The Ultimate Travel Guide to Grand Canyon National Park

Grand Canyon National Park
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No matter how many photos you’ve seen, your first visit to Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona will take your breath away. This massive gorge along the Colorado River is considered one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World. With nearly 6 million visitors every year, the Grand Canyon is the United States’ second most popular national park.

In this article, we’ll provide you with all the essential information you need to plan your visit to this incredible place and cover the park’s history and interesting facts.

History

Early History

Humans have lived in the area around the Grand Canyon since the last Ice Age. Archaeologists discovered spear points dating back nearly 12,000 years, with these findings representing the earliest evidence of human presence in the canyon.

Over time, many different groups have lived in the area that is now the park, farmed the land, hunted, and built cliff dwellings. These groups include the Cohonina, Cerbat, and Ancestral Pueblo people (also known as Anasazi), and later the Paiute, Navajo, Zuni, and Hopi tribes. Today, the Hualapai and Havasupai people call the Grand Canyon their ancestral home. They have lived in the area for over 800 years.

In the 1540s, Spanish explorers, assisted by Hopi guides, became the first Europeans to lay eyes on the Grand Canyon. However, it wasn’t until around 300 years later that settlers became interested in the area.

In 1848, the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo at the end of the Mexican-American War transferred the Grand Canyon to the United States. In the decades that followed, various expeditions were organized to map the Colorado River and survey the area.

Early European settlers ventured to the Grand Canyon in the 1880s with the hope of discovering copper, lead, and zinc. Although they did find mineral deposits, the terrain made extracting ore from this area exceedingly difficult. As a result, prospectors quickly realized that the site showed much more promise as a tourist destination than a mining hub.

Becoming a National Park

When the Atlantic and Pacific Railroads reached Flagstaff and Williams, Arizona, in the 1880s, tourists began coming to the Grand Canyon. In 1882, there was an attempt to establish the area as a national park, but it was unsuccessful. A year later, however, the park was protected as federal land when President Benjamin Harrison designated it a forest reserve with Presidential Proclamation #45.

It wasn’t until the Santa Fe Railroad was completed in 1901 that tourism to the Grand Canyon started to boom. The railroad connected the city of Flagstaff, Arizona, with Grand Canyon Village, making it easier to reach the park.

When President Theodore Roosevelt visited the park in 1903, he set aside several areas as a federal game reserve to protect it as a pristine hunting destination for generations to come. Five years later, Roosevelt established the park as a national monument, and in 1919, the Grand Canyon became a national park.

Although it’s been protected as part of the national park system for over a century, the park didn’t reach its current size until 1975. On January 3, the United States Congress passed the Grand Canyon National Park Enlargement Act to further protect the area’s outstanding scenic, natural, and scientific values.

Grand Canyon National Park Rim to Rim View

Key Facts about Grand Canyon National Park

Size: 4,926.08 km2 (1,901.972 square miles)

Number of visitors: around 6 million annual visitors

Established on: 26 February 1919

Highest point: Point Imperial on the North Rim at 2,683 meters (8,803 feet) above sea level

Lowest point: Phantom Ranch on the canyon floor at 731 meters (2,400 feet) above sea level

Other interesting facts about the Grand Canyon:

