Grand Canyon National Park is one of the most popular national parks in the US, not to mention one of the most-visited natural wonders in the world. It hardly needs any introduction. Carved by the Colorado River over thousands of years, travelers visit to gaze into this mile-deep, red-hued canyon and contemplate the natural beauty of this world.
Given the Grand Canyon’s popularity, you’ll want to plan as much as possible in advance. Popular accommodations fill up months and sometimes more than a year ahead of time. Visit in the off-season if you can, but if summer is the only time you have to visit, you can still avoid the crowds with a little know-how.
Here are a few tips for making the most out of your trip to the Grand Canyon whether you have just one day or a whole week.
1. Visit in the Spring, Fall, or Winter If You Can
Summer is peak season at the Grand Canyon. Expect large crowds between Memorial Day and Labor Day, especially at the South Rim. Spring, fall, and winter are all great times to visit the Grand Canyon. Spring — particularly April — is the best time for wildflower viewing, and fall foliage typically peaks around early October. Weather can be somewhat unpredictable in the spring and fall, so come prepared with extra layers as evenings tend to be very cool.
Winter can be a very peaceful time to visit. The smaller crowds make up for the cooler temperatures, and catching the canyon blanketed in fresh snow can be absolutely gorgeous. Needless to say, many people can only visit the Grand Canyon during the busy summer months, so there are still plenty of ways to beat the crowds.
2. Head to the North Rim If You’re Visiting During Peak Season
Grand Canyon National Park’s South Rim is the more popular and most visited part of the park. According to the Park Service, only ten percent of Grand Canyon visitors make it to the North Rim. This isn’t because the views are any less spectacular, rather it has to do with the fact that the South Rim is more easily accessible from Phoenix and Flagstaff.
If you’re visiting the Grand Canyon from Las Vegas or the Utah National Parks, consider visiting the North Rim. The North Rim offers a much more remote and less commercialized experience. From Las Vegas, the North Rim and South Rim are about equal distance and you can easily tack on a side trip to Zion National Park, Bryce Canyon National Park, or Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument along the way.
Just don’t expect to visit both the South Rim and North Rim in a day. Although they are just a short distance across the canyon from each other, it takes nearly five hours to travel to the other side by car. And it’s important to note that access to the North Rim is weather permitting; it’s typically only open from mid-May through mid-October each year.
3. Catch At Least One Grand Canyon Sunrise of Sunset
The Grand Canyon is especially beautiful at sunrise and sunset. This is when the canyon comes alive with dancing light and shadows. Make sure to arrive at least thirty minutes before sunrise and at least an hour before sunset.
Mather and Yaki Points are the best spots at sunrise and Hopi Point is the most popular spot at sunset. For fewer sunset crowds, head to Mohave Point or the viewpoints along Desert View Drive.
READ MORE: A First-Timer’s Guide to the Grand Canyon
4. Book Camping Reservations Well in Advance
Advanced camping reservations are a must if you’re visiting during the peak summer season. Reservations can be made up to six months in advance at the South Rim’s Mather Campground and the North Rim Campground. Reservations are highly recommended during the busy summer season, but some first-come, first-served sites are available at the Desert View Campground.
The South Rim also has six hotels and the North Rim has the luxurious Grand Canyon Lodge. Reservations for the lodges open thirteen months in advance and often sell out in the first few weeks of booking. Reservations for a highly sought-after room at Phantom Ranch at the bottom of the Grand Canyon are only available through a lottery system fifteen months in advance.
5. Venture Beyond the Viewpoints
Very few visitors to the Grand Canyon venture below the canyon rim. Hiking is one of the best ways to escape the crowds, plus it’s the only way to really grasp how deep and massive the Grand Canyon is.
For day hikes, skip the well-traveled Bright Angel Trail (unless you plan to venture down to Indian Garden which is a very strenuous hike) and head to the South Kaibab Trailhead. This seven-mile trail descends rather steeply (4,860 feet in total) to the Colorado River and is only recommended as an overnight hike. Most hikers opt for the 1.8-mile round-trip hike to Ooh-Aah-Point — a spectacular viewpoint just 600 feet below the rim.
More adventurous hikers may want to continue another half mile onto Cedar Ridge for an even more amazing panoramic view into the canyon. If you’re hiking in the summer, be sure to get an early morning start and bring along plenty of food and water.
The North Kaibab Trail is the only maintained trail into the Grand Canyon from the North Rim and you can venture down to the Coconino Overlook (1.5 miles round-trip) or Supai Tunnel (4 miles round-trip). Both make excellent day hikes.
6. Take Advantage of the South Rim Shuttle Bus System
You can explore many areas of the South Rim without having to use your vehicle. Free shuttles circle the park from well before sunrise to an hour after sunset and will help you avoid the stress of finding parking spots at popular trailheads and having to deal with traffic congestion during peak season. You can hop-on and hop-off wherever you like and even put your bicycle on the bus to catch a ride back to the visitors center after cycling one of the greenways along the rim.
7. See the Grand Canyon After Dark
After a long day of sightseeing, most Grand Canyon visitors hit the hay early. But the canyon puts its real show on after dark. Grand Canyon National Park is a certified International Dark Sky Park, meaning the park is so free from light pollution you can see the Milky Way Galaxy here with your naked eye.
Great spots to view the night sky include the viewpoint off of Desert View Drive along the South Rim and the Walhalla Overlook on the North Rim. The park throws its annual weeklong star party in June each year where you can enjoy free slideshows, constellation tours, and numerous telescopes set up throughout the park.
8. Put Your Camera Down and Just Enjoy the View
It’s easy to take hundreds and hundreds of photos while visiting the Grand Canyon. Thanks to its beauty and ever-changing light, each simple shot is likely to turn out postcard-perfect. But to truly capture an image of the Grand Canyon you’ll remember, put your camera down and gaze into the canyon, not through the image on your phone or camera lens, but with your unimpeded eye. Take it all in and ponder how in the world such a marvelous sight can be carved by a simple meandering river.
READ MORE: How To Buy a U.S. National Parks Pass
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