The Ultimate Guide to the Grand Canyon, America’s Most Iconic National Park
Tick at least one of the World's Seven Natural Wonders off your bucket list this year.
Maybe it’s just us, but boy, are we glad to move beyond the days of virtual experiences. Most things are arguably better in person: Friendships. Museums. Happy hours. Travel. For example, can you really comprehend the overpowering magnitude of the more-than-a-mile-deep Grand Canyon from your phone? Absolutely not.
Friends who’ve been to Grand Canyon National Park have likely come to you, wide-eyed, and expressed how pictures fail to do it justice, warning that “you won’t believe how BIG it is until you see it in person.” We would argue that even once you do see it in person, you might still struggle to believe how truly BIG it is: 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) enormously popular—in fact, it’s one of the most popular national parks in the US, with 4.53 million visitors in 2021. Luckily, the vast red-rock chasm—carved out over millions of years ago by the Colorado River and designated a national park in 1919—has more than enough room to welcome the tremendous crowds that descend upon it each year. And if its layers of two billion-year-old rock are any indication, it isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. Read on for info on the Grand Canyon’s most iconic sights, the best places to stay nearby, and more cool spots to hit on your next Arizona road trip.
How to get to the Grand Canyon
Located in northern Arizona a few hours from the borders of both Nevada and Utah, Grand Canyon National Park is a notoriously solid weekend or day trip from several nearby cities: It sits about a four-hour drive from Phoenix, just under five hours from Las Vegas, and about 5.5 hours from Tucson (where you can also catch the utterly underrated Saguaro National Park). If you don’t want to spend 8-10 total hours in the car for just one or two hours of canyon time, consider anchoring yourself in Flagstaff or Sedona, both of which sit about two hours from the park.
Most people get here by car or RV (more on road trips below!), but if you just so happen to be one of the mad lads that arrives on a helicopter from Sin City, worry not: there are daily shuttles that’ll take you between the South and North Rims. (Just be aware that the trip between each takes several hours; if you want to hit both rims, plan to stay overnight.)
When to visit the Grand Canyon (and how to beat the crowds)
Undoubtedly, the busiest season at the Grand Canyon is summertime—tourist numbers spike in July and August, and so do the temperatures. 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 (in 2022, it'll reopen on May 15).
Now, the real question is this: Is sunrise or sunset better in the Grand Canyon? It’s a longstanding debate, but we’re going with sunrise. The Grand Canyon’s most popular viewpoints can be suuuuper crowded around sunset, which makes waking up early a not-so-bad idea from an Instagram-photo standpoint. As for 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 also 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 landscape.
What to bring & things to know before you go
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.
Speaking of which: Above all else, be sure to pack a metric fuck ton of water. And drink it heartily, as if you’re a fish out of water—especially if you plan to hike inside the canyon. You’ll be surprised how quickly dehydration sets in, and you do not want to be caught slipping (aka without a full water bottle) when that happens.
Last but not least, it’s up to you to determine which trails and activities you can handle—proceed with caution! Most hikes in the park are relatively lengthy and incredibly steep, descending thousands of feet over the course of just a few miles. Research distances and hike times in advance, keep in mind that getting into and out of the canyon can be a strenuous experience, and don’t be afraid to turn back if things get too difficult. Most importantly, if you’re not an experienced hiker—and even if you are!—the National Park Service advises against attempting to hike from the South Rim, to the canyon floor, and out again all in one day; that midday heat is no joke, no matter how fit you might be.
If you get hungry...
For the most part, the food options inside Grand Canyon National Park have reopened after the pandemic (a few restaurants, including Yavapai Lodge Restaurant and Desert View Deli, remain closed due). Still, you’ll find your choices are relatively limited, so it’s probably best to pack your own meals. You can find essentials at Canyon Village Market and General Store and a coffee bar at Bright Angel Bicycles at Mather Point, where you can conveniently rent a cruiser for the day. Learn more about the restricted park operations here.
The best sights and hikes in the Grand Canyon
The best-known sight in the Grand Canyon is…well, the Grand Canyon. Goodie for you, it’s pretty damn hard to miss. Jokes aside, the park is split into two main parts—the North Rim and the South Rim—both with their own unique viewpoints, hikes, and pros and cons.
The South Rim, which is open year-round, generally sees the most foot traffic. It’s home to the Visitor Center and Mather Point—the most popular (and often crowded) viewpoint in the entire park—as well as the rest of the century-old Grand Canyon Village and overlooks like Yavapai, Yaki, and Ooh Ahh Points. From the South Rim, you can also access Desert View Drive and Hermit Road, along which sit—you guessed it!—even MORE immaculate scenic overlooks.
Along with the Rim Trail, which stretches from the Grand Canyon Village to Hermits Rest, you can also access several hikes down into the Canyon from the South Rim, including the South Kaibab Trail, Bright Angel Trail (along which there are several resting points), the Hermit Trail, and the Grandview Trail.
On the North Rim—which, it bears repeating, closes for the winter from about mid-October to mid-May—you’ll find far fewer tourists. Along with the North Kaibab Trail—the only maintained hiking trail on the North Rim that’ll take you down into the canyon—out this way, you’ll find more trails varying in length from less than one mile (Bright Angel Point Trail, Roosevelt Point Trail, Cape Royal Trail) up to approximately 10 miles (Ken Patrick Trail, Widforss Trail). Also worth mentioning is the 1.5-mile Coconino Overlook, where you can get a clear understanding of the canyon’s immensity without absolutely exhausting yourself.
Looking for the Grand Canyon SkyWalk? You’ll actually find that on the Hualapai Tribal Lands on the West Rim of the Canyon. There, you can step out onto the glass overlook, which stretches out 70 feet over the canyon’s edge, and gaze down 4,000 feet to the Canyon floor below.
Things to do in 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.
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 yurts, a tiny home, a Navajo hogan (or earth house), an Old West-themed loft, and more.
The best road trips to and from the Grand Canyon
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.
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.
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 into Proper Meats and order all of the fixings for a Grand Canyon picnic lunch. You’ll be so glad you did.
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 of a Dr. Seuss fever dream.
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.
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 the 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?
Tiana Attride is Thrillist's Associate Travel Editor. She, much like the Canyon, is grand.