Grand Canyon National Park: A Travel Guide

Grand Canyon

TripSavvy / Alisha McDarris

Grand Canyon National Park is arguably one of the most visited and beautiful destinations in the world. Carved out of the mountains and valleys along a 277-mile stretch of land in Arizona, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a more expansive or impressive sight in the world. Celebrating more than 100 years as a National Park, you’ll find a little bit of everything when visiting. From peaks and plateaus to the Colorado River, which created this majestic space, visiting the Grand Canyon should be on everyone’s travel bucket list.

Let’s explore the best time to visit, how to get to the Grand Canyon, what to do, and more as you plan your next National Park getaway.

Best Time to Visit

If you’ve been to Arizona during the summertime, you know the temperatures can get into triple digits. August is typically the hottest month, too. Summer months are typically the busiest at the park; it’s tourist season after all. Spring and fall will see fewer visitors at the park, as more travelers wait until summer vacation with kids being out of school. If you can plan a trip, then do it. If not, plan well in advance to ensure you can book camping and RV spots or hotels. Airfare will go up during the summer travel season as well.

If there’s no way around a summer trip, consider visiting the North Rim vs. the South Rim. The North Rim gets fewer visitors than the South Rim and is typically much cooler than the other side of the Grand Canyon. However, the North Rim is closed November through April, so you only have a few months on shoulder seasons to plan your trip. While the Grand Canyon tries to say open elsewhere until the winter months, you’ll find the main park entrance closes beginning to mid-December most years, depending on snowfall and cold weather.

No matter what you plan to do when visiting the Grand Canyon, be prepared for permitting. You can’t just leap into most of the activities there. While you’ll be able to walk around the rims and leverage the Visitor’s Center, if you want to go hiking, backpacking, or even rafting, you’ll need to apply for permits to do so well in advance. Many of these permits are done by a lottery system to ensure it’s fair to all those who want to visit the Grand Canyon.

Getting There

Getting to the Grand Canyon depends on the rim you want to visit. There’s about a four a half-hour drive from one rim to the other, so plan accordingly if you want to see both sides while we recommend this trip as a prime example of why road tripping and RVing matter, the majority of visitors fly in and drive the rest of the way choosing to stay at hotels along the way.

Getting to the North Rim

If you’re visiting the North Rim, flying into Las Vegas 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.

Getting to the South Rim

If you’re visiting the South Rim, flying into Phoenix or Flagstaff are the best options. Flagstaff is a smaller airport, so there’s only a handful of flights that fly in and out of there. This will also be the more expensive option. You can fly into Phoenix, then either fly to Flagstaff and drive 90 minutes to the Grand Canyon from there. Otherwise, it’s about a three and a half-hour drive from Phoenix to the canyon itself. Like the North Rim, we recommend a day of travel and then hitting the canyon early the next day.

Read More: 8 Common Mistakes in Grand Canyon Travel

Where to Stay

Similar to how you’ll get to the Grand Canyon, where you stay will rely on what side of the canyon you’re visiting. There’s a variety of campgrounds and RV parks near the National Park, as well as within an hour’s drive in any direction. If you’re road tripping to Arizona, we recommend looking for alternatives to staying close to the park – they’ll be much more expensive, and you’ll need to book months out to ensure you get the dates you want.

There’s also the opportunity to enter the lottery each year to stay on the Grand Canyon floor at The Phantom Ranch. You have to apply 15 months before you plan to stay, and you aren’t guaranteed a spot. Bright Angel Campground across the way just requires a backcountry camping permit to stay if you’re looking for a unique trip to the park.

Read More: The 9 Best Grand Canyon Hotels of 2020

The Best 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 and quiet 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.

  • Biking: 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.
  • Hiking: If hiking is your outdoor event of choice, you’ll love trekking to the Grand Canon. Thunder River Trail is the backpacking hike trip of legends and not for the faint of heart. Most of the Grand Canyon hikes require some previous hiking experience. Many of these hikes take a few days, although there are a couple you can do within a day, such as the Bright Angel Trail. There are hikes on both rims, so if hiking is what you’d like to do, make sure to choose a basecamp closest to it to make recovery and prep easier.
  • Rafting: Rafting adventures via the Colorado River are either paddle or motorized in nature, depending on your preference. Although most would recommend doing it yourself, so the motors of the rafts don’t ruin the ambiance. Starting at some of the famous rapids like Crystal and Lava Falls, you’ll take the river at its own pace and enjoy the scenery around you. With permits, you can traverse the river and canyon yourself, or you can use one of the commercial companies running through the Grand Canyon to experience this adventure.

Where to Eat

While there’s plenty of places to eat on the drive to and from the Grand Canyon, you’re limited to concession-style places to indulge in. Xanterra, who runs most of the places you’ll eat there, sources more than 40% of ingredients from local and sustainable sources. If you visit El Tovar, try the prime rib hash, a local delicacy, and staple of the Grand Canyon. You’ll find local foods, baked goods brought in from Flagstaff, and more to munch on.

Tips for Visiting

Visiting the Grand Canyon is a – forgive us – grand undertaking. From budgeting to taking time off work and everything between, here are some tips for visiting the Grand Canyon to help make it easier:

  • Stay for sunset: Sunset at the Grand Canyon is life-changing. Hermit’s Rest is the perfect spot to perch and enjoy.
  • Go for the lesser-known: Visit less popular lookouts and spots to get better pictures and beat the crowds.
  • Beat the parking: Park away from the canyon and take a shuttle. You better arrive early or risk, not finding a spot and be stuck.
  • See it in IMAX: It’s impossible to see everything at the canyon in one trip or multiples ones actually. At the Visitor Center, watch Grand Canyon: The Hidden Secrets to see more of it by purchasing ahead of time and get a 20% discount.
  • Take a virtual visit: If you can't make it in person, the Grand Canyon has an incredible selection of virtual tours and experiences online.
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