A Grand Pause: Recharging at the Grand Canyon During Our PCS

Written by Erin Warren

I was blessed to grow up with two sets of wonderful grandparents. My sister and I spent every summer break traveling across the country with our Grandmama and Granddaddy, taking in National Parks like Yellowstone, Yosemite, and the Badlands and gaping at the memorials of Crazy Horse and Mount Rushmore. Spring breaks were spent with Nana and Pop Pop in Arizona, loaded up in their wood-paneled station wagon exploring Petrified Forest or Saguaro National Park, or catching a Wild West shootout in Tombstone, where my grandfather was the Pharmacist. Of these beautiful, awe-inspiring places, my favorite was always Grand Canyon National Park. No matter how many times I saw it, covered in snow or wavy with heat, it could always take my breath away.

While trying to plan a final two months of family summer fun before yet another PCS, I realized that not only had my children never seen the Grand Canyon in real life, my husband hadn’t either.

I wasn’t about to let them miss out on that magic.


The Art of the PCS Roadtrip Stopover

It’s summertime once again, which means that more than 40,000 service members and their families are diving head-first into another stressful PCS season. Any PCS is memorable — the question is just whether those memories will be good or bad.

In our 13 years of military moves, we have chosen to road trip to our new home every time. When the Navy sent us to Hawaii last year, we elected to drive from our last duty station in south Mississippi all the way to the California coast — U-haul in tow — before shipping our car and boarding a flight to Pearl Harbor from there instead.

The key to a successful PCS road trip is stopping — a lot — and making sure those stops are exciting for everyone in the car, whether that’s a husband who’s been driving for 4 days or kids whose tablets ran out of batteries 2 hours after you left last night’s hotel.

If you’re lucky enough to be headed in the right direction, like we were, Grand Canyon National Park is definitely one of those stops.


The Grand Canyon is Truly for Everyone

If we are being honest with one another, I am only outdoorsy in an “Aperol Spritz on a patio with a pretty view” way. The closest thing I have to hiking boots is a pair of trail-rated On Cloud sneakers — that I absolutely bought because they have cute pink laces. I am not a hiker nor a camper, but I am an avid traveler with a great appreciation for the natural beauty of this country and the lengths we have gone to to preserve it for future generations of visitors.

So while you may never find me voluntarily pitching a tent below the rim or rafting the Colorado, there are plenty of other reasons why this decidedly indoorsy Mama couldn’t wait to return to Grand Canyon National Park after 20 years — this time with my family in tow.

Our list may look different from others you’ve seen, but here are some of this military family’s favorite ways to enjoy the sights in and around Grand Canyon National Park:

Military dad and daughter at the Grand Canyon

Kids’ Picks

  • The Junior Ranger Program: Our kids loved stopping at the Visitors Center to pick up their Junior Ranger booklets! Kids complete various activities on-site and attend a brief program with a Ranger before being “sworn in.” There are Junior Ranger programs at both the North and South Rim.
  • The Grand Canyon Railway: The Grand Canyon Railway predates the park itself and originates in the nearby town of Williams, Arizona. The ride is an all-day affair, leaving the station for the canyon depot at 9:30 am and not returning until 5:45 pm. There is plenty for kids to enjoy along the ride, with musical entertainment, train-robbing cowboys, and a passenger attendant stationed in each car to share fun facts all the way to the South Rim.
  • Bright Angel Fountain: No, not that kind of fountain. Bright Angel Fountain is a grab-and-go cafe near the Bright Angel Trailhead in Grand Canyon Village, on the South Rim. The draw here? ICE CREAM!
  • Skywalk: Skywalk is not for me — and it’s not for you either, if you’re not a fan of heights. If you have a daredevil 9 year son like I do, however, Skywalk is definitely for them.

    Things to know about Skywalk:

    • Towering 4,000 feet above the canyon floor, the 10-foot wide horseshoe-shaped pedestrian bridge is made of clear cantilever glass and juts 70 feet out into the canyon itself.
    • Skywalk is located outside of Grand Canyon National Park, in Grand Canyon West. Grand Canyon West is about 4.5 hours from both the North and South Rim, and is operated by the Hualapai tribe.
    • As a sovereign Indian nation, the Hualapai people do not receive U.S. government funding and each visit to the attractions at Grand Canyon West helps to support their community.


