The Grand Canyon, situated in Northern Arizona offers breathtaking views and is one of the most extraordinary natural wonders of the world. It can be accessed at 4 parts: The South Rim, North Rim, Grand Canyon East and Grand Canyon West. But which part to visit? When to go? How to get the best pictures? Read on to discover my top tips for visiting The Grand Canyon!
My advice if you are only going to see The Grand Canyon once in your life is to go to the South Rim, and this is the part this article focuses on. But why the South Rim?
– because it is considered to be the best part: it is the heart of the Grand Canyon with vast expansive views. When you see famous pictures of the Grand Canyon they are all taken from the South Rim: this is really the “true” Grand Canyon!
– the South Rim is open year round, unlike the North Rim which is closed 6 months of the year due to snow and 1000ft higher elevation than the South Rim (so it is only open from mid-May to mid-October). Even though there are less than 18 miles separating the North Rim from the South Rim (the width of the Canyon), don’t think you’ll be able to pop over to see the view from the other side that easily: to drive from the North to the South Rim takes over 5 hours as you have to drive all the way round the canyon!! Whilst the North Rim is a LOT less busy than the South Rim, it is very remote with far fewer amenities and accomodation options, so organising a trip here can sometimes prove more challenging.
– whereas the Grand Canyon West is only 2 hours drive from Las Vegas, compared to the 5 hour drive to the South Rim, I don’t really recommend to visit the Grand Canyon West. The Grand Canyon Skywalk (a glass walkway that juts out into the canyon with a glass floor that looks down 4000ft) is the main “attraction” there. Who wants to pay a load of money to go on a man-made bridge over this magnificent canyon when you can see the canyon in all it’s natural beauty at the South Rim! Plus, you can’t take your phone or camera on the bridge (to protect the glass from scratching)!
-whilst the South Rim is undeniably the busiest part of the Grand Canyon, there are dozens of unique viewpoints and hikes you can do here. Plus, Grand Canyon East is just 25 minutes drive down the road if you want to explore there too.
*IMPORTANT tips for your comfort and safety when at The Grand Canyon!*
– Toilet stops are limited so make sure you know where they are and plan your day accordingly.
– The South Rim is at an elevation of 7,000ft above sea level, therefore the climate is drier so make sure you take plenty of rest as you may get nauseous or short of breath quicker. Hydration is very important the higher in elevation you are, so make sure to bring enough water, and refill it at the free water refill stations at the Visitor Centres and major trailheads (look at a map for their locations).
– It is super hot and sunny in the summer so make sure to wear suncream as there is often very little shade.
– In this area of the South West, monsoons are very common in the summer. Flash floods and thunderstorms can occur and rocks can fall, so if you hear or see thunder or lightning, move away from the canyon rim, avoid standing under trees, and instead seek shelter inside buildings or vehicles.
– During the spring and autumn and especially in the winter, the weather and temperature can vary greatly and change suddenly. Make sure to wear layers and be prepared for cold, wind, rain and snow. Wear a coat and layers especially if you will be there to watch the sunrise or sunset as it can get very cold in the evenings and early morning!
– It can get very windy at the rim, so be VERY careful if you are near a cliff and be very careful with your tripod as a big gust of wind can often come from nowhere, and so many people lose their tripods and cameras down the canyon to this, even people have lost their lives. Also, drones are prohibited so do not attempt to operate one here.
The National Park Entrance fee for the Grand Canyon South Rim is $35 per car, regardless of how many people are in the car, valid for 7 days. There is a really handy free shuttle bus service that runs around the park so you don’t have to waste time trying to find parking each time you want to visit a different trail or viewpoint, so park up and then use the shuttle buses for the rest of the day.
Grand Canyon Shuttle Buses:
The Grand Canyon provides free shuttle buses around the South Rim and it is recommended to use these free shuttle services to take you to the viewpoints as the park can get extremely busy, especially during the summer months and you can struggle to find parking (parking usually fills up by noon). These buses run roughly every 10-15 minutes from sunrise to sunset (the hour before sunrise and the hour after sunset they run every 30 minutes).
From the Visitor Centre there are 2 different shuttle services you can take around the park: the Orange Kaibab route and the Blue Village route. The Kaibab route goes east along the rim towards some lovely lookouts and trails, including the Kaibab trail down to Ooh-Aah Point, which is a must visit, whilst the Village route goes west. The Village route stops at Grand Canyon Village, where there is a variety of hotel accommodation available, gift shops (indigenous arts and crafts), restaurants and lovely views of the canyon. Alternatively I definitely recommend to stay on the Blue Village shuttle until the end of the line and then change onto the Red Hermits Rest shuttle to see the many beautiful viewpoints along this trail.
