Famed geologist and explorer John Wesley Powell called it "the most sublime spectacle on the earth." Most of the five million visitors who visit Grand Canyon National Park every year would probably be hard-pressed to beat that description, which captures the emotional impact of seeing this geological wonder for the first time. The Grand Canyon is one of the jewels of the National Park System, a World Heritage Site, and one of the Seven Wonders of the World--and a major tourist attraction that can get very crowded, especially in the summer. But don't let the threat of swarms of camera-armed tourists stop you from paying a visit to one of the most stunning and iconic landscapes of the American West.
The Grand Canyon is mainly accessible from the North Rim or South Rim. There is also an East Rim entrance to the park, a short drive from the South Rim, that begins just below Glen Canyon Dam. The South Rim is by far the most popular access point, with several overlooks, tourist facilities, and amenities situated on this side of the canyon. Mather Point, perhaps the most popular lookout in the park, offers panoramic views of the Canyon from the South Rim. The North Rim, which rises a thousand feet higher than the South Rim, is far more remote, perfect for those seeking to avoid the large crowds and enjoy the park in a more wild and secluded setting.
The Canyon itself is one mile deep, and the inner canyon offers numerous hiking trails, including the popular Bright Angel Trail, and mule rides down to the bottom. Down on the Canyon floor, visitors can stay at the historic and rustic Phantom Ranch (which is so popular, guests have been known to remain on the wait-list for years before securing a reservation), or take a river rafting trip down the mighty Colorado River.
THE SOUTH RIM
The South Rim of Grand Canyon National Park is approximately 90 miles northwest of Flagstaff and 60 miles north of Williams. This popular area of the park is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, and is subject to traffic congestion and parking problems, especially in the summer. The least crowded time to visit is November through February, but winter weather can cause roads to become snow-packed and icy, so drivers should take the appropriate precautions. Upon approaching Grand Canyon National Park, visitors will pass through Tusayan, a small commercial village of restaurants, motels, gas stations, tourist shops, and museums. If you purchase your park pass in advance, you can take an expedited shuttle bus from Tusayan into the park, and then connect to the park's interior shuttle bus system. Once inside the park, you'll find yourself in Grand Canyon Village, home to park headquarters, the South Rim Visitor's Center, shops, museums, restaurants, and several lodges. Large parking lots are located throughout the Grand Canyon Village area, as well as a free shuttle bus that takes visitors to some of the South Rim's most popular look-out points.
Many of the most popular campgrounds are on the South Rim, including Mather Campground, which is operated by the National Park Service and offers tent and RV camping. The campground is almost always at capacity during the high season, so be sure to make reservations in advance through the National Recreation Reservation Service if you plan to visit the park in spring or summer. Other popular South Rim camping spots include Trailer Village, which offers hook-ups for RVs, and the relatively new Desert View Campground, which operates on a first-come, first-served basis.
THE NORTH RIM
Far more secluded and less visited than the South Rim, the North Rim of Grand Canyon National Park affords spectacular views that are well worth the effort it takes to reach this somewhat remote area of the park. Most of the visitor services on the north side of the Canyon are gathered around the Grand Canyon Lodge, a fortress-like hotel famous for its specular terrace views. The lodge doubles as the North Rim visitor center, where you can book a mule ride or guided hike down the Canyon.
North Rim camping is restricted to established campgrounds. The largest campground on this side of the Canyon is the North Rim Campground, which is open from early summer to mid-autumn. The campground is operated by the National Park Service and reservations can be made in advance (recommended, especially if you're planning to visit in the summer) through the National Recreation Reservation Service. There are also several campgrounds operated by the U.S. Forest Service in the area, including DeMotte Campground and Jacob Lake Campground. One of the most challenging--and rewarding--spots to camp is an area known as Tuweep or Toroweap. Although the site is managed by the National Park Service, the grounds are more primitive in comparison to the park's other developed campgrounds, offering only a few picnic tables and composting toilets. But the spot is perfect to those who want to fall asleep right next to the rim.
Grand Canyon National Park