10 Insider Tips for an Authentic Grand Canyon Vacation
You could spend months viewing the canyon from above, but for a truly immersive experience, take a peek below the rim.
Each year about six million people arrive at Grand Canyon via car, bus, motorcycle, bicycle, RV, train — and even raft. And over time, an array of recreational activities, sightseeing opportunities, educational offerings, and dining options has sprung up to cater to travelers of every type.
But if you’re a first-time visitor overwhelmed by your options or you arrive with only limited time to visit, where do you begin? Consider these 10 choices for a deep and authentic experience.
1. Ride the Train
The phrase “getting there is half the fun” doesn’t come close to how you’ll feel after boarding the Grand Canyon Railway, which is twice as much fun as you’d expect. In the 65 miles between Grand Canyon and the retro-cool town of Williams, Ariz., you’ll look out the window and see a unique view of America as you roll up and over Arizona’s 5,000-foot-high Colorado Plateau. Strolling musicians entertain passengers in each car, drinks are served at your seat, the train slides into long curves as it wraps around corners and slips into tight canyons, and all the while you’ll be thinking there is nowhere else you’d rather be.
And you’ll be absolutely right.
2. Go Historic
For the majority of visitors, it all starts at the South Rim’s Historic Village. Not only does it offer a concentrated collection of shops, restaurants, overlooks, and lodges, but it also features some of the most spectacular views of the canyon (including a glimpse of the North Rim, a good thousand feet higher and 18 miles away). The wide promenade known as the Rim Trail snakes along the perimeter so you can take in ever-changing views with every step.
Along the way, drop into Verkamp’s Visitor Center ( formerly Verkamp’s Curios) and Mary Colter’s 1905 Hopi House (she was known as the Architect of the American Southwest), where you’ll find hand-made Native American jewelry, art, and pottery. Then step into the famed 1905 El Tovar Hotel, followed by the 1914 Lookout Studio, another Mary Colter creation where you can buy gifts while enjoying the view. Finally, take in the Kolb Studio, where brothers Emery and Ellsworth Kolb were pioneers in the art of Grand Canyon photography.
3. Learn a Thing or Two
National Park Service rangers at Grand Canyon pride themselves on their knowledge of the park, from the smallest details to the broadest overviews. And they love sharing their insights with visitors. Be sure to check out the schedule of ranger talks, which may be on anything from archaeoastronomy to the Ancestral Puebloans to petroglyphs, geology, and hiking the canyon. A ranger may offer guided walking tours or deliver a talk from one spot along the rim or present an evening lecture at the Shrine of the Ages. Wherever and whenever you find a ranger who’s ready to share information, take advantage of that opportunity.
4. Drive the Roads
While the Historic Village is the epicenter of activity, Grand Canyon stretches far beyond that. For mile after mile of unfolding views, get in your car (or RV or motorcycle) and head east where you’ll soon discover even more of the park at places like the Yavapai Geology Museum at Yavapai Point where you should take in a view from the broad bay window. Don’t miss the Discovery Channel film, A Journey of Wonder, presented at the Visitor Center, followed by the historic Tusayan Museum and ruins, which include the remnants of homes and kivas created by Puebloan Indians 800 years ago. Roughly 25 miles from the Historic Village, Mary Colter’s 1932 masterpiece — the Watchtower at Desert View — gives you a heightened awareness of Grand Canyon’s majesty when viewed from the top of this classic 70-foot-high observation tower.
5. Hike the Trails
You could spend months viewing the canyon from above, but for a truly immersive experience, take a peek below the rim. From the South Rim, two trails lead into the canyon: the 10.3-mile Bright Angel Trail near the Historic Village, and the 7.3-mile South Kaibab Trail just east of the Visitor Center.
Whichever you choose, preparation is key since your life may depend on it. Before you go, make sure to wear enclosed shoes with soles that have a stable grip, provide toe protection, and offer ankle support. Wear headgear to stave off the sun, carry walking sticks for better balance, bring plenty of water, and carry salty snacks, fruit, and protein bars. One last thing: Don’t walk any farther than you feel comfortable with since it’ll be twice as tough retracing your steps out of the canyon.
6. Saddle Up
While hiking into the canyon is an authentic experience, riding a mule into the canyon may be easier, but not a snap. One of the canyon’s most recognized images, mules have been carrying visitors in and out of Grand Canyon for well over a century. It’s such a popular activity that reservations can be booked 13 months in advance — and the spaces fill up fast. While a waiting list is available at the Bright Angel Tour desk for day-before cancellations, those chances are slim. Note that the weight limit is 225 pounds, and riders must be at least 4 feet 9 inches tall, fluent in English, comfortable with heights, and unafraid of large animals.
7. Two-Wheel It
Bicycling is another fun way to get around. Chances are you won’t arrive with a bicycle in tow, which is where Bright Angel Bicycles can help — at least between March 15 and Oct. 31. You can ride along the Rim Trail, on the roadway, and the Greenway, which is a 6.5-mile trail between the town of Tusayan and the South Rim Visitor Center.
Keep in mind the elevation here averages 7,000 feet, so it can be a challenge for guests with respiratory or heart problems.
8. Have a Meal
You’ll find Grand Canyon is always in good taste, from the Maswik Lodge Food Court and Pizza Pub to the Bright Angel Lodge’s Arizona Steakhouse (open seasonally), where locally sourced ingredients (as well as regional beers and wines from microbreweries and vineyards) accent the menu. But for the signature dining experience of Grand Canyon, plan at least one meal at the El Tovar Dining Room. Within the classic hotel, this equally classic restaurant has a timeless quality and a menu that includes dishes like stuffed roasted quail, hand-cut grilled Arizona-grown filet mignon, and sustainable salmon tostada on organic greens. Unforgettable.
9. Check In
Grand Canyon isn’t a place to spend a few hours. At the very least, you need a few days to appreciate the wealth of the park. This means staying the night (or two or more) at one of the South Rim lodges.
Options range from the grand El Tovar to the historic Bright Angel Lodge just steps from the rim, to the nearby Kachina and Thunderbird lodges and, across the tracks, to the Maswik Lodge. Each is unique in style, each lands on a different price point, and each offers a place where you can maximize your visit by enjoying 24/7 access to the canyon.
10. Raft the Rapids
The first time non-natives explored Grand Canyon was via the Colorado River. The spiritual heirs of those pioneers are still running the rapids on the river in yet another authentic canyon experience. A variety of concessionaires offer river-rafting options, from a single day on the water to epic journeys of three weeks or more. Get ready for the ride of your life.
How to Explore
There’s no better way to make a grand trip grander than on the historic train to Grand Canyon. Travel over 120 round-trip miles through beautiful northern Arizona while being entertained by historical cowboy characters and strolling musicians. The Grand Canyon Railway has been departing daily from Williams, Ariz., since 1901. Spend a night in Williams next door to the train depot at the AAA Three Diamond Grand Canyon Railway Hotel. Just walking distance from quaint downtown Williams and Route 66, the modern hotel has a grand lobby, indoor pool and hot tub as well as Spenser’s Pub with its handcrafted 19th-century bar. Packages with train travel and overnight stays in Grand Canyon National Park and Williams are available. Visit TheTrain.com for more information.
For more travel experiences to Beautiful Places on Earth™ available from Xanterra Travel Collection® and its affiliated properties, visit xanterra.com/stories.