Of all the parks in the US Park System, the Grand Canyon is the most well known but equally misunderstood. With around six million visitors every year, the park is the second most visited in the US, beaten only by Great Smokey Mountains National Park. That being said, it might be one of the least explored.
Most people have an image of the Grand Canyon in their head, either from a postcard or photo they’ve seen online, when busloads of visitors jump off their rides into one of the natural wonders of the world, the vast majority snap a quick photo, buy a mug and hop back onto their coach. The biggest surprise for me was how empty the campsites are, and how clear the trails get once you walk more than ten minutes in.
If you visit the Grand Canyon as part of a road trip, you might be tempted to do a quick day visit or perhaps two, our advice is to ignore that urge, this, like many of the best parks, deserves more time than you would assume. Here’s our guide, map and some hiking routes to try when you’re there. If you find this useful, feel free to check out our guides to some of the other National Parks here.
Here’s your perfect route, described in detail in the article below:
Where to stay:
If you’re going to have a true Grand Canyon experience then you need to get a spot in a campsite. Camping in the park is an unforgettable experience (and way better than paying ludicrous lodge prices or commuting hours every day).
Desert View Campground
This was our personal first choice. It is a wonderful picture perfect setting for your camping experience. Spacious plots mean you have abundant privacy, birds soar above, campfire pits allow for great roaring cookouts at night and the facilities are excellent.
Across from the grounds entrance is the Grand Canyon visitor’s center for the Desert View Watchtower, a cool looking structure which celebrates the Ancient Pueblo Peoples architectural style. The store downstairs provides basic foods and supplies, and you’ll enjoy watching the sunset over the canyon lighting the tower as it drops.
Arriving here even in peak season, won’t be an issue. With a walk-in policy, we found plenty of empty spaces in mid-August, arrive by 10am and you will drive straight to a nice space to make your own.
Temperatures in the Grand Canyon are generally lower than elsewhere in the region as the altitude of the canyon rim is way above the surrounding area. While it hit 120f on our way into the park, the campsite was a pleasant 90f and we had lovely nights in the tent (unlike our sweat-drenched nights in Zion!).
Other campgrounds include Cotton Creek, which is a forested site along a small creek, Indian Garden and Horn Creek, which is a little hotter, but close to the rim further west and less accessible. Both of these sites you must hike to reach, and are useful only if you are planning a good hike into the canyon with minimal gear. Mather Campground is easy to reach but busy as it’s by the main visitor center.
Where to view:
If you drive along the Grand Canyon main road on the south rim, you’ll encounter lookout points every few minutes. If you’re staying in Desert View Campground, the first place to go view the canyon will be right next to you. Take a walk to the edge of the canyon by the watchtower and then head slightly off the main trail We found an excellent spot about forty meters from a ranger presentation area.
I snuck down and perched with a camera and tripod to watch the craziest storm come in, with the sun powering through the clouds as a curtain of rain and mist shrouded the rocky cliffs in the distance.
Further west you’ll hit Navajo Point and then Moran Point, two excellent lookouts, which gave more some stunning landscapes to shoot in the early morning.
Grand Viewpoint is a nice spot for morning and evening shots, giving you more sweeping vistas, but it does get extremely crowded, be prepped for coach loads of Indian and Chinese tourists standing with selfie sticks in all the wrong places, even in the early morning.
Keep moving west and you’ll get to the visitor’s center, which is well worth a look, especially if you like to collect your parks stamps like we do… Yavapai Point is the main attraction here, if you can squeeze past the tour bus hoards, to get sweeping vistas of the Grand Canyon and Colorado River.
Where to hike:
The South Rim Trail
This is a well maintained, mostly flat trail which takes you (as the name suggests) along the canyon rim. It’s a nice place to start, allowing you some epic views and to stretch your legs while not really putting you out of breath. Even this trail, with its ease and accessibility, will take you away from 99% of the park visitors and provide you with some peaceful, solitary hiking time.
Bright Angel Trail
This is one of the most famous trails in the national park, taking intrepid hikers from the edge of the south rim, zigzagging down the canyon all the way to the Colorado River. The trailhead is located on Canyon Village Loop Drive, and can be accessed via the shuttle. You can also walk to the trailhead by heading west from the visitor center along the South Rim Trail, mentioned above.
South Kaibab Trail
This is another fun trail to hit, just a few miles east of the visitor center and village. Leave the main road just after you pass Pipe Creek Vista, and drive up to the trailhead. This is not an easy walk, so only attempt it if you have good hiking boots, stamina and like any hike in Grand Canyon, plenty of water.
The Grand Canyon is such an epic place for photographers and hikers alike. Spend a good few days here, stay up late with a roaring campfire, get up early to see the sunrise over the canyon and hike around the area every day. American outdoors doesn’t get much better than this!