Top Ten Questions about Visiting the Grand Canyon

As one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World, the Grand Canyon can inspire some deep questions about your life, the universe and the age-old mysteries of existence (like 'why do wonders of the world always come in sevens?'). As a major tourist and travel destination, the canyon can also raise more mundane practical questions like ‘How do you get there?’, ‘Where’s the best place to stay?’ and ‘Do I need to bring a sweater?’

The purpose of this quick guide is to help answer those second questions so you can spend more time pondering the first ones.

NOTE: Unlike many canyon information websites, I am not associated with any tour company, hotel, travel agency or any other canyon-area business... these are just the personal opinions and experiences of a person who grew up near the canyon and still visits and hikes there frequently.

1. South Rim, North Rim, West Rim… What’s the difference?
2. How do I get there?
3. Where should I stay and eat?
4. What Time of Year is Best to Visit?
5. What is the weather like and what should I wear?
6. What should I see and do there?
7. Where should I go hiking?
8. What else is there to see in the Area?
9. What about train rides, mule rides, river trips and helicopter tours?
10. What and Where is the glass Skywalk?

1. South Rim, North Rim, West Rim… what’s the difference?
Quick Answer:
The canyon covers a large area, but the vast majority of visitors go to one of only a few developed locations. The South Rim is the major tourist destination with the most lodges and attractions. The remote North Rim is less developed and less crowded, but most facilities there are only open during the summer. The relatively new West Rim is a tourist attraction on an Indian Reservation far to the west of the National Park.

Ok, so even people that have never been there can probably guess that the canyon is big. But most people don't realize just how big. Along the route of the river, it is over 250 miles long and the area of land covered by the main canyon, numerous side-canyons and associated surrounding lands is larger than the entire state of New Jersey. Only about a third of the canyon system is administered by the National Park with the rest being covered by a variety of agencies, the largest being the Hualapai and Havasupai Indian reservations. Most of the Grand Canyon area is remote and undeveloped backcountry with the vast majority of visitors going to a small handful of widely separated developed areas - each of which offers very different facilities and experiences.

South Rim (Grand Canyon Village)
Grand Canyon Village on the South Rim in the National Park is the most popular, the most famous, the most developed and most visited part of the canyon. This is the ‘classic’ area often depicted in movies and postcards. Here you will find the historic El Tovar lodge and Hermit's Rest, the Bright Angel trail and the largest number of shops and attractions. This is the part of the canyon that is closest to a major interstate (I-40) and to a major airport (Phoenix). Grand Canyon Village is open year round and can be quite crowded during the peak summer tourist season.

North Rim
The North Rim of the National Park is the complete opposite of the South Rim. With only a single lodge and no major cities or highways nearby, it is the least developed and most peaceful part of the easily accessible sections of the canyon. It is about a five hour drive from the South Rim to the North. The North Rim lodge and facilities are only open from mid-May to mid-October.

Havasu Falls, Havasupai Reservation
Immediately to the west of the National Park is Havasu Canyon - one of the largest of the Grand Canyon's many side canyons. This is the location of the famous Havasu Falls (with its blue-green pools) and also of the small Supai Village, the center of the Havasupai Indian Reservation. The tribe issues permits for visitors to stay at either a campground near the falls or in a small lodge at the village. There are no roads into Havasu Canyon - access to the canyon and village is via hiking, mule or helicopter.

Grand Canyon West (West Rim), Hualapai Reservation
Grand Canyon West (sometimes called the ‘West Rim’) is the tourist facility on the Hualapai reservation just upstream from Lake Mead. Here the focus is on helicopter tours, motorized boat trips and the new SkyWalk glass platform (see the final question for details on this area). Grand Canyon West is the closest developed part of the canyon system to Las Vegas (about a 3 hour drive from the strip).

For more info:
Official Grand Canyon National Park Website
Official Havasupai Tribe Website
Grand Canyon West (Hualapai Tribe) Website

[Return to Top]

2. How Do I Get There?
Quick Answer:
Fly to either the Phoenix or Las Vegas airports, rent a car and drive (about 4-5 hours).

