Grand Canyon 101: Everything You Need to Know to Make the Most of Your Visit

  • How Do I Get There?

    Arizona is where you’ll find the Grand Canyon, in the Northwest corner of the state, bordered by Utah and Nevada. The park is divided into the North Rim Village and the South Rim Village—the Colorado River creates a barrier—with the South Rim being the most popular side to visit, open year-round. The Grand Canyon Village is the most popular entry site and vantage point. If flying, land in Phoenix, Flagstaff, or Las Vegas or you can consider the limited air service (pricier) into Grand Canyon Airport, 7 miles south of the park. Greyhound busses take travelers to/from Flagstaff, Arizona. Also, you can catch the Arizona Shuttle, which transports visitors between Phoenix and Flagstaff and Flagstaff and the Grand Canyon Village. If driving, the South Rim of the Grand Canyon is approximately 81 miles from Flagstaff, 231 miles from Phoenix, 212 miles from the North Rim, 119 miles from Sedona, and 278 miles from Las Vegas. 

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  • How Was the Grand Canyon Formed?

    The numbers are astonishing: at 277 miles long, 18 miles wide, and one mile deep, the Grand Canyon is truly vast—it’s even visible from the International Space Station. Constant erosion from the Colorado River over millions of years is to blame—or thank—for the Grand Canyon. The gorge is about six million years old, but there’s a bit of a debate regarding this, as some research claims that sections of the canyon date back 70 million years. Nearly 40 different known rock layers form the walls.

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  • What‘s the History of the Park?

    Native Americans have been living in the Grand Canyon for thousands of years and they still do today. Supai Village, located at the base of the Grand Canyon and unreachable by road, includes the Havasupai Indian Reservation with a population of just over 200. The Pueblo people made pilgrimages to the Grand Canyon, considering its beauty and location a holy site. Ancestral Pueblo ruins can still be seen today. And, of course, President Teddy Roosevelt was a huge advocate for the Grand Canyon, and the National Park system. The Grand Canyon was the fifteenth site to become a National Park in America, signed into the Grand Canyon National Park Act in 1919.

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  • How Long Does it Take to Visit?

    If you’re visiting above the rim and staying around the South Rim, the most popular area, then you can visit the Grand Canyon National Park in one day, which includes time to stop in at the Visitor’s Center. There are, of course, ranger programs and talks that you can take advantage of, extending the time you might want to allot for a visit. Staying for the sunset is definitely worth it—it’s amazing to see how the canyon walls change colors as the sun dips out of view. If you’re hiking, keep in mind that it will take you twice as long to hike up as down. The National Park Service does not recommend hiking rim to rim in one day. Many people will choose to camp at one of the three campgrounds and make it a multi-day trip.

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  • What’s at the Bottom of the Grand Canyon?

    The bottom of the Grand Canyon is unlike anything you’ve ever seen. With its waterfalls, moss-covered rocks, tree canopies, desert landscapes, and strata, you won’t regret the effort it took you to get to the base. You’ll likely spot snakes, deer, scorpions, tarantulas, various birds, lizards, and even a ram or two if you’re lucky. Plus, if you make it to Phantom Ranch, you can enjoy a cold can of Bright Angel IPA and fill out a few postcards for a mule to deliver in a saddle bag out of the canyon.

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  • How Do You Get to the Bottom?

    The easiest, way to get to the bottom is to take a mule, but keep in mind that the narrow trails and switchbacks make it a bit nerve-wracking. The mules are trained to hug the wall and keep their rears to the side during breaks on this nose-to-tail trail ride. The other option is to hike on the South Kaibab Trail or the Bright Angel Trail, both of which are well maintained. The Bright Angel Trail is about two miles longer but it has water, shade, and the Indian Garden campground about halfway down. The South Kaibab has no water and little shade. The National Park Service recommends that if you’re hiking from the South Rim, take the South Kaibab Trail (6.8 miles) down and then hike up the Bright Angel Trail (9.3 miles), which is a loop, and camp at Bright Angel Campground in between. 

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  • How Do I Raft in the Grand Canyon?

    Adventurers and water lovers can enjoy a half, full, or multi-day rafting trip down the Colorado River. Many rafting trips with experienced guides combine hiking, rafting, and helicopter rides to complete the adventure. Pay attention to the skill guidelines and age requirements (most trips are for ages 12 and up) listed for each trip. Many guiding programs provide everything you need for the experience, including hotel transfers, entering or exiting the canyon via helicopter or hiking, camping equipment, and meals. Some outfits will have mules carry your gear out of the canyon, so you can enjoy an unencumbered hike to the rim. Some itineraries go from Lees Ferry to Phantom Ranch, Lake Mead, Whitmore Wash, or Diamond Creek.

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  • How Do You Visit With Kids?