This Mom’s Picks

  • Hopi House: I have loved Hopi House since I was a little girl visiting my grandparents in Arizona during Spring Breaks. Designed in 1905 by Mary E.J. Colter, this combo gift shop/artifact center was made to resemble traditional adobe pueblos once inhabited by the Hopi people. Now on the National Register of Historic Places, it continues to inspire tourists with both the building itself and the beautiful pieces it holds inside.
  • Shuttle Buses: I know, I know — but hear me out. If you’re visiting the park during PCS season, you’re going to love these free, air-conditioned rides almost as much as the canyon views themselves. The Hermit’s Rest/Red Route is an attraction in and of itself with an 80-minute ride that encompasses some of the most scenic points in the park. This gorgeous route is closed to all vehicles except shuttles and tour vehicles from May through November, so grab a shuttle when you can!
  • El Tovar Lounge: This is a more grown-up pick and one of my husband’s favorites. Located directly on the South Rim inside the beautifully historic El Tovar Hotel, the El Tovar Lounge is a cozy spot to enjoy a light lunch and an adult beverage (Make sure to check out the punny-but-delicious Grand Canyon Mules section of the drink menu!) with a side of breathtaking views. Although you have to be 21 to sit at the bar, all ages are welcome on the veranda and at the surrounding tables. If you happen to stop by the El Tovar later in the afternoon, there is even a Beer Garden service from 1 pm until dusk!


Taking a Breather in the Chaos

The sheer length of our PCS road trip route meant that we had to stop for the night elsewhere in Arizona before getting our canyon views. I was already stressed about not having as much time in the park as I’d planned to; my husband was stressed about the new hitch he’d had to install for the U-haul the morning we left Mississippi. Neither kid was especially pumped to — and I quote, “drive 5 extra hours to look at rocks” — as they were already missing their rooms and their friends, and were more focused on the night we’d be spending at a fancy hotel in Vegas as a distraction.

I promised them all that it would be worth it once we were looking over the rim and hoped I was right.

On Canyon Day, we got off to a late start when the hotel cafe ran out of coffee. Our GPS crept up even more when my husband got off at the wrong exit that didn’t have a turnaround for miles. Then, the movers chosen by the Navy called and warned us about a potential mix-up with our boxes. By the time we finally started to see signage for the park, it was almost lunchtime and the two kids in the back seat who’d refused breakfast before we left were starving and feral. Through the whining of my children and the look of defeat from my husband, I was doubting my decision big time when we finally pulled into a parking spot and climbed out into the dust.

I breathed. They breathed. It was warm and — despite the midday crowds — quiet. Peaceful, even — for maybe the first time since we’d been given orders to pack up and move. My husband visibly relaxed and looked around, excited again to take in this place that I’d described so well but hadn’t seen in so long. The kids were suddenly dying to “look at rocks,” only willing to stop at the Visitor Center long enough to grab the Junior Ranger booklets I’d promised them days before. When we finally reached the rim and that utterly impossible, beautiful view spread out in front of us for the first time, no one spoke. Finally, my daughter, 7, looked doubtful and said, “Wait. Are we sure that’s even real?’

We cracked up, for the first time in days. That Grand Canyon magic I remembered still worked.

Military daughter looking over the Grand Canyon

Pack Your Bags: You Could Be Headed to Yellowstone!

Military families, this is your chance to enter the Armed Services YMCA (ASYMCA)’s Heroes in the Great Outdoors Military Family Giveaway and experience your own National Park moment of zen. No one deserves a chance to take in all of the natural beauty and jaw-dropping sights offered by America’s National Parks more than her fighting forces — and ASYMCA and the National Park Service are here to help make it happen.

In honor of the sacrifices military families make every day, the Armed Services YMCA is partnering with the National Park Service to give a heroic military family the opportunity to experience one of America’s greatest wonders: Yellowstone National Park.

All active duty junior enlisted U.S. military families (E-6 and below) are invited to enter the Heroes in the Great Outdoors: Military Family Giveaway. Simply share why your family loves the great outdoors, along with a family photo. The family’s story that receives the most votes wins an all-expense paid trip to Yellowstone National Park.

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Did you know that as a military family, you can get lifetime passes to our national parks for FREE?  Visit the National Park Service to learn more and find the closest national park to you!