Grand Canyon Village on the South Rim is the most frequently visited part of the canyon and the easiest to reach for most travelers. The nearest major airport is Sky Harbor in Phoenix, Arizona. From there, it is about a 120 mile (2.5-3 hour) drive up I-17 to Flagstaff and then another 90 miles (1.5 hours) along highways 180 and 64 to the park. People traveling by road (from California or New Mexico), usually take I-40 to Flagstaff or Williams and then up to the canyon. Many people also visit from Las Vegas, which is about a 5 hour drive from the South Rim (take Highway 93 south to Kingman and from there take I-40 east to Williams).

The North Rim of the canyon is a bit more remote (and only open from mid-May to mid-October). The nearest major airport is Las Vegas and from there it is about a 5 hour drive (past Zion National Park) to the park entrance at the North Rim. Driving to the North Rim from Phoenix or the South Rim involves looping way around to the east to reach the nearest bridge at Lees Ferry (about a 5 hour drive from Flagstaff or the South Rim).

There are also small local airports at Flagstaff and at Grand Canyon Village itself, but these only offer limited (and expensive) regional flights. While you could fly into either Las Vegas or Phoenix and take a connecting commuter flight to the canyon, it would be very expensive and you would still need to get a car to see many of the area’s attractions. As a result, the best approach (for people traveling long distances) is to fly into Phoenix (or Las Vegas) and then rent a car and drive over to the canyon. Another option (for people with the time and inclination) is to take the train (see the section regarding the Grand Canyon Railroad).

The public areas of both the Havasu and Hualapai (Grand Canyon West) reservations are located a long drive from major highways. The trailhead to Havasu is at the end of a 68-mile drive along IR18 starting from Route 66 near Peach Springs. Grand Canyon West is about a two hour drive from Kingman, Arizona and requires traveling over a 15-mile stretch of dusty gravel road that can be difficult for low clearance vehicles or during bad weather (see the park and tribe websites in the section above for detailed directions to each location).

Yahoo Maps - Phoenix to South Rim
Grand Canyon Airlines
Scenic Airways

[Return to Top]

3. Where should I stay and eat?
Quick Answer:
If you are going all-out, stay at the historic El Tovar Lodge. If you are on a very tight budget, stay at Bright Angel Lodge (or at an economy hotel in nearby Flagstaff), otherwise Maswik Lodge is a good compromise of price and features. At the North Rim, the one park lodge is really your only option (but it’s a good one).

At the South Rim, there are six lodges inside the park itself and another half-dozen chain hotels just outside the park entrance in the little roadside tourist community of Tusayan. While all of them are decent, I personally prefer staying at the lodges inside the park due to the convenience. Most of the park lodges are near the rim and nothing beats being able to stroll from your room to the rim any time you want to drop off items or catch a quick sunset. Staying outside the park means having to spend 20 minutes in the car, hunt for a parking spot and wait in line at the gate each time you want go between your room and the canyon. Staying at the park means you will probably spend more time looking at the canyon and enjoying the outdoors - which is hopefully why you came here. Prices range from about $75 per room at the cheapest locations during the off-season to over $200 per room at the top lodges during the peak seasons. Eating is not cheap and people on a tight budget should consider stocking up on snacks and sandwich supplies in Flagstaff. The cheapest canyon meals are at Maswik and Yavapai cafeterias where a typical dinner with drink starts around $15.

El Tovar Lodge
Built on the rim in 1905, it is the oldest and grandest of the canyon lodges and one of the most famous park lodges in the entire National Park system. The big lobby with comfortable rustic furnishings is a classic. The historic rooms are smaller than most modern hotels, but comfortable and recently refurbished. Despite some claims to the contrary, most rooms do NOT face the canyon (the architect wanted people to experience the canyon outside, not from their room). El Tovar also features the fanciest and most expensive of the canyon dining options (reservations recommended). On the downside, people that are not particularly into historic places might be unimpressed with the rooms and there is very limited parking nearby.

