An Insider’s Guide to an Unforgettable Weekend in the Grand Canyon
The Grand Canyon, as one of the world’s 7 natural wonders, is nothing short of overwhelming—in scale, scenery, beauty, and yes, crowds. If you have limited time here, how can you be sure to get the most of it? There are many ways to experience this huge national park, and the trick is to plan ahead and figure out what’s right for you. Here’s what you need to know to master a weekend trip.
North Rim vs. South Rim
The first thing to know about the Grand Canyon is that it has two sides (and that these sides are really far apart). Obvious, sure, but many people don’t realize the logistical implications. Driving in between takes nearly 5 hours each way. You can choose to split your time between the two, but the best use of a weekend is to choose one or the other, and they are equally spectacular.
More people visit the South Rim because it’s closer to a major interstate. It has the main visitor center, classic photo points, and is open year round. North Rim has the historic Grand Canyon Lodge and lesser-known scenery, but is more remote and closed for nearly half the year because of its higher elevations and harsh winters.
Driving in the park can be a headache because of traffic, pedestrians, and even herds of elk crossing the road. On the South Rim, the solution is to ride the free shuttle bus (don’t worry about missing the elk, there are plenty of them). Park at the Visitor Center or in Grand Canyon Village, then the shuttle can take you almost anywhere. North Rim has fewer roads and no public shuttle, but you can drive the scenic loop that begins from the visitor center.
Bicycles are a great way to get around when the weather is nice. You can enter the park by bicycle, or unload one after driving in. You can also rent bicycles and even take a guided bike tour from South Rim Visitor Center. The free shuttle has bike racks if you want to only pedal one way.
Day Hiking and Backpacking
Grand Canyon has trails to accommodate all ages and abilities. Hiking along the rim is accessible and rewarding to anyone, but the only way to experience the depths of the canyon is via steep, rugged trails. North Rim has more options for hiking above the rim, and South Rim has more trails that venture below. Check out the day hiking and overnight backpacking guides for more information.
Instead of hoofing it by yourself to the bottom of the canyon, you can have a mule team do it for you. Grand Canyon’s famous sure-footed mules can take you along the top or below the rim, even for an overnight stay at Phantom Ranch in the very bottom. These trips are not cheap, however, and fill up fast. Be sure to book well in advance, especially for the overnight option.
Weather is not always optimal at the Grand Canyon. Summer brings extreme heat and thunderstorms, while winter brings bitter cold and snow storms. Most people visit during the summer, when 100-degree temperatures make it unadvisable to stay outside all day. Don’t ever be reluctant to retreat indoors.
South Rim Visitor Center has exhibits about geology and history plus all the information you need to fill out your weekend. Also on South Rim is a separate geology museum, pioneer museum, art studio, Pueblo ruins, and the architecturally impressive Desert View Watchtower, which provides one of the best canyon vistas anywhere. North Rim has fewer indoor attractions, but does feature an impressive visitor center of its own. You can always enjoy the scenery and probably some wildlife from the comfort of your vehicle.
Lodging and Dining
Accommodations near Grand Canyon can be scarce, so reserve way ahead of time. South Rim has five lodges within the park boundaries. North rim has the glamorous Grand Canyon Lodge. In-park hotels are pricey, so you may want to look into hotels just outside the boundary.
Heat and A/C are nice, but to really enjoy Northern Arizona’s clear night skies, camping is the way to go. The South Rim’s Mather Campground has sites specific to RV, car, and bicycle campers. North Rim Campground has no hookups but plenty of large sites, and remains shady and cool all through summer. Desert View Campground, on South Rim, is the park’s only overnight stay that is first-come-first served.
The final challenge is finding a place to eat, because options are limited. South Rim Visitor Center has a “grab and go” cafe, and the Village has a market and deli. There is also a general store at Desert View. If you are really hungry, check out the menu in one of the lodges, but be prepared for the price. Just outside South Rim, Tusayan has various restaurant options, but the closest real grocery store is in Williams, so consider stocking up when you pass through.
Even More to Do
This has been a lot of information crammed in at once, but that’s because the Grand Canyon is so much bigger than most people realize—and not just in terms of geographic scale. The attractions and amenities offered in this national park are numerous and varied to match the millions of tourists that come here from every part of the world. Before you get there, take time to preview the various overlooks, trails, museums, and stores that you don’t want to miss, then show up on a mission to get the most out of it all.