Tips for Enjoying the Grand Canyon

Classic canyon overlook.
Classic canyon overlook. | Source

The Grand Canyon

It's one of those places that ends up on many people's 'bucket list'...it's spectacular, unique and well known. A hole in the high desert, cut over millennia by the force of the Colorado River, it comes upon one almost unexpectedly when approaching from the south...the rim is actually fairly heavily wooded with dry forest.

There are good and bad aspects to the sheer popularity of this destination.

Best Time of Year

When is the best time of year to visit the Grand Canyon?

Spring or fall. In summer, the canyon itself becomes unpleasant and even dangerous, with some parts of the Bright Angel trail recording temperatures as high as 135F. However, the rim remains pleasant enough and if you do not want to go down into the canyon itself, a summer trip is not unpleasant.

Winter on the rim is harsh. The facilities on the North Rim (which is higher) close completely from mid-October to mid-May and vehicular access is spotty. The Grand Canyon Village on the South Rim remains open, but some facilities do close for the winter. The snow-bound canyon is, however, truly beautiful.

In my opinion, April or May is the very best time to visit. Although there is still the risk of snow on the rim, temperatures during the day often reach a pleasant low seventies and with school still in session, the summer day trip crowds are easily avoided. Spring is also the time of year when most of the cacti and other desert plants flower.

Bear in mind that in late summer and fall unpleasant daytime thunderstorms occur all through the desert. These storms can also be dangerous.

Where to Stay

If you plan on more than one day in the park, you have two good choices. Travelers on a budget will find a number of reputable chain motels clustered on the main road north from Flagstaff, just south of the entrance to the park.

If your budget allows it, however, staying in the park itself is a better option. On the north rim there is only one option - the Grand Canyon Lodge - North Rim. This offers mostly cabin accommodation along with a few motel style guest rooms.

On the South Rim, the lodges are all run by one company - Xanterra. Lodging varies in price and quality. For those for whom money is no object, the El Tovar Hotel is the first choice, with room prices as of 2012 ranging from $178 for a standard double room up to $440 for the best suites.

For the rest of us, there are a number of lodging choices. Hikers and solo travelers are likely to go for the Bright Angel Lodge, which offers rooms as cheap as $83 a night if you're willing to share a bathroom. The Bright Angel, however, tends to be the first to book up. Because of this two extension lodges have been built next to it - Kachina and Thunderbird. Both of these are more expensive, with rooms starting at $180 (canyon view costs slightly extra.

My personal recommendation is to stay in Maswik or Yavapai lodges. Maswik offers cabins at just $94 and rooms starting at $92. Yavapai is a little more expensive at $120. Both of these lodges are a little further from the center of activity at Bright Angel lodge, but not enough for concern unless you are disabled. Yavapai is the furthest away.

If you have an RV, you can park it at Trailer Village. There is also a campground in the village and a less developed one by the Desert View tower. The North Rim has its own campground. There are also a number of places you can pitch a tent right outside the park. Back country camping in the park or the surrounding National Forest requires a permit.

The luxury El Tovar hotel.
The luxury El Tovar hotel. | Source

Where to Eat

Food in the park is not cheap. In the Grand Canyon Village, the upper end option is the El Tovar's restaurant. It requires reservations and has a dress code, and is both expensive and high quality.

Almost equally sophisticated is the Bright Angel Lodge's Arizona Room...no dress code or reservations, but expect a wait of 30-60 minutes. As a pro tip, the main lodge restaurant is served from the same kitchen - although the offerings are less sophisticated, they are not inferior in taste. If staying for several days, the Arizona Room is probably worth the wait once.

Lower budget options include the canteens in Miswaki and Yavapai lodges. These serve breakfast starting at 6:30am as well as lunch and dinner in a food court style...this is probably the best option if you're bringing little ones. Miswaki also has a decent pizzeria.

Back at the Bright Angel lodge you will find a bar, a coffee house and the Bright Angel Fountain, which sells diner style offerings and pretty good milkshakes.

At both Miswaki and Yavapai lodges you can order box lunches, a recommended option if you plan on a day hike.


What To Do

The first option is to hike through the forest or along the rim. The best option for the novice hiker is the rim trail. Parts of the trail are paved and accessible to wheelchair users. The trail runs parallel to the park road and a shuttle bus stops at intervals so if you get tired you can just hop the bus back to the village. (Alternatively, you can take the bus out to the last stop at Hermit's Rest and walk back).

Hermit's Rest, at the end of the rim trail, offers snacks and gifts.

