The Grand Canyon is located in northwest Arizona. There’s really not a better way to describe it than that because it takes up so much of the northwest portion of Arizona. It’s huge! It’s the canyon by which all others in the world are measured.
Nonetheless, the primary visitor access is on the western side along the Southern Rim. The Northern Rim can be accessed during the summer, but only through a series of backcountry roads where a 4×4 would be almost necessary. Also, the Northern Rim doesn’t have the series of visitor services that the Southern Rim offers.
The two main access routes to the Grand Canyon’s Southern Rim are State Highway 64 from Route 89 to the east (you take 64-West at the Cameron intersection) or U.S. Highway 180 from Flagstaff to the south. Either direction will take you through a loop that comes out the other direction if you want to continue through without backtracking.
The Grand Canyon was made primarily by the Colorado River, though several other major rivers (the Kanab and the Little Colorado) empty into it and the canyons those rivers make are similarly impressive though on a smaller scale. Though we didn’t get the chance to experience it, rafting expeditions can be taken on the Colorado River and through the Grand Canyon. Some of the rapids are supposed to be rough enough that a person needs to be quite experienced before attempting to raft the Colorado River here and reservations need to be made well in advance.
Grand Canyon National Park has plenty of places for lodging and camping but it all depends on what you want. The hotel-style lodging, which is in the “Grand Canyon Village” (the northwestern-most stretch of 64) is very expensive and crowded. Reservations need to be made very well in advance, sometimes years. Parking is limited and you’ll be limited to the Grand Canyon Shuttle, a free but fairly slow and crowded public transportation system.
For camping, there are large campgrounds near the village that are more expensive, crowded and have the same other problems as the hotel-style lodging in Grand Canyon Village. Or there’s a smaller, more private campground in the area called “Desert View” near the eastern end of the national park. If you’re in an RV, only the transportation issue probably matters and you can probably manage even near the Grand Canyon Village. But if you’re tent-camping, the greatest sense of privacy and wilderness is usually what you’re looking for and you’ll find that at Desert View. The only other option is a several-day hiking and backcountry camping trip down into the Grand Canyon and permits are required for that.
However, when camping in the Grand Canyon, they have strict rules about campfires. You can use camp stoves but you can only light a campfire within the fire ring at your campsite. Also, in an effort to preserve the park’s fragile ecology, wood gathering is not allowed within the park. You can bring your own wood or for a quick and easy fix, you can purchase wood to burn at one of the park’s several general stores. However, wood gathering is allowed just outside the park. Along the road to the east in Kaibab National Forest you can find quite a bit of fallen wood for a campfire.
The Grand Canyon is actually pretty easy to get some experience with very little effort. Near the eastern entrance at Desert View, there is a great scenic area and even a lookout tower which visitors can climb for the highest view on the Southern Rim. Also, all along the 10 miles or so of the Grand Canyon Village are wheelchair accessible lookout points and rim paths where you can constantly see the Grand Canyon as it winds around every cliff and turn along that stretch. Plus, the several visitor centers which can be accessed by car or shuttle can provide quite a bit of information and some very helpful and educational displays and diagrams.
One great aspect of the Grand Canyon is that it can turn any amateur photo-lover into a semi-professional photographer. The thing is so big, so immense, and stretches in so many directions, that pretty much any photograph you take of it is going to look wonderful. But real pro’s know that some of the best pictures are taken at sunsets and sunrise. From experience, I can tell you that Lipan point is the best place to be during sunset at the Grand Canyon. Try to get there a full 30 minutes before sunset and watch it slowly change the colors of everything around you.
But to really get a full experience of the Grand Canyon, you need to take one of the many paths down into the canyon. There are quite a few to choose from, ranging from fairly easy to very strenuous, but the same rule applies to all of them: what goes down must come up! So you have to keep in mind that however steep you climb down, you’ll be climbing just as steeply back up and that can always be strenuous. Also, most hikes even a little ways into the canyon feature trails with sheer drops on one side. This can seem daunting, but with caution and commonsense, you’ll be fine.
One common misconception among avid hikers is that someone in decent shape can simply hike down from the rim of the Grand Canyon to the Colorado River and back in one day. Grand Canyon National Park strongly recommends against that. Every year, hundreds of hikers have to be life-flighted out of the canyon and several die. Many of these are sturdy people in good shape. But they find themselves in this position because misconceptions prevail.
Although the temperature at the rim of the Grand Canyon (or any canyon) often seems cool and windy, temperatures and humidity within the canyon can be sweltering, soaring over 100 degrees! Many parts of the popular canyon trails also offer little shade. And just drinking water isn’t good enough. If a person has too much water, but too little salty foods and other electrolyte-providing substances, their body can’t hold the water and the opposite effects of dehydration can be just as bad or worse. And people forget that although they’ve gone down a trail in a short amount of time, it will take almost twice the time to work their way back up those steep paths.
Even those hikers who’ve been well prepared and in great shape have been so exhausted by the hike to the bottom of the canyon and back up that they completely forgot to enjoy the experience and often have been worn out for the following week. So remember to take a pace you can enjoy and take lots of water and salty foods and you can avoid the nasty experiences that other hikers have had.
We personally found that a short several-mile hike down Grandview trail was an enjoyable and mostly private experience. Many of the other trails are a little less steep on the return climb, but they have to be shared with mules and thousands of other hikers. We waited until the late afternoon to begin our hike so it was shaded and we only encountered about 10-15 other hikers along the way. Also, we were told by one of the park’s rangers that for a short morning or afternoon hike into the canyon, the Grandview trail provides the best views. Regardless of the trail you choose, the gain in perspective from a short hike down into the canyon really gives an invaluable expansion to the overall Grand Canyon experience.
The Grand Canyon Village also offers much more than just lodging opportunities. All the major attractions are along the rim and they include shopping for souvenirs, rustic gifts and Native American crafts. You’ll also find several art galleries, including the houses of some of the more historically-prominent Grand Canyon artists. And there is plenty to eat within the village, from fancy fare to simple deli’s or full-sized grocery stores where you can buy the food to make your own meal. One of my favorite experiences in Grand Canyon Village was a Navajo tribal dance that is performed twice daily against the backdrop of the Grand Canyon.
The Grand Canyon is a fabulous sight and a great national park. Pictures really don’t do it any sort of justice; this is something you just have to see in person. I don’t know if there’s anything else on earth with this kind of scale and massiveness and you can’t sense the depth without being there. There’s really no surprise that it’s one of the most-visited and most photographed places in the US or the world. But take my advice, or that of a park ranger, to make your visit smooth and exceptional.