El Tovar Lobby
Thunderbird and Kachina
These rather plain-looking side-by-side blocks of rooms are administered through the desk of the nearby Bright Angel Lodge. Among the parks newest lodges, they have the most modern rooms with large baths and many rooms having a small fridge. They are also the only lodges to have large numbers of rooms with clear views of the canyon (although since the canyon is below eye-level, you won't have much of a view unless you are standing right at the window looking down). Their biggest downside (aside from being almost as expensive as El Tovar) is the bland 'chain hotel' character and (as with all the rim-side lodges) limited parking.
Bright Angel Lodge
Built during the Great Depression as a cheaper alternative to El Tovar, Bright Angel has a historic and comfy feel and is often the center of activity at the South Rim (this is where you sign up for mule rides and get meal tickets for Phantom Ranch). There is a nice little display on Fred Harvey and the 'Harvey Girls' (the company that used to run the lodges for the railroad). Rooms are the cheapest, smallest and least fancy of the lodges and some have a shared bath. The Bright Angel dining room is often packed despite having (in my opinion) mediocre food and service. On the other hand, the Arizona Room Grill (located on the east side of the building with the entrance outside) is my personal favorite dining option at the South Rim with excellent BBQ ribs (among other dishes) and nice views of the canyon in a casual setting.

Bright Angel Lobby
Bright Angel Cabins
Just to the west of the Bright Angel Lodge - near the Bright Angel trailhead and the mule corral - are a collection of a dozen or so historic wooden cabins. Most are setup like a hotel room with a single bed and a small bathroom. They are quite comfortable, in a good location, and just plain fun to stay in. Parking is 'at large' in the unmarked open spaces around the cabins (which are also used by hikers). The cabins are administered through the Bright Angel Lodge lobby.
Maswik Lodge
Maswik is a sprawling complex of room blocks set a 10-minute walk back from the rim (near the Backcountry Ranger office). The rooms are generally large and comfortable, but not particularly fancy (on par with say a Motel 6). The central office building includes a decent cafeteria which is one of the cheaper eating options at the rim (and a good place for a quick breakfast before hiking). Unlike the other lodges near the rim, you can generally drive up and park right next to your room and this (combined with its wooded location away from the cliffs and crowds of the rim) make it an ideal location for families with kids. Maswik is an all-around good compromise of price, quality and location.
Yavapai Lodge
Yavapai Lodge is the twin of Maswik and identical to it in most regards except that it is located about a half-mile back from the rim near the Shrine of Ages auditorium and the Market Plaza. This can make it less convenient for quickly going between room and rim, but also makes it a bit more peaceful and away from the crowds.
Phantom Ranch (bottom of the Grand Canyon)
The famous Phantom Ranch is located near the Colorado River at the very bottom of the canyon and can only be reached by hiking or riding a mule train. Lodging options consist of a dozen small stone cabins and four dorms (two male, two female) where space is rented on a bed-by-bed basis. The canteen serves two group breakfasts and two group dinners each day and then acts as snack bar, saloon and recreation hall the rest of the time. The ranch is located along babbling Bright Angel Creek with groves of shady trees all around - it is one of my favorite places on the planet and staying here is an experience well worth the effort of reaching it. You MUST have reservations to stay at Phantom Ranch and reservations are often made over a year in advance. A cheaper (and often more available) option is to backpack down and camp in Bright Angel campground (a short walk from Phantom Ranch) which has several dozen spaces, drinking water and real restrooms. Backpacking also requires a permit, but these can be reserved four months in advance (and sometimes had at the last minute during the off seasons).

Canteen at Phantom Ranch
Tusayan Hotels (just outside park gates)
Tusayan is a small collection of cafes, gas stations and chain hotels spread along either side of AZ64 just before reachng the park gates. The only real tourist attraction here is the large IMAX theater which usually features canyon-related shows. Tusayan also offers about a half-dozen mostly unremarkable hotels that provide an alternative to the park lodges above (especially when the lodges are filled up). The most modest and usually cheapest of these is the Red Feather while the fanciest and most expensive is the Grand Hotel. If traffic is light, it takes about 15-20 minutes to drive from Tusayan to the main rim lodges (but lines at the gate and congestion around Mather Point could make it much longer during peak seasons).
Cameron Trading Post and Lodge
An interesting alternative for people entering the park from the less-used east entrance (coming from Page and Lake Powell along AZ89) is the historic Cameron Trading Post and Lodge near the Little Colorado River bridge. This is an actual trading post with a good selection of Native American rugs and jewelry in the back section (beyond the touristy stuff up front). The cafe is surprisingly good (excellent large Navajo tacos). The lodge has added a block of hotel rooms that are modern, comfortable and fairly affordable. From Cameron, it is about a 30 minute drive to the east gate of the park (near Desert View Watchtower) and another 45-60 minutes from there to Grand Canyon Village.

