Updated: May 21, 2015
Grand Canyon National ParkThe Grand Canyon is one of the natural wonders of the world, and it was established as a National Park in 1919. The product of millions of years of sedimentation (the canyon area used to be under an ancient sea!), geological uplift, and erosion by the Colorado River and other tributaries, the Grand Canyon is like a living canvas of artwork created by the Earth. How old is the Grand Canyon? The upper layer of rocks, Kaibab limestone, is 270 million years old, while the bottom of the canyon (Vishnu basement rocks) dates to 1.8 billion years ago. Most people see the canyon from the various lookout points that dot the southern rim. Some brave souls hike or take mule rides down into the canyon, while the real daring ones take white water rafting trips down the Colorado River right through the heart of the canyon. However you choose to see it, the trip will likely be one of the most memorable experiences in your life. Read on below to learn about visiting the park, where to stay, Grand Canyon maps, photos, and much more.
Getting to the Grand CanyonGrand Canyon National Park is located about 300 miles from Las Vegas, in northern Arizona. From Flagstaff, it is a little over 1 hour. Most visitors come to the southern rim of the canyon, where most of the park facilities are located. There is also a northern rim accessible from southern Utah (closed during the winter months). If you are visiting Las Vegas, you can arrange a plane or helicopter tour of the Grand Canyon, making for a much quicker trip than driving all the way out. Plane trips are much more expensive that driving, but the sights are better than anything you will see from ground level. If you aren't planning to hike into the canyon, the truth is you can't do a whole lot more than just stand along the various viewpoints and "look" at the Grand Canyon. Yes, it is beautiful, but the activities are limited. So a one day trip to the park from Las Vegas is totally doable. The best times to see the canyon is around sunset or sunrise (sunset is better) when the slanting light of the low sun lights up the canyon walls. The mid-day sun tends to wash out the colors and depth of the canyon, unless you are lucky enough to get a mix of puffy clouds to bring some shadows and light to the canyon.
Getting Around the Grand Canyon - TransportationUnfortunately, they are in the process of implementing a free mass tranportation bus system at the Grand Canyon - the whole part of the southern rim park west of Grand Canyon Village is now accessible only via the bus system -- Hermit's Rest, Mohave Point, Hopi Point, etc. As an example of how well the bus system works, they advise you to allot 2 hours for the 16 mile round trip bus ride on Hermit Road -- yeah, that's less than 10 miles per hour. The main visitor center is located across from Mather Point -- yet you can't drive or park there! Talk about a great bureaucrats idea! The National Park service wants to convince us of the terrible traffic and congestion problems that REQUIRE bus service as an alternative, but it's just not true. Having visited almost all of the National Parks in the country, often during the busiest summer months, we've never encountered a serious traffic problem - certainly getting to and around your local mall is much worse. Having an optional bus system is one thing, but forcing everyone to drag their entire family on and off the bus all day is just not acceptable. Anyways, most people coming into the park from the Flagstaff area end up at Grand Canyon Village. The Village is a pretty compact area, spanning about a 1 mile area. The Market Plaza near Yavapai Point is home to the general store, post office, gift shop, etc. The Yavapai lodge is also right here. There is plenty of parking. The main Grand Canyon campground, Mather Campground, is also located just around the corner. If you follow the road westward out of the Market Plaza, you end up at the main lodging area of the Park, where the remaining hotels and cabins are located. Heading east will take you out the Desert View drive to the East Entrance of the park, and out into Arizona again. TIP: The Grand Canyon park entrance fee is now $20 per vehicle. Look into getting a Golden Eagle Pass if you plan on visiting more parks during the year - cost is $50 for unlimited park entries for one year.
Grand Canyon Activities - Vacation PlanningThere are a number of Ranger-led programs and walks available at the Grand Canyon. The Sunrise at Mather Point is a popular event, meeting 30 minutes before sunrise (bring your flashlight!) at the Overlook. At the Visitor Center you can learn about the geology of the canyon, or you can take a ranger Geology Walk from the Yavapai Observation station -- it is a 1/2 mile walk on a paved trail that takes about 1 hour, leaving daily at 11AM (check park schedule when you get there to confirm time). They even offer a number of kids programs, llike a story time adventure and Kids Rock. Check the newspaper-like guide you get when you arrive at the park for current events and schedules. Hiking in the Grand Canyon is very strenuous any time of the year, but especially during the heat of the summer months. Temperatures inside the canyon are often 20-30 degrees hotter that at the rim, and there is little shade. Avoid the noontime hours (hike in the early morning or evening) and take plenty of food and water with you - plan about 1 liter of water for every hour of hiking. It also takes twice as long to walk up as it does to walk down - so if you have 3 hours to hike, plan on 1 hour down and 2 hours up. Remember that canyon trails are also used by mules, and mules have the right of way on the narrow trails. Always step aside to the uphill side of the trail and listen to the mule wrangler for any instructions - don't get back on the trail until the last of the mules is 50 feet past you. Keep in mind that the canyon rim sits at almost 7000 feet above sea level - breathing will be more difficult, so take your time and don't push yourself too hard when walking. Summer temperatures are between the 50s and the 80s, while winter temps drop into the 20's-50's.
Grand Canyon MapsFor a map of the overall Grand Canyon area, click here. For a closer up view of the Grand Canyon Park, including locations of viewpoints, lodging, etc., click here. These are the official National Park Service maps.
Grand Canyon Food and Lodging - Grand Canyon HotelsThere are a number of lodging options when it comes to visiting the Grand Canyon. The main lodge is called El Tovar Hotel, located right along the rim of the canyon. Room rates are $134-$304. Also located right along the rim is the Kachina Lodge ($125-$136), Thunderbird Lodge ($125-$136), Bright Angel Lodge ($52-$134). These are all located near the western edge of the village, with nice walking and sitting areas right along the rim of the Grand Canyon. The Yavapai Lodge ($96-$113) is located near the market area, and is more like standard motel lodging. You can walk to the canyon (about 1/4 mile) from Yavapai, and also back to the market area for shopping, groceries, etc. It is recommended that you get reservations when planning your trip to the Grand Canyon - rooms can book up quickly during the busy months, and you'll have to head 30 miles south of the Park to find additional lodging options. Tusayan is the closest lodging outside the Grand Canyon, featuring the Grand Hotel, Holiday Inn Express, Quality Inn, and Red Feather Lodge. To book rooms inside the park, you can call Xanterra at 888-297-2757, or visit their website at GrandCanyonLodges.com. The Arizona Room restaurant is located next to the Bright Angel Lodge and offers scenic dining over the rim - the window seats have the best view. No reservations are allowed, first come first served only. The El Tovar Dining Room is the nicest dining option in the park, with classic southwest fare and more expensive prices. There is a cafeteria at the Maswik Lodge and Yavapai market plaza for simple, quick food options. The last dining option is the Bright Angel Restaurant at the Bright Angel Lodge.
Grand Canyon camping is available at the Mather Campground. No hookups are available and cost is $18 per night on a first come first served basis. Some sites are available via reservation - call 800-365-2267. There is also a trailer village next to Mather - sites are $24 per night for 2 people. Reservations are through Xanterra at 888-297-2757.