Beginner’s Guide to the Grand Canyon

You’ve seen pictures before, right? An impossibly wide expanse of rock, swirling like waves under a blue sky, stretching out as far as you can see. The Grand Canyon is one of those places you have to experience for yourself. It’s more than a beautiful view, though. Give yourself time to watch the wildlife and stare into a sky filled with stars. It’s magic.


Grand Canyon National Park is huge—1.2 million acres, and visitors can do everything from a quick walk by the rim to a multi-day backpacking trip. For a first-time visitor, I recommend a medium option of staying for a couple of days. That will give you time for some hiking, spotting wildlife, and of course taking in the gorgeous views. (Check out my itineraries below.)

This post is focused on the South Rim, the area where most visitors see the Grand Canyon. It’s about a 1.5 hour drive northwest of Flagstaff, AZ. Other major cities you might fly to are Phoenix (3.5 hrs) and Las Vegas (4.5 hrs). 

Basic Information 

The park is open 24 hrs a day, year round. Admission is $35 per car, but consider buying a National Parks annual pass for $80 if you’re visiting other National Parks areas. There are lots of them in Arizona. 

Grand Canyon’s South Rim area has two entrances: the main south entrance and the less-traveled east entrance. Most of the park’s visitor centers, lodges, shops, etc. are grouped around a central Grand Canyon Village near the south entrance. There are shuttle buses that run between the main parking areas and places of interest (check the NPS website for schedules).

If you come via the east entrance, you’ll find a cafe and shop at the Desert View area. This is a great option if you want to do the scenic drive and stop at many overlooks along the way.

Download the park’s official app for a quick guide to all the facilities.

When to Go

The best times to visit the Grand Canyon’s south rim are during spring from April to May or during fall from September to October. Summer brings bigger crowds and high temperatures (like over 100F in the canyon). In winter, you’ll have cold temperatures and snow, plus some facilities will be closed.

Things to Do

Scenic driving – The main event at the Grand Canyon is the awe-inspiring view from the rim. For some of the best spots, take Desert View Drive from the east entrance to Grand Canyon Village and make stops along the way. Check out the iconic spots like Desert View Watchtower and Mather Point, but also take some time to explore the in-between places with fewer crowds. There are no bad views of the Grand Canyon! 

Hiking – Hiking in the Grand Canyon comes to two flavors: the Rim Trail and all the trails below the rim. The Rim Trail is easy and mostly flat, with incredible views the whole way. The trial is 13 miles long in all, but you can easily pick a shorter stretch between two landmarks.  

Hiking below the rim is not so easy, but the steep trails offer an incredible perspective on the Grand Canyon. You can see the sculpted layers of rock up close and find lots of wildlife hiking down into the canyon. Planning your hike is key. For beginners I recommend hiking the Bright Angel Trail or the South Kaibab Trail, turning around at the first stopping point (Mile-and-a-Half Rest House or Ooh Aah Point, respectively). Check out the NPS website for details and safety information.

Wildlife watching – If you spend any kind of time at the park, you’ll see some of the wildlife like elk, mule deer, and bighorn sheep. You can talk to the park rangers for advice on where and when to find different animals. Always stay a safe distance away from wild animals (bring a camera with zoom).

Exploring Grand Canyon Village – I didn’t get to much of this due to limited time and some pandemic closures. But you should!  Check out the lobby of the El Tovar hotel, a grand lodge that opened in 1905. Nearby is Verkamp’s Visitor Center (the larger visitor center has been closed since early in the pandemic) and Kolb Studio, which has exhibits on photography at the canyon and a gallery of photos. Head back toward the south entrance to find the Yavapai Geology Museum. It tells the story of how the canyon was formed over millions of years.

Star gazing – As of 2019, the Grand Canyon is certified as an International Dark Sky Park. That’s a fancy way of saying it gets really dark at night, so dark you can see tons of stars and even the Milky Way. Take a short stroll to the rim and look up for an unforgettable view. 

Where to Stay

The best places to stay are in the park. Grand Canyon National Park has 5 lodges situated around the village area, as well as the historic El Tovar Hotel. Check them out! I stayed at the Yavapai Lodge, a utilitarian place, but comfy and well-maintained. 

Camping is also an option. Grand Canyon Village has a campground and an RV village area. There’s also a campground at Desert View Point. Advance reservations are required. 

Staying inside the park, you’ll get to hang around after the day trippers have left and enjoy the magic of the canyon in the off hours. Wanna catch a sunrise? Just roll out of bed and walk for a few minutes. Book early, because these places are in demand.

If you can’t manage to stay in the park, nearby Tusayan has lots of options. Don’t worry, it’s a short drive.

Grand Canyon Itineraries

1 Day or less – To make the most of one day, plan to spend most of your time at the overlooks and fit in one good hike. An easy option is to hike along the Rim Trail. You could start at Mather Point near the main visitor center and hike west to the village, for example. More ambitious hikers can add a small part of the Bright Angel Trail. Even half a mile on this incredible trail is worth it!

After hiking, grab lunch and check out part of Grand Canyon Village, like Verkamp Visitor Center or Kolb Studio. Whatever you choose, end your day back at the rim to soak in the views. 

2 Days – The best option, in my opinion. On Day 1, take it easy with a scenic drive along Desert View Drive. Stop at the overlooks and check out the visitor center before making it back to your hotel. You can add a bit of hiking along the Rim Trail if you have time.

On Day 2, get up early for a hike down into the canyon. Take either the Bright Angel Trail or the South Kaibab Trail, and set a goal of how far you plan to hike. Be warned: it’s twice as hard hiking back up! Spend your afternoon recovering from that hike. Then, head over to Mather Point to take in the incredible views as you head toward sunset.

3 Days or more – With a third day, you can add another day hike and/or check out more places in Grand Canyon Village. After that, I recommend moving on to see other parks nearby. On my trip, we packed up and drove down to Sedona.

Grand Canyon Travel Tips

  • Get the Grand Canyon app. The National Parks Service has an official app for all the parks, but there’s a standalone app for GCNP. Download the content so you don’t have to worry about cellular reception!
  • Hiking safety is particularly important when hiking into the Grand Canyon. The trails are exhausting, and it can be much hotter in the canyon than at the rim. The park has a great guide to hiking safety. Plan ahead so you don’t end up as one of the hundreds of people each year who need ranger assistance to make it back.
  • The Canyon Village Market is the park’s general store, and it’s surprisingly well stocked. Stop in to grab lunch to-go and pick up any last-minute supplies.
  • Parking near the trailheads can fill up. Get there early or use the shuttle system.

Did I miss something? Let me know!

Further Reading

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