The Grand Canyon National Park is 277 miles long and borders the Colorado River from just outside of Page, Arizona, in the far north Central Arizona to Lake Mead in the far northwest Arizona, a short distance from Las Vegas. The Grand Canyon is completely located within Arizona and best visited from either Phoenix, AZ or Las Vegas, NV if you are flying to the area to begin your vacation. If driving cross country on I-40, take a short detour off the freeway on Hwy #64 to the South Rim. If driving cross country on I-15 in Utah, from Kanab, UT a short detour on Hwy #89 and Hwy 67 to the North Rim.
With this much territory to cover, you will want to pick and choose only areas of interest for you. I will help you to get the most fun and excitement with the time you have and your personal interests.
First ask yourself, how many days do I want to spend visiting the Canyon? One, two, three, four or more? If you only have one-day, then you need to decide if you are going to visit the North Rim or the South Rim.
The North Rim is only open from mid-May to mid-October. The North Rim is about 1,000 feet higher than the South Rim and gets quite a bit more snow. It is also more remote and a bit more difficult to get to so there are fewer visitors as well.
The South Rim is open year round, as a result gets a lot more visitors. June, July and August are the busiest times at the Canyon with most of the hotels filling up months in advance. Those who plan ahead can take advantage of their timeliness and get the premier hotel rooms and attractions. Occasionally last minute reservations can be had due to last minute cancellations, so do not despair if you have not planned ahead.
(For North Rim suggestions – please see my article on How to get the Most our of your Grand Canyon North Rim Visit)
Second are you driving to the Grand Canyon? If you are, then the South Rim is best done from either Phoenix or Las Vegas, or if you are on a cross country trip on I-40, you will want to exit off I-40 at exit 165, the Williams, AZ exit, and take Arizona Hwy #64 58 miles to the Grand Canyon. Just before you enter the Grand Canyon National Park you will enter a small community of Tusayan, AZ. This is the location of the Grand Canyon airport, IMAX theater, and five hotels, a few restaurants, gift shops and a small market. Just beyond Tusayan you will come to the Grand Canyon National Park entrance gate where you will pay your National Park admission charge of $25.00 per car.
Third if you are traveling on a budget, there is a shuttle that operates twice a day from Williams, AZ to the Grand Canyon National Park Village area. It departs at 8:30 am and again at 4:15 pm. The cost is $22.00 per person plus $6.00 Grand Canyon National Park admission. The return times are at 10:15 am and again at 6:15 p.m. Park you car in Williams, AZ at the Williams Grand Canyon Railroad Hotel and take this shuttle leaving the driving to a professional. You won’t have to try to find a place to park you car in the Grand Canyon Village area which is always a problem in the summer. The shuttle drops you at the Maswik Lodge in the Grand Canyon Village area. From there you can take a free shuttle operated by the National Park Service to all the hotels and viewpoints within the Village area. There’s also a free tram that takes you out along the West Rim scenic drive from the Village area to Hermits Rest. You may hop on and hop off this tram at many different viewpoints for great views.
Once you have arrived at the Grand Canyon Village area, you will first want to stop at Mather Point, one of the best views from this part of the Canyon. Canyon View Information Plaza is also located a short walk from Mather Point and a great source of information about the Canyon and surrounding area.
Next visit the historic El Tovar Hotel, located right on the rim of the Canyon. Take a walk through the lobby and see some of the most beautiful Navajo and Hopi Indian arts and crafts, as well as some great historic photos. The El Tovar dining room with floor to ceiling windows facing the Canyon, is known for some wonderful gourmet creations native to this area as well. Just to the east of the El Tovar is the Hopi House a replica of a Pueblo style house. A short walk west from the El Tovar, down the Canyon rim sidewalk you will see the Bright Angel Lodge and historic cabins. Next along the walk are the Lookout Studio and museum, then the Kolb Studio, once Emory and Ellsworth Kolb’s photo studio and home. A short walk further east you will come to the trailhead for the Bright Angel trail, one of the main Grand Canyon corridor trails from the rim to the Colorado River and Phantom Ranch.
This trail is 8.1 miles from the rim to the river and another 2 miles alongside the river and across a suspension bridge to Phantom Ranch. This trail should not be attempted unless you have plenty of water and are in good physical condition. A short walk down the trail to the first tunnel or to the first switchback is all that should be attempted without preparation for a longer hike. Remember the Canyon rim is at 6,870 feet above sea level and just walking a level path at this elevation is a bit taxing for most people.
Just west of the Bright Angel trailhead is the mule corral then the Hermits Rest (West Rim scenic drive) tram stop. Public automobiles are not allowed on this 7 mile stretch of scenic road. The road hugs along the rim and there are great views. Eight scenic overlooks are located along this road and the Park Service free tram operates from March thru November, no service December, January or February. During the winter, this road is open to the public for personal cars to drive to Hermits Rest. For serious hikers or runners, there’s a hiking path that travels along the rim from Hermits Rest to the Village area. You may wish to take the tram out to whichever viewpoint you want then hike or run back to the village. This is a great way to get your hike or run in with great views all along the route.
I highly recommend taking this scenic road – especially when the tram is operating – to get some of the best views of the Canyon. Hopi Point is my personal favorite with awesome views of the Colorado River snaking its way along the bottom of the Canyon. With a good set of binoculars, you are able to see river rafters running some of the many rapids on the river below.
If you visit and explore all of my above recommendations, it will take you a full day. To do everything I have recommended and spend more time at each location to explore and photograph, it will take you the better part of two days. The list of things to see and do I have listed above will give you a great overview of a lot of what there is to do at the Grand Canyon South Rim. Each person has their own special interests and to explore these special interests at the Canyon, I would have to take an inventory of your individual interests and design a special itinerary just for you. I have done this for people and they really are able to get the best of the Grand Canyon during their visit and feel they have their own personal guide with them as they travel.