  • The Grand Canyon is a maximum of 1,829 meters (6,000 feet) deep, 446 km (277 miles) long, and 29 km (18 miles) wide. The average width is 16 km (10 miles), and the average depth is 1.6 km (1 mile). The canyon is 183 meters (600 feet) wide at its narrowest point, Marble Canyon.
  • The earliest record of the name “Grand Canyon” is a map from 1868. The term was popularized by explorer and Civil War Veteran John Wesley Powell, who led an expedition to map the Colorado River.
  • The Grand Canyon was the United States’ 15th site to be dedicated as a national park.
  • The park has been protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 26 October 1979, due to its geological significance, natural beauty, and diversity of environments, flora, and fauna. The exposed rock layers retrace more than 2 billion years of geological history and represent the four major geologic eras: Precambrian, Paleozoic, Mesozoic, and Cenozoic.
  • The Grand Canyon was carved by the Colorado River around 6 million years ago.
  • 94% of the park’s territory is managed as wilderness.
  • Grand Canyon National Park is second only to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in terms of annual visitors.
  • There are 335 recorded caves within the Grand Canyon and an estimated 700 or so more. Only one of these caves, the Cave of the Domes on Horseshoe Mesa, is open to the public.
  • Grand Canyon National Park is larger than the state of Rhode Island (3,139 km2 / 1,212 square miles).
  • The national park is home to 91 species of mammals, 373 species of birds, 17 species of fish, 57 species of reptiles and amphibians, 8,480 known species of invertebrates, and over 1,700 species of plants.
  • Today, visitors spend three to four hours inside Grand Canyon National Park on average, but a century ago, an average visitor would stay in the park for two to three weeks.
  • There are over 4,800 archeological sites in the Grand Canyon, with many more estimated to lie within its territory. Researchers have only surveyed about 3% of the park’s total area.
  • Of all the wildlife in the Grand Canyon, the rock squirrel causes the most injuries to visitors. The squirrel is known to bite those that attempt to feed it. Visitors to wilderness areas should never approach any animal nor try to feed them.

Climate and Weather

Grand Canyon National Park has five different climate zones ranging from Cold Semi-Arid to Hot Summer Mediterranean. There is also a huge change in elevation within its borders, stretching from 731 meters (2,400 feet) on the canyon floor to 2,683 meters (8,803 feet) at the North Rim.

As a result, there is significant variation in weather and climate within the territory of Grand Canyon National Park. The North Rim is one of the coolest, wettest, and highest areas in the region, while Phantom Ranch is one of the hottest, driest, and lowest. In general, visitors can expect the temperature to increase by about 3°C (5.5°F) with each 305-meter (1,000-feet) loss in elevation.

More information about what to expect in each season is available below. Unless otherwise specified, the average temperatures listed are for the South Rim.

Summer (June to August)

The summer months are the hottest time of year in the Grand Canyon. Highs at the South Rim are usually around 27-32°C (in the 80s Fahrenheit), but on the canyon floor it can easily reach over 38°C (100+°F). Highs at the North Rim are cooler, and hover around 21-26°C (in the 70s Fahrenheit) during the day, with overnight lows sometimes dropping below freezing. At the South Rim, lows typically range from 4-15°C (39 to 59°F), while on the canyon floor the temperature only drops to about 16-26°C (61-80°F) overnight.

Monsoon season runs from mid-July to early September in the Grand Canyon. While summer weather is usually quite nice and sunny, heavy intermittent rainfall and thunderstorms are possible, especially in July. These sudden storms are known to create dangerous lighting, flash floods, hail, and damaging winds.

Fall (September to November)

Autumn in the Grand Canyon sees cooler temperatures, with daytime highs at the South Rim reaching around 24°C (76°F) in September, 18°C (65°F) in October, and 11°C (52°F) in November, on average. Lows typically dip below freezing by November at the South Rim, but the canyon floor remains mild overnight throughout the fall.

Although fall is mostly dry, late summer thunderstorms and early winter snowstorms are possible, so plan accordingly.

Winter (December to February)

While most people picture the Grand Canyon as a hot desert, the winter months bring extreme weather, cold temperatures, and snow. Icy roads and trails, snowstorms, and weather-related closures are all possible. Although many days from December to February see mild temperatures and sunny skies, winter visitors should prepare for the extremes.

Average high temperatures at the South Rim are typically around 5°C to 7°C (in the low 40s Fahrenheit), with lows around -6°C to -8°C (18°F to 21°F). The North Rim sees slightly cooler weather, while temperatures on the canyon floor don’t typically drop below freezing even in the winter.

Spring (March to May)

Spring tends to be a very pleasant time in the Grand Canyon, with mostly mild, dry weather. Average high temperatures slowly rise from around 10°C (51°F) in March to 21°C (70°F) in May, with lows increasing from -4°C (25°F) to 4°C (39°F). Spring is often windy, with anything from a light breeze to gusts of 18 m/s (40 mph).

