They don’t call it the Grand Canyon just for kicks – this park is as vast as it is beautiful.
It is important to plan out your trip beforehand though, unless you want to do the same quick stops via an old bus route filled with crowds with little to offer in terms of showing you the real immensity of this age-old attraction. We’ve put together two guides below, one if you have the full day to spend at the Canyon (preferred) and another if you only have a few hours to spend in the day, due to time/work constraints. We completely understand!
Before we get into the guides, a few notes on traveling to the Canyon, regardless of how long you have to spend there:
Do: Go in the Spring or Fall
We always prefer to avoid the crowds, wherever we go. To this end, we suggest you travel to the Canyon before Memorial Day – or generally, before the last week of May, unless you want to fight the throngs of group tours during the hottest time of year to visit the Canyon. Traveling in April, May, September, and October gives you fewer crowds and cooler temperatures. You want to avoid the hotter temperatures of Arizona especially if you’re planning to hike the Canyon – dehydration is a serious issue there!
Take a jacket if you’re visiting in the Spring or Fall. This area tends to be cool, even in late May (until you start your hike!)
Getting to the area
You can fly in to Phoenix, Vegas, or Flagstaff, or obviously drive down from Utah etc. if you are doing a roadtrip! We flew in to Phoenix which is the best option in terms of distance to the Canyon and variety of flight options.
Do: Rent an RV, or stay in Phoenix or Flagstaff
We’ve written extensively on where to stay when visiting the Grand Canyon area in our piece about Antelope Canyon, but basically you have the options of renting an RV if you’re planning a tour of the area (this part of the US really has some incredible parks for you to visit!) taking in Antelope Canyon, Meteor Crater, Monument Valley etc.) or staying in Flagstaff, Phoenix, or the surrounding areas. The Grand Canyon village hotel options are extremely pricey, not for the budget traveler. Note that hotels and B&Bs with good value for money are few and far between in the area but you can get good deals if you look early via Booking.com. The Wyndham Garden Midtown Phoenix offers a comfortable stay, but this would entail a 4 hour one-way drive up to the Canyon and back.
We stayed in Phoenix and drove up to the Grand Canyon and Antelope Canyons on two separate days and had a great time so it is do-able but you may prefer to stay closer, in Flagstaff or the surrounding areas, depending on how long you have and what you have planned for your vacation.
If you are staying in Phoenix, we suggest you start your drive at 6am at the latest, to be able to enjoy the park to its fullest extent.
The drive from Phoenix to the Grand Canyon is pretty amazing – the difference in vegetation on the way up and the incredible Arizona sunsets on the way back make it an extremely enjoyable drive.
Don’t forget that Phoenix also offers great hot air ballooning rides over the Sonoran desert so if you are staying in the area, check out Rainbow Ryders and our post on booking the perfect hot air balloon experience!
Do: Rent a car
Needless to say, you will need a car (or RV) to get around the Grand Canyon. To be fair, there is a bus that takes you to different lookouts on the South Rim, and shuttles and tour companies that will take you to the Canyon from Vegas, Phoenix, and Flagstaff. There’s also an old-time train that will bring you to the Canyon, especially if you are staying at Grand Canyon Village. However, for the full experience on a budget, we strongly suggest you rent a car and drive the Canyon on your own whim! This way you can hit the East Rim and South Rim if you like (totally possible in one day!)
Gas in this area is expensive. Try to pump in Phoenix or around that area, instead of closer to the Canyon.
Do: Use GPS
GPS works in this area (unlike in Antelope Canyon) so you are all set in terms of navigating to the park. You are better off to mark specific points of interest beforehand though, such as where to enter from – see below!
Enter from the East entrance of the park
We can’t stress this enough. The South Rim is the busiest entrance to the Canyon, and the most popular pop-up when you Google or GPS Grand Canyon Visitor’s Center. Enter from the East entrance to explore the East Rim to enjoy fewer travelers, the Desert View and Grand Viewpoint, incredible lookouts into the Canyon.
Will you be missing out on the South Rim?
No. We did the South Rim as well and while it has more in terms of information and Ranger guidance, the East Rim is as (if not more) beautiful in terms of Canyon beauty and has more to offer in terms of a cultural experience as it is located on Native American territory. Check out the Cameron Trading Post if you’re visiting around noon for delicious Navajo tacos. They’re not fancy joints, but then again neither are the large-scale mass-tourist restaurants on the Southern entrance of the park. Note that the park does charge an entrance fee, so have cash handy!
