Grand Canyon 101
The park’s geography, getting there, when to go, and what to see
While it’s undoubtedly true that every American should see Grand Canyon National Park at least once, 10 visits may be a more fitting life goal. First-timers invariably feel either overwhelmed by the sheer immensity of the 277-mile-long canyon or confounded that the iconic labyrinth of eroded sandstone monoliths, towers, and temples appears almost unreal, like nothing so much as a giant postcard.
When you take a look at the great eroded buttes, monoliths, and temples that comprise Northern Arizona's canyon and how these formations’ contours and colors change with the light, you're bound to wonder how such a miracle came to be. Gaze down and you’ll notice that there’s something missing. From most points on the South Rim, you cannot even see all the way to the bottom of the canyon where the Colorado River runs. The canyon is a mile deep. And from rim to river, it encompasses 1.8 billion years of geology.
Maybe a Grand Canyon visit will inspire you to challenge some of North America’s fiercest whitewater on a multi-day rafting excursion. Or to take a backpack trip and go down into the depths and back up again on a trek from the South Rim to the North Rim. The fact is that a trip to the Grand Canyon isn’t a culmination. It’s only the beginning.
Getting there: Grand Canyon lies about 225 miles north of Phoenix, and 275 miles east of Las Vegas; nearest towns are Tusayan just south of the park, and Williams and Flagstaff, farther to the south and southeast. Note that the distance from the South Rim to the North requires a 200-mile drive (or a 22-mile hike).
When to go: Summers are the most popular time here--both North and South rims are open, and it’s peak season for Colorado River rafting. Weather is hot, especially within the canyon, and thunderstorms are common. Autumn is beautiful, with turning aspen and cool clear days. The North Rim generally closes in Mid-October, to reopen Mid-May. Winter on the South Rim is quieter, with a dusting of snow at the top of the canyon, and warmer temperatures within. Spring weather can be changeable, veering from snow and rain in March to warmer temperatures later in the season. To avoid crowds, go during the shoulder seasons—early spring, before June, and after September.
First-time essentials: You’ll definitely want to dine in the native stone and Douglas fir dining room at El Tovar and see its murals of Southwest Native American tribes. For one of the few good looks at the Colorado River from the South Rim and to visit a Mary Colter masterpiece, drive out to her Desert View Watchtower, which was inspired by ancient structures in the Four Corners area.
Beat the crowds: Yes, you have to see the South Rim, but leave time for the north side of the park. There’s nothing quite like taking in the panorama from the veranda of the Grand Canyon Lodge–North Rim, where, if you plan ahead, you might score a coveted rim-view cabin. For a great intro hike and spectacular views, take the 3-mile Transept Trail, which leaves from the property. From $85; grandcanyonforever.com.
For more information, visit the National Park Service; nps.gov/grca, 928-638-7888.
Exploring the rims
South Rim. The South Rim gets most of the park's annual 4 million visitors, which means that in-park lodging should be booked in advance (888/297-2757 or grandcanyonlodges.com). Early spring and mid- to late autumn are ideal, while November through February are the least crowded months.North Rim. Less crowded and 1,000 feet higher than the South Rim's Grand Canyon Village, the North Rim offers a totally different experience. Facilities are open only from May 15 to mid-October because of heavy winter snow.Below the rim. Perspective shifts very quickly inside the canyon. While the immersion of a rim-to-rim hike or a rafting trip is ideal, you don't have to make a commitment that large to experience the inner canyon.