The weather can fluctuate during this transition season, so visitors should come prepared for a variety of conditions. Snowfall and frosts are possible in parts of the park throughout the spring, although they are less likely than in the winter months.

When to Visit

Many consider spring (March to May) and fall (September to November) to be the best times to visit the Grand Canyon, but each time of the year has something unique to offer. The best time for you to visit will depend on what activities interest you the most.

Although summer is the hottest time of year at the Grand Canyon, it’s also the most popular time to visit. The park sees long, sunny days and all facilities and trails are open for the season. Although weather-related closures are possible year-round, they are least likely in the summer. As a result, the South Rim and popular trails can get very crowded this time of year. If summer is your only option, try to hit the trails before 10am or head to the less crowded and cooler North Rim.

The transition seasons in the spring and fall are best for outdoor activities like hiking, camping, and backpacking. These times of year offer the possibility of a quieter visit and opportunities to view migrating wildlife (spring and fall), wildflowers (spring), and changing foliage (fall).

Winter is the quietest and most peaceful time of year to visit the South Rim. Much of the North Rim is closed for the winter, including the roads and facilities. Although it’s closed to vehicles, the North Rim is open to hikers, cross-country skiers, and snowshoers (backcountry permit required for overnight use) and offers a sense of solitude and remoteness that many visitors to the Grand Canyon don’t get to experience.

If you want to visit the North Rim by car, you should plan your visit between mid-May and mid-October. Road closures are weather-dependent, so check the park’s website for current conditions, alerts, closures, and more of the latest information before your trip.

Grand Canyon in Winter

Recommended Gear

A trip to the Grand Canyon doesn’t require any advanced or technical equipment. You’ll want to pack all the usual outdoor essentials and tailor your packing list according to the season and your chosen activities.

If you’re doing any multi-day hikes, camping, or trips to the backcountry, look at our backpacking checklist for more advice about what to bring when heading into the wilderness.

If you’re just planning to do some sightseeing and day hikes, then you can refer to our general Grand Canyon packing tips below. Here are some things you should plan to bring with you when visiting the Grand Canyon:

  • Sun protection: The Grand Canyon is high in elevation and sees lots of sunshine. Make sure to pack sunscreen, UPF clothing, a hat with a wide brim, bandana, sunglasses, and other protective items to shield yourself from the sun’s harmful rays.
  • Hydration system: This high desert climate tends to have very dry air, so make sure to pack a hydration system, including reusable water bottles or a hydration reservoir. Carry more water than you think you’ll need. This is especially important in the summer when temperatures soar to above 38°C (100°F) in the canyon.
  • Warm layers: Temperatures in the park vary greatly depending on the elevation and time of day. Even if you’re visiting in the summer, you’ll want to bring warm layers since it cools off at night. At the North Rim, it can even drop below freezing on summer nights.
  • Sturdy shoes or hiking boots: The terrain at the Grand Canyon is rugged, and sturdy shoes are a must even if you only plan on doing some sightseeing and light hiking.
  • Traction devices and trekking poles: If you visit in the early spring, late fall, or winter, bring traction devices for your shoes and trekking poles to get better grip on icy and snowy trails.
  • Waterproof clothing: Despite being a desert, the Grand Canyon can get heavy rainstorms, especially in the summer. Bring a waterproof and wind-resistant layer with you in case of bad weather.
  • Emergency whistle and signaling mirror: These items will help you get others’ attention in the event of an emergency.
  • Ten Essentials for hiking: Bringing these items with you whenever you head outdoors is a good habit. The Ten Essentials include navigation, headlamp or flashlight and extra batteries, sun protection, first aid kit, knife, lighter or matches and tinder, shelter, extra food, extra water, and extra clothes.

