I went to the Grand Canyon as a kid, and I know I thought it was cool back then. What I didn't realize was just how much I'd appreciate seeing it as an adult. The sheer immensity of the canyon is beyond what I remember, and the way the colors change as the sunlight shifts throughout the day is absolutely stunning. I'm not sure I could pick a perfect time of day to go to the Grand Canyon because no matter what time you choose to go, it's incredible (though I hear that avoiding the middle part of the day is best when possible because the harsh sun tends to flatten the scenery).
Grand Canyon National Park, which became a national park in 1919, is the official name of the area encompassing the 1900 square mile canyon, and according to the National Park Services website, even though most of the canyon is only about 10 miles (16km) wide, it takes 5 hours to drive the 215 miles (346 km) from the Grand Canyon Village on the south rim to the North Rim Village on the opposite side.
So what's the difference between the two rims? Here's a breakdown of these two spots along the canyon rim.
- As it is the most accessible, it is the most visited side of the Grand Canyon. It has approximately 5 million visitors per year.
- It provides the most amenities: ample parking, shuttle services, a few lodging options, etc.
- Shuttles start before dawn and finish their routes just after sunset, and they conveniently run every 15 minutes or so.
- There are many overlooks and paved walkways along the rim to explore.
- The driving distance from Las Vegas is about 4 hours.
- The canyon rim on this side has an average height of 8,000ft (1,000 ft higher than South Rim).
- It has a short season due to weather conditions. It is only open May 15 through October 15.
- It is visited by only 10% of Grand Canyon visitors.
- There is only one lodge and one campground available.
- It is harder to get to, wilder, and more secluded.
- The driving distance from Las Vegas is about 4 hours.
We visited the South Rim - which as I previously mentioned, is where most people go. We didn't have the option to visit the North Rim during March because it wasn't open yet, and we simply wanted to spend some time hiking along the rim, taking pictures, and enjoying the view. We weren't as concerned about getting to the most secluded places (though we don't particularly like having people in our photos). Even though we were on the busiest side of the canyon, it was still incredible. We weren't there at what would be considered high tourist season, but there were still people around. Despite this, it seems like everyone is in an equal state of awe, so people seem to be respectfully quiet as they gaze out at the amazing sites.
What we did:
When you go to the Grand Canyon, you probably aren't going there to sit in your hotel room. You're visiting this place because you want to see the canyon. So, that's what we did. We spent 2 nights there so we would have at least one full day to explore all that we could.
Coming from Page, Arizona, we were able to see much of the east rim of the canyon on the day we arrived. It is worth stopping on that side of the canyon when you first enter the park because it's a beautiful first look at the canyon (especially with the watchtower), but I have to say that once you've seen the rest of the canyon, it just isn't as impressive.
Though this is beautiful, in my opinion, if this is the only part you see, you're missing out! You must take the time to go further into the national park because the further you drive in, the better the views become. We stopped at most of the outlook points leading up to Grand Canyon Village, and they just kept getting better and better. We ended up Moran point to watch the sun set, which we've heard is one of the perfect spots to watch the sun set. It did not disappoint.
Though we had a rental car, on our full day in the park, it was much easier to use the shuttles to get from place to place. We went to a few spots on the orange shuttle's route to see the canyon from different outlooks. I think we stopped along every outlook on the south rim side of the canyon, and each place had a slightly different, breathtaking view. For some of the closer stops, we'd get off the shuttle, take photos, and then walk to the next outlook along the trail.
We also hiked about a mile down the South Kaibab Trail into the canyon to a really nice overlook. We didn't come prepared to do serious hiking into the canyon, so after about a mile in, we hiked out. It took us a couple of hours to do this, but this was one of my favorite parts of the trip. It helps to put into perspective just how massive this canyon is. You walk for a good 45 minutes, and you're only a tiny portion of the way down into the canyon! I highly recommend taking at least a couple of hours to hike down into the canyon. As a side note, if you're planning to do any extensive hiking or camping in the canyon, there is a lot of information out there about how to be prepared to do so. It's not something you should take lightly.
Later in the afternoon, we took the red shuttle line out to Hermits Rest, the final stop on the South Rim, stopping at the lookout points along the way. This location has a little shop which sells souvenirs, drinks, and snacks, but beware, it closes pretty early (at least in March) so don't count on it being a place to have dinner!
Where We Stayed:
We opted to fork out the extra cash to stay in Grand Canyon Village. Because these hotels are actually in the national park and they are within walking distance of the shuttles that run daily, they are able to charge exorbitant amounts for their accommodations. We weighed the options of what we'd save by staying in a town nearby (like Williams or Flagstaff), and we just decided it was worth paying the extra money to maximize our time in the canyon since we were only assured one full day.
We stayed at Yavapai Lodge, and it was nicer than we expected - as it looked like they had renovated recently. This particular hotel is huge, but you wouldn't know that by the look of it. There is actually one central place to check in, and then all the rooms are off in other buildings spread out across their property (kind of like an apartment complex). On the premises, there is a cafeteria-style restaurant, a sit down tavern-type place, and a coffee shop open only in the mornings. There was also a gift shop and maybe a small general store across the parking lot. I feel that I should also point out that there are no fast food chains within the national park - with good reason. Who wants to be marveling at the beauty of the Grand Canyon only to turn around and see the golden arches of McDonald's? Yeah, not me.
This was definitely one of the more expensive places we stayed at on our trip out west (aside from the Venetian in Las Vegas). What added to the already expensive price per night was the fact that there wasn't free breakfast or wifi in the rooms. We had to go to the check-in area to get wifi, and it was spotty at best. I don't know about you, but when you pay that much for a hotel room, it just makes sense to have free wifi. But I guess we were also in the middle of nowhere at a national park. We were there for the experience, not the wifi.
- Because this is a national park, there are fees associated with your visit. A vehicle pass costs $25/car ($12 for individuals on bikes), and it is valid for up to 7 days.
- There is a visitors center close to the entrance of the park. Stop in a get some brochures and other information if you want.
- If you plan to hike into the canyon, please do your homework. It can be very dangerous if you're not prepared.
- We have gotten questions about the west rim and whether or not that's worth going to. I've never been, so I can't speak from experience. So, take this for what it's worth. It's definitely the closest point from Las Vegas, and there are many day trips which leave from Vegas that take you to the west rim (about a 2 hour drive). There's a skywalk bridge there which boasts great views of the canyon, but this area is also really built up for tourists. I suppose if it's the only chance you have to see the canyon, you should go for it, but I would suggest making an effort to get to the south rim!
- It can get quite chilly once the sun goes down (even in March), so be prepared! While watching the sun set one night, I was literally shaking - and I had good socks, long sleeves, and a jacket.
Your turn: have you ever been to the Grand Canyon? What was your opinion of it? What did I leave out?