The Grand Canyon is one of the seven natural wonders of the world and makes the top-five most visited national parks list year after year. It's so vast that the more remote North Rim is a five-hour drive from the South Rim, where most of the attractions are. How much you spend on a Grand Canyon vacation depends on when you go, where you stay, and what you want to do while you're there.
When to Visit
The South Rim, where nearly five million visitors a year view the "big ditch," is 6,800 feet above sea level. Its altitude can lead to snowy landscapes during the winter, which are pretty, but less than ideal for hiking. The North Rim is even higher and gets more snow per season. In addition to the campgrounds and service stations that close up shop during this time of year, even some of the roads are blocked due to snow.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, summer is the most crowded (and hottest) time to visit. The high demand for hotel rooms in the area send rates skyrocketing, so opt for spring or fall, when the price gouging ends and the weather is much more tolerable.
Options are limited for transportation to the Grand Canyon. The closest commercial airport is the Flagstaff Airport, which is still a 90-minute drive away. Some people rent a car from Flagstaff or from Las Vegas, which is four hours away.
There are also helicopter tours available from Las Vegas, which start around $250 per person. This is a great way to squeeze in a day trip to the Grand Canyon and get a bird's eye view. Otherwise, there are bus tours from Vegas and Flagstaff, but it might be wise to choose an overnight one so that you don't waste all day en route.
Where to Stay
Flagstaff and Kanab, Utah—80 miles from the North Rim—both provide a healthy selection of hotels for cheaper prices than the lodges on National Park property (if you don't mind making the drive). Williams, Arizona, is another good base from the west.
If you're keen on watching sunrises and sunsets at the canyon, then the on-location lodges might be worth the splurge. The South Rim has more of these than the North Rim, which is better known for camping (also a budget option, when the weather permits!). If you do choose a lodge in one of the villages, reservations may be required up to six months in advance.
Where to Eat
The village of Tusayan, just outside the entrance at the South Rim, provides the requisite fast-food franchises and casual dining opportunities. For about the same cost or less, though, you can purchase picnic items from the Canyon Village Market—one of the National Park Service's better supermarket offerings—right in the park.
At the North Rim, you can try the Grand Dining Room, where buffet-style meals and sweeping views are available at fairly reasonable prices.
What to Do
When you get food, accommodation, and transportation out of the way, there's plenty of free and cheap things to do. The Grand Canyon is an outdoorsy person's playground with stunning sunrises, sunsets, photo opportunities, and hiking. You don't have to spend a fortune on special activities.
- Hiking: The Grand Canyon is prime hiking territory, but take into account the heat. There's plenty of water sources at the top of the rim, but once you hike down in, there's nothing. You'll need a lot of water and sun cover, such as an umbrella. Popular hikes on the South Rim include the Rim Trail (which goes along the top) and Bright Angel Trail (which descends 6 miles into the canyon, but you can hike as much of it as you want).
- Photography: Photo opportunities abound as well. Take the free shuttle to all the photo spots along the rim and don't forget to catch a sunrise or sunset at Mather Point.
- Floating: A memorable and less expensive alternative to going on a tour is to book a float trip down the Colorado River. These half-day trips begin in Page, Arizona. They end 15 miles downriver at Lee's Ferry ($88 for adults, $78 for children).
- Skywalk: The Grand Canyon Skywalk is a splurge, but it's at the top of some people's must-do list. This is a unique opportunity to walk over the canyon on a platform of three-inch-thick glass that juts out 70 feet. Much of the revenue from the $80-per-person package goes to the local Hualapai Tribe.
More Tips for Visiting the Grand Canyon on a Budget
- Combine entry fees with other attractions. Admission here for a vehicle with up to four passengers is $30. If you plan to visit other national parks within the next year, consider buying an annual pass for $80. The pass has an added benefit of placing you in shorter passes-only entry lines.
- Stock up on gasoline before arrival. There is fuel available in the park, but it's much more expensive than it would be in Flagstaff or Las Vegas.
- If you're driving, bring your bike! There are paved bike paths all around the park, providing a fun afternoon of exploring. There are also rentals within the park, but you're much better off bringing your own.
- Bring your own reusable water bottle as a greener, cheaper alternative to buying water (which you'll be needing a lot of).