View into Zion Valley from Angel’s Landing

Things to Do in Grand Canyon National Park

Hiking and Backpacking

Hiking and backpacking are some of the best ways to appreciate the beauty and vastness of the Grand Canyon. No permits are required for day hikes, provided they are not commercial hiking trips.

There are hundreds of miles of trails within the park. Keep in mind that no routes into or out of the canyon are considered easy. Careful planning and adherence to safety measures are crucial when hiking in Grand Canyon National Park. Keep reading below for hiking safety tips and a selection of the best hikes in the park.

Hiking Safety in the Grand Canyon

The Grand Canyon is one of the United States’ most dangerous national parks. More than 250 people are rescued from the canyon each year, and the park has seen more visitor deaths (134) in the last ten years than any other US national park. As a result, familiarizing yourself with hiking safety protocols is essential when planning your visit to the Grand Canyon.

No matter what time of year you plan your hike, check the current trail conditions and backcountry updates for any potential dangers and closures. Hikers – no matter how experienced – should not attempt to hike from the canyon rim to the Colorado River and back up to the rim in a single day, especially between May and September when the area sees extreme heat.

The National Park Service recommends that summer hikers avoid hiking between 10am and 4pm when the sun is strongest and temperatures are highest. More summer hiking tips and precautions are available from the NPS here.

If you are hiking uphill in the sun, your body may need even more than 2 liters of water and electrolytes per hour in the Grand Canyon. Make sure to carry enough water with you for your chosen route and carefully plan your resupply stops on longer hikes.

Water is available year-round on the North Rim outside the Backcountry Information Center and on the South Rim at the Backcountry Information Center in the lobby. Locations for additional water bottle filling stations are available on the National Park Service’s Go “Green” and Refill Your Water Bottles website.

The NPS provides detailed information about the facilities and water refill stations on various backcountry trails here.

If you’re planning a winter hiking trip to the Grand Canyon, check out our winter hiking guide for tips on safety and preparation and the NPS’s winter hiking guidelines for the Grand Canyon.

Another thing to be mindful of when hiking in the Grand Canyon is mule trains. Hikers should always yield to mules, horses, and other animals since they can spook easily and are unpredictable. For more information about yielding rules when hiking, please see our trail etiquette article.

Best Hikes in Grand Canyon National Park

  • Bright Angel Trail to Plateau Point (South Rim): This steep, challenging trail begins west of Bright Angel Lodge. If you go all the way to Plateau Point, it’s a 19 km (12 mile) round trip. Watch out for ice on the upper section of the dirt trail in winter and spring. The trail is best from September to May and features spectacular views of the canyon. Turn back at Indian Garden Campground for a shorter, but still challenging 12.5 km (7.8 mile) version of this hike.
  • South Kaibab Trail to Cedar Ridge (South Rim): This moderate 4.8-km (3-mile) out-and-back trail offers unforgettable 360-degree views of the canyon. The steep trail has 366 meters (1,200 feet) of elevation gain. Because this trail sees fewer crowds than the Bright Angel Trail, it is a good alternative for those seeking a more solitary visit. Keep an eye out for mules and always yield to the animals. The best way to reach the trailhead is using a free shuttle bus.
  • Rim Trail – South Kaibab Trailhead to Hermits Rest (South Rim): The 21-km (13-mile) Rim Trail is a relatively flat and easy family-friendly hike. This route includes the Trail of Time, a short section that allows hikers to learn about the park’s geological history. Most of the trail is paved, making this a great hike for beginners. The trail can get crowded, especially during the high season. There are numerous shuttle bus stops along the way for those who wish to stop early.
  • Kaibab Trail Rim to Rim: This difficult multi-day hike is 37 km (23 miles) one way and a bucket list adventure for hikers in the Grand Canyon. It’s possible to do the hike in two or three days, but many recommend allowing four days for the best experience. This will give you plenty of time to enjoy the canyon’s grandeur and explore different areas of the park. The trail is best from May to October, but make sure to prepare for the extremely hot temperatures on the canyon floor.
  • Cape Royal Viewpoint via Cape Royal Trail (North Rim): This destination is only 1 km (0.6 miles) from the trailhead parking lot, but offers incredible views – especially at sunrise. Try doing this short, easy walk between July and September during monsoon season for dramatic cloud formations adding to your vista. Cape Royal is the North Rim’s southernmost viewpoint and offers a wider panoramic view than any other overlook in the Grand Canyon.
  • Grand Canyon Lodge via the Transept Trail (North Rim): This easy trail on the North Rim wraps around the edge of The Transept, a side canyon located to the west of Grand Canyon Lodge. The trail is 3.2 km (2 miles) one way and is rarely crowded. You’ll see ruins from the ancestral Pueblo people, vegetation including ponderosa pines and quaking aspen, and sweeping views of the canyon.
  • North Kaibab Trail to Roaring Springs (North Rim): This challenging 16-km (10-mile) trail is accessible only from May to October and has 914 meters (3,000 feet) of elevation gain. As one of the park’s least visited maintained trails, the North Kaibab Trail is an excellent hike for those seeking solitude in this breathtaking natural area. The route passes through numerous ecosystems and is a great place to observe the park’s ecological and geological diversity. Watch out for mule trains and droppings on the trail.

