Grand Canyon

grand canyon village

A place of superlatives with mind-blowing proportions — 277 miles long, up to 18 miles wide and over a mile deep — the Grand Canyon is rightly on many travelers' must-see lists. Because it is one of the most-visited tourist attractions in the U.S., it's also a place where trips have to be mapped out carefully for a good experience. Here are six things to know about visiting the Grand Canyon's South Rim.

1. Drive in via Desert View Road.

Most travelers arrive via the South Entrance but if you can, try to come through the Desert View Point, which offers a scenic, 20-minute drive towards Grand Canyon Village. This is the only road you can drive along the rim. Past Grand Canyon Village, there's a shuttle system that takes visitors along the edge of the canyon.

2. Timing is everything.

Heat and crowds make the Grand Canyon all but unbearable during July and, especially, August, so try to avoid those times and travel instead in the spring or fall. You will never be alone at the South Rim, but crowds will be decidedly less.

Once there, try to time your hikes against the flow: everyone rushes to Desert View for sunset, for example, but the sheer scope of the canyon allows for exquisite sunset viewing from pretty much anywhere. A great spot is Pima Pont, the second-to-last stop on the Red Line shuttle.

When hiking along the rim, you will encounter crowds near the scenic view points that have a parking lot or a shuttle stop, but in between – the ones where you have to walk – you will have stretches that are basically deserted.

3. High-end accommodations are not available.

Grand Canyon Village feels like an airport-meets-a-college-campus, with different clusters of lodges, restaurants, cafés and gift shops. The historic El Tovar (www.grandcanyonlodges.com) hotel, built in 1905, that sits in prime position at the very end of the village near the Rim Trail is the most upmarket of the offerings. It has just 78 rooms and books way in advance. If you can score a room here, take it. None of the other accommodations come close to this hotel's ambience and its restaurant is also the most upscale.

If El Tovar is booked, which it often is, the cabins at the Bright Angel Lodge (www.grandcanyonlodges.com) are the next most-desirable accommodations. They are in the middle of everything and there will be crowds outside your window all throughout the day, but the views here cannot be beat. Kachina and Thunderbird lodges are low-rise concrete constructions and the Maswik Lodge, a five-minute walk away from the rim, has motel-style rooms. In the end, the Grand Canyon lodges book up regardless of service and amenities, so the more in advance you can reserve, the higher your chances you will score a nicer room or cabin.

4. Day hikers will be bored after one day.

Day hikers have two options at the Grand Canyon: they can walk along the rim, which is spectacular with breathtaking drop offs and lots of photo opportunities, as well as long (13 miles), but it's not exactly hiking through rugged terrain, as it's mostly a walk along a paved trail.

Alternatively, hikers can choose one of the trails that snakes down into the canyon, like Bright Angel or South Kaibab, both of which are exhilarating but only whet your appetite to go further. Countless signs warn hikers not to tempt to climb to the bottom of the canyon and back out in a single day: hikers have died from dehydration and exhaustion (it takes about 3 hours to get to the bottom and more than 6 to come back up).

Ultimately, there are no satisfying, longer day hikes that take you through very different terrain, as you find in Zion or Bryce, so once you have had your share of rim photos, you are ready to either move on to an overnight hike into the canyon or to keep driving to the next stop along your road trip.

5. Overnight hikes need to be planned way in advance.

The hiking on the bottom of the Grand Canyon is considered some of the most exciting terrain of the southwest. To stay in the historic Phantom Lodge (www.grandcanyonlodges.com) on the bottom between the South and North Rims, you have to book well in advance (up to one year).

Phantom Ranch has small wooden and stone cabins with bunk beds and a small bathroom. Accommodations are very rustic and bare-bones, but the location at the bottom of the canyon on the Colorado River is incredible. Breakfast is served, and you can purchase box lunches. Dinner, usually stew, is served in the evening. Some of the bathrooms have hot water but some don't.

Indagare Tip: The Canteen has strict hours, so you have to bring down your own snacks or else it's possible to go hungry for hours until it opens for dinner.

6. Have a sense of humor – you're at the Grand Canyon.

Fair warning: the mushy food in some of the cafeteria-style restaurants will remind you of your college days; you will be given a beeper (classy) that starts bouncing around when your table is ready (even at breakfast); and the abundant gift shops will play a grating soundtrack of Native American flute music. But keep a sense of humor about the parts that feel like Grand Canyon Disneyland – or ignore them – because once it's just you and the canyon, you will experience moments of great awe and humility.

Spend time in the Kolb Studio, dedicated to the work of the Kolb Brothers, photographers of the Grand Canyon around 1900, whose black-and-white works are fascinating. Walk along the Trail of Time, which details the geological evolution of the billion-plus-year-old canyon. Visit the hard-working mules that carry visitors up and down the canyon (they have their own chiropractor on staff). And take in such prime viewing spots as Mather Point and South Kaibab Trailhead to marvel at the multi-hued layers of rock and time of this magnificent place.

There's no right or wrong way to do the Grand Canyon: some people treat it as a drive-by photo op; some spend a night and walk around the rim; and others look into the great abyss and see the challenge to return.

Written by Simone Girner

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