Image: CONDOR
Greg Collins  /  Greg Collins, NPS
North America's largest land bird, the California condor, touches down at the Grand Canyon.
By
Tribune Media Services
updated 4/20/2011 1:14:26 PM ET 2011-04-20T17:14:26

Wow!

Even the kids are impressed. How could they not be, staring down into the most famous hole in the ground? The Grand Canyon! It's a mile deep with 10 miles separating the South Rim where we were from the North Rim, 215 miles apart by road.

The Grand Canyon, set aside as a national monument by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1908, became a national park in 1919. Today, it remains one of the most visited parks, drawing more than 4.3 million visitors a year. Families from around the world come here to experience what is widely considered one of the great wonders of the world. Like I said, wow!

I was here in my 20s hiking down to take a river-rafting trip on the Colorado River, an adventure I hope to repeat some day. I returned when my kids were young with my mom — her first trip — and visited again with my cousins Jayme and Mike Sitzman, 6-year-old Ethan and 4-year-old Hannah. The thing about the Grand Canyon and the other national parks is that there are ways to experience it whatever your age and, indeed, we encountered many seniors with canes and those in wheelchairs all having a great time.

  1. Don't miss these Travel stories
    1. Lords of the gourd compete for Punkin Chunkin honors

      With teams using more than 100 unique apparatuses to launch globular projectiles a half-mile or more, the 27th annual World Championship Punkin Chunkin event is our pick as November’s Weird Festival of the Month.

    2. Airports, airlines work hard to return your lost items
    3. Expert: Tourist hordes threaten Sistine Chapel's art
    4. MGM Grand wants Las Vegas guests to Stay Well
    5. Report: Airlines collecting $36.1B in fees this year

Connecting with nature
National Park Week is April 16 through 24 and there is no better time (admission is free!) to explore one of our 394 national parks. This year's focus, "Healthy Parks, Healthy People," highlights the connection between human and environmental health and the vital role America's national parks play in both.

Slideshow: America's national parks (on this page)

If you can't get out there this week — Junior Ranger Day is April 23 — think about a trip later this spring or summer. Getting outside is good for you and the kids. First Lady Michelle Obama certainly thinks so. Let's Move Outside Junior Ranger — part of her nationwide Let's Move campaign to end childhood obesity — encourages kids and their families to engage in outdoor activity that gets hearts pumping and bodies moving. (FYI: There is a new free Oh, Ranger! ParkFinder mobile app, available in the iTunes app store that helps find activities at more than 6,000 national parks, state parks and public lands nationwide.)

If you sign on for organized family multi-day trips from companies like Austin Lehman, REI Adventures, Backroads, Tauck and even the Sierra Club, you can leave the planning to others and see parts of some iconic parks most tourists miss, led by guides attuned to the kids. While these trips can be pricey, they are increasingly popular for families who are looking for (relatively) stress-free experiences.

"We have seen interest in all of our national park vacations grow at an astounding rate," said Dan Austin, founding director of Austin Lehman, which just announced three additional national parks family trips this summer.

Hues of prehistory
At the Grand Canyon, the kids are interested in everything — the different hues of the rocks (red, while, brown, green) and the fact that different colors signify the age of the rocks dating back as much as 2 billion years! Of course, they are interested in souvenirs before the day is out, so we've bought key chains with their names on them, storybooks about animals who poop in the park and pins to put on their stuffed animals.

The best souvenir is the Junior Ranger booklet that encourages them to explore the canyon in age-appropriate ways, drawing pictures, answering questions, keeping track of the birds and animals they've seen.

There are many kid-friendly ranger programs to choose from(a fossil walk or campfire talk, perhaps?). We walked with the kids along the rim trail, taking in the amazing vistas (the visibility is more than 100 miles). The kids don't get bored, though having some snacks and water along helped and the hike along pretty level terrain wasn't arduous. We counted the dogs we met (eight) and the "timeline" imbedded in the trail realizing just how far back the canyon walls go. It's a sobering thought.

We reminded the kids that this wasn't a theme park. They had to stay on the trail and be careful. They didn't want to get too close to the edge. "Too scary," Hannah declared.

We walked almost two miles to the Yavapai Point. By then it was getting late and the kids were getting tired and chilly. We wanted them to end the day happy so we hopped the free shuttle back to Maswick Lodge to spend the night. Along the way, even the shuttle driver entertained the kids with riddles.

