Planning on visiting the Grand Canyon for the first time? Well, stick around because you’ll find all you need to know before your visit right here. And as an Arizona local, I pride myself on knowing just about everything there is to know about the park (kidding) — I’ll be pulling from my experience to help you.
The Grand Canyon is one of the most spectacular places on Earth, and it’s easy to see why. Situated in the northwestern corner of Arizona, the Grand Canyon has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1979. Why? — The gorge displays the most stunning vistas, buttes, spires, and mesas, incomparable with anything else in the world.
Encompassing over 278 miles of the Colorado River, the Grand Canyon boasts over two billion years of geological history that you can explore with a detailed itinerary. But, what is the best way to see the Grand Canyon, you may wonder.
In this first-timer’s guide, I’ll unpack all the details, such as how to get there, where to stay, where to eat, and what to do when you arrive — I want you to have the best experience possible, duh!
After reading this, make sure you check out these Arizona travel guides:
- Phoenix to Sedona to Grand Canyon Itinerary
- Ultimate Sedona, AZ Travel Guide
- Best Day Trips from Scottsdale
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Planning Your Trip to the Grand Canyon
Before we dive in, let’s look at some must-know nitty-gritty details.
Where Is the Grand Canyon: Northwestern Arizona, about an hour and a half drive from Flagstaff, two hours from Sedona, and about four hours from major cities, Phoenix and Las Vegas.
Best Time To Go: Spring – March to May and Fall – September to November.
How Many Days to Visit: Spend two to three full days in the Grand Canyon. This will give you enough time to explore the national park and surrounding areas.
Flights: Fly into Phoenix, Las Vegas, or small regional airports in Flagstaff and Sedona. Find the best ticket deals on KAYAK.
Rental Car: You can also use KAYAK to find the best car rental deals.
Fees: You’ll need a Standard Entrance Pass. Fees are as follows: $20 per person, $30 for a motorcycle, and $35 for a private vehicle. For unlimited visits to Grand Canyon National Park, purchase an Annual Pass for $70.
Pro Tip: Grab an America the Beautiful pass to save on all park entry!
Getting to the Grand Canyon
There are many viable options when it comes to traveling to the Grand Canyon.
Flying to a nearby airport and then driving is the best way to get to Grand Canyon.
Luckily, you’ll have numerous airports to choose from.
Here are a few airports and major cities closest to the Grand Canyon.
- Valle Airport, AZ — About 30 miles away and a 40-minute drive.
- Flagstaff Pulliam Airport, AZ — About 90 miles away and a one-hour and 30-minute drive.
- Sedona Airport, AZ — About 116 miles away and a two-hour and 30-minute drive.
- Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, AZ — About 230 miles away and a four-hour drive.
- Harry Reid International Airport, NV — About 277 miles away and a four-hour and 30-minute drive.
Where To Stay in the Grand Canyon
With a whopping five million annual visitors, the Grand Canyon National Park and surrounding areas offer various accommodation options that will cater to your every need.
Have a look:
Squire Resort — This property provides a unique experience when visiting Grand Canyon. You’ll be a minute away from the Kaibab National Forest, and facilities like swimming pools, a fitness center, and an arcade room are all at your disposal.
The Grand Hotel — This luxe property boasts a rustic charm and offers you all the mod-cons, from spacious rooms to an onsite restaurant and bar, a fitness center, and a gift shop where you can purchase some souvenirs.
Yavapai Lodge — Set within the national park, this property occupies a prime location on the South Rim. You’ll have easy access to the park shuttle and amenities at the Grand Canyon Visitor Center.
Log Cabin in Elk Country — Sitting on a 10-acre lot, this log cabin boasts expansive windows giving you great views of a stunning ponderosa pine forest, with elk and deer passing by. You’ll also have a gas grill on the patio and a hot tub to soak in after a long day.
Maswik Lodge — Located in Grand Canyon Village, this property offers brightly decorated rooms, a bar, two onsite restaurants, and access to top attractions like the Rim Trail and Grand Canyon Railway.
Where To Eat in the Grand Canyon
You’ll need to fuel up to explore all that the Grand Canyon has to offer. Fortunately, there are several dining options for you to consider.
These are all located within the national park, so you won’t have to worry about driving for too long.
Yavapai Tavern — Located inside Yavapai Lodge, this sports bar offers delectable southwestern cuisine paired with locally crafted beer and wine. The bar regularly hosts events such as live music performances and signature beer tastings.
El Tovar Dining Room — If you’re looking for gourmet dining while surrounded by historic charm and elegance, look no further than El Tovar. Situated along the Rim Trail, this dining room provides stunning vistas of the Grand Canyon from some tables.
Arizona Steakhouse — Sitting on the eastern end of Bright Angel Lodge, Arizona Steakhouse offers southwestern cuisine paired with artisanal brews and wine. The eatery also sits along the South Rim, providing unmatched views.
Deli in the Pines — Located in the North Rim Grand Canyon Lodge, this grab-and-go deli offers delicious snacks, sandwiches, pizzas, and salads that will help you fuel up for your adventures around the canyon.
What To Pack When Visiting the Grand Canyon
The items you bring along on your Grand Canyon trip will largely depend on the time of year you’re visiting.
Summer, spring, and fall are the most ideal seasons to see the Grand Canyon, so here are a few must-bring items if you visit during this time.
Getting Around the Grand Canyon
The best way to get around when exploring the Grand Canyon is via the national park’s free shuttle buses or by taking a self-guided driving tour.
But each option has some drawbacks.
The shuttles only operate in the South Rim, so if you’d also like to explore the North Rim, you’re better off taking a self-guided driving tour.
On the other hand, driving your private car in the South Rim comes with challenges like limited parking spaces and traffic within the park.
You should opt to use the shuttle, if you can, as it’s the best way to see Grand Canyon.
Depending on the time of the year, you’ll have three to five shuttle routes to choose from.
These shuttle routes take you through the most popular scenic overlooks, visitor centers, campgrounds, and lodges across the park.
Unmissable Things To Do in the Grand Canyon
As a first-time visitor, you probably won’t know where to go in the Grand Canyon to make the best of your trip. Here are some must-see attractions that you should not miss out on.
Explore the South Rim
The South Rim offers breathtaking panoramas of the vast canyon and its colorful rock formations.
It’s arguably the best section of the park, offering facilities like the Visitor Center, where you’ll find restrooms, information desks, historical artifacts and exhibits, and a gift shop.
You’ll also find the Grand Canyon Village, where you can grab a bite to eat.
The South Rim is home to some of the best viewpoints in the park. Mather Point, Yavapai Point, and Hopi Point are among the most popular overlooks in the South Rim, so expect large crowds.
If you want less-crowded views, opt for Ooh Aah Point and Mohave Point.
Hike the Rim Trail
The Rim Trail offers the best hike in the South Rim. It’s an easy walk with numerous overlooks and inner canyon views that will leave you in awe.
The 13-mile trail extends from the South Kaibab Trailhead to Hermit’s Rest, but you can start your hike from Grand Canyon Village.
You can further customize your hike’s starting and ending points by using the park shuttle.
Catch the Sunrise and Sunset
Watching the sunrise or sunset in the Grand Canyon is one of the best ways to see the natural beauty of this gorge come to life.
There are many viewpoints that provide staggering views of red and orange hues contrasting the rugged canyon walls.
Some great overlooks for catching the sunrise or sunset include Navajo Point and Desert View Point in the South Rim, Cape Royal Point in the North Rim, and Horseshoe Bend in the East.
Visit the Desert View Watchtower
The Desert View Watchtower is one of the most iconic structures in the South Rim, and while it can be seen from miles away, nothing compares to seeing it up close.
The historic Desert View Watchtower is an excellent vantage point, offering panoramic views of the South Rim and a chance to appreciate Native American architecture.
The View Room, located on the lower floor, features cultural handicraft exhibits and gives you sweeping views of the canyon through the tower’s numerous windows.
Hike the Bright Angel Trail
Another fantastic hike in the South Rim is trekking the Bright Angel Trail.
Although it’s steep in some parts, this trail offers you a chance to walk in the footsteps of the region’s indigenous people who lived thousands of years ago.
The Bright Angel Trail offers excellent views of the canyon, with partial shade along the trail in the morning and afternoon.
You’ll also find rest houses along the way, as well as drinking water stations during the summer.
Pro Tip: South Kaibab Trail to Ooh Aah Point is another great option, too!
Experience Colorado River Rafting
Take a rafting trip along the Colorado River to see the canyon from different angles and experience its beauty from the water.
There are numerous tour outfitters that offer rafting tours along the river.
These range from one-day to multi-day trips, as the Colorado is a massive river stretching over 1,450 miles across several states.
The Grand Canyon is one of the International Dark Sky Places spread across the United States, making it an excellent location for stargazing.
You can attend a ranger-led astronomy program for a unique evening experience.
Alternatively, you can watch stars dancing across the dark skies at Moran Point and Lipan Point in the South Rim.
Explore Viewpoints Along Hermit Road
Take the free shuttle along the Hermit Road, stopping at viewpoints and accessing trailheads that lead to scenic overlooks like Pima Point.
This route offers less crowded viewpoints and a chance to explore less-traveled areas in the South Rim.
The road ends at Hermit’s Rest, a historic stone structure built by Mary Jane Colter in 1914.
Inside you’ll find a small bookshop and snack bar where you can grab a quick bite to eat.
Note: Water is not available along the trail during winter, so don’t forget to fill your water bottle.
Visit the Havasu Falls
If you’re up for an adventure, consider a visit to Havasu Falls, within the Havasupai Indian Reservation.
The stunning turquoise waterfalls and pools are an exceptional sight to behold, as the red canyon walls create a striking contrast with the deep blue water.
Havasu Falls attracts thousands of visitors each year who enjoy swimming in the various pools.
It’s also one of the most captivating places in the canyon, so bring your camera gear.
Note: Visiting Havasu Falls requires a permit and a hike through the reservation.
Walk Over the Grand Canyon Skywalk
Before calling it a wrap, head to the West Rim to experience the Grand Canyon Skywalk, a horseshoe-shaped glass bridge that extends over the canyon.
Standing at over 4,000 feet above ground, the skywalk offers a thrilling perspective and sweeping views of the canyon.
You’ll need a Hualapai Legacy Day Pass to access the skywalk. It includes a chance to take photos with the Hualapai tribal members and a hop-on hop-off shuttle to viewpoints like Guano Point and Eagle Point.
Finally, you’ll also get to visit the Hualapai Ranch.
Final Thoughts on Visiting the Grand Canyon for First-Timers
The Grand Canyon’s vast wonders offer an unforgettable experience for first-time visitors. From stunning South Rim viewpoints like Mather Point and Yavapai Point, which deliver awe-inspiring vistas to kaleidoscopic sunrises and sunsets through the park.
The Rim Trail and Bright Angel Trail offer an immersive experience, while helicopter tours give you outstanding views of the park from a bird’s eye perspective. You’ll learn more about Native American culture at the Desert View Watchtower.
So, if you’re still uncertain about visiting the Grand Canyon, don’t let the first-time jitters get to you. Pack your bags, purchase your tickets, and get ready for a mind-blowing adventure.
Up Next: After conquering the Grand Canyon, extend your stay with an Arizona road trip.