The Southwestern United States has some amazing National Parks. To see all of them, well a road trip is in order. The Grand Canyon is a landmark not to be missed. Here is our guide to the perfect Grand Canyon Road Trip.
Few things in life live up to the hype. And even fewer that surpass it. The Grand Canyon is one of those places.
With the word “Grand” in the name, expectations are set pretty high. Then, when you see the pictures, read the books, listen to the lyrics – the reputation exceeds legendary proportions.
But when you visit, you realize it has all been undersold. The Grand Canyon is just too awe-inspiring to comprehensively describe. It’s too wide to fit into a camera frame. Too vast to describe with words. And mind-bogglingly impossible to think of how long it took to form.
Carved out by thousands of years of erosion, a mile deep and a mile wide in some places. The Grand Canyon is, indeed, Grand. And that is why it deserves a spot on your destination bucket list. But what is the best way to see the Grand Canyon?
Two words: Road Trip!
This article describes the best way to plan your own Grand Canyon road trip. Let’s get started.
- Park entrance fees. While the North and South Rims are part of the National Park Service, portions of the East and West Rims are serviced by the Navajo Nation and have separate entrance fees.
- North Rim closes in winter. Due to winter weather, the North Rim is open from May 15 to October 15.
- Wear layers. The temperatures can vary tremendously at any time of year. And night time temperatures can feel cold even in the summertime.
- Good shoes. If you plan on any hiking, the trails are rocky and steep. You will want sturdy soles and breathable uppers.
- Sunscreen, hat, sunglasses. Of course, this is standard advice. But the higher altitude and the reflection from the surrounding desert make sun protection increasingly necessary.
- Pack plenty, especially when hiking or backpacking. Know where to find water sources before you set out on a hike. Most trails have no access beyond the trailhead.
What to do in the Grand Canyon
- Burro rides
- Airplane tour
- Helicopter tour
- Hot air balloon rides
Popular Sites Near the Grand Canyon
- Horseshoe Bend
- Lake Powell
- Antelope Canyon
- Rainbow Bridge
- Marble Canyon
- Glen Canyon Dam
How to Get There
Closest Airports to the Grand Canyon (South Rim)
- Flagstaff Pulliam Airport 90 miles 1-½ hours
- Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport 232 miles 3-½ hours
- Las Vegas McCarran Airport 275 miles 4 -½ hours
Closest Airports to the Grand Canyon (North Rim)
- Flagstaff Pulliam Airport 135 miles 2-½ hours
- George Regional Airport 160 miles 3 hours
- Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport 277 miles 4-½ hours
- Las Vegas McCarran Airport 283 miles 4-½ hours
Flying into one of the international airports is the most common way of getting to the Grand Canyon. And no wonder. With daily direct flights, you can grab a rental car and be at the South Rim in just a few hours or the North Rim in half a day.
Even better, you can make a true road trip out of it and connect it with some of the surrounding National Parks.
Road Trip Grand Canyon to Zion and Bryce
One of the best ways to see the Grand Canyon is to connect it with other National Parks. If you buy America the Beautiful annual parks pass, you will have access to all of the parks for the whole year.
But a National Park road trip isn’t just about being frugal with your money. It’s also a way to check off multiple bucket list destinations in one shot.
For example, Zion and nearby Bryce Canyon can be reached in under 6 hours. You can make a full loop flying into and out of Las Vegas to make a great week-long trip.
Read more about driving to Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks in this article.
Road Trip Yosemite to Grand Canyon
If you are up for a very long drive, you could drive from Yosemite National Park to Grand Canyon in less than 12 hours.
But you can break it up by spending a few days in Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks and camping in the Mojave National Preserve.
Where to Stay
You may assume that being so far off of the beaten path that there wouldn’t be too many options for places to stay. But no matter your manner of lodging, you will find something to suit your needs.
If you’re traveling with small children or just want to spread out a bit for a few days, a vacation rental may be ideal. Or you may just need a hotel for a night or two.
Backpacking is an excellent option. Just be prepared with extra water on this arid trek. And you will need to register for a permit and even sign up for a lottery to stay at the Phantom Ranch campsites.
So, it’s best to have a backup plan. Often times it is difficult to get a backcountry permit. So the next best thing was camping in Mather Campground. For such a well-apportioned facility, you still feel like you are a million miles from anywhere under the Arizona sky.
However, you may want the best of both worlds; luxury and camping. In that case, you will want to try glamping near the Grand Canyon.
If you want to know how to get the most out of your Grand Canyon (or any other) road trip, be it camping, glamping, or RVing, check out this article that covers everything you need to know about road trip car camping.
When to Go
Summer is by far the busiest season. Between May and September over 3 million people will roll through the park. That is an average of almost 700,000 per month.
The shoulder season (March through April in the spring; September through November in the fall) see about 25% fewer visitors, averaging around 500,000 each month.