Do: Pack plenty of water and snacks
The restaurants at the Grand Canyon offer little in terms of variety and are extremely overpriced. Even if you don’t plan on a hike, pack plenty of water and snacks, preferably a whole lunch so you can snack while enjoying the view and avoid the tourist restaurant prices.
Spending the full day at the Grand Canyon (9am – 7pm)
If you have a full day to spend at the Canyon, enter through the East Rim, take in the lookouts mentioned above, and then do a hike down. You cannot hike down to the Canyon floor, but you can choose between 3 to 6 hour hikes (remember they’re roundtrip – you have to come back up!) Take care on these hikes – a map from the Visitor’s Centers are advised as there have been deaths and missing persons reports at the Canyon.
We do strongly encourage you hike the Canyon, even for two hours or so, to really appreciate its vastness and the beauty of its walls. Kaibab and Cedar Ride trails are good for novice hikers who’d prefer quicker hikes (3 miles round trip). Havasu Falls also may be a point of interest for those hiking below the Rim!
Hiking can be tricky if you don’t have a Ranger’s guidance or haven’t looked it up in advance. We strongly suggest you do this based on the hike time and level of your preference as it can be tricky to find the trails at the beginning.
Once you have hiked up, walk/drive around the Rim to enjoy the panoramic views offered.
If you ended up on the South Rim, Machado Point is really the only place you need to hit, for the most beautiful panoramic views during sunset.
Spending the whole day at the Canyon really helps you enjoy the different colors of the Canyon walls during different times of day.
Spending a few hours at the Grand Canyon
Hey, we get it. You have too much on your schedule to spend a full day at the Grand Canyon. We’ve been there! In this case, if you’re traveling there in the morning, we suggest you enter through the East Rim, take in the Desert View lookout points, and then drive the Rim for more beautiful views. If you arrive closer to mid-day, you may be better offer entering through the South Rim to catch the sunset at Machado Point. In any case, you won’t have time for a hike but plenty of time to enjoy the grand panoramic views of the Canyon and check it off your bucket-list. It’s not as exciting as hiking the Canyon but it will still be extremely impressive, we promise. And if you have some time on your hands after (if you hit the Grand Canyon in the morning) why not visit Antelope Canyon by midday?
Grand Canyon over water
There are boat tour options for those who’d like to explore the Canyon over water. However, we have not had the opportunity to take one yet, so are not in a position to review or recommend this possible activity. You would need more than a day at the Canyon though if you are planning a river tour, so we’d suggest you camp or find a hotel as suggested above for at least two days in the area.
Whether you have less than 6 hours to spend at the Canyon or a full day, this is a must-see on your travel bucket-list (especially when paired with nearby Antelope Canyon!)
We hope you find these tips useful in planning your journey to this incredible natural wonder of the world.
Do: Fly in to Phoenix, Vegas, or Flagstaff. Phoenix has a higher variety of flights and is closer to the Canyon in comparison to its counterparts, but this of course depends on your own travel plans!
Do: Enter from the East Entrance of the Park. Check out Desert View, and the Cameron Trading Point if you’re in the area around noon.Take cash for the park entrance fee.
Do: Try to spend at least 6 hours in the Canyon in order to see how the different angles of the sun light up the Canyon walls.
Do: Hike the Canyon if you have the time. There are 3 to 6 hour hikes, so pick wisely. Remember that you do have to climb up on your way back!
Do: Pack plenty of water and food, even if you’re not hiking.
Do: Visit in the Spring or Fall. Avoid the summer crowds and heat. Pack a jacket.
Do: Rent a car or RV. GPS should be find to navigate, but plan ahead if you’re visiting the East Rim.
Do: Pump gas away from the Grand Canyon area.
Don’t: Stay in Grand Canyon Village. Opt for hotels around the area, or Flagstaff or Phoenix.
Do: The Desert View drive.
Do: Talk to a Ranger or look up your trail in advance. It can be tricky to find the safer trails on your own.
Do: Visit Machado Point at sunset if you find yourself in the South Rim.
Do: If you’re staying in Phoenix, why not try a hot air balloon ride?
Been to the Grand Canyon? Planning a trip there? We’d love to hear about your experiences! Share your stories with us below!