I was fully prepared to dislike The Grand Canyon. Of course, I’m not talking about the canyon itself. I more expected to be disappointed with what humans had done with something natural. Wild. Immense. After seeing the crowds at Machu Picchu and Angkor Wat, I was skeptical that we’d be able to avoid the crowds at the Grand Canyon. Would there be any secret spots left? Anything off-the-beaten-path left to explore? How would the US choose to cash in on it’s second most visited National Park?
But I’ll come right out with it: my skepticism about the Grand Canyon was overplayed. It’s not the deepest, nor the longest, nor the widest canyon in the world. Yet I still came away believing that it IS the grandest. It’s the greatest masterpiece of the Colorado River, some 5 million years in the making.
Walls of worn sandstone, shale, and limestone create a gradient of colors that drop down from the canyon’s rim. 446 km (29 km across at its widest point) is a big area to get lost in. All it takes is a walk below the rim or a detour off the shuttle route to have the world’s grandest canyon [mostly] to yourself. Even in May on the very busy South Rim, moments of solitude are possible.
Interested in avoiding the crowds at the Grand Canyon? It’s well worth including on any Southwestern road trip and it more than holds its weight against Zion. Here’s a complete guide on how, including park highlights, hiking trails, transport information, and camping information that will give you the best experience at this would-be-tourist trap.
At a Glance
Grand Canyon National Park is a park in northwest Arizona, and is one of the most beloved parks in the USNP system; it gets more than 5 million visitors per year! The canyon is believed to be between 5–6 million years, though one recent study supposes it could be as old as 70 million years (how’s that for a range?).
Entrance to the Grand Canyon costs $35 per vehicle, $30 per motorcycle, or $20 per individual (by foot, bicycle, park shuttle bus, railway, raft), but if you’re planning to visit 3+ National Parks, you should consider buying the America the Beautiful National Parks Pass ($79) which includes access to all US National Parks and Federal Lands.
When to visit: The South Rim is open year-round and the quieter North Rim is accessible during the summer. Go during spring or fall to take advantage of low-season pricing and experience minimal crowding.
Plan ahead! Campsites and lodges at The Grand Canyon are bookable between 3-13 months in advance. Be sure to do your research well in advance to get the trip you want.
Reasons to Dig the Grand Canyon
The Grand Canyon doesn’t hold any superlatives, but it is damn pretty. With plenty of overlooks, hiking trails, and scenic drives, you can experience it from your car or a multi-day backpacking trip. Hell, you can even ride a horse! But as with most things, the more effort you put into it, the better the experience you’re going to have.
During high season, popular viewpoints like Mather Point are CROWDED. Here are a few places to go/things to do in the Grand Canyon where you’ll really enjoy some solitude.
The North Rim: The Grand Canyon’s South Rim is open year-round, but for a more rugged experience, it’s all about the North Rim. Driving from the South Rim to the North Rim takes 4+ hours (told you the canyon was big!) and the North Rim is only open mid-May to mid-October. This means that 90% of Grand Canyon visitors never even get there. From the North Rim, you still get classic canyon views but with more solitude than on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon.
Hikes into the Canyon: Another way to dodge the crowds at the Grand Canyon is to hike into it. In efforts to cut down on park traffic, the National Park Service has introduced four shuttle routes that drop you at all major points of interest along the South Rim. This has had a positive impact from an environmental standpoint, but it also means there are clusters of people disembarking the bus every 10 minutes. That said, most people never make it past the viewpoints. Go down a couple of miles on one of the hiking trails like the Bright Angel, South Kaibab, or Grandview where you’ll really see the daytrippers dissipate. You’ll get a completely new perspective and have a chance to see the parts of the park most people miss.
Desert View Drive: The Desert View Drive is a 25-mile road winding from the Grand Canyon Village to the East exit. While it’s not exactly a secret spot, you can pick your own playlist and make the experience whatever you want it to be. As you travel through the park, you’ll pass iconic viewpoints like Grandview Point, Navajo Point, and Desert View. It’s cool because the paved road snakes along the canyon rim, and yellow road signs and Southwestern scenery make for a totally iconic American road trip experience. Go early morning for the best lighting!
Hikes in the Grand Canyon
There are far fewer hiking trails in the Grand Canyon than you might expect, but the trails you can hike are pretty awesome. The trails below are probably the most known hikes in the Grand Canyon. There are people on these trails, but they are definitely the standouts and somehow they never feel overrun.
Heads up! The North Rim is closed to vehicles during the summer months. If you’re hiking outside of the summer season, be sure to plan a hiking trip that starts and finishes on the South Rim.
Bright Angel (19km)
The descent from Bright Angel Trailhead to Plateau Point is 9km. On your way in, the trail passes through tunnels and switchbacks, descending 1000m into the belly of the Grand Canyon. You come upon Indian Garden, something of a desert oasis, with trees growing abundantly amongst otherwise desolate conditions. It’s just another 2.4km from Indian Garden to Plateau Point, a flat grassy plateau that gives 360 views of the canyon walls. It’s too far to hike on to the Colorado River in a day, so unless you have a campsite at the bottom of the canyon, turn around here and hike out the way you came.
Just like it sounds, the Rim-to-Rim takes you all the way from one side of the canyon to the other. If you’ve managed to get backcountry permits (or are a complete badass to take on the trail run) the Rim-to-Rim is definitely the coolest hike in the Grand Canyon.