rugged landscape in Grand Canyon National Park

Camping

Camping is an excellent way to experience the Grand Canyon. Inside the park, there are four developed campgrounds that allow vehicles. Three of these are NPS campgrounds and lack RV hookups: Mather Campground on the South Rim (open year-round), Desert View on the South Rim (open from around April to October), and North Rim Campground (open from around May to October). Reservations are recommended for Mather and North Rim. Desert View operates on a first-come-first-served basis and usually fills by around noon each day.

The fourth campground is called Trailer Village and is located on the South Rim in Grand Canyon Village. This RV campground is open year-round and offers full RV hook-ups.

There are three other designated backcountry campgrounds (Bright Angel, Cottonwood, and Indian Garden) and many other use areas that allow “at large camping.” You must obtain a backcountry permit to camp in one of these areas.

Whitewater Rafting

The Colorado River is one of the United States’ premier whitewater rafting destinations. Commercial rafting season runs from April through October in Grand Canyon National Park, with the biggest rapids usually occurring in late June, July, and August. While many other rivers often depend on rain and snowmelt for rapids, the water levels in the section of the Colorado River that runs through the Grand Canyon are determined by the Colorado River Management Plan (CRMP) and regulated every 9-12 hours.

Commercial river trips range from single-day outings to 18-day excursions. These trips are often reserved a year or even two years in advance, so plan well ahead of time if you are interested in whitewater rafting on your trip to the Grand Canyon.

Private river trips require a permit. For trips lasting 2-5 days, permits are available up to one year in advance and granted on a first-come-first-served basis. For self-guided trips lasting 12-18 days, permits are available via a weighted lottery system.

Mule Rides

Mule rides are a common sight in the Grand Canyon and a popular way to explore the area. Some trips last just an hour or two, while others go all the way to the bottom of the canyon with an overnight at Phantom Ranch.

Helicopter Tours

For a birdseye view of the canyon, consider booking a helicopter tour. Tours depart from a variety of locations, including Grand Canyon National Park Airport and even Las Vegas. You can choose from various tours that highlight different areas of the canyon.

Biking

Biking is a great way to explore the South Rim since regular bikes and e-bikes are allowed on all of the South Rim’s paved and unpaved roads. The scenic Hermit Road Greenway Trail is closed to private vehicles from March to November and makes for an excellent cycling trip. There are also free, bike-friendly shuttle buses if you don’t want to cycle the entire way.

Wildlife Viewing

Spring is an excellent time to see the park’s flora and fauna, but wildlife viewing is possible year-round. 91 species of mammals live in Grand Canyon National Park, including elk, mule deer, bighorn sheep, bison, mountain lions, and javelinas. Just make sure to keep your distance and never feed the animals.

The park is also a great destination for birdwatchers, as it is home to some rare, threatened, and endangered bird species. These include the western yellow-billed cuckoo and the California condor.

