Perhaps no natural wonder on Earth is as recognizable as the Grand Canyon. It has been said that it is the one place on the planet that, no matter how high one builds it up in one’s mind, lives up to expectations. Iconic, magnificent, Grand Canyon is a bucket list item for just about every traveler. And yet, despite all of the publicity, Grand Canyon National Park can be difficult to approach from a planning standpoint. After all, for the 90% of us who have no intention – or ability – to hike down into the depths of the canyon, what is there to do once one has stood at the rim and gazed in wonder at billions of years of geological history opened up before you?
For most visitors to the Grand Canyon, the south rim is the destination of choice. The south rim is open year round; the north rim is only open from Memorial Day to Labor Day. The south rim has several lodges inside the park and several hotels right outside the gates; the north rim has a single lodge and no other full-service accommodations within an hour or two drive.
Grand Canyon’s south rim sits on Arizona Highway 64, which links I-40 at Williams with US 89 at Cameron, entering the park from the south at Grand Canyon Village and exiting at Desert View in the east. The overwhelming majority of visitors enter from the south, and during peak season, mid-day entrance lines can be well over an hour long. Likewise, parking in Grand Canyon Village, while plentiful, can fill up. Travelers looking for a bargain who choose to stay in Williams, about an hour outside the park, can easily find themselves struggling both to get in and to find a parking spot if they don’t get a very early start. For that reason, if you are unable to stay inside the park at one of the lodges, staying just outside the gates is recommended, making a 9am entrance easier.
Once parked, you’ll find it a challenge to drive around the village, as parking will fill up. For this reason, Grand Canyon’s south rim has a rather good shuttle system. During peak season, there are four lines, all converging in the village. One line takes you outside the park gates (although that is currently not running due to Covid). One line circles the village. A third line drives the rim to the west, and a fourth to the east. It should be noted, though, that due to Covid restrictions, shuttles are currently operating with only room for fifteen or so guests, so lines can back up. (On my most recent trip, taking the Orange route back to the village from the South Kaibab Trailhead meant a nearly 45 minute wait, and those wanting to get on at subsequent stops were mostly out of luck unless one already on the shuttle exited.)
The most iconic view from the Grand Canyon’s south rim is at Mather Point, located just behind the Grand Canyon Visitor Center. Named for Stephen Mather, first director of the National Parks Service – and the main reason the service exists at all, Mather Point is the “postcard” view of the canyon. It is crowded, as pretty much everything at the village is, but easily worth a visit. From here, one can gaze nearly twenty miles across the canyon, and down a mile to the bottom. The staggering dimensions of Grand Canyon are apparent from anywhere, but from here more than at any other viewpoint.
For the best experience at the south rim, one must try to escape the crowds that are constant around the village and Mather Point. For this, the rim trail is just the thing. It is exactly as it sounds, a trail along the rim of the canyon, stretching a few miles east and several to the west. As the remainder of Grand Canyon Village lies to the west, head east. The trail is paved and flat, an easy walk, and the views change around each turn. You may even share the experience with an elk or two!
East of Grand Canyon Village, the rim trail ends into the South Kaibab Trailhead, one of the main trails heading down to the bottom. While you can easily walk a bit down just to experience it, for the full experience you’ll need to leave at dawn. It is a long, steep, and dangerous hike – lack of shade and water make it especially hard on hikers – so I don’t recommend adding it spontaneously to your itinerary. However, from the trailhead, you can catch the shuttle back to the village, removing the necessity of an additional few mile walk back.
Most people make the mistake of stopping here. They drive in from the south, catch the view from Mather Point, and maybe walk the rim trail for a bit. Do yourself a favor and drive out (or in) the east entrance, and stop at Desert View. While the view here is great, it is not as spectacular as those further west; this is, after all, one end of the Grand Canyon. However, it is less crowded, beautiful, and home to the Desert View Watchtower, an iconic observation tower designed by Mary Colter in 1932 to mimic ancestral Pueblan architecture. It is stunning, and makes for another truly incredible photo opportunity.
One need not spend too much time at the Grand Canyon. A single full day is enough, unless you’re hiking down (and back up). But do yourself a favor and see a bit more than just Mather Point and the village. You’ll come back having a much more fulfilling trip.
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