Old Cameron Trading Post
For more info:
South Rim Park Lodge Reservations (Xanterra)
Cameron Trading Post

At the North Rim, the single lodge offers a choice of either historic cabins (which are very cool) or a rather unremarkable block of newer standard hotel rooms. Your eating options are limited to a snack bar and the dining hall (which is a wonderful room with great canyon views and a decent menu). The main lodge building itself is a stone masterpiece from the 1930s with large rim-side patios which are great for canyon gazing (especially at sunrise and sunset). There are also a few rooms for rent at Jacob Lake Lodge (about an hour away) and a few small hotels in the Fredonia-Kanab area (about 2 hours away). Even if you are not staying there, be sure to stop by at the Jacob Lake Lodge Cafe and pick up some of the world’s best homemade cookies. The North Rim Lodge used to be ran by Xanterra (like the South Rim lodges), but in recent years the contract has been given to Forever Resorts.

For more info:
North Rim Lodge Reservations (Forever Lodging)

North Rim Lodge

Most visitors to Havasu Canyon camp out by the falls (requires permit), but there is also a small hotel in the village (make reservations well in advance). Further down-canyon on the Hualapai Indian Reservation at Grand Canyon West there are even fewer lodging options. Grand Canyon West has a few cabins located at Hualapai Ranch (away from the rim area), but your best options are either the tribal-ran lodge at Peach Springs or one of the many chain hotels in Kingman (either one is about a two hour drive from Grand Canyon West).

For more info:
Official Havasupai Tribe Website
Grand Canyon West (Hualapai Tribe) Website

[Return to Top]

4. What Time of Year is Best to Visit?
Quick Answer:
Spring and fall are the best all-around for hiking and visiting. Summer is better at the North Rim, winter is a great time for the South Rim if you are prepared for the cold.

There really is no specific BAD time to visit the canyon – but the time of year that you go may influence which part of the canyon you visit and what activities you do.

During summer (Memorial Day through Labor Day), the South Rim is a major tourist destination and thus there can often be long lines at the park entrance, packed overlooks and difficult parking. For this reason, I personally prefer the North Rim during summer – it is cooler, much less crowded and much more peaceful. While hiking around the upper canyon is nice during the summer, avoid inner hiking canyon during this time (temps at the bottom can reach over 110 degrees F).

During winter, the North Rim facilities are closed, but everything is open at the South Rim and it is a great time to visit (one of my favorite times of the year there). Crowds are minimal, lodging rates are low and the whole canyon is especially calm and beautiful under a blanket of fresh snow (just make sure you bring warm clothes).

Probably the overall best time of year (for a variety of activities) is mid spring (April to early May) and mid Fall (late September to early November). Temperatures are ideal for serious hiking and backpacking and you miss the heavy summer crowds.

For more info: See the next section for details on the Grand Canyon climate and seasons

[Return to Top]

5. What is the Weather Like and what clothes should I bring?
Quick Answer:
At 7,000 feet elevation the rims of the canyon are probably cooler than you think, but the bottom is warm year round and downright scorching in summer.

Many people picture all of Arizona as being hot desert and assume that the Grand Canyon will have a climate like Phoenix or Las Vegas. But northern Arizona is located on a high plain called the Colorado Plateau which has very mild summers and often cold winters. Both Flagstaff and the South Rim of the Grand Canyon are located at an elevation of 7000 feet (2300 meters) – that is almost half a mile higher than Denver, Colorado.

Summers at the South Rim tend to be warm and sometimes muggy, but temperatures rarely break 100 degrees F on even the hottest days (most highs are in the upper 80s or low 90s). Late summer (July and August) is monsoon season in northern Arizona and frequently sees brief rainstorms in the late afternoons. Winters at the South Rim typically have cold days and nights well below freezing. Periodic snow storms will also hit the canyon, but they tend to be brief (lasting only a day or two). If you are visiting in winter (December through early March) bring your winter clothes. Spring and fall are ideal times for hiking and some of the best times to visit the canyon, but be prepared for sudden changes (for warmer or cooler).

