplied camping gear with the expertise of guides equipped to manage any worst-case scenarios in the rugged terrain. Choices come in stationary or transiting. Of the former, Austin-Lehman Adventures (austinlehman.com) guides guests into a side canyon oasis where turquoise water pools at the base of 100-foot Havasu Falls, the West’s most inviting natural swimming hole. Base camp comes completely outfitted with tents, hammocks, and picnic tables, allowing you and yours unscripted time to forage for fossils, visit a Native American village, and squeeze between narrow canyon walls. Guides, meanwhile, take care of the nitty-gritty chores and meal making over the course of five roughing-it-free days.
Rafting through the Grand Canyon — the top transit option — upends the standard view, framing floor-level views of the soaring rock walls, mysterious petroglyphs, hidden grottos, and natural springs. Inflatable rafts float through areas unreachable on foot, delving deep into canyon history and beaching nightly at a new riverside campsite.
Western River Expeditions (westernriver.com) lets you and your children ages 9 and up get your feet wet in quick three-day trips. Kids as young as age 7 can raft the Colorado River with OARS (oars.com) on five-day trips featuring a helicopter lift to the launch site at Whitmore Wash. Roller-coaster thrills in the form of moderate rapids accompany log ride–style soakings on the four-day ride to Lake Mead, and three nights of backcountry camping offer opportunities to hike the desert floor, poke into side canyons, chase lizards, and wade in the river while guides set up camp and cook hearty meals. Cuddle up with the kids nightly below a twinkling sky, eliciting your most creative stories and goofiest songs in place of iPods and video games.
Longer trips ranging seven to 12 days introduce more serious whitewater to kids starting at age 12. Many start with a 9.7-mile descent to the canyon floor along the Bright Angel Trail, providing a serious start to the kind of tween- and teen-oriented outward-bound trip that challenges strength and stamina in a way no gym can inspire — and no parent can teach like Mother Nature. — E.G.
TAKE AWAY: Bond over your collective sense of wonder. Accomplish a major physical task. Consider the stars your nightly show. Strip away all modern distractions — cell phones, Internet, TV — and entertain each other.
TIPS: Summer is high season in the Grand Canyon; book tours and rooms well in advance.
• Test your legs on the Bright Angel Trail, considered the park’s safest, stocked with water and signed with ample rest areas.
• Trips into the Grand Canyon aren’t “glamping,” or glamorous camping, but they are assisted in terms of supplies and set-up. Still, be prepared for portable outhouses.
STAY: The oldest building on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, the two-room Red Horse Cabin was built as a stagecoach stop in 1890 and moved to the head of the Bright Angel Trail in 1902, where it served over the years as a hotel, a post office, and most recently a storage facility. After a recent renovation to modernize the log structure, the cabin, which features a stone fireplace, is once again a guest cottage, the best of the rooms and cabins rented by neighbor Bright Angel Lodge. Cabin overnights $340.