The Insider’s Guide to the Grand Canyon
Use these tips to avoid the crowds and take in all this magical place has to offer.
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Autumn, when temperatures fall and the tourist hordes go home, is the perfect time to head to the Grand Canyon. Whether you have a weekend or a month, we've got options.
You don’t have to take all your vacation days to have a good adventure. For starters, you get a pretty damn good view of the canyon’s majesty from the National Park Service village along the South Rim. Skip the tourist vibe at El Tovar and the Bright Angel Lodge in favor of one of the campgrounds along the entrance road. The best is Mather, located within walking distance of the canyon and a general store (good for last-minute s’mores supply runs). Even on a busy Memorial Day weekend, you can ditch the bused-in gawkers at this quiet, wooded site.
Rising early the next day is key: hit the Bright Angel Trail at 6 a.m. to avoid crowds and you’ll be in the clear three miles down. Bring a picnic—the food in the village is pricey, but provisions are available just outside the park in Tusayan, Arizona—and enjoy it at Indian Gardens, an oasis about five miles down the trail. From here, go another five miles to the Colorado River for an all-day trek, or head back up to your camp for those s’mores.
A trail run is the quickest way to take in the entire canyon. The bucket-list route is Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim (R2R2R, for those in the know), a punishing 42 miles up and down both sides. But R2R2R has its downsides. It’s a long day, even if you’re gunning for the record. (Ultrarunner Rob Krar did it in a little over six hours.) It also requires careful planning. Start after 5 a.m. and you’ll get stuck behind mule trains. Go too early or late in the year and you risk not having water for most of your trip; the North Rim water station is turned off from mid-October to May. Still, it can be worth it to see the entire canyon in one go.
There’s also a mellower 24-mile South Rim option: start at Hermit’s Rest and run parallel to the river to Bright Angel. You’ll weave through clover-shaped canyons with stellar views of some of the best rapids, and you probably won’t see another soul until you hit Indian Gardens. From there it’s five miles to the finish—celebrate with ice cream at the Bright Angel Lodge.
The only way to say you’ve actually done the Grand is to raft it. The second-best float is with a commercial outfitter. We like OARS’s 13-day wooden-dory trip from Lees Ferry to Whitmore Wash ($5,179). You’ll hit the biggest rapids of the inner gorge and many of the most famous side hikes and cultural sites. Then, just as the rapids start to peter out, helicopter out to Bar-10 Ranch, no sweltering van ride required. Yeah, helicopter shuttles suck, but not as much as the development, jet boats, and dam sediment in the canyon’s lower 30 miles.
The only better trip is to round up 15 friends and put in for a 25-day private permit in the Park Service’s weighted lottery—surprisingly easy to win if you coordinate entries and target the off-months. Then quit your job, call that college buddy who worked as a raft guide, and hire Canyon Reo to fully outfit you with gear and food (from $1,000). Order twice as much beer as you think you’ll need.