South Rim in Winter

The North Rim of the canyon is a thousand feet higher in elevation than the South (around 8,000 feet) and thus quite a bit cooler. The hottest day of the year on the North Rim rarely gets much above 90 degrees F and nights will be cool. Because the North Rim is less visited and gets much more snow than the South Rim, its facilities (lodge, store, ranger station) are closed from mid-October to mid-May. The climate at Grand Canyon West is comparable to that of the South Rim (perhaps a bit warmer).

Lastly, hikers should be aware that the inner canyon has an entirely different climate all its own. Because temperatures generally increase as you go lower in elevation, Phantom Ranch (at the bottom of the canyon) has a hot desert climate similar to Phoenix or Las Vegas. Temperatures along the river can often reach 115 degrees or higher in summer and winters are generally mild. I have sometimes left Phantom Ranch comfortably wearing a t-shirt and been in a snow storm by the time I reached the top. For this reason, it is best to avoid inner-canyon hiking during summer.

For more info:
Average Temperatures and Rainfall (National Park Website)
Current Grand Canyon weather (Weather Channel Website)

[Return to Top]

6. What Should I See and Do There?
Quick Answer:
Look at the canyon (duh!), check out the historic buildings, go for a walk or a hike and – most importantly – just sit for a while and take it all in.

Of course the main attraction is the canyon itself which you can view from different angles and perspectives from a dozen or more different overlooks along the South Rim. A good way to get your first intro to the canyon is to ride the free west rim shuttle that runs from the lodges out to Hermit’s Rest and back. You can hop on and off at different overlooks along the way and the drivers tell stories and point out features along the way. There are also a number of other overlooks to the east of the lodges (along the road to Cameron), but you must drive yourself to most of them. Try to be at the rim for sunrise or sunset – the contrast from the sharp lighting makes for some of the most dramatic views.

Views near Bright Angel Lodge

There is also a very nice rim-side walkway that runs from Hermits Rest past the lodges to Yavapai Point. I highly recommend taking a stroll along it – even on the busiest days you will find some quiet spots once you get away from the major overlooks. However, to really get a true canyon experience, I believe that you actually need to hike down into it a ways and feel the walls towering above you – be IN the canyon, not just looking at it. You don’t have to go very far down, but even a half-mile walk down one of the major trails will be a great experience and very different than just standing on the rim (see the section on hiking).
Aside from the natural scenery, the South Rim is also famous for its historic buildings which are an attraction in themselves. Chief among them is the grand 1905 El Tovar lodge with its fantastic lobby and big fireplace. Across from it is the 1905 Hopi House curio shop which was built to resemble an Indian pueblo. Lookout Studio is another great historic building near Bright Angel Lodge and the old Kolb Photo Studio (near the Bright Angel trailhead) often contains interesting art exhibits. Hermit’s Rest (to the west of the lodges) is built to resemble a hermit’s cave and the 1930 Desert View Watchtower (near the east entrance) was modeled on the prehistoric ruins of Mesa Verde. Many of the buildings were designed by famous architect Mary Jane Colter for Fred Harvey and the Santa Fe railroad.

Hopi House Curio Shop

For historical and natural displays and exhibits be sure and check out the excellent new geology exhibit at Yavapai overlook (geology is one of the key features of the canyon). There is a small archaeology museum and restored ruins at the Tusayan museum near Grandview Point (note this is different than the little town of Tusayan near the park entrance). Bright Angel Lodge has an exhibit on the early lodges at the park including Fred Harvey and his famous ‘Harvey Girls’. The Shrine of the Ages auditorium (near Yavapai Lodge) often has daily presentations or talks on a variety of subjects and there are also a number of smaller plaques and displays along the rim and at major overlooks. The large visitor center near Mather Point has a few displays, an information desk and a large (and excellent) bookstore.

At the North Rim, you are somewhat more limited in overlooks and attractions. The lodge itself is right on the edge with excellent views and Bright Angel point is short walk away. You can also drive a half-hour to Cape Royale which has some stunning views (especially at morning or sunset). Most of the other North Rim overlooks (such as the famous Point Sublime) require travel over rough dirt roads (and/or hiking). They frequently have ranger talks on the back patio of the lodge or in the auditorium. But over all, the North Rim is a great place to just relax and take it easy.