The historic village is worth spending some time wandering around. It has a rail station that looks like one of Santa's stops (And, indeed, there is an annual Polar Express). The village contains a number of historic buildings and you can also see the famous mules in their corral. Several gift shops are present. Hopi House offers Native American art, but at a mark up (pro tip: Drive out of the park to the east and you will arrive right at the edge of the Navajo Reservation, where craftsmen will cheerfully sell you the same products from roadside stands - for a considerably lower price).

The Kohl brothers' studio is worth a visit for anyone interested in the history of photography and videography. Their original movie of a trip through the canyon still plays on repeat, although these days it runs off of a DVD, not the original film.

Walk east along the rim and you will find yourself at Yavapai Point, home of the Grand Canyon's geology museum. It's not large, but is worth a visit and the trail to it has samples of rocks from different layers, in chronological order with the 'present' at the museum and the base of the canyon close to the village.

Most religious services are held at the Shrine of the Ages (The Catholics have their own church nearby). The interdenominational chapel is also used for ranger programs in inclement weather and can be booked for events and weddings. The Shrine was originally intended to be built at a rim site just west of the village, but numerous objections led to it being relocated (however, there is an outdoor altar at the original intended site).

The Grand Canyon's train station looks like a place Santa might stop on his way from the North Pole.
The Grand Canyon's train station looks like a place Santa might stop on his way from the North Pole. | Source

Safety

Staying safe in the park is important. A few tips will help keep you from becoming one of the 250 people airlifted out of the canyon every year...or suffering an even more embarrassing fate. For example, 30 people a day require medical attention on the South Rim after being bitten by squirrels.

1. Do not feed the wildlife. Much of the wildlife around the village has become dangerously habituated. (Ever imagined you would say the words "Excuse me, sir? There's a squirrel in your backpack"). Keep food in containers when not actually eating it. Closing your backpack will stop the squirrels, but not the ravens, who have been known to unzip bags to steal food. Several people have also been attacked by hungry mountain...goats.

2. Do not hike into the canyon alone. Solo hikers can get into trouble very easily. There is no cell phone coverage in the canyon and coverage on the rim is only available to Verizon customers, so you can't call for help. Solo travelers should look for a group to hike with or stick to the crowded Bright Angel Trail. The rim trail is relatively safe, however, as it is possible to get to the road very easily and you are seldom alone for very long.

3. Take desert precautions. Always carry water. Hydration stations are available along the rim trail and at points on the Bright Angel trail. The South and North Kaibab trails do NOT have water available. Also carry, and eat, salty snacks such as chips, pretzels, etc. One common problem in desert regions is to drink enough water but end up without enough salt in your body to use it. Apply SPF 50 sun screen (higher SPFs are a waste of money), and reapply after a few hours in the sun. Always wear a hat.

4. Wear sensible footwear. If you plan on leaving paved trails, hiking boots are the best. Do not hike long distances in heels or open sandals. If buying new boots, break them in before the trip.

5. Take a flashlight. The village is not very well lit and you will need one if you end up outside after dark. Also bear in mind that even in summer, temperatures drop rapidly once the sun goes down. A lightweight jacket is a good idea.

6. Bear in mind that desert storms can come with large doses of lightning, high winds and hail. Stay inside if you can see a storm coming and seek shelter if one hits. If there is no shelter available, get down and stay down until it passes. Do not shelter under lone trees.

7. Altitude. If you happen to be from sea level, the South Rim averages 7,000 feet and the North Rim is 1,000 feet higher. This is not high enough to give the vast majority of people altitude sickness (some people who are extremely sensitive may get mild symptoms). It is high enough to have noticeable effects on a person's strength, endurance and possibly judgement. On my own trip, I planned on walking from the village to Hermit's Rest and back, which is about 16 miles. I can do a 16 mile hike. I discovered that I cannot do a 16 mile hike at 7,000 feet. I'm not ashamed to admit that I ended that day...on the shuttle bus. Also, the altitude is sufficient to increase the effects of alcohol. Drink less than you normally would and if you are a real lightweight you may want to just stay 'dry' for the duration. Altitude also increases the effects of dehydration - and you're already in a desert. If you start to feel lightheaded, nauseous, or get a headache, drink something immediately.

8. Do NOT attempt to walk to the base of the canyon and back in one day. Yes, people have done it. Yes, people still do it. The problem is that the number of people who can do it is less than the number of people who think they can. The vast majority of the 250 people airlifted out a year are twenty something men who only think they can. Staying the night at the bottom of the canyon is not hard - there is a backpackers' hostel and campground at Bright Angel Lodge. If you don't want to carry a tent down, then it can be transported to the bottom and back by mule train, for a fee. In the same note, really do not try to walk from rim to rim in one day.

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