Grand Canyon National Park: The Complete Guide

Grand Canyon

TripSavvy / Alisha McDarris

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Grand Canyon National Park

Address
Arizona, USA
Phone +1 928-638-7888

The crown jewel of the American Southwest and arguably one of the most spectacular natural wonders in the world, Grand Canyon National Park winds for 277 miles through northern Arizona. The canyon is a mile deep in most areas, formed over millions of years by the Colorado River, which runs at its base and separates the North Rim from the South Rim.

Even though the distance between rims is just 10 miles across in most areas, keep in mind there's no bridge connecting them and it's about a five-hour drive from one to the other. The vast majority of travelers visit just the South Rim of the canyon, which is closest to Phoenix and Interstate 40. The North Rim is only accessible by passing through southern Utah, and its remoteness means that it receives far fewer visitors.

Things to Do

Just visiting and standing in awe of the Grand Canyon is an experience in and of itself. Even with the crowds, take the time to explore the Visitor's Center and walk through Grand Canyon Village on the South Rim. The further you venture from the main tourist traps where everybody is looking, the fewer people there will be and the more solitude you'll get to take in the majesty of the canyon.

If you're looking to adventure at the Grand Canyon, there's everything from camping to hiking to biking and rafting. From helicopter tours to mule rides, there's no way you'll be bored visiting the Grand Canyon. However, when planning your activities, make sure to pick ones on the same side of the rim. The last thing you want to do is accidentally book a hiking trip on one side and rafting on the other.

You can rent bikes on the South Rim and venture up and down The Hermit Road. This 7-mile bike ride is closed to car traffic from March to November, making it one of the most scenic routes to bike in the world. Yaki Point Road is another popular bike ride, albeit a much longer one, clocking in at 42 miles.

Best Hikes & Trails

If hiking is your outdoor event of choice, there's nothing that compares to trekking in the Grand Canyon. There are hiking trails on the North Rim and South Rim, but keep in mind that if you want to hike down the canyon to the river, you'll need at least two days to hike down and back up. There are a couple of options for day hikes if you don't plan to spend the night, so make sure you know what you're getting into before you begin. If you are planning to camp in the park outside of a reserved campground, you'll need to apply for a backcountry permit.

  • Bright Angel Trail: This is the best trail for first-time visitors who want a day hike that's manageable and impressive. It's well-maintained and there are shaded rest stops along the way, making it ideal for summer days when temperatures get dangerously hot. The entire trail from the rim to the base is 9.5 miles one-way, but day hikers can turn around at any point or sleep in the campground at the bottom.
  • Thunder River Trail: This is the backpacking trip of legends and not for the faint of heart. A long journey with switchbacks down the canyon brings hikers to a small oasis of flowing waterfalls and lush green vegetation surrounded by desert. There are different trailheads to begin the hike, but the one-way journey is between 8 and 15 miles depending on where you start.
  • Rim Trail: Descending the canyon and hiking back up isn't for everyone, but the Rim Trail, which begins at the South Rim Visitor Center, has little elevation change. Hike along the rim for one of the easiest Grand Canyon adventures, stopping at the various viewpoints along the way to get a bird's eye view of the park.

River Rafting

To get a totally different perspective of the Grand Canyon, swap out your hiking poles for oars and start at the bottom. Rafting through the Grand Canyon is a dream excursion, varying from peaceful floating to rapid white waters. The rafting options available are as short as a half-day or as long as three weeks, but spending a few days boating down the river and camping along the way is the most popular option. You can either book a trip with a tour operator so you don't have to worry about the details, or apply for a permit to raft on your own.

Where to Camp

There are four campgrounds inside Grand Canyon National Park—three on the South Rim and one on the North Rim. All of them book up months in advance, so start looking early if you plan to camp out (reservations open up six months in advance for most campgrounds). Apart from Trailer Village, none of the campgrounds inside the park have RV hookups.

If you are planning to camp out in the backcountry, you'll need to apply for a backcountry permit before you begin.