In fact, one of the most important things that you should be sure to do at the Grand Canyon is… nothing. Too many people try to rush their canyon experience, but for all of its size and grandeur some of the canyon’s best treasures are its most subtle ones: the slow change of daylight on a rim or butte, watching ravens play on the wind, just listening to a breeze running through the pines on the rim. The canyon is a great place to slow down, really relax and reset your clock to nature’s pace – it is one of the things that keeps bringing me back. So go to the overlooks, check out the buildings and attend the talks, but also find a quiet place along the rim or down a trail, sit down on a rock and read a book, listen to your iPod or just sit and ponder life while the canyon stretches out before you like the whole universe.

Bighorn Sheep on the Rim

[Return to Top]

7. Where should I go hiking and what should I bring?
Quick Answer:
On the South Rim, do the 1.4 miles down the South Kaibab trail to Cedar Ridge for sweeping canyon views and playing ravens. On the North Rim, try an easy stroll along a little side canyon to a pretty seep spring at Cliff Springs Canyon (near Cape Royale).

Detailed Answer:
Grand Canyon is prime hiking country and the famous rim-to-rim hike is considered one of the world’s classic hikes. You really do have to get into the canyon a bit to truly experience it – it is a very different, more personal, and ultimately more rewarding experience than just looking passively from the rim. You don’t have to go all the way to the bottom or very far down, but even a short mile or two on the main trails will be something to remember. Here are my favorite short Rim day hikes:

South Kaibab Trail to Cedar Ridge
This 1.4 mile hike (starts near Yaki Point) follows a ridge out into the middle of the canyon and provides you with sweeping views in all directions. At Cedar Ridge there is an outhouse, fossil ferns (under the wooden kiosk) and lots of big boulders to sit on it. It is also a good place to see ravens, condors and sometimes big horn sheep. The trail is steep in places, but relatively wide and well maintained. There is no drinking water along the trail or at the trailhead.

Bright Angel Trail to 1.5 Mile Resthouse
This easy 1.5 mile walk follows the first long switchbacks down the famous Bright Angel trail to the first resthouse (one of several stone ramadas built along the trail in the 1930s). The upper parts of the trail are in a wide basin off the main canyon which means the views are not as wide or sweeping as South Kiabab (but still spectacular). The upper parts of the trail has many shady sections which can be nice in summer, but icy in winter. Strong hikers could continue to the three mile resthouse (perched above the cliffs of the Redwall limestone) or go all the way to Indian Gardens (the tree-lined oasis visible on the Tonto Plateau below).

Hermit’s Rest to Dripping Springs
At 3.2 miles (one way), this is one of the tougher of the major South Rim day hikes. From Hermit’s Rest, you follow the steep Hermit Trail to the pleasant basin at the intersection with the older Waldron Trail. From here, you follow along the upper basin of Hermit Canyon to Dripping Springs – a large alcove in the cliff wall where a moss-covered seep springs drips water into a pretty little pool below. All of the hike is in Hermit Canyon (rather than the main canyon), but it is a major side canyon and the views are still pretty impressive.

South Kaibab Trail
(Inner Gorge)

On the North Rim, there are fewer easily-accessible hiking trails. You could go down the North Kaibab to Supai Tunnel (about 2 miles one way) starting from the trailhead along the road about a mile north of the canyon. A very easy and pleasant (and often overlooked hike) is the short 1 mile (round trip, little elevation change) in Cliff Springs trail which takes you into a little side canyon to a pretty seep spring. If you have a high clearance vehicle, you can also take the dirt roads out to Swamp Point (west of the lodges) and the North Bass trailhead and do the first 1.1 miles down to Muav Saddle where there is a spring and a historic cabin.

When hiking in the canyon, be sure to wear comfortable shoes, have a brimmed hat and carry lots of water in addition to a few snacks. Weather canyon change quickly at the canyon, so be prepared. Also keep in mind that it is a lot harder hiking up than it is hiking down – so allow enough time and energy accordingly. Be sure to go at your own pace and take time to rest and enjoy the views. On longer hikes, it is a good idea to periodically stop and prop up your feet for a few minutes - it helps reduce feet problems and muscle fatigue.

Do NOT try to go to the bottom and back in a single day – that is one of the leading causes of medical emergencies in the canyon. Going to the bottom is best done as a backpacking trip or by staying overnight at Phantom Ranch Lodge at the bottom (both of these options require reservations a long time in advance).

