Visiting Grand Canyon National Park was truly incredible and it’s an experience that I’ll remember for the rest of my life. It was like nothing else I had ever seen or experienced. If you’ve read any of my other Arizona travel guides then you know that my primary reason for visiting the state was to hike the Grand Canyon. I’m going to get into the specifics of the hike in another post and for this little Grand Canyon guide I’m going to focus on the South Rim area at the top of the Grand Canyon.
The South Rim is centered around Grand Canyon Village and is basically the only developed area around the Grand Canyon and it’s the main tourist area in Grand Canyon National Park. On the other side of the Canyon on the North Rim there is a small developed area with a hotel, campgrounds and a market but due to weather it only operates from May 15 to October 15. Although there is still limited access to the North Rim until December 1st or until snow closes the highway. You cannot hike the North Rim Trail after October 15. The South Rim and its trails are open all year around so it is obviously more visited and more developed. The Grand Canyon is massive but only this small corridor between the North and South Rim is developed to maintain the natural beauty of the National Park, even air traffic is restricted above the park to maintain the natural soundscape.
Where to Stay
If you’re part of the 1% of 4.5 million annual visitors to the Grand Canyon who plan to hike to the bottom you’re going to stay either at Phantom Ranch or Bright Angel Campground (the only places to stay at the bottom unless you’re doing back country trails) and you’ll need to start planning very early! Reservations for Phantom Ranch open 16 months in advance and it’s now done via a lottery system. If you aren’t able to get in via the lottery you can check availability 13 months in advance and book online. I’ll provide more information about Phantom Ranch in my “Hiking the Grand Canyon” blog post (coming soon). As for the campgrounds at the bottom I haven’t stayed there but I know that a Back Country Permit is required for camping and you need to apply at least 8 months in advance for the month you want to stay to reserve your spot. Unfortunately the whole system is slightly confusing and frustrating and you may have to try several times before you’re successful.
Regardless of whether or not you hike down to the bottom you’ll need a place to stay along the Rim. There are a few different options for accommodation and I would recommend Maswik Lodge that kind of has a summer camp vibe to it. It’s about a 5 minute walk from the Bright Angel Trail head and it’s in a more wooded area which is really nice and peaceful. All the accommodation in Grand Canyon Village is a bit outdated and your chances of having working WiFi are pretty slim, but you’re there for the beauty of the Canyon so I guess it doesn’t really matter, right? Maswik Lodge is also one of the more inexpensive hotels.
There is also the elegant and historic El Tavor Hotel and Bright Angel Lodge that are right at the Rim. The Thunderbird and Kachina Lodge are two other options and right along the Rim as well. If you can’t book any of these hotels then there is a campground and an RV park. Additionally there is accommodation outside of the National Park in nearby towns. On the North Rim there is also a hotel and campgrounds.
What to Do
Hiking obviously! Hiking the Grand Canyon is amazing, beautiful and challenging. If you’re able to secure a reservation for Phantom Ranch or Bright Angel Campground then I highly recommend training to get in shape to do the hike. It’s one of my most favourite things I’ve ever done and I’m not an experienced hiker at all! If you hike down to the bottom and back up then I’d recommend going down South Kaibab Trail since the views are spectacular and going up Bright Angel Trail which as a place to refill water halfway at Indian Garden Campground. You can also do day hikes part way down both trails but remember to bring water, snacks, wear proper clothing and footwear and respect the rules of the trail. People going up have the right of way and you should stick to the wall to let people pass. Also it’s twice as hard going up as going down and it can take twice as long so be sure not to hike too far down the trail. If you do a day hike on Bright Angel Trail it’s not advised to go past Indian Garden.
Between May 15th and October 15th you can also hike the North Kaibab Trail on the North Rim. There are a couple “day hikes” you can take if you are already at the bottom from Phantom Ranch along the North Kaibab Trail to Cottonwood Campground and Ribbon Falls. You can do these short hikes even if you’ve come down from the South Rim. I’d love to go back and hike “Rim to Rim” from the North Kaibab Trail to South Kaibab Trail but reservations at Phantom Ranch are extremely hard to get during these months with the North Rim is open.
If you don’t actually hike in the Canyon then there is still plenty to do around the South Rim. Do the Rim Trail for some amazing views, catch a Ranger talk (this was one of my favourite things to do down at Phantom Ranch), see the historic El Tovar Hotel and the history room in Bright Angel Lodge, visit the Kolb Studio and Mary Colter’s Hopi House. Be sure to pick up a visitor’s guide pamphlet and a map from the visitors centre or a hotel. There is a free shuttle bus that runs through the park and is a really convenient way to get around since there aren’t really any sidewalks along the roads and at night there are no streetlights. If you do walk around at night you may hear animals like elk in the woods that aren’t dangerous but in general you should be careful since there may be other animals and keep your distance. Take extra care when walking around the Rim at night, especially heading towards Hermit’s Rest from Bright Angel Trail since there are no barriers between the trail and the edge of the Canyon along that stretch.
Where to Eat
Like with most of Northern Arizona good dining options are limited in Grand Canyon National Park. The El Tovar hotel has a fancy dining room that you can make a reservation at and Bright Angel Lodge has an okay restaurant but I found the food to be mediocre and overpriced. Maswik Lodge has a cafeteria and little pub where you can get take away pizza, which is what we did one night. There is also a market over at the main visitor centre area where you can get some food. You definitely visit Grand Canyon National Park for the natural wonders, not the culinary options.
I’m currently working on finishing up my Arizona Travel Guides with a Grand Canyon Hiking Guide as well as a Hiking Gear Guide for Beginners for clueless people like myself who plan a crazy hiking trip to the Grand Canyon with no experience and no gear (but maybe I’m the only one and that post will be useless to anyone who bothers to read it). So stay tuned for my Arizona wrap up and for more travel posts in the future!