At the beginning of the year, I wasn’t even dreaming about a new trip to the USA, let alone thinking about exploring the Grand Canyon, their most famous natural site.
From earliest childhood years, we learn about it in school, documentaries or just regular American movies. The thought “I want to go there one day” was growing stronger and stronger for many many years. But even so and even now when travelling across the globe is easier than ever, I was still having a hard time seeing myself actually there.
However, the right set of circumstances made this unforgettable trip possible , when I least expected it. In less than a couple of months I had to make a new passport and prepare a road trip on the West Coast of the USA, with a special detour to the one and only The Grand Canyon.
When thinking about the Grand Canyon, you need to thing big, really really big!
The Colorado River runs across it on a distance about the same to the one from London to Paris, at a depth of almost 2 km. But it’s not only big, it’s also very old. While this river has been corroding the red rocks for “only” 17 million years, the actual plateau is over 60 million years old.
With all that perspective in mind, there are many things to consider when you start planning your trip: when is the best time to visit, where to start the visit, how much time do I need, where do I spend the night, can I sleep inside the Canyon, how much will it cost me, do I need a special equipment?
Do not worry a bit, I’m here to answer all these questions for you.
West, South, North or East Rims? Which entrance do I go to?
There are entrance points on each of the four Canyon Rims or margins. Technically, in a day, you could drive your way between any two of them, but that would only mean checking things out of your bucket-list, it would not make it a memorable visit. So it’s best to chose a side and spend a little more time there.
We stayed almost a day to the South Rim only, and it was insufficient! You will understand the vastness of this place only once you see it..
Although I was tempted at first to visit the West Rim, being the nearest to Las Vegas, where we spent one week, I’m glad I did not give in to this temptation, and here’s why.
The West Rim is only 2 hours drive away from Las Vegas and it has become very popular because you can take a day trip to the canyon, either by your own car or with organized day tours. But in my opinion this is not the ideal visit. The place might be famous for the Skywalk, a glass deck hanged over the edge of a cliff but you cannot go down in the Canyon, there are no trails here. It’s because this West Rim is a private reservation, belonging to the Indian Hualapai people, so it’s not managed by the Grand Canyon National Park. It also implies that the ticket is a lot more expensive. It costs 50USD/person for walking on the edge of the Canyon or 80USD/person ( !!!!! !!!) if you also want to walk on this glass deck. But if you have the money to spend, you can also book a helicopter trip here with a landing inside of the Canyon.
They say the views from the North Rim are just as spectacular to those on the South, with one extra advantage: this side is the least crowded out of all. But the disadvantage is that it’s only opened 4 months a year because it’s located higher than the others and you’ll be challenged by winds and snow. On top of that, it’s harder to get here.
The East Rim entrance also known as Desert View, is actually very close to the South one, under an hour of driving.
Visiting the South Rim
The South Rim is the most famous, the best organized and probably offers the best views of the Grand Canyon so don’t be surprised by the extended crowd of people. Opened all year around, there are many shuttle buses, a few hotels and hostels are right on the edge of the canyon, thematic museums line near the Rim, park rangers hold hourly sessions explaining and giving directions. And then, there are the beautiful trails that take you on this unique journey all the way to the Colorado river itself. Well, it’s actually not that simple to arrive to the Colorado river and spend the night inside the Canyon, and you’ll see what I mean in a short while.
The visitor ticket was 25USD per car or family. Meaning that you can split the costs with those that you are travelling with. It’s valid for an entire week and you can use it for the North and East entrances as well.
Tusayan is the nearest town to the South Entrance, 10 kilometers away from the Visitor Center. If you make your reservations well before time, you can find decent priced hotels. But here’s an important tip: stop by the Grand Canyon Ticket Office in Tusayan. They have live cameras for the rest of the road, and they can inform you how big is the traffic jam. You can buy your ticket right here and leave your car in their car parking, take the shuttle buss also included in the price, and avoid all that traffic, because these buses have their own private road.
