A First-Timer’s Guide to the Grand Canyon

grand canyon sunset

Carved over thousands of years by the waters of the Colorado River and shaped by the wind, rain, and other geologic processes, the Grand Canyon is overwhelmingly beautiful. The moment you first gaze into this mile deep canyon is sure to be one of the most memorable moments of your life.

With so much to see and do at the Grand Canyon, it’s important to plan ahead so you can squeeze in as many sights and activities as possible during your first visit. The biggest mistake first-time visitors can make is not giving yourself enough time. The park is vast and you can’t expect to see many of the top sights in one day without feeling rushed, so plan to stay a few days or even a week. 

There’s a lot of information out there for first-time visitors, so it’s easy to get overwhelmed when planning your trip. The best advice is to choose a few viewpoints you want to see and a hike or two you’d like to do, and then see what else you discover along the way. Plan to take advantage of ranger programs, start the day early to beat the crowds, and heed the first-timer information we’ve put together below.

Know the Difference Between the North Rim and the South Rim

south rim grand canyon

Even though its only about ten miles as the crow flies between the South Rim and the North Rim of the Grand Canyon National Park, traveling between the two sections of the park is no easy jaunt. It takes about five hours to drive between the two sections of the park and for some it is quicker to run — elite ultra runners can do it in three hours or less.

According to the National Park Service, ninety percent of all Grand Canyon National Park visitors visit the South Rim. The South Rim is open year-round; features more viewpoints, trails, and services than the North Rim; and is more easily accessible from major U.S. cities.

That being said, the South Rim can feel much more crowded, making the North Rim a better option for those looking for a quieter and less commercialized experience. The North Rim is typically only open from May 15th to October 15th each year and tends to be cooler in the summer than the South Rim, considering it’s 1,000 feet higher in elevation. 

Be Sure to Start Your Trip at the Visitor Center

Regardless of which rim you choose to visit, start your exploration of the park at the Grand Canyon Visitor Center. Here you can pick up maps, talk to a ranger about current trail conditions, and learn about how the Grand Canyon was formed through exhibits and interactive films.

If you’re visiting the South Rim, you can also visit the Yavapai Geology Museum for a more in-depth look into the formation of the Colorado Plateau. The Yavapai Geology Museum is perched right on the edge of the Grand Canyon and offers one of the best panoramic views down to the Colorado River in the park.

READ MORE: How To Buy a U.S. National Parks Pass

Make Grand Canyon National Park Lodging Reservations Early 

mathers campground grand canyon

While you can visit the Grand Canyon as a day trip, an overnight stay is strongly recommended. The colors of the Grand Canyon change drastically depending on the time of day and the weather. In order to really get a sense of the immense beauty of the place, you’ll want to gaze over the rim multiple times throughout the day and definitely won’t want to miss seeing the canyon at sunrise or sunset.

Luckily there are plenty of places to stay at Grand Canyon National Park, and with some advanced planning, you should have no problem securing a spot. At the South Rim, the Mather Campground is huge with 327 campsites, and reservations can be made up to six months in advance. Reservations are almost always necessary from March through November. Camping at Mather is first-come, first-served during the less popular winter months.

If you arrive at the South Rim without camping reservations, head to the Desert View Campground early in the day for your best chance at nabbing a spot. All 50 campsites are available on a first-come, first-served basis. The sites at Desert View are only suitable for tents and small RVs.

The North Rim Campground is the only camping option at the North Rim, and reservations are available in advance. Campsites at the North Rim fill fast but you can usually get a spot without a reservation if you show up very early in the day.

There are also several lodges in Grand Canyon National Park, and all require advanced reservations — especially during the busy summer season. Phantom Ranch is the only lodge at the bottom of the canyon and reservations can only be obtained through a lottery system submitted fifteen months in advance.

Plan to Venture Below the Rim

It is hard to grasp the magnitude of the Grand Canyon by only gazing into it from one of the viewpoints along the rim. Hiking below the rim will give you a better idea at how massive this incredible geological wonder really is, and you don’t even have to hike that far. From the South Rim, take the South Kaibab Trail down to OoAh Point for a spectacular view of the inner canyon. If you’re feeling more courageous, hike the Bright Angel Trail to Plateau Point.

There’s only one maintained trail into the Grand Canyon from the North Rim — the North Kaibab Trail. The hike to the Coconino Overlook is only 1.5 miles roundtrip and gives first time visitors a nice feel for the canyon. Hiking down to the Colorado River in one day is not recommended — it is 28 miles roundtrip from the North Rim and is extremely strenuous. 

Realize that Havasu Falls is Not in Grand Canyon National Park

Havasu Falls grand canyon

Instagram has made the glittering turquoise pools and waterfalls at the bottom of the Grand Canyon incredibly famous. Many people arrive in Grand Canyon National Park hoping to visit the waterfalls, but do not realize that Havasu Falls are located on Havasupai tribal lands which lies outside the boundaries of the national park.

Visiting Havasu Falls requires a lot of planning — you can’t just add on a trip to the falls during your trip to Grand Canyon National Park. Visitors must obtain a permit to hike to Havasu Falls, and permits are notoriously hard to get. The permit reservation period opens each year on February 1 and typically sell out on that day for the entire year.

The Havasupai Tribe requires that all visitors stay for at least three nights, and the hike to the falls is ten miles in each direction. The hike in is all downhill, meaning the hike out is all uphill and can be quite difficult considering the elevation gain and lack of shade. The trip is totally worth it though if you plan well enough in advance.

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a first timer's guide to the grand canyon