  • Mather Campground: The only tent campground that is open all year, Mather is located on the South Rim in Grand Canyon Village. It's a busy area with over 300 campsites but conveniently located near the entrance.
  • Desert View Campground: Desert View is about 23 miles east of Grand Canyon Village on the South Rim. It's open seasonally and only has 50 campsites so it fills up quickly, but the serenity of Desert View makes it a favorite for campers seeking a quiet trip in nature.
  • Trailer Village: The only campground in the park with full hookups, Trailer Village is exclusively used for RV campers and has no sites for tent camping. It's located on the South Rim and also open year-round.
  • North Rim Campground: For campers who want to stay on the remote North Rim, the North Rim Campground is the only option inside the park.

To learn more about camping and nearby campgrounds, read about the best places to camp in the Grand Canyon.

Where to Stay Nearby

The only lodging option at the base of the canyon below the rim that isn't backcountry camping is the Phantom Ranch, which is accessible by hiking down, riding a mule, or rafting. The incomparable location means it's exceptionally popular, and you'll need to enter into a lottery to get a chance at staying in one of the cabins or dormitories.

Around the park, there are all kinds of lodging options from rustic cabins to resorts (just pay attention to which rim your choice is located on or you may end up being very far away). The nearest big city to the South Rim is Flagstaff, Arizona, which is often referred to as the Gateway to the Grand Canyon and serves as a base for many people visiting the national park.

  • El Tovar Hotel: The most elegant lodging option that's located within the park, this historic hotel has been housing guests since 1905. Staying at El Tovar feels like stepping back in time to frontier days, but make sure to book far in advance for a room at this high-demand hotel.
  • Little America Flagstaff: The large rooms with over 420 square feet of space at Little America are a great option for families or groups, set in the picturesque Ponderosa Pine Forest. By car, it's just an hour and a half to the South Rim entrance.
  • Grand Canyon Lodge: If you want to experience the Grand Canyon away from the busiest crowds, head to the North Rim instead. The Grand Canyon Lodge is located next to the North Rim visitor center for easy access, but it's only open seasonally (usually from mid-May to mid-October).

For more information on where to stay, check out the best hotels near the Grand Canyon.

How to Get There

If you’re visiting the North Rim, flying into Las Vegas and driving from there is your best bet. Renting a car from McCarran International Airport is easy to do, but it is an additional four and a half-hour drive to get to the Grand Canyon. Flying in early, tackling that drive, then resting at your hotel before venturing out to explore is recommended.

If you’re visiting the South Rim, flying into Phoenix or Flagstaff are the best options. Flagstaff is closest but it's a small airport, so there's only a handful of flights that fly in and out of there. Most visitors fly into Phoenix International Airport and begin the journey from there. However, the drive from Phoenix to the Grand Canyon is about three and a half hours, so make sure to factor in that travel time into your plans.

Accessibility

All of the shuttle buses in the park are wheelchair accessible for moving around the rim, but the trails descending the canyon are steep, rocky, and narrow. Many of the buildings located in the park are historical and also not accessible for visitors with mobility challenges. However, there is a Scenic Drive Accessibility Permit that allows visitors with disabilities to access park roads that are usually off-limits to tourists.

Visitors with permanent disabilities can also apply for an Access Pass that provides free lifetime admission into over 2,000 recreation areas across the U.S., including all of the national parks.

Tips for Your Visit

  • Enjoy free entry on certain days of the year such as Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Veterans Day, and National Park Week in April.
  • Apart from exploring the rim or the visitor center, most activities inside the canyon require having a permit. Make sure you have permission to do what you want before you arrive.
  • Summer months are typically the busiest at the park, but summer temperatures in Arizona are frequently in the triple digits. Be prepared for crowds and intense heat and don't forget to pack lots of water.
  • Avoid the crowds by visiting during the winter, when the desert landscape is covered in snow and makes for an especially picturesque visit. However, only the South Rim is open during the winter months.
  • The monsoon season occurs from July to September, bringing daily thunderstorms that start in the afternoon. Even if the day seems clear when you set out in the morning, pack a rain jacket.
  • Try and stay for the sunset, which is stupendous to see against the rusty colors of the canyon. Hermit's Rest on the South Rim is a particularly scenic spot for views at dusk.
  • The Grand Canyon Skywalk is a man-made walkway that hangs over the canyon edge that you may have seen pictures of. However, you won't find the Skywalk inside the national park. It's in an area called Grand Canyon West on the Hualapai Indian Reservation, and it's closer to Las Vegas than it is to the North Rim or South Rim.
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Grand Canyon National Park: A Complete Guide