The hikes mentioned above are relatively easy day-hikes for new canyon hikers. However, the canyon offers far more hiking options for all levels of adventure and skill including multi-day expedition-level treks. A person could spend the better part of their life exploring the canyon on foot (and some have) and still not see everything.

Trail Break

For more info:
For serious hikers, I strongly recommend the book “Hiking Grand Canyon National Park” by Ron Adkison.
[Return to Top]

8. What about train rides, mule rides, river trips and helicopter tours?
Quick Answer:
Aside from hiking and walking around on your own, the South Rim (in particular) offers a variety of other tours and activities - most are fairly expensive and reservations should be made well in advance.

Detailed Answer:
While much of the canyon can be enjoyed for free on your own and at your own pace (which is the best way, in my opinion), there are also a number of other guided activities and attractions around the South Rim of the canyon – most of which require reservations and may be quite expensive.

One of the most famous and historic ‘rides’ at the canyon is to ride a mule train into the canyon. You can take either half-day tours down to Indian Gardens (a little oasis half-way down Bright Angel trail) or go all the way to the bottom for an overnight stay (requires reservations at Phantom Ranch). The mule trains typically have 8-12 riders led by an experienced ‘cowboy’ who also serves as guide. Mule rides are also available at the North Rim as well. I must admit that I have not actually done the mule ride yet myself. But judging by the faces of various riders I have seen along the trail, I gather that the experience of swaying atop a stubborn mule along sheer cliffs and narrow trails can run the gamut from joyful glee to stark raving terror (but in all fairness, they have never lost a single tourist in over a hundred years). Mule rides are coordinated by Xanterra (the same company that runs the lodges).

The canyon is also famous for its white water river rafting and features one of the world’s greatest collection of rapids. In fact, the canyon rapids have their own special rating scale (1-10) rather than the normal 1-6 standard. However, rafting through the canyon is no spur of the moment decision. Trips range from several days to two weeks and often require reservations a year in advance (and are not cheap). If you have the time and money, it is truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience and allows you to see parts of the canyon that few people see otherwise. One of the biggest decisions is whether to take a motorized or oar-powered trip. I personally prefer the smaller craft and quiet of the oar-powered rafts, but to each their own. Note that some groups (mostly out of Vegas) also offer shorter one day and half-day trips on the section of the river just up-stream from Lake Mead – these can be fun, but they will not be going through the famous main heart of the canyon and are not really the same experience as the full-length trips mentioned above.

Plane tours over the canyon date back to the 1920s (in fact, the Grand Canyon had one of the first ‘real’ airports in Arizona) and helicopter tours were added by the 1960s. Seeing the canyon from the air definitely gives you a better sense of its size and layout and can be a fun addition to your trip (if you have the money), but I would not recommend it as a substitute for experiencing the canyon first-hand on the ground. Note that for noise and safety reasons, aircraft are not allowed over the central part of the canyon near the lodges, so all air tours either stay back from the rim or go over the western parts of the canyon. Some of the Las Vegas air tours also offer things like landing a helicopter in the canyon for a campaign brunch – needless to say, these tours are not operating in the National Park, but rather in the somewhat less scenic ‘anything goes’ stretches to the west.

The area’s latest ‘ride’ is the Grand Canyon Railroad running from the town of Williams (along I-40) to the canyon. This was the original method that most tourists took to the canyon from the early 1900s until automobiles phased out train travel in the 1940s. The railroad has recently been resurrected as a tourist attraction and often has special offers throughout the year. You can either go up and back as a day trip or coordinate it with an overnight stay at the lodges (most of which are near the depot).

Links for more info:
Mule Rides
River Trip Companies (Grand Canyon River Outfitters Association)
Grand Canyon Railroad
Grand Canyon Airlines
Scenic Airways
Papillion Air Tours

[Return to Top]

9. What else is there to see and do in the area?
Quick Answer:
Both sides of the canyon have a wide-range of other attractions that should not be missed. Near the South Rim, Sunset Crater and Wupatki, the Petrified Forest and the various museums and shops in historic Flagstaff and Williams are within a couple hours drive. On the North Rim, the tiny town of Kanab makes a good base of operations for exploring Zion and Bryce National Parks.