While the daytime temperatures can be hot and dry in the summer, the spring and fall nights can get particularly cold.
But if you want to see the North Rim, you will have to do it sometime between May and October since it’s closed in the winter.
Getting Around the South Rim
Grand Canyon National Park has one of the best shuttle systems imaginable. Some trailheads are only accessible by taking the bus, so be sure to check the schedule.
For sunrise views or early morning hikes, take the shuttle to Kaibab Rim as early as possible for an unforgettable experience.
The campground is beautiful and fragrant. Camping among the pines and junipers gives a sense of quiet privacy. And at night they frame a skylight to more stars than you have ever seen.
Hiking is by far the most popular thing to do when visiting the Grand Canyon. While you can get spectacular views from the top, every twist and turn down the switchbacks offers a new perspective of the handiwork of the Colorado River.
Each bend beckons you to explore just a little farther to see what else lies around the corner. Only remember, as far as you hike down you will have to walk back up. So save some energy for the return! Plan on taking twice as long to go up as you do going down.
But you will probably want to know a little about the best hikes to go on, especially if you are only going to visit for a day or two. Here are the 3 best hikes to go on for a quick but thorough glimpse at this natural wonder.
Be sure to check out the National Park’s hiking guide for trail closures, warnings, and more trail descriptions.
Top 3 Day Hikes in the Grand Canyon
Bright Angel Trail to 3 Mile Resthouse (South Rim)
This trail is slightly more bearable in the summertime. The canyon walls provide some shade and there are water stations along the route.
However, the elevation change is similar to the South Kaibab trail. In reality, most of the trails at the South Rim descend into the canyon, making them difficult hikes. If not on the way down, then definitely on the way up.
Although you would have to hike twice as far to view the river, the scenery is well worth the trip. That is if you are in good enough shape to tackle this one.
- Distance: 6 miles; (9.5 km) round trip
- Elevation Gain: 2,100 feet (650 m)
- Trailhead: Near Bright Angel Lodge
- Difficulty: Strenuous
- Time Required: 4-5 hours
South Kaibab Trail to Skeleton Point (South Rim)
Grand Canyon South Kaibab Switchbacks
The South Kaibab Trail offers spectacular views in a relatively short distance. Hike 3 miles down to Skeleton Point where you will get your first view of the Colorado River.
You could hike farther down, but it’s not recommended as a day hike, especially in the summertime.
As with most Grand Canyon trails, this one is a fairly steep hike down. But somehow it feels steeper on the way up. Be prepared for burning quads on the way down and sore hamstrings for the return.
- Distance: 6 miles; (9.5 km) round trip
- Elevation Gain: 2,000 feet (600 m)
- Trailhead: Near Yaki Point – shuttle stop only; no private vehicles
- Difficulty: Strenuous
- Time Required: 4-5 hours
North Kaibab Trail to Supai Tunnel (North Rim)
The North Rim is less accessible than the South Rim. Farther from the major airports and bigger cities, it also sees fewer visitors. This is great if you are trying to avoid the summer crowds at the busier South Rim.
The higher elevation makes the hike cooler and allows for more shade trees along the path. You will hike past Coconino Overlook on your way to the Supai Tunnel. Take a few pictures overlooking the valley on the other side of the tunnel before returning uphill.
You could continue hiking to Roaring Springs, but it makes this a full day hike. And while you may feel pretty good going down the trail, you may not appreciate how much energy walking uphill for half a day takes.
- Distance: 4 miles (6.5 km)
- Elevation Gain: 1,400 reet
- Trailhead: North of North Rim Grand Canyon Lodge
- Difficulty: Moderately strenuous
- Time Required: 5 hours
Best Viewpoints to Drive to Around Grand Canyon
Ok, there are times when you don’t have the time or the energy to walk up or down a canyon. But you still want to come back with pictures that look like you did.
Never fear, there are plenty of places to see just a short walk away from your car. After all, this is a road trip!
Here are our 5 favorite spots to park and shoot without breaking much of a sweat.
- Horseshoe Bend
- Yaki Point (shuttle bus)
- Hopi Point (shuttle bus)
- Toroweap Overlook (rough road access)
- Mather Point
Are You Ready for Your Grand Canyon Road Trip?
The Grand Canyon has so much to see and do that it would be impossible to write in a single article. And that isn’t the goal of this post. Hopefully, you have read enough to get to packing!
Neither words nor pictures can adequately describe the grandeur of the Canyon. Nor can they inscribe on your memories the smell of the pines or the wind whipping through them. And they could never make you feel as small as you do staring down the chasm or up at the night sky full of billions of stars.
No, rather than read about it, you’ll just have to see it for yourself. Only then will you understand why they call this place Grand.
About the Author
Camp Coffee is a travel journalist that shares tips and treasures to get the most out of a road trip. From day trips near home to road trips around the world, his blog Maps Over Coffee is helping readers to become seasoned travelers with their own stories to tell.