Where to Stay

There are many places to stay within Grand Canyon National Park as well as in the surrounding area. Where you choose to book lodging will depend on your budget, what kinds of activities you want to do, and what time of year you plan to visit.

If you visit in the late fall, winter, or early spring, you will not be able to go to the North Rim by car or use the East Entrance to the park at Desert View via Cameron. Winter visitors must use the South Entrance near Tusayan, Arizona, and should therefore select lodging close to the southern part of the park.

Although the North and South Rim are only about 10 miles apart as the crow flies, driving between them takes around 5 hours and covers 354 km (220 miles). Take this into consideration when planning your visit and deciding on which side of the canyon you’d prefer to stay.

South Rim

Those who decide to stay inside the park on the South Rim can choose from an array of hotels, campgrounds, and historic lodges. Many consider Grand Canyon Village the best place to stay within the park. While choosing accommodation inside the park’s borders offers more convenience, hotels and lodges come at a premium price, and reservations must be made well in advance.

Just outside the park is Tusayan, Arizona, which offers a variety of lodging options. Your budget will go a bit further in Tusayan, but you’ll need to pack up your stuff and drive about 10 minutes to the park entrance each morning.

Further away are Valle (30 minutes), Williams (1 hour), and Flagstaff (1.5 hours), all located in Arizona. Valle is a small town with simple lodging options and few other points of interest, but it’s a good budget-friendly option that’s not too far from the park. Williams is a lively town located on historic Route 66 with many bars, restaurants, cafes, lodging options, and historic sites. With a population of around 70,000 people, Flagstaff is the largest city located near the Grand Canyon. The city offers more amenities and things to do than neighboring areas and has accommodation options for every budget.

North Rim

Visited by only 10% of travelers to the Grand Canyon, staying near the North Rim is an excellent way to escape the crowds during the high season. Other than camping, the only accommodation inside the park here is the Grand Canyon Lodge-North Rim.

Because the North Rim is more remote than the South Rim, there are few places to stay outside the park that are still close enough to be relatively convenient. Kanab, Utah, is a charming, small town located about 1.5 hours away from the North Rim. The town was used as a filming location for many Western movies and provides a fun glimpse into the American West’s past.

Lee’s Ferry Lodge at Vermillion Cliffs Wilderness Recreation Area, Arizona is also about 1.5 hours away by car. This is a good place to stay if you want to explore other gorgeous natural areas in the region, including The Wave, Horseshoe Bend, and Antelope Canyon.

How to Get There & Getting Around

Visiting Grand Canyon National Park is possible with your own private vehicle or using public transportation.

Visitors arriving by plane usually fly into Las Vegas, Nevada (4 hours away), or Phoenix, Arizona (4 hours away), although there is also a small airport in Flagstaff, Arizona (1.5 hours away). From there, you can rent a car or book a transfer.

If you’re visiting the North Rim, it’s best to have your own vehicle, as the area is remote and there are limited public transportation options. Once you get to the park’s South Rim, it’s not necessary to have your own vehicle. There is a free shuttle bus at the South Rim serving many different areas. In fact, some parts of the park are closed to private vehicles and only accessible via the shuttle, by bike, or on foot.

There is also shuttle service between the North Rim and South Rim. The trip takes about 4.5 hours and is a great option for rim-to-rim hikers.

Visitors can also reach the park by rail. The Grand Canyon Railroad runs 105 km (65 miles) from Williams, Arizona to the South Rim.

Visitors on a Grand Canyon Viewpoint

Conclusion

The Grand Canyon is one of the most awe-inspiring places in the world. Whether you’re taking in the views on a rim-to-rim hike or rafting the waters of the Colorado River, you’ll feel dwarfed and inspired by the towering canyon walls exposing billions of years of history. From snow-covered plateaus and quiet trails in the winter to dramatic sunrises and monsoon rains in the summer, the Grand Canyon will leave you with memories you’ll never forget.

 

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The Ultimate Travel Guide to Grand Canyon National Park

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