Walking up to the Grand Canyon’s edge that July day was as suspenseful as creeping downstairs on Christmas morning. Our group of nine children and their grandparents all obeyed the tour guide: “Walk looking down. And don’t look up till I say so.” But when the guide said “Now!” my husband, Dave, and I were more focused on Ben, our 12-year-old grandson, than on than the magnificent canyon suddenly spread out before us.
We were on a five-day Road Scholar tour for grandparents and grandchildren, which also included rafting on the Colorado River. We had heard raves from friends about similar Road Scholar “intergenerational” trips that provided a rare bonding and learning experience by cutting out the middlemen: the parents!
The trick for us had been finding a free week in Ben’s hectic summer sports schedule. I confess that my second or third thought upon hearing that he’d broken his arm skateboarding was that he might be sidelined from his competitive golf and soccer long enough to travel with us. And he was.
We chose the Grand Canyon trip from a list of more than 60 very reasonably-priced grandparent-grandchild possibilities, from Hawaii to Yellowstone, Chicago to Chincoteague. Road Scholar — the “lifelong learning” tour group formerly known as Elderhostel and mostly aimed at older adults — expands its intergenerational tour listings by 10 percent each year. “With the oldest boomers turning 69 this year, we expect big growth,” said a spokeswoman.
They accept kids age 8 and up for most trips, although a handful of tours will take those as young as 6, even to camp in the Adirondacks. There are physically active trips that focus on snorkeling or kayaking or even flight instruction, as well as some to Disney World or dedicated to topics of study, such as robotics and archaeology. For kids 10 and older, there even are a few foreign destinations, such as Switzerland for hiking.
The course description of five days in Arizona for kids age 9 to 12, including the rafting and the canyon, sold Ben, us and his parents. My husband and I hadn’t seen the Grand Canyon ourselves for more than 40 years, and, for Ben, it would be a real change from his Washington scene. Five days sounded perfect.
When we gathered on a Sunday afternoon at the base hotel, a modest La Quinta in Flagstaff, we met our fellow oldsters from across the country (two other couples, the rest single grandmothers) and discovered we were the only first-time Road Scholars. All the others had taken the same kids or their siblings to other destinations. Some, like us, were with grandchildren they are lucky enough to live close to, but for several, it was a rare chance to share time with a child they don’t often see.
The four full days of the program had a rhythm. Tuesday and Thursday had us on the road for quite a few hours and presented the greatest adventures. Monday and Wednesday were more restful — plenty of activities but little travel.
So Monday, we drove just a couple of miles to Northern Arizona University’s Challenge Course of 30-foot-high giant ladders and zip-lines. Amazingly, I didn’t detect any embarrassment among the kids when a few of us grandparents also scaled the heights. The goal was to have the grandchildren get acquainted and comfortable, and by that evening, after a group dinner, they all headed for the first of four nights in the hotel pool. Bonding accomplished!
Rafting on a calm section of the Colorado was Tuesday’s experience. After a van ride about three hours north to the enormous dam at Lake Powell, we boarded a large, permanently inflated raft and spent two hours in the thrall of a magnetic young lord of the river, Easy Johnson, who piloted with one hand and pointed out landmarks with the other, captivating the kids with his tales. And when Easy hushed us all for a few minutes to experience total silence in the shadow of towering orange cliffs, with the river to ourselves, it was, as the kids say, awesome. No, really: It was awesome.
A word about the special challenges with an intergenerational crowd. Our group — who was in line with Road Scholar’s average grandparent age range of 68 to 74 — brought with it a few of the health concerns predictable for that older set, and there were issues among the younger, too, like homesickness. Our group leader, Joanna Joseph, has seen it all in her 20-plus years doing these trips but was unfailingly enthusiastic. We kept that group dynamic that’s so important on any tour. And maybe, surprisingly, there was togetherness among all the kids and oldsters.
And what about the bonding across the generations? The chance to share challenging adventures with our grandson and watch him enjoying new friends was a moving experience. For all of us, it was mostly a week of light-touch discipline, with just an occasional admonition from one or two grandmothers maybe overdoing the in-loco-parentis thing. And when it came to getting the kids to put away their “devices,” the stickler was our guide, Joanna, more than the wicked grandparents.
The headline trip, on the refurbished 1950s cars of the Grand Canyon Railway, took us north from Williams, Ariz. (a short drive from our base in Flagstaff), to the canyon. It was our last full day, so the kids knew one another well, and while the girls rushed to sit together and the boys did the same, there was a lot of teasing back and forth. That moment at the canyon’s rim, when we all kept our eyes on the ground as we walked the last dozen yards to the edge, was followed by an hour’s hike part-way down the easily navigated Bright Angel trail, where Joanna pointed out all the geological layers we had studied the day before in a classroom presentation back at the hotel. (Kids and grandparents had each been assigned a different color of stratum to flatten in Play-Doh, which was layered and layered, marked with shells where fossils are found, and then sliced with a knife to demonstrate how the Colorado River had cut a mile deep through the basalt, sedimentary rock and granite millions of years ago.)
After three-plus hours, we scrambled back onto the Grand Canyon Railway. While the kids examined the woven leather bracelets they had snared at the Hopi House trading post at the rim, the grown-ups relaxed. That is, until the railway’s masked Cataract Creek Gang galloped up alongside the moving train and boarded our car, guns sort of blazing (a regular photo-op stunt).
But after all this talk of intergenerational sharing, there was a telling moment. A Cataract Creek Gangster, guitar in hand, struck up some Kingston Trio classics of the early ’60s. As all of us grandparents belted out that all-time great train song, “M.T.A.” — “Well did he ever return? No he never returned, and his fate is still unlearned” — the kids turned to their smartphones. A good time was had by all.
Nathan is a Washington-based television news journalist and freelance travel writer.
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In addition to the tour activities, in the limited free time:
1400 W. Mars Hill Rd.
Open Monday-Saturday 10 a.m.-10 p.m. and Sunday 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Reservations not needed. $12; ages 5-17 $6, younger free.
Walnut Canyon National Monument
Location: approximately 7.5 miles east of Flagstaff, off Exit 204 from Interstate 40.
A one-mile loop trail that descends 185 feet into the canyon, passing 25 cliff dwelling rooms constructed by the Sinagua, a pre-Columbian cultural group who lived in Walnut Canyon from about A.D. 1100 to 1250. Open daily from 8 a.m.-5 p.m
This Road Scholar Intergenerational Tour and many others are described at www.roadscholar.org. The name of this particular program is “Grand Canyon: River Rafting and a Historic Train Ride With Your Grandchild.” There currently are four departure dates in June and July.