A perfect Route 66 road trip through the Old West featuring America’s biggest vistas, deepest caverns, and friendliest wild donkeys.
By Yelitza Day
We always wanted to take our kids to the Grand Canyon but we didn’t want it to be just one long weekend in the car, driving from home in LA to the canyon rim and back. Then I found the secret to making the trip more special.
“Really?! Donkeys?” my husband Chris asked. But I knew I had to meet the wild burros of Oatman, Arizona – and I knew my kids would love them too.
We took off the morning of Black Friday and headed along the route of old Route 66, but on the modern Interstate 40. Guided by a trusty old-fashioned map from AAA, we followed Highway 95 to Route 66 and landed in Oatman, Arizona.
Oatman is an old village in the Black Mountains of Mojave Village. It used to be a small mining camp. In 1915, two prospectors struck gold with a $10 million find.
But I was there for the sole purpose of feeding the wild burros that, indeed, roam the streets there. You can buy some dry pellets and feed them to the donkeys.
Oatman looks like it did way back in the old western days. It is a kind of ghost/tourist town that holds gunfights every afternoon. Gunslingers hold a shootout in the middle of the old Route 66, next to cars, onlookers, and of course, burros. We loved it.
After the shootout, we traveled on a real section of Route 66 straight out of the movie, “Cars.” Chris had given in on the donkey stop in exchange for taking us all to see the Grand Canyon Caverns, about an hour-and-a-half away.
This classic roadside attraction – it even has a motel and grotto restaurant 😉 – stands 200-300 feet atop the largest dry caverns in the U.S. We took the regular guided tour, which was a fairly easy walk. The elevator takes you twenty-one stories underground.
The cavern tour was very interesting and not too expensive (a 45 minute tour was $20.95 for adults and $13.95 for children). They have a variety of crystals and even a fossil of a giant sloth that fell down there during the Ice Age! They also have more adventurous tours: a ghost walk tour, and even an overnight stay down in the cavern!
We continued on toward the Grand Canyon, but arrived just after dark. We checked into the Yavapai Lodge, and walked across the street for dinner. (Be sure to bring flashlights, as the walk is dark!) After eating and having a drink by the fireplace, we played some card games and got to bed early so we could be up early to see the sunrise.
Nothing can prepare you for seeing the Grand Canyon for the first time. It’s one of those places that defies words. Sunrise was breathtaking, made more so by the moon setting on the horizon. We had woken early, grabbed some essential hot chocolates and coffees, and then boarded the Red Shuttle to Mojave Point in time for the 7:15 a.m. sunrise.
Of course, we didn’t have the place to ourselves. Seeing one of the world’s most famous spots means sharing it with a variety of other tourists.
We then got in our car and drove toward the other side of the canyon, all the way to Desert View, beyond where the shuttles go. We visited the Grand Canyon Watchtower and the TWA memorial. On the way back, we stopped at a couple of spots, including the Visitor’s Center for lunch. Each point has a different view of the canyon – it is hard to decide which one was best because they were all beautiful!
As a teacher, I know Californian kids begin studying erosion in the second-grade. I was fangirling a bit about the science behind the canyon itself, and I was loving that my girls were able to tie-in the canyon to their studies – not to mention our fourth-grader got us in free to the National Parks.
After a rest at our hotel, we hopped on the Red Shuttle to catch sunset at Powell Point. The views and colors were unbelievable.
After dark, we drove the short distance to the Bright Angel Lodge. It has a nice restaurant, a great little bar with live music, and a rustic mountain feel. This hotel has great views of the Grand Canyon and I’ll try to stay there on our next trip.
The biggest disappointment? Ever since the Brady Bunch rode mules into the canyon, I’ve wanted to do it. But you have to be 4’ 9” tall and our littlest was still too little.
But I vow to ride those darn donkeys one day. I’ll be back!
The ROAM Report: Grand Canyon 101
- Travelers: Yelitza and Chris Day, plus kids 16, 11 and 9
- Date: November 2018
- Itinerary: Three-day road trip from LA, staying two nights at the Yavapai Lodge
- Cost: Approximately $800
Good to Know
A Weekend Works Because the Grand Canyon is such an amazing place, it is tempting to put off a visit until you can spend a long time there. But with work, school, and sports schedules, you might wait forever. Even if you only have one full day to see the main sights at the canyon, it is absolutely worth it. Our three-day adventure was totally perfect and made us want to return – and not just for the mule ride (see below.)
Stay in the Grand Canyon! There are lots of hotels and motels outside the park, but then you have to drive in, pay, park – and that all takes precious time when you’re trying to make sunrise. Staying right at the canyon was the best. We were able to walk and take the shuttle everywhere, and it wasn’t too expensive.
We stayed at Yavapai Lodge, which lies inside the park. The stay per night costs about $150. It’s a hotel with 6 two-story buildings that have a comfortable, clean, mountain cabin feel. As I mentioned above, we loved the Bright Angel Lodge, which is one of the oldest places to stay so has a great vantage point of the canyon.
If you are traveling at a busy time and can’t get a prime spot in the village, get the best room you can and keep calling for a cancellation. Our friend got a room same-day at the Bright Angel Lodge one New Year’s break, and the NPS just canceled their room that was farther out.
Free for 4th Graders Entrance to the national park is $35 per vehicle, but we had a 4th grader in the car so we got in for free! Be sure to check out available national park passes before you leave home.
Watch the Weather We had great weather in late November; there’s not usually snow this time of year. It’s cooler in the mornings, but about seventy-two degrees during the day. But be aware, the cooler weather can sometimes attract fog in the winter – like “can’t see the canyon at all” fog – so keep an eye on the weather when you’re heading in.
Convenient Shuttles The shuttles are free, and the drivers are happy to answer any questions. The helpful, park-provided map along with the shuttle guide helped us locate different points of interest.
Don’t Miss Sunrise! Watching the sunrise over the canyon was both spectacular and cold. Bundle up and don’t forget your warm beverages.
Don’t Miss Sunset! It’s definitely worth the effort to make it to Powell Point for sunset. But the shuttle is very busy in the early evening, with many people aiming to see the same sunset spectacle. Get there early!
More Route 66 If you’re wanting to extend your time or add stops to your trip to/from LA, check out Bearizona for a cute wildlife park, the town of Seligman for lots of old Route 66 stuff, and the Route 66 Museum in Kingman,
Plan Ahead Next time, when we have more time, I want to look into rafting, mule rides, an overnight at Phantom Ranch at the bottom, or other activities that go down into the canyon and need to be planned far ahead of time.
Spotty Wifi The Grand Canyon was attraction enough to lure the kids along – even for our high school boy – but the in-and-out wifi got groans from everyone.
Yelitza Day – September 2019
Wife. Mom of 3 kids and 2 Frenchies. 2nd-grade teacher. Leads a busy life in LA with the kids all playing different sports. Loves running and Bootcamp. Always dreaming of the next vacation spot!
© ROAM Family Travel 2019 – All rights reserved
Family travelers -show us your travel trivia knowledge!
Armchair trips for active families.
An hour from San Francisco, a u-pick summer fruit paradise awaits.
Leap, ride, wander and read! in ROAM's award-winning shots from 2020
Days at sea through Panama's islands of the Caribbean
Helping you remember your “unforgettable” family vacations
A week of Marrakech, medinas, Atlas Mountains, Merzouga - and more.
Himalayan veterans aim for India's Konzke La - and meet an unexpected challenge
Les Gets converted “never skiers” into "every-winter" fans.
Two weeks with pilgrims in Northern Spain finds cows, pinecones, flowers, castles, and new friends.
Take the grandparents on a cross-state odyssey of Wild West vistas & outdoor majesty
An immersive experience delivering far more than snapshots.
The wonder & variety of a summer road trip through the Golden State, plus Grand Canyon & Vegas
Sharing small scenes and small stories from small trips near home.
Find your next adventure in the pages of ROAM's first compilation
Your one-stop-shop for 2020 family vacation ideas from all the top travel writers.
Free/low cost, Apple/Android, mobile/desktop - here's our 15 favorites
Getaway for a Queen Mary stay in a cool corner of LA.
Bad planning and “bad” luck make for a dream trip
Stops in Italy, Austria, Czech and Germany please parents and teens, alike.