An even better place to spend the night is inside the Grand Canyon Village. Located near the margin of the Canyon, the rooms here are very popular, so they sell like hotcakes. This implies obviously that you should make your bookings well ahead of time.
But if you have ever dreamed about camping inside the Canyon, there’s this possibility also. After around 8 hours of trekking on the trails, you arrive in Supai, the village of the Havasupai people, an American Indian tribe that has been around for over 800 years. The hosting conditions are probably minimal in the hostels and camping areas, but I’m pretty sure the effort is well worth when you finally touch the cold waters of the Colorado river, explore Havasu Creek and then swim near the amazing Havasu Falls.
But if I said you needed to make early reservations for the other places, for these ones be sure to book at least 6 months in advance!
We didn’t get this far this time, everything was booked, so we have a good reason to come back once more.
In Williams we found the nearest place to spend the night, but still quite far away, around 1.5 hours drive from the South Rim. Flagstaff town is a more popular stop for tourists but it was not convenient for our road-trip starting the next day.
Meeting with the Canyon and activities on the South Rim
So you finally buy your tickets and you get inside the Grand Canyon Village.
But where’s that Canyon? Shouldn’t I see it already?
There’s this paradox about it: you know it’s so big, giantly big, so you expect to see it from a distance. You see the mountains from hundreds of miles away, why wouldn’t you see this one from 20 m away? It’s just that your mind somehow is not used to this kind of landscape. So we were walking and then walking some more on a perfectly flat ground, getting more impatient with each step, and then all of a sudden it was right under our feet, a glorious moment that I will not forget.
But you will never see all of it! As far as your sight can go, and beyond that, the red tones of the rocks combined with subtle green marks from the vegetation, make one of those amazing places that only nature had the power to create.
The Vista Points are abundant on this Rim! And plenty small sized but very educative museums, hitting various aspects of the area are opened for visiting. The best rated of them is the Yavapai Geological Museum.
But if you don’t have too much time, open air activities are your priority.
The two most famous trails are the Bright Angel Trail and the South Kaibab Trail.
We opted to hike on the Bright Angel Trail, because it was rated as an easier hike, and along the way from the Visitor Center, you have the museums, some of the best vista points and also the Geology Alley.
Both these trails take you to the heart of the Canyon, but this is not a back and forth hike in the same day. Read well about the safety guidelines, the overnight camping places and remember that you might need to obtain a Backcountry permit.
Safety and how to dress for the Canyon ?!
If you walk around the South Rim you don’t have to worry too much. There are paved alleys near the edge, bike tracks and roads for the buses, driving you from one point to another. This means you can even wear sneaker or sandals. But all of this changes if you want to hike, and depending on how deep you plan to go, you need to be better prepared. Sufficient water, good hiking shoes and a thermal jacket are just the mandatory essentials.
We only trailed for 4 miles (back and forth), and our toes were starting to get soar already. You’ll get aching knees on your way down, but going up is even harder. Trying to walk to and from the Colorado river in the same day (16 miles), is probably insane.
You share these trails not only with the other people, but also with the cute mules, that help the over-night campers with their backpacks. However, I think it’s sad that they are used this way, heavily loaded. So I say that you should not encourage this practice and carry your own load.
Finally, our exhausting but beautiful day at the Grand Canyon was concluded with a magical sunset. The day went too fast, but we’re left with good memories, a beautiful feeling and with the strong desire to return soon. There’s so much more to explore!
A quick recap for the practical details of visiting the South Rim:
- 25 EUR/car or family, 15 EUR one person
- Williams or Flagstaff: 1-1.5 hours driving from the Grand Canyon
- Tusayan: 10km from the Grand Canyon Village (prepare early booking)
- Hotels/hostels at the Grand Canyon Village (prepare very early booking)
- Camping inside the Grand Canyon (extremely early booking!)
- Trails: Bright Angel Trail and South Kaibab Trail
- Vista Points
How much time and when to visit:
- from a couple of hours to an entire week.
- opened all year around
- best to visit in early Spring