When it comes to bucket list destinations, the Grand Canyon tops many. Indeed, this jaw-dropping gorge is a mile deep, 277 miles long and 18 miles wide. Now, that’s a big hole!
Grand Canyon National ParkGrand Canyon National Park is the most visited gorge on earth with about 5 million annual visitors. Established as a national park on February 26, 1919, it encompasses 1904 square miles. While that’s not the whole gorge, it’s still pretty immense. The Grand Canyon was designated as a UNESCO world heritage site in 1979. And it’s no wonder, with its geologic record spanning all four eras of the earth’s evolutionary history. Flora and fauna species within the canyon walls also portray five of North America’s seven life zones.
Where are the Entrances to the Grand Canyon National Park?The itinerary I planned for our visit to the Grand Canyon started by exploring a number of Utah’s amazing parks. Since we’d be entering the Grand Canyon from the North, I intended to explore the North Rim. However, that entrance is closed over winter due to heavy snowfalls. While we visited after May 15th, when it normally opens, the entrance was still closed due to more snow than average the previous winter. Driving around to the East Entrance Station, which gets you into the park at the South Rim, took awhile. In fact, while you can hike the 21 miles (34 km) across the Grand Canyon floor from the North to the South rim, it’s a 4.5 hour drive of 220 miles (354 km) through the Navajo Nation in Arizona. The South Entrance Station, on the other hand, is directly south of the Visitor Center, so we left the park for the night that way. The South Entrance is 80 miles/130 km from Flagstaff, Arizona. Both the East and South entrances are open year-round, 24/7. For those visiting from Las Vegas and area, the West Entrance admits you to the Tourism Area of the Hualapai Nation. It’s also open year-round.
Which Grand Canyon Rim is Best?The North Rim of the Grand Canyon has the least services to go with its shorter season and higher elevations. On the other hand, if you’re not a fan of the heat, the higher elevation means summertime temperatures are around 10 degrees cooler. You’ll find few services here, but it’s only 80 miles (130 km) north to Kanab with lots of accommodation and dining options.
South RimWhile the South Rim has more to offer visitors during the busy season, we found many places still closed in mid-May. When open, there are numerous hotels, bars/lounges, coffee shops, and gift shops to choose from. There’s also the Yavapai Geology Museum, and the Desert View Watchtower. There’s also a free shuttle to help you navigate the park during peak season. And if you want an adventure, you’ll also find jeep, mule, and helicopter tours in full season.
West RimThe West Rim offers a whole different set of adventures for those entering from the Las Vegas side. In addition to the usual amenities you’ll find:
- Horseshow-shaped skywalk that sticks out 70 ft over the canyon, giving you a clear view 4000 ft (120 m) straight down
- Zipline that runs for 3200 ft (975 m) just 500 ft above the canyon floor, so you’ll fly at up to 40 mph (65 kph)
- Helicoptor tours
- Pontoon boat tours
Where Should You Stay When You Visit the Grand Canyon?Our visit didn’t go as planned due to the late spring, so we decided to bite the bullet and stay at Tusayan, just outside the South Entrance Station. Had it not been so late in the day, we’d have driven to Williams (53 mi / 85 km) or Flagstaff. However, I was sad to miss all that Williams, AZ, has to offer (historic buildings, wild west shows and other events, along with Route 66 memorabilia. Likewise, if we’d been able to visit the North Rim, my plan had been to backtrack into Utah towards out next stops, Canyonlands National Park and Arches National Park. If you’re entering from the west, you can always head back to Henderson or Las Vegas, Nevada. Or, you’d also have the option to go south to I-40, with all its services.
Stay in TusayanBut back to our stay in Tusayan–it was fine, although on the pricey side, which is to be expected in a popular tourist area. We stayed at the Holiday Inn & Suites (comfy and very helpful staff) and dined at the Squire Pub & Social (slow service and average meal). If you visit during busy season, you can leave your vehicle in the village and take the shuttle bus to the Grand Canyon Visitor Center.
Grand Canyon South Rim — Desert View — Overlooking the CanyonEntering Grand Canyon National Park from the East Entrance Station takes you in along Desert View Drive. The very first stop is the Desert View Watchtower. While there’s a lot of parking, it’s a 1/4 mile (1/2 km) from the closest area to the viewpoint, so isn’t a great stop for anyone with mobility issues. However, if you’re interested in history, the Desert View Watchtower is a must-see. Now a National Historic Landmark, the Tower was built in 1932. From there you’ll see the Colorado River widen from Marble Canyon to the north into the much wider, broader expanse of Grand Canyon. As you continue on Desert View Drive, there are six developed canyon viewpoints with parking. You can even park right next to some of them or the five unmarked pullouts, so there’s a way for everyone to look way-way down. If you’re visiting during busy season, though, do take the trolley as the parking lots are quite small.
Last ThoughtsSo, why is the Grand Canyon so popular? Well, the view is unparalled, for sure. Plus, it’s a geological phenomenon known as the Great Unconformity, in which 250 million-year-old rock strata lie back-to-back with 1.2 billion-year-old rocks. That’s a lot of geological history in one place. And finally, was I glad I’d modified our itinerary to finally see the Grand Canyon after many trips through Nevada and Utah and Arizona? Yes. Like the 11 tribes that have cultural connections to the area, I found its mysteries and wonders awe-inspiring.
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