Nature is what attracts visitors to Grand Canyon, and seeing it illuminated by the dawn’s early light is one of the most unforgettable sights in America.
Considering it’s taken nature six million years to design Grand Canyon, it’s not such a bad idea to spend at least six minutes learning how to plan your visit.
While it’s true some guests will stay just long enough to look over the rim, most take the opposite approach. They arrive ready to fill each day with as many experiences as they can.
Here’s a three-day summertime itinerary guaranteed to create a memorable visit.
If you can resist the temptation of peeking over the rim the moment you arrive, the first thing to do is to stop at the Visitors Center. It will enhance your appreciation of the canyon.
Just a few miles east of the Historic Village, the Visitors Center is where National Park Service rangers can answer your questions and help you get your bearings, which is immensely helpful when you realize the park covers 1,900 square miles. Rangers are steeped in the history of Grand Canyon and well versed in everything the park offers. Based on your interests, they can help map out a plan so your visit flows naturally from one sight to the next.
The Visitors Center also features the must-see 20-minute orientation film, Grand Canyon: A Journey of Wonder. Shot beautifully and narrated poetically, the images and words put you in the right frame of mind to appreciate what you are about to see. In the Visitors Center plaza you’ll also find a bookstore; shuttle buses; restrooms; bicycle, wheelchair, and stroller rentals; and information on ranger programs. Infused with information and inspired by the film, it’s time for your first view of Grand Canyon from Mather Point, a short walk away from the Visitors Center.
The most popular area of the park, the Historic Village District is where you’ll find the historic El Tovar Hotel and neighboring Hopi House, which sells authentic Native American arts and crafts. Also here is Verkamp’s, a smaller visitor center. Farther west along the overlook trail are more historic sites including the Lookout and Kolb studios, each offering perfect vantage points as well as gift shops and exhibits.
Drop into the Bright Angel Lodge for a casual meal at the Bright Angel Restaurant. Tortilla soup is always delicious, as are the hamburgers — each a third-pound of Arizona-grown Angus beef topped with cheese and/or bacon and/or chili. It’ll keep you full for hours.
After lunch, consider a 30-minute “test walk” on the nearby Bright Angel Trail. Following the path just a few hundred yards below the South Rim will give you a taste of the canyon and, and hiking back to the rim will be just enough to test your stamina. The trail, which descends from the South Rim’s Historic Village, offers wonderful vistas and is well maintained, not too steep, and easily accessible. You may not realize you’re at 7,000 feet when you’re in the park, but as you walk back up the trail you may feel the effects of the thin air. Be sure to carry some water on even a short walk, as the air is typically dry and the temperature can rise during the day. For all hikes, plan on the return uphill walk to take roughly twice as long as the descent.
After exploring the village, consider returning to the Bright Angel Lodge for a quiet dinner at the Arizona Room. With locally sourced ingredients providing flavorful inspiration, hand-cut steaks, BBQ ribs, chicken, and fish will give you a taste of Arizona and the Southwest. Pair your meal with locally crafted beers and wines created by local artisan brewers and vintners. Make it an early night. The following day you’ll be getting up early.
Nature is what attracts visitors to Grand Canyon, and seeing it illuminated by the dawn’s early light is one of the most unforgettable sights in America. The Sunrise Tour departs 30 minutes before daybreak, when you board a shuttle bus to a lookout point on the South Rim. As you drive along Hermit Road, the driver will share information on the canyon’s history and composition. From the overlook, the first rays of daylight break over the canyon and, if the weather’s right, you’ll witness a Technicolor start to your day.
Afterward plan a longer visit to the western edge of the South Rim. There are nine overlooks along Hermit Road and shuttles depart regularly on the seven-mile ride between the Historic Village and end of the line at Hermits Rest. You can board and exit at any overlook and the free service will definitely expand your range. Another option is renting a bicycle (or using your own) and pedaling to these points, stopping when and where you desire to capture the perfect photo or enjoy the picnic lunch you brought along.
Many visitors make Hermits Rest their main destination, enjoying the quirky early 20th-century architecture of Mary Colter, who fashioned a storyline as well as a fitting domicile for a fictional hermit.
Beyond the overlooks of Hermit Road, take time to explore the eastern region of the South Rim. Buses go as far as Yaki Point which means you’ll need to take your own vehicle to reach overlooks farther east such as Lipan Point, considered one of the most beautiful overlooks, and Desert View, the site of Mary Colter’s iconic Watchtower.
On your return trip, be sure to drop into the Tusayan Museum and ruins. Long before there was a national park; long before there was a United States, Ancestral Puebloans had established dozens of communities in the area, one of which was here. A small museum showcases tools, jewelry, art, and artifacts found here, and a short walk through the grounds reveals the foundations of homes and kivas used for religious rituals and political meetings.
End your day with an elegant meal at the El Tovar Dining Room in the El Tovar Hotel. The evening is enhanced by the room’s Native American paintings and, as at the Arizona Room, a superb menu features locally sourced ingredients. Its setting, just steps from the South Rim, makes this one of the world’s unique dining experiences.
After dinner, step outside to enjoy a few moments of stargazing. The canyon’s exceptionally dark skies make the canyon one of the best night sky observing sites in the United States.
Today’s the day to go the distance — at least a mile of it — with a walk on the South Kaibab Trail.
As you learned on Day One, there’s a world of difference between hiking in and hiking out, so prepare for success by dressing appropriately with the right shoes (hint: no high heels or flip flops) and headgear, and taking walking sticks, water and sports drinks, salty snacks, and protein bars.
Rangers consider this one of America’s best short hikes, and it’s easy to see why. As the trail wraps itself down and around the canyon, you’ll pass Ooh-Aah Point, a popular spot for pictures. Continue the descent and a short time later you’ll arrive at the bluff at Cedar Ridge.
From the vantage point of this fairly broad plain, you’ve arrived at a wonderful place to soak in the majesty of Grand Canyon, seeing it from a point of view that magnifies its size. While the round-trip hike takes about three hours, don’t rush. Be prepared to spend some time here. Let the canyon set the pace.
The hike has likely worked up an appetite, and you’ll find a few dozen ways to satisfy it at the Food Court at Maswik Lodge near the Historic Village. Four food stations cover the bases with traditional home-style meals, grilled hamburgers, hot sandwiches, deli sandwiches, pasta dishes, salads, desserts, and even pre-packaged ready-to-go lunches.
Consider wrapping up your three days with one of Grand Canyon’s iconic tours. Mule rides along the rim give you the experience of riding one of the famed mules without having to commit to the multi-day ride into the canyon. The four-mile Canyon Vistas Mule Ride on the perimeter of the East Rim is a three-hour experience (including two hours in the saddle) during which wranglers will share the geologic and human history of the canyon. Meanwhile, helicopter and airplane tours over the canyon reveal its grandeur from a completely new perspective.
By now you’ve enjoyed a meal at nearly every restaurant at Grand Canyon. So celebrate your journey with a return to your favorite. As your time at Grand Canyon comes to a close, keep one thing in mind: The memories you’ve made are timeless.
For more information, visit grandcanyonlodges.com or call 888-297-2757.
For more travel experiences available from Xanterra Parks & Resorts and its affiliated properties, visit xanterra.com/explore.