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Grand Canyon Is Whole New World : A calm rafting trip and guided walks prove surprisingly amusing to children. So does an old-fashioned water fight.

August 08, 1993|EILEEN OGINTZ

GRAND CANYON NATIONAL PARK, Ariz. — "Look at the big lips!" "A mummy face." "There's a raven." "Butterfly!" "Did you see the globe up there?"

We were floating down a 16-mile, calm stretch of the Colorado River from Glen Canyon Dam to Lee's Ferry in a big rubber raft along with a dozen other rafters, staring up 800 feet, dwarfed by the imposing walls of the Grand Canyon. Everywhere they looked, the kids could find shapes in the rock.

Prior to the trip, I had worried that 9-year-old Matt, 7-year-old Reggie and my 5-year-old nephew, Michael, would be bored by this all-day trip, which would separate them from Nintendo and TV. Nor were there any rapids to provide thrills. (These kids were too young for a white-water trip.)

But once we got on the river--following a two-hour bus ride from our hotel on the South Rim of the Canyon--I didn't once hear "Is it over yet?"

Away from the distractions of home and work, there was nothing to do but relax and enjoy the spectacular scenery . . . and each other. We felt like we were in another world.

The raft trip proved a wonderful introduction to the Grand Canyon for all of us--from Michael to my 60-something mother, who enjoyed the trip immensely while acknowledging she never would have taken it on her own.

Along the way, our Wilderness River Adventures guide Vern Holmes entertained us with tales of the canyon and the 1869 expedition of John Wesley Powell, the one-armed explorer who led the first expedition down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon by boat.

At lunch, we anchored the raft along the river's edge and hiked up a sandy trail to see petroglyphs carved in the canyon wall more than 800 years ago by the Anasazi Indians, who were the canyon's first settlers. "This was like a chalkboard for them," Holmes explained, as we looked at the drawing of a stick-figure man, antelope and bighorn sheep.

Then, as the adults lingered over a picnic of turkey, pastrami and cheese sandwiches, cookies and iced tea, the kids took turns jumping and pushing each other off the rafts into the icy Colorado River, following the guides' lead.

"The water fights are the best," declared 8-year-old Peter Panagos, who was from Miami. "I've never been anywhere like this. It's just really cool," added his 9-year-old sister Nicole.

The raft trip ($50 for each of the kids, $75 for adults; arranged through Grand Canyon National Park Lodges, tel. 602-638-2631) gave us a much better feel for the place than if we had just stood on the rim and taken in the vistas.

"Too many people come and look at a point and then leave," lamented ranger Ralph Jones the next morning, after he'd finished leading us and about 20 other families on a children's Grand Canyon walk devoted to wildlife. "Spend a couple of days and relax a little," he urged.

We opted to do just that, staying in the park at Maswik Lodge, one of six comfortable inns operated by Grand Canyon National Park Lodges. (For hikers, there's also the rustic Phantom Ranch at the bottom of the inner gorge. But it can only be reached by foot or mule.)

Remember to book as early as possible: The lodges fill months in advance. At Mather Campground, reservations may be made up to eight weeks in advance (call MISTIX at 800-365-2267).

There are other options. Rangers note that hotels just a few miles outside the park typically have at least a few vacancies every day. (For information about hotels outside the park, rafting outfitters, helicopter tours and other services, contact the Grand Canyon Chamber of Commerce, P.O. Box 3007, Grand Canyon, Ariz. 86023; tel. 602-638-2901).

A Grand Canyon Trip Planner from Grand Canyon National Park is also a great help. Request one from the park by writing Grand Canyon National Park, P.O. Box 129, Grand Canyon, Ariz. 86023. And ask at your local bookstore for the children's activity book, "Let's Discover the Grand Canyon" (The Mountaineers, $3.95).

When you arrive, stop at the Visitor Center and pick up a copy of the Grand Canyon's Young Adventurer newspaper. It's full of facts, puzzles and tips on becoming a "rock detective." Check out the programs for families. Choose from hikes or ranger programs--they're all free--on everything from wildlife to geology to fossils, campfires complete with roasting marshmallows, visits to a remote Indian reservation or the chance to become a junior ranger and get a patch. Just outside the park, there is a terrific IMAX film presentation about the history of the canyon's exploration.

There was far more to do than we had time for. One morning, we followed ranger Jones into the woods for a scavenger hunt and one of the things we searched for was something that has no value in nature. (Trash.) We also looked for two different types of birds, a crawling insect and something a squirrel eats for lunch. (A nut.)

Later, Matt and I hiked about 1 1/2 miles down the steep Bright Angel Trail, which winds 12 miles into the canyon.

It was tough coming back up--especially for those who had gone further than we had. "But it was worth it," said 12-year-old Mark Knudson of Salt Lake City, who we found resting on the trail after having hiked seven miles up and down.

We thought so, too. Just as the raft trip gave us a sense of the scope of the canyon, the trail made us appreciate the canyon in a different way.

Taking the Kids invites reader questions and comments about family travel. Address them to: Taking the Kids, 2859 Central St., Box 119, Evanston, Ill. 60201.

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