    Kids and families will love taking part in the ranger-led talks, programs, and educational opportunities. Children can earn a Junior Ranger badge by learning how to be stewards of the park. Pop in the Visitor’s Center at either rim and watch one of the park movies. Visit the lodges inside the park for lunch or a mug of hot cocoa. Hiking on one of the trails is also a fun experience, as kids will be able to watch the mules go by (older kids, ages 10 and up, can ride a mule)—but definitely keep in mind that the trails can be narrow and steep with no railings. Driving in the car and stopping at secure viewing points is easy to do with kids in tow. Also, consider taking the public park transportation to check out other areas of the park that stop at vistas of note.

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  • How Much Does It Cost?

    Park entrance fees, which includes both rims for seven days, are $30 per vehicle, $15 per individual (on foot, bicycle, park shuttle bus or private rafting trip), or free on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, the first day of National Park Week, National Public Lands Day, and Veterans Day. Private backpacking, mule, or rafting tours vary in price, often depending on a lottery system, and usually need to be booked months in advance—many of these multi-day trips are expensive.

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  • Is There Food and Water Available?

    You won’t go hungry above the rim as there are many options to choose from for sustenance. Market Plaza, Grand Canyon Village Historic District, Desert View, and Hermit’s Rest on the South Rim and the Grand Canyon Lodge on North Rim all have many restaurants, cafes, and stores for food and drinks. In the canyon, Phantom Ranch has a restaurant and fresh water available from an outdoor fountain. Also, in the inner canyon, water is available at all three campgrounds. Hikers should carry plenty of high-energy snacks and meals, which can be purchased at one of the many markets above the rim. 

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  • Are There Bathrooms in the Canyon?

    All three of the camping sites and Phantom Ranch have bathrooms, however, be prepared with your own toilet paper and waterless soap. Where toilets are not available, you are required to bury your feces at least six inches deep (and away from trails, campsites, and water) and carry out your used toilet paper—bring plastic Ziploc bags. All trash and feminine hygiene products must be carried out to rim disposals.

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  • Will I Have Cell Reception?

    Above the rim, especially in lodges, shops, and restaurants: maybe. Below the rim: no. Much of northern Arizona, in fact, proves challenging for phone connection. Make sure you give someone at home your full itinerary, with dates, for safety purposes. The park emergency number is 928-638-2477, which should only be used when absolutely necessary. Park rangers have access to satellite phones in emergencies.

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  • What Sort of Wildlife Will I See?

    The National Park Service lists 9 amphibians, 1,500 plants, 89 mammalians, 17 fish, and 47 reptile species that can be seen in the park, hiding amongst the evening primrose, red columbines, and rocky mountain iris wildflowers. Your senses will light up as you see, hear and, in some cases, smell: coyotes, squirrels, mice, mule deer, bighorn sheep, rabbits, ringtail cats, hawks, eagles, turkeys, and lizards. You’ll want to be careful of where you step or place your hands while on a trail—there are snakes and scorpions to be wary of. While snakebites are rare, scorpions are common—although a scorpion sting rarely causes health issues. Rangers can be found all over the park, including on the trails and in the Visitor’s Center, and they can help should you need medical attention.

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  • When Is the Best Time to Visit?

    While the park is open year-round, the best times to visit are March through May and September through November. June through August, the park’s crowded high season, is also when the weather is the hottest. The North Rim is not open during the winter snowy months, so you’ll want to check the National Park Service website for specific opening dates, determined by the weather, but the South Rim is open year-round. December through February is, hands down, the most peaceful time to visit the park, but it is also the chilliest. Pack layers, sunscreen, water, and appropriate shoes and take off on your adventure, whatever time of year you go.

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  • Where Do I Spend the Night?

    Lodging inside the park is usually booked well in advance, so plan ahead. Inside the park, at the Grand Canyon Village, South Rim, you can stay at Bright Angel Lodge, El Tovar Hotel, Kachina Lodge, Thunderbird Lodge, Maswik Lodge, Yavapai Lodge, or Trailer Village RV Park. South of the Grand Canyon Village, along Highway 64 outside of the park, you’ll find lots of affordable accommodations including The Grand Hotel, Seven Mile Lodge, and Holiday Inn Express. You may consider staying in Flagstaff as well, which has lots of availability, even during peak seasons—Little America Hotel and Embassy Suites by Hilton are great options. For the North Rim, you can stay at the Grand Canyon Lodge (book well in advance). Beautiful campsites for the intrepid traveler include Mather Campground and Desert View Campground on the South Rim and North Rim Campground on the North Rim. For a truly unique experience, though, book well in advance and stay at Phantom Ranch in the inner canyon, accessible by hiking or mule. Backcountry backpackers, camping in the inner canyon, can stay at Indian Garden, Bright Angel, and Cottonwood campgrounds, which all have ranger stations, accessible water, and emergency phones.

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