Travel

What To Know Before You Visit the Grand Canyon This Year

Grand Canyon National Park is back open for business.

Grand Canyon National Park, United States
Grand Canyon National Park | Sam Loyd/Unsplash
Grand Canyon National Park | Sam Loyd/Unsplash

As much as we all appreciated the wave of virtual tours that popped up when our spring travel plans were dashed to the winds, some things are just better in person. I mean can you really comprehend the overpowering magnitude of the more-than-a-mile-deep Grand Canyon from your phone? Not so much.

Luckily, as our national parks open back up for business, you better believe that includes the grandaddy Grand Canyon. Spanning an awesome 277 miles from end-to-end, this natural wonder is one of Arizona’s -- nay, one of America’s most distinguished landmarks, a bucket list mainstay you have to visit at least once. 

Obviously, you can’t just stroll up to the thing. The park is, understandably, hugely popular, with 5.97 million visitors in 2019. This year, to honor social distancing measures, the National Park Service is taking action to ensure all parks are safe to visit. This can mean limited access to both facilities, activities, and certain areas. Read on for info on what’s open, how to avoid the masses, the best places to stay, and more cool spots to hit on your Arizona road trip.

How much of Grand Canyon National Park is open?

Most areas, actually! As of June 2020, the South Rim is open; however, information desks, museums, and visitor centers are closed (with the exception of Verkamp's Visitor Center). The South Rim shuttle busses and bus tours are not in operation at this time. 

What else is off-limits? The east entrance to the park at Desert View and the Desert View Watchtower are both closed. Through summer, Hermit Road is closed to private vehicles, but is accessible by bicycle or on foot. And unfortunately, the North Rim is temporarily closed due to a wildfire. North Rim campgrounds are tentatively scheduled to reopen in July. Find up-to-date information about current closures at Grand Canyon National Park here

grand canyon village
Sunrise or sunset, the age-old debate | Hugo Soons/Unsplash

When to visit the Grand Canyon

The summer months are undoubtedly the busiest at the Grand Canyon. Tourist numbers spike in July and August, and so do the temperatures. So if wading through crowds whilst sweating through your t-shirt sounds less than ideal, opt for a different season. Note that while the South Rim is open year-round, the North Rim is closed during the winter season.

The best time to go to avoid other people

Which is better, sunrise or sunset? It’s a longstanding debate, but we’re going with sunrise. The Grand Canyon’s most popular viewpoints can be suuuper crowded around sunset, which makes waking up early a not-so-bad idea from a social distancing standpoint.

As for the best Grand Canyon lookout points, Hopi Point is, generally, a peaceful place to watch the sunrise. And at the highest elevation, Navajo Point provides an almost 360-view of the canyon and Colorado River.

If an early start isn’t your thing, you can ditch the crowds by exploring the park’s extensive trail systems. There’s no shortage of day hikes around the Grand Canyon that provide nonpareil scenic views of the panoramic landscape.

grand canyon
Hikers of all levels should prepare with serious gear | Lucas Swennen/Unsplash

What to bring with you

Step one: Secure your Grand Canyon National Park pass. This pass will get you into the park quickly, so buy and download it onto your phone. It’s $35 per car and is good for an entire week.

Next, make sure you come with a full tank of gas. There is only one fuel station inside of the park, located at Desert View on the South Rim. The nearest gas station outside of park limits is in Tusayan, about seven miles south.

Now let’s talk gear. Arizona sees your outdoorsy credentials and raises you scorpions, rattlesnakes, extreme heat, unpredictable weather, and difficult terrain. Whether you’re a seasoned hiker or new to this whole national park thing, consult our list of the best day hiking gear, which covers everything from footwear to hydration.

If you get hungry...

Food options in Grand Canyon National Park are pretty limited, so it’s best to pack-in your own. You can also find essentials at Canyon Village Market and General Store, and the coffee bar at Bright Angel Bicycles at Mather Point, where you can conveniently rent a cruiser for the day. And while Yavapai Lodge Restaurant is currently closed, the tavern and coffee shop is offering take-out. Learn more about the restricted park operations here

grand canyon
A river trip is one of the coolest ways to experience the canyon | Jim Mallouk/Shutterstock

The best ways to see the Grand Canyon

Pedal around on the park’s biking trails
You spent a lot of time and money on that Peloton, now show us what you’re made of. Cruise across 13-miles of greenway trails and roads on the South Rim. Or, bike the canyon rim along Hermit Road, a bikeable stretch that provides boundless views and access to Pima Point and Monument Creek Vista. 

Saddle up to a mule... 
Wrangler-led mule trips are available at the South Rim and North for both trail and inner canyon rides. Rides vary, but most include plenty of time for breaks and photo ops. Reservations can be booked 15 months in advance. 

