Travel