The Hermits Rest route goes between Grand Canyon Village and Hermits Rest with stops at nine scenic overlooks. It provides great walking opportunities along the Canyon Rim. This road is actually closed to cars during the popular months of March to November, so if you want to visit these viewpoints during this time you’ll need to use the shuttle service. If you visit outside of this time (in the winter months), the Hermits Rest shuttle bus is suspended but you can drive there yourself.
See the National Geographic map below for an overview of the South Rim and the shuttle bus services. I actually prefer this map to the one they give you at the Visitor Centre, which isn’t to scale so is a little confusing. All the major viewpoints are marked and they really are the prime places to view the canyon as the overlooks are on parts of land that jut out into the canyon, thus providing the best views.
What time of day is best to arrive and photograph the canyon?
Now almost 6 million people visit the Grand Canyon every year, with the majority of them visiting the South Rim. So this place can get pretty crowded! To beat the crowds, try you best to get to the park for sunrise, it’ll be worth your while. Both sunrise and sunset at the Grand Canyon are really special – the pink hues in the sky are utterly magnificent! But the park is a lot less busy at sunrise than at sunset so you’ll be able to enjoy the serenity of it more (personally I am not a fan of busy viewpoints as it doesn’t feel as special). Myself and one guy I met were able to enjoy watching the sunrise in peace at the spot below. Pretty cool place to watch a sunrise right?!
Best places for sunrise and sunset:
As the views will be amazing, of course viewpoints are going to be pretty busy! However, it’ll be much easier for you to find a quiet spot at sunrise as opposed to sunset. I found if you go a little bit away from the main viewing areas, you’ll be alone and the views are still incredible.
The best viewpoints that are near the Visitor Centre (by the car parks so easiest to reach), but also the most busy viewpoints are Yavapai Point and Mather Point (see the map above). Mather Point in particular is a VERY popular place for sunrise and sunset, but go east about 300m away from the crowd and there are less people.
However, if you go to the shuttle bus viewpoints they are a lot less empty than the viewpoints above as cars can’t reach them. The best sunrise/sunset viewpoints you can reach with the shuttle are:
Hopi Point – it juts out so you can have a panoramic view of around 90 miles and you can see the Colorado River below. Really one of the best views of the Grand Canyon. Accessed on Hermits Rest route.
Mohave Point and Pima Point – also accessed on Hermits Rest route.
Yaki Point – accessed on Kaibab route.
Bear in mind thought that it will take you longer to get to them as you have to get the shuttle bus, and especially if you are going for sunset do not miss the last shuttle bus back!! There can also be big queues at the shuttle bus stops at sunset times so make sure to arrive plenty before! However the views from all these points are really breathtaking.
Sunrise and sunset photography tips:
For sunset especially, make sure you shoot in the opposite direction to the sun when you are shooting as the contrast is so high. Shooting into the sun you won’t see any of the colours in the canyon (see picture below – it’s beautiful of the sunset but you can’t see the canyon) so point your camera away from the sun and you’ll see the beautiful pink colours on the canyon.
Best way to experience the canyon in daylight hours:
During the day you can walk along the Canyon Rim Trail – it is an easy 10 mile hike along the South Rim but you can hop on and off the shuttle buses whenever you like so you don’t have to walk the whole thing if you don’t fancy it! There are lots of opportunities along the way to learn about the geology and different rock layers and formations and the mighty Colorado River that formed the Grand Canyon, especially at the free Yavapai Geology Museum.
Where to stay:
The nearest accomodation to the South Rim is at Grand Canyon Village and Tusayan. They are not exactly cheap places to stay (even the most basic of rooms start at £75), but it’s the closest you will get. Tusayan is only about 15 minutes drive from the Grand Canyon Visitor Centre, whereas Grand Canyon Village is actually inside the National Park, so it is more convenient to stay in the Grand Canyon Village if possible. However, to get to the Grand Canyon South Rim you’ll have to drive through Flagstaff anyway (Flagstaff is on the historic Route 66). It takes about 1.5 hours to drive from Flagstaff to the Grand Canyon so many people choose to stay here as it is a really nice town with lots of nice restaurants, and the accommodation is a lot cheaper, with plenty of options available.
So there we go, those are my top tips to ensure you have the best time at the Grand Canyon! I hope you will love this beautiful place as much as I did!
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