Most hikers prefer to hike the Rim-to-Rim trail from the North Rim to the South Rim, but it’s possible in reverse too. From the North, hike down along the North Kaibab Trail some 23km, dropping 1800m until you hit the bottom. You should camp at Bright Angel if you manage to get a spot, but there also are sites available at Cottonwood near the North Rim or Indian Garden on the South Rim (apply for a permit). A lucky few will win the lottery (it’s actually a lottery) to stay at the Phantom Ranch Lodge (apply for lodging). If you camped at Bright Angel, it’s a 15km climb up 1300m to exit the canyon on the South Rim.
An alternative route out is to cut northeast onto the 6.5km Tonto Trail. You’ll hike across Tonto Plateau before making the steep climb out on the less-crowded and completely scenic South Kaibab Trail.
Grandview Trail (9.6km)
The Grandview Trail is quite strenuous, but since its trailhead is away from the major viewpoints, it’s worth the extra effort. The Grandview Trail has a starting elevation of 2255m and loses 760m over 4.8km. The trail starts with switchbacks until you hit the shaded-and-scenic Coconino Saddle. From there, it’s another 3km to Horseshoe Mesa. Horseshoe Mesa is one of the least known campsites in the Grand Canyon and is a real hidden gem. If you can’t get a campsite for the night, simply cut back the way you came.
How to Get to the Grand Canyon
The closest airports to the Grand Canyon are Grand Canyon National Park Airport (GCN) and Flagstaff Pulliam Airport (FLG). You’ll find cheaper flights if you fly into Sky Harbor International Airport (PHX) in Phoenix or McCarran International Airport (LAS) in Las Vegas.
The best way to get into the park is by private vehicle, but there are some alternatives. Companies like Arizona Shuttle and Grand Canyon Shuttles offer direct shuttle service from the airports to the Grand Canyon. You can affordably travel from Las Vegas or Phoenix to Flagstaff on private bus companies like Flixbus or Greyhound. There’s also a rail service from Williams to the Grand Canyon that runs regularly, though it’s more of a tourist experience than a local train (tickets from $60). However you go, it’s about 1.5 hours drive from Flagstaff Grand Canyon South Rim.
Getting Around the Park
As with most of the US National Parks, it’s very difficult to explore the Grand Canyon without a car. There are some paid shuttles and tours that can take you into the park, but if you want freedom and flexibility, it’s much easier with a private vehicle. There are lots of companies that rent cars and campervans if you don’t own one!
While difficult, it’s not completely impossible to explore the Grand Canyon without a car. You can ride your bikes in most parts of the park. There are also free park shuttles on the South Rim of the park. The Grand Canyon Shuttles are the Village Route, The Kaibab Rim Route, the Hermit Road Route, and the Tusayan Route.
The Grand Canyon has some of the most sought after accommodations in the US. That said, there are lots of campgrounds and lodges in the park. If you plan your Grand Canyon trip ahead of time, you should have no trouble snagging something good.
Campsites in the Grand Canyon
Please Note: At the time of writing, most campsites in the Grand Canyon open for booking 6 months in advance. Backcountry permits opened for booking 5 months in advance. If you plan a backpacking trip in the Grand Canyon, your campsite reservation doubles as your permit.
Mather Campground | South Rim: Located in the Grand Canyon Village one mile from the Canyon rim, Mather Campground is a year-around campsite. It has 327 campsites each including space for three tents, a parking space, and standard facilities access. The sites are in a wooded area. They are comfortably private although close together. Stay on the outer loops for sites with more privacy. Sites from $6-$50 per night.
Desert View Campground | South Rim: The Desert View is a smaller campground on the Southeast side of the Grand Canyon. It’s open from mid-April and mid-October. There are 50 campgrounds and each site includes space for two tents, two cars, and access to flush toilets but no showers. Sites from $12.00 and advanced reservations aren’t possible. Show up before 12 pm for your best chance at getting a spot!
North Rim Campground | North Rim: Between mid-May and late October, you can camp out at the North Rim. The North Rim is considered to be the more rugged and secluded part of the Grand Canyon. Each site has space for three tents, two cars, and standard facilities access. This is your spot if you want to experience the more rugged side of the Grand Canyon. The North Rim is supposed to be awesome! If you’re looking for a more quiet experience during the peak summer season, this is your spot. Sites from $18-$25 per night.
Backcountry Campsites| North Rim & South Rim: Backcountry campsites include Bright Angel Campground, Indian Garden Campground, and Cottonwood Campground inside of the park, all of which require a backcountry permit. Permits are required for all backcountry campsites. Bookings open 6-months in advance and they fill up fast. For more information on backcountry campsites in the Grand Canyon, start planning your backcountry trip using the NPS Backcountry Hiking Brochure.
Want more on campsites? Check out Sleeping Around: A Guide to Campsites in the Grand Canyon
Lodges in the Grand Canyon
Phantom Ranch: On the North side of the Colorado River, Phantom Ranch Lodge is the hardest-to-get lodge in the US. Bookings are available in a lottery system and open 13 months in advance. It’s located in the base of the canyon and only accessible only by hikers. Enter the Phantom Ranch Lottery from $50.
Other Lodges: There are several lodges within Grand Canyon National Park including El Tovar Hotel, Bright Angel Lodge & Cabins, Kachina Lodge, Thunderbird Lodge, & Maswik Lodge. Many of the lodges sit directly on the rim of the canyon while others are more economical without the views. Explore Grand Canyon Lodges here.