Explore the canyon on a river trip
Grand Canyon Expeditions Company has been running the river in the Grand Canyon for over 56 years. Offering both motorized and dory trips, each journey covers 277-miles of canyon waters and cruises through 200 white water rapids. Throughout your trip, you can traverse hidden waterfalls, secret canyons, and sleep under the stars. 

You’ll even have unparalleled access to less-traveled areas, including a natural amphitheater called Redwall Cavern and the Havasu Creek Confluence, the largest tributary of the Colorado River. It’s instantly recognizable by its turquoise blue waters and this confluence connects you to places like Mooney Falls and Beaver Falls. And yes, it’s definitely worth the hike. 

At this time, private non-commercial river trips with current permits are authorized to launch. No new permits are being issued. According to the NPS, commercial river trips will resume with implemented safety measures, including modified passenger capacities. Read more about the park’s response to the coronavirus here

under canvas
Under Canvas offers fancy glamping, but reserve way in advance | Bailey Made

Where to camp, glamp, and stay near the Grand Canyon

Surprise surprise, lodging and campsites near the Grand Canyon fill up ridiculously fast and often require advance booking. We’re talking 15 or more months prior to your trip.

That’s the case at Phantom Ranch. Accessible only by mule or on foot, Phantom Ranch’s location at the bottom of the canyon gives you an entirely different perspective of this natural wonder. The rustic cabins and dorms have creature comforts like restrooms, showers, and bedding, making it an ideal spot to stay if you’re tackling the iconic rim-to-rim hike

Under Canvas is a glamping outfit that provides on-site dining and ultra-luxe amenities. It’s set upon acres and acres of pinyon and juniper forest in Valle, Arizona, a quick 25-minute trip from the South Rim. Their luxury canvas tents are outfitted with working restrooms, comfy beds, private decks, and wood-burning stoves and firewood. Sure beats a sleeping pad!

Looking for an Airbnb nearby? There are dozens of easily-bookable options both large and small in the area, including unique yurtsluxurious lodges, an Old West-themed loft, and more.

Horseshoe Bend
Horseshoe Bend is about 100 miles away in Page, AZ | Steven Wilcox/Unsplash

Make it a road trip!

Most Grand Canyon visitors fly into Phoenix, which is about 231 miles and 3.5-hours from the park. You can also travel by way of Flagstaff Pulliam Airport, or McCarran Airport in Vegas. If you want to rent a car (or an RV!) and hit the open road, these cities and towns make worthwhile stops and are all within easy driving distance from Grand Canyon National Park. 

Williams
60 miles away via Highway 64
The gateway to the Grand Canyon, this Northern Arizona town is brimming with Americana kitsch and is home to shops, cafes, breweries and tasting rooms, and a museum dedicated to all-things Route 66. The historic train depot offers direct service to the canyon along the Grand Canyon Railway.

Flagstaff
80 miles away via Highway 64 and 180
Laidback Flagstaff boasts big views of the San Francisco Peaks and countless trails to explore. Book a room downtown at the historic Hotel Monte Vista or opt to stay in a cabin. Before hitting the road, pop-in to Proper Meats and order all of the fixings for a Grand Canyon picnic lunch. You’ll be so glad you did. 

Page
108 miles away via Highway 89 and 64
Antelope Canyon and Horseshoe Bend are two very good reasons you should stop in Page, Arizona. Stay overnight in a vintage-style airstream, outfitted with all of the modern amenities you need, and wake up to views of Lake Powell. Also check out the Vermillion Cliffs Monument nearby, which rocks some seriously trippy landscapes like something out a Dr. Seuss fever dream.

Sedona 
119 miles away via Highway 89, I-40 and 64
Sedona has a hippie-dippie, new-agey reputation, but just go with it. The town is positioned against a gorgeous backdrop of red rock buttes and pine forests, and offers easy access to Red Rock State Park and trailheads like iconic Bell Rock and Devil’s Bridge. And, don’t skip the vortexes, or vortices.

Las Vegas 
126 miles southeast via Highway 93
The most accessible part of the Grand Canyon from Vegas is Grand Canyon West, about two hours away. It’s home to Skywalk -- you know, that terrifying, yet somehow also very thrilling bridge made of glass that hangs over the canyon 4,500-feet above the ground. Vegas also serves as a major hub for adventure companies. Helicopter tour over the canyon, anyone?

Lauren Topor Reichert is a Phoenix-based writer and photographer. She has seen the Grand Canyon from the top and from the bottom and still can’t decide which view is best. Follow her adventures around Arizona and beyond on Instagram.