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The Grand Canyon is one of the Earth’s greatest wonders and one of the crown jewels in America’s National Park System. Visiting the Grand Canyon should be part of any traveler’s bucket list. However, visiting the park does take some planning and preparation, especially if you plan on going during the peak tourist season, so Expedia.com asked me to share my insider tips to help you make it your best trip yet. All advice below is from my many visits over many years!
To get your vacation started, check out all of the Grand Canyon hotel options at Expedia.com.
Where Should You Go?
Deciding where you should go is the first thing you have to determine when planning a trip. To make the right decision, there is one important fact you need to know: You can’t cross the Grand Canyon by car. The Grand Canyon cuts an enormous swath through the State of Arizona. To traverse the few miles from the South Rim to the North Rim might take over 200 miles of driving.
That means you should plan your visit to the Grand Canyon to either one rim or the other, or anticipate a whole lot of driving.
Top Planning Tip: You’ll have to pay to enter the National Park, so if you’re visiting several in the area in one trip you’ll save a lot of money by purchasing the federal government’s America The Beautiful Pass before you leave.
Visiting the South Rim of the Grand Canyon
The South Rim is the most popular of the two sides of the Grand Canyon, getting 90% of the total visitors. It’s usually the warmer of the two sides and it is physically close to Phoenix, one of the two major airports near Grand Canyon National Park. The South Rim is warmer because it is at a lower elevation than the North Rim, which allows it to stay open year-round. As a result, there are more hotels and other guest services located near the South Rim of the canyon.
Visiting the North Rim of the Grand Canyon
The North Rim is higher, colder, and closer to Las Vegas. It gets only 10% of the visitors to the park and it’s closed in the winter. Getting there will take you through or near several other great National Parks, including Zion and Bryce Canyon.
Visiting the West Rim of the Grand Canyon
There’s also an area known as the West Rim, which is technically on the south side of the Colorado River but is located west of the main park area. This part of the Grand Canyon is outside of the national park area and is owned by the Hualapai Indian Tribe. They own the Skywalk at Grand Canyon West, as well as the Hualapai Lodge.
When Should You Go?
Because the North Rim is closed in the winter, when you should to visit the Grand Canyon will likely be determined by which rim you plan to explore.
Grand Canyon National Park is one of the most popular national parks in the country and received over 6.25 million visitors in 2017. To avoid the largest crowds, avoid any time between Memorial Day (late May) and Labor Day (early September). Especially be wary of the dates around July 4, which is Independence Day in the United States and a peak travel holiday for families all across the nation.
Unlike other parks, the Grand Canyon isn’t seasonal. There are no trees turning colors or cascading waterfalls that attract visitors to the U.S.’ many other parks. With the possible exception of snow covering the canyon and the temperature fluctuations, there isn’t much difference between what you will see in October versus April.
What Should You Do at the Grand Canyon?
The main attraction of the Grand Canyon is simply seeing it in person. It is one of the most incredible sights in the world. That being said, if you are going to travel all the way to the Grand Canyon, you should probably take the opportunity to do more than gawk at it. There are several things you can plan to do inside and outside the park:
- Drive the Rim Roads. The rim roads extend along the Grand Canyon on both the North and South Rim. Along the roads, there are many stops where you can get out and view the canyon from another angle. You will find that in most places, you cannot see the actual river since the canyon itself is so deep. You will need to physically move in order to see the river and get other views of the canyon. If you don’t have a car, either rent one or join a jeep tour excursion.
- Photography. Almost everyone travels with a camera nowadays. There are many places along the rim roads where you can set up and get great photos. You should also plan to stop along the rim of the canyon for either sunrise or sunset since these times provide the best photo opportunities in the park.
- Hiking. The Grand Canyon has trails you can walk all the way down to the bottom of the canyon. If you’re extremely fit, it’s possible to walk rim-to-rim in a single day (this would be walking down from one rim, cross the river, and walk up the other rim). It should be noted that preparation and precautions should be taken if you hike in the canyon. Bring plenty of water—people can and have died in the canyon due to dehydration and exposure. Professional athletes have died, so the canyon shouldn’t be taken for granted by anyone, and you’re best bet is to join a Guided Rim-to-Rim Hike with an experienced guide who knows the routes, knows how to prepare, and will have all the safety precautions in place.
- Helicopter Flights. Some services offer aerial tours over the Grand Canyon. You can even take flights from Las Vegas, which will fly you there and back and even land at the bottom of the canyon! These flights are not cheap, and you might have to reserve ahead of time, especially if you plan to visit during the peak season. I recommend either this 45-minute flight from Tusayan if you’ll visit the park yourself, or this full day trip from Las Vegas.
- Rafting. This is something you usually start and finish outside of the park, but rafting down the Colorado River is a popular activity. You must reserve your rafting trip months, or even a full year, in advance since spots sell out quickly, and there are only so many outfitters who are licensed to offer rafting through the park.
- Skyway. Located outside the park on the Hualapai Indian Reservation, the Skyway is a giant cantilevered U with a glass bottom which is suspended over the canyon on the West Rim. You can walk out and look straight down into the canyon while you are suspended over it. Note: Cameras are not allowed on the Skyway.
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Where Should You Stay?
Camping is a popular option for all National Parks. The Grand Canyon has many campsites available for use, but they must be reserved in advance. Campsites during the peak season are usually claimed quickly, but there are also private campsites and RV parks located just outside the park boundary.
Within the park boundaries are several lodging options—these tend to be the most expensive lodging options for visiting the park. The park properties include:
- Phantom Ranch: This is the only lodging available below the rim of the canyon. You can only get here by foot, mule, or raft. Rooms here are allocated by lottery. If you win a lottery, you might have to adjust your schedule to the date you are allocated your rooms.
- El Tovar Hotel: One of the great National Park lodges. Room go from $200-500 per night and it offers a classic park experience.
- Grand Canyon Lodge: This is the only lodging inside the park on the North Rim. It is a collection of cabins which can sleep three to four people.
- Bright Angel Lodge: Located in Grand Canyon Village near the El Tovar Hotel, this has a more rustic feel and a great view of the rim.
The most affordable accommodations are outside the park boundary, so you should plan to stay there if you’re on a budget, if you’re booking last-minute, or if you want a few more dining options near your hotel. There is a large collection of great hotels in the town of Tusayan, which is right outside of the park on the South Rim. Expect vacancies to be at their lowest, and room rates to be at their highest, during the peak season. A few affordable ones we love include:
- Little America Hotel Flagstaff
- Affordable Retreat Sleeps 2 near Grand Canyon near Tusayan
- Grand Canyon RV Glamping near Williams
If you are willing to drive farther, you can find more rooms at cheaper rates, however, driving back and forth cuts down on your time inside the park.
If able, a trip to Grand Canyon National Park is one everyone should make at least once. It’s one of the most awe-inspiring and impressive sites on Earth. With just a little bit of planning, your trip can be enjoyable, satisfying, and offer you minimal headaches.