Detailed Answer:
The Grand Canyon is only one of many natural and historical attractions in northern Arizona and you could happily spend several weeks exploring the others. The historic Route 66 railroad and lumber town of Flagstaff (90 miles south of the canyon) makes for a great base of operations. The historic downtown is now a nice walking district of shops and cafes, the Museum of Northern Arizona (north of town) is an excellent place for exhibits on geology and Native American culture and Lowell Observatory (overlooking downtown) has a nice visitor’s center and frequent night viewings with the telescopes. Also be sure to check out Riordan Mansion State Park (a lumber baron’s log mansion) and Walnut Canyon National Monument cliff-dwellings (just east of town). Flagstaff has lots of great places to eat including Beaver Street Brewery, Bun Hugger Burgers, Crystal Creek Sandwich Shop, Café Express and Macy’s Coffee Shop. Further afield, there is the Petrified Forest and Painted Desert (east of town) and Sunset Crater and Wupatki National Monuments (northeast of town). Williams (a small town to the west of Flagstaff) is another nice historic town and the starting point for the Grand Canyon Railway.

If you are visiting the North Rim, than you will also be within a few hours drive of Utah’s Zion National Park and Bryce Canyon National Park – both are excellent parks and well worth a visit. For the more adventurous, the Arizona-Utah border north of the canyon is home to numerous scenic slot canyons (including the famous Paria and Buckskin Canyons) and the famous rock formations of the Coyote Buttes area. A person could easily spend a full week exploring the various parks and monuments in this area (with Kanab, Utah being a nice central base of operations).

Downtown Flagstaff
For more info:
Flagstaff Area Parks and Monuments
Museum of Northern Arizona (Flagstaff)
Lowell Observatory (Flagstaff)
Riordan Mansion (Flagstaff)
Zion National Park (Utah)
Bryce Canyon National Park (Utah)

[Return to Top]

10. What and Where is the glass Skywalk?
The Skywalk is a relatively new U-shaped glass walkway that extends over the edge of a side canyon on the Hualapai Indian Reservation near Lake Mead. The Skywalk opened in the spring of 2007 and is part of a larger visitor area on the Hualapai Reservation known as Grand Canyon West. Grand Canyon West and the Skywalk is a commercial venture and is not part of Grand Canyon National Park. It is located much further downstream to the west of the park, about a 5 hour drive from the South Rim (and about 3 hours from Las Vegas). Part of the drive includes a 12-mile stretch of gravel road that is fine for most passenger cars in good weather, but caution should be used with lower clearance vehicles or during wet weather.

In addition to the Skywalk, Grand Canyon West has helicopter tours and short rafting trips on the nearby section of river as well as several other minor and still developing attractions including a petting zoo, examples of Native American dwellings and a buffet and overlook at Guano Point. All visitors to Grand Canyon West must check in at the visitor center and buy a tour package and then visit the various attraction areas on the shuttle buses. The cheapest package that includes the Skywalk is about $80 per adult. There is no hiking or camping and facilities are limited.

The Skywalk has occasionally been a source of controversy both on the reservation and off, partly because some of the early promotions and advertisements were misleading or confusing about the cost, the location and nature of the Skywalk (for instance, it is not really located on the main canyon, let alone directly over the river as sometimes implied). While many people have enjoyed their visit to Grand Canyon West, others have come away disappointed and reviews by visitors on TripAdvisor (and other websites) are generally mixed at best. I visited shortly after the Skywalk opened and while the canyon itself was very beautiful and the people helpful, I found the experience of being on the Skywalk itself to be a bit of a letdown (the perspective is not that much different than standing on the rim) and many of the other attractions were underwhelming or gimmicky and somewhat of a distraction from the natural beauty.

In all fairness, I very much sympathize with the Hualapai tribe and support their goal to leverage their land’s scenic resources to improve their situation. Millions of people spend millions of dollars each year visiting the Grand Canyon and surrounding areas while the tribe has long suffered in poverty (they are too close to Las Vegas to compete with a casino). Compared to other Grand Canyon tourist spots, GC West is relatively new and still developing and hopefully it will improve over time.

For more info:
Grand Canyon West (Hualapai Tribe) Website

[Return to Top]
Comments or Questions? Send an email to DesertMarmot