We brought their Junior Ranger books to dinner — they must use their detective skills to spot (but not collect) everything from a ranger to a raven to a pinecone to a California condor (one of the largest and rarest birds in North America). It turns out that fossils reveal these majestic creatures have lived in this area for thousands of years. Now, with the combined efforts of state and national government agencies, the California condor population is being re-established with additional nesting and more captive raised birds being released.

Be a Junior Ranger
I like that the Junior Ranger program encourages kids to look at the park from their perspective. Many ancient people left behind pictures in the rocks of the Grand Canyon, one activity says. Draw your own pictograph and describe what it means (of course, the kids are also told never to write on real works in national parks).

There is even a green lesson. Kids are encouraged to clean up an area at home, talk about the Grand Canyon at school and learn about plants, animals, rocks and history. (Check out WebRangers, or follow the National Park Service on Twitter or Facebook.)

Geology, history, biology ... how much more can one place teach kids — without them even realizing they are learning?

We finished our day with dinner at the historic El Tovar Hotel. The dining room was filled with families and kids who could choose from either an inexpensive traditional kids menu (mac and cheese, five chicken strips) or half portions from the adult menu. We sat looking out at the changing colors of the Canyon as the sun set.

"The rocks are pink!" Hannah said.

We dined on steak and sipped wine while the kids worked diligently and happily on their books.

Is there such a thing as the perfect end to a perfect vacation day? We've come close. Thanks, President Roosevelt.

For more Taking the Kids, visit www.takingthekids.com and also follow "taking the kids" on www.twitter.com, where Eileen Ogintz welcomes your questions and comments.

© 2011 Eileen Ogintz ... Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.

Photos: America's national parks

loading photos...
  1. Acadia

    Acadia National Park in Maine boasts the highest mountain on the U.S. Atlantic Coast and was the first national park east of the Mississippi River. Visitors beware: temperatures can vary 40 degrees -- from 45 degrees to 85 degrees in the summer and from 30 degrees to 70 degrees in the spring and fall. (Gareth Mccormack / Lonely Planet Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Rocky Mountain

    Bear Lake, with mountainside aspens changing colors in mid-autumn, is one of the popular attractions in Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado. (Universal Images Group via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Badlands

    The climate in South Dakota's Badlands National Park is extreme. Temperatures range from minus 40 degrees in the dead of winter to 116 degrees in the height of summer. Visitors are drawn to the park's rugged beauty as well as the area's rich fossil beds. (Mark Newman / Lonely Planet Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Yosemite

    One of the nation's first wilderness parks, Yosemite is known for its waterfalls, scenic valleys, meadows and giant sequoias. (Robert Galbraith / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. North Cascades National Park

    The North Cascades National Park complex offers something for everyone: Monstrous peaks, deep valleys, hundreds of glaciers and phenominal waterfalls. The complex includes the park, Ross Lake and Lake Chelan National Recreation Areas. (David Mcnew / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Zion

    This spectacular corner of southern Utah is a masterpiece of towering cliffs, deep red canyons, mesas, buttes and massive monoliths. (Mark Ralston / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Redwood

    Created in 1968, Redwood National Park is located in Northern California. Today, visitors to the national park can enjoy the massive trees as well as an array of wildlife. (David Gotisha / msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Joshua Tree

    Joshua Tree National Park is located in southeast California. The area was made a national monument in 1936 and a national park in 1994. Outdoor enthusiasts can go hiking, mountain biking and rock climbing. (Gabriel Bouys / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Great Smoky Mountains

    Straddling the Tennessee-North Carolina border, Great Smoky Mountains National Park encompasses more than 800 square miles in the southern Appalachian Mountains. Visitors can expect mild winters and hot, humid summers, though temperatures can differ drastically as the park's elevation ranges from 800 feet to more than 6,600 feet. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Arches

    More than 2,000 natural sandstone arches, many of them recognizable worldwide, are preserved in Utah's Arches National Park. Temperatures can reach triple digits in the summer and can drop to below freezing in the winter. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Grand Teton

    The Snake River flows through Grand Teton National Park, and the jagged Teton Range rises above the sage-covered valley floor. Daytime temperatures during summer months are frequently in the 70s and 80s, and afternoon thunderstorms are common. (Anthony P. Bolante / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Haleakala

