How to See Grand Canyon National Park (Without a Boat)
Just because you didn’t land a private permit to float the Colorado doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy its 40 layers of mind-jarring beauty.
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With a little planning and insider information, you can dodge the millions of visitors and enjoy some peace, quiet, and remarkable views by foot.
Soak Up the South Rim’s Views
Ninety percent of the Grand Canyon’s more than 6 million visitors last year went to the South Rim—but that doesn’t mean you can’t find a little solitude and take in the views in peace. One way to separate from the mass of humanity is to rent a bike at Bright Angel Bicycles ($45 per day) and ride the seven-mile stretch of Hermit Road, which is closed to all vehicles except shuttle busses from March through December. Before you take off, fuel up with a veggie breakfast burrito and a latte at the café attached to the bike shop. While the entire ride affords views of the canyon, make sure to allot some time to stop and take in the views at Hopi Point, Pima Point, and Hermit’s Rest.
Don’t want to ride a bike? You can still find some solitude at Shoshone Point if there isn’t a wedding or special event. The hike is only about a mile on a dirt service road through ponderosa pines—and you might just be the only one out there.
Stay at the North Rim Lodge
The North Rim has an undeniably slower pace than the South Rim. Even if you want to stay within 50 feet of your car, embrace that slower pace and allot a few hours at some of the countless viewpoints to see how the movement of the sun changes the look of the entire canyon. Better yet, drive out to Point Imperial in the morning while it’s still dark, make some coffee on your tailgate, and watch the sun rise on the canyon below before the other tourists show up. If you want to get a hike in, try the 1.5-mile Transept Trail. Remember to stay hydrated and take it slow—you are at 8,000 feet, after all.
To really take your time, plan a year in advance and book one of the Western Rim View Cabins at the North Rim Lodge (from $227, open May 15 to October 15). If you can’t plan that far ahead, you can still plop down on one of the Adirondack chairs on the lodge’s veranda and grab a Bright Angel IPA, brewed in Flagstaff, and the North Rim wings, which feature a spicy prickly pear cactus sauce.
Visit the Legendary Phantom Ranch
Whether you hike down to Phantom Ranch via the 7.4-mile South Kaibab Trail or the 9.9-mile Bright Angel Trail, the very first thing you should do is grab a frozen lemonade from the Phantom Ranch Canteen. The existence of something that cold that far down in the canyon is pure magic. Soak your aching feet in Bright Angel Creek, then head down to Boat Beach and watch the rafters go by before finishing your day with a guided ranger tour of canyon geology—after spending much of your day hiking through millions of years’ worth of visible geology, you’ll certainly have questions about it.
Like any lodging in Grand Canyon, plan a year out and make sure you reserve at least a two-night stay. The Canteen’s family-style steak dinner isn’t gourmet, but it’s plenty hearty to replenish the calories spent after the must-do 12-mile round-trip day hike to Ribbon Falls.
Hike to the Bottom
Unless you’re a trained endurance athlete, a nearly 20-mile round-trip hike from the rim to the Colorado River and back along Bright Angel Trail is too ambitious for a single day. Instead, plan to overnight at Bright Angel Campground ($8 per person per night), which sits right alongside Bright Angel Creek. There are only 33 sites, and you need a backcountry permit ($10) to stay there, so plan at least four months in advance.
Don’t have that kind of lead time? Indian Garden, halfway between the South Rim and Phantom Ranch, is an excellent nine-mile round-trip. Cottonwood trees offer shade—a rarity on this hike—and there are plenty of spigots to fill up a water bottle during peak season. (Check in with the rangers to make sure the spigots are turned on.)
If you are feeling ambitious, the three-mile round-trip Plateau Point spur trail pays dividends: It ends a little more than 1,000 feet above the Colorado and has views to both the North and South Rims. After climbing out from the big day, reward yourself with ice cream the Bright Angel Fountain on the Rim. Sure, it’s busy and only sells Dreyer’s, but the simple joy of a sweet, cold scoop of mint chocolate chip ice cream after a long day in the sun will make the busloads of tourists around you disappear.