I have not touched on some of the activities and attractions just outside the Grand Canyon South Rim located in Tusayan, AZ Time permitting, you will want to stop outside the National Park in Tusayan and take in the IMAX Theater’s presentation: The Grand Canyon Movie. This 34 minute larger than life screen movie explores mans beginnings with the Grand Canyon and the history of man and the Canyon up to present day. You will soar like a condor over the Canyon, ride the rapids in a raft, helicopter through the Canyon and explore with the early day explorers. This movie is shown every hour on the half hour and operated from mid morning until mid evening and well worth the price of admission.
Also located in Tusayan is the Grand Canyon Airport where you will find scenic air tours over the Canyon in either a helicopter of fixed wing aircraft. All of these companies do an excellent job in providing you a bird’s eye view of the main part of the Grand Canyon. During busy season – May thru October – these flights book up in advance, so you will want to do some advance reservations for the day you wish to travel. Early to mid morning is usually the best time as the winds are usually less and the flight is smoother.
Tusayan is also home to five hotels/motels and six restaurants. So you have more options for your food and overnight accommodations than those in the Grand Canyon Village.
Those of you interested in railroads, the Grand Canyon Train departs daily from Williams, AZ at between 9 and 10 a.m. and travels across the forests and high plains 68 miles to the Grand Canyon Village area. This train use to be part of the Santa Fe Railroad’s spur from its mainline Chicago to Los Angeles passenger service and was extremely busy during the railroading heydays. The Santa Fe discontinued service on this 68 mile spur from Williams to the Grand Canyon in 1968 when train travel gave way to the automobile. The railroad refused to die, however, and was reborn in 1989 when a local entrepreneur purchased the line from the Santa Fe Railroad and rebuilt this historic service. Today more than 200,000 people per year travel from Williams to the Grand Canyon to relive the railroad experience.
Here are some suggestions for people with limited time wanting to visit the Grand Canyon from either Phoenix, AZ or Las Vegas, NV. Both locations have scenic air flights departing daily.
From Phoenix Deer Valley Airport, in North Phoenix, Westwind Aviation has three levels of service – from a three hour flight to a 7 hour flight with a hike into the Canyon available.
From Las Vegas Scenic Airlines offers different scenic flights from Boulder City Airport to the Grand Canyon South Rim as well as to Grand Canyon West on the Hualapai Indian Reservation.
My personal recommendation for a visit to the Grand Canyon is to do an overnight at one of the Grand Canyon Lodges. This will give you more time to relax and enjoy either sunset or sunrise over the Canyon. This experience alone is worth spending the night. If you are a photography buff, you will want to do your photos during early morning and late afternoon into the evening. The colors are better and the shadows make for interesting and beautiful photos.
I also recommend allotting time for a hike into the Canyon if you are in good physical shape. Good hiking or running shoes, a walking stick, at least one liter of water, sunglasses, sunscreen, hat, camera and a healthy snack are also recommended. Either the Bright Angel Trail, or my favorite the South Kaibab Trail, will give you a good introduction to Canyon hiking.
If you take the South Kaibab Trail, you will want to hike 1 ½ miles to Cedar Ridge and stop at this location for a rest and a snack. There is also an outdoor toilet at this location. The South Kaibab is more exposed to great views up and down the Canyon and therefore a favorite of people wishing some great photos. The upper section of the South Kaibab has exposed trilobites if you look closely.
The Bright Angel Trail is more enclosed and you do not get the wide open views you get on the South Kaibab, however, the views are almost as spectacular. There is a location 1 ½ mile into the Canyon on this trail as well called “mile and ½ house. There is a small rock enclosure on the wall side of the trail where there is a water spigot. You may wish to refill your water bottle and get a refreshing drink before heading back up the trail. You will see more people on the Bright Angel Trail as well as mule trains going to the bottom or to Plateau Point.
I also recommend the IMAX Theater’s Grand Canyon presentation. It is an incredibly fine depiction of history of Grand Canyon and gives you a great feel of flying through the Canyon as well as river rafting the Canyon. You might want to do this in the evening after you have enjoyed sunset at the Canyon rim – either Hopi Point or Mather Point. After the IMAX, walk or drive across the street to We Cook Pizza for some very good pizza and some fun times.
A scenic flight over the Canyon is one way to cap off a perfect visit to the Grand Canyon South Rim. I personally enjoy the helicopters as the flight rules for helicopters allow them to fly a bit closer to the rim. As a result you are able to get a bit closer to Grand Canyon. I have also flown with Grand Canyon Airlines in a fixed wing turbo prop and enjoyed the views and commentary as well.
If you have three or four days available for a Grand Canyon visit, many more options are available to you. An example, you may wish to enjoy a smooth water Colorado River Float trip one of the days you have. Another idea would be to take a scenic helicopter flight from the Grand Canyon airport to the bottom of the Grand Canyon on the Havasupai Indian Reservation. You will land on the bottom of the Canyon and hike or horseback to Havasu Falls to enjoy this spectacular blue-green waterfall. A third idea would be to drive from the South Rim to the North Rim and spend one of your Canyon nights at the North Rim. A forth idea if you are in good physical condition, hike down to Plateau Point and return in one-day to the South Rim. Or you might wish to take a mule to Phantom Ranch and spend the night at the bottom of the Canyon before returning on mule back the next day. So many ideas abound with the more time you have.
I hope you enjoy your visit and are able to use my recommendations to maximize the pleasure of your stay. Please let me know how you enjoyed your visit and any recommendations you may have for me to include in my next article or blog.