    Visitors watch the sun rise at 10,000 feet in Haleakala National Park in Maui, Hawaii. If weather permits, visitors at the top of the mountain can see three other Hawaiian islands. (The Washington Post via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Grand Canyon

    Grand Canyon National Park is perhaps the most recognizable national park. Nearly 5 million visitors view the mile-deep gorge every year, formed in part by erosion from the Colorado River. The North and South rims are separated by a 10-mile-wide canyon. (Gabriel Bouys / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Yellowstone

    Yellowstone National Park, America's first national park, was established in 1872. The park spans parts of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho. Grizzly bears, wolves, bison and elk live in the park. It is well known for Old Faithful and other geothermal features. (Mark Ralston / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Mount Rainier

    Glaciers. Rainforests. Hiking trails. Mount Rainier National Park, located in Washington state, offers incredible scenery and a diverse ecology. The park aims to be carbon neutral by 2016. (National Park Service) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Hawaii Volcanoes

    Two of the world's most active volcanoes can be found within Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. In 1980, the national park was designated an International Biosphere Reserve; in 1987, it was added as a World Heritage Site. (David Jordan / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Everglades

    Everglades National Park covers the nation's largest subtropical wilderness. It is also a World Heritage Site, an International Biosphere Reserve and a Wetland of International Importance. Visitors to the park can camp, boat, hike and find many other ways to enjoy the outdoors. (Joe Raedle / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Glacier

    A view from atop the Grinnell Glacier Overlook trail in Glacier National Park. With more than 700 miles of trails the park is known for its glaciers, forests, alpine meadows and beautiful lakes. (Matt McKnight / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Bryce Canyon

    Located in southwestern Utah, Bryce Canyon National Park is known for its distinctive geological structures called "hoodoos." (Mark Ralston / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Crater Lake

    The brilliant blue Crater Lake, located in southern Oregon, was formed when Mount Mazama, standing at 12,000 feet, collapsed 7,700 years ago after a massive eruption. Crater Lake is one of the world's deepest lakes at 1,943 feet. (David Gotisha / msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Olympic

    Washington state's Olympic National Park offers visitors beaches on the Pacific Ocean, glacier-capped mountain peaks and everything in between. Keep the weather in mind when visiting, though, as roads and facilities can be affected by wind, rain and snow any time of year. (National Park Service) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Sequoia and Kings Canyon

    A woman stands among a grove of a Giant Sequoia trees in Sequoia National Park in Central California. The trees, which are native to California's Sierra Nevada Mountains, are the world's largest by volume, reaching heights of 275 feet and a ground level girth of 109 feet. The oldest known Giant Sequoia based on its ring count is 3,500 years old. (Mark Ralston / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Denali

    Alaska's Denali National Park spans 6 million acres and includes the 20,320-foot Mount McKinley, North America's tallest peak. Many park visitors try to catch a glimpse of the "big five" -- moose, caribou, Dall sheep, wolves and grizzly bear. (National Park Service) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Kenai Fjords National Park

    The National Park Service considers the 8.2-mile round-trip on Harding Icefield Trail in Alaska's Kenai Fjords National Park to be strenuous, saying hikers gain about 1,000 feet of elevation with each mile. (National Park Service via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Death Valley

    California's Death Valley encompasses more than 3.3 million acres of desert wilderness. In 1849, a group of gold rush pioneers entered the Valley, thinking it was a shortcut to California. After barely surviving the trek across the area, they named the spot "Death Valley." In the 1880s, native peoples were pushed out by mining companies who sought the riches of gold, silver, and borax. (Gabriel Bouys / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. Wind Cave

    Bison graze in Wind Cave National Park in the southern Black Hills of South Dakota. Millions of bison were slaughtered by white hunters who pushed them to near-extinction by the late 1800s. Recovery programs have brought the bison numbers up to nearly 250,000. (David McNew / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. Canyonlands

    The Lower Basins Zone is outlined by the white rim edge as seen from the White Rim Trail in Canyonlands National Park, Utah. (Doug Pensinger / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. Shenandoah

    Fall colors blanket the Shenandoah National Park, drawing tourists to Skyline Drive to view the scenery. (Karen Bleier / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  1. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  2. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  3. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  4. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

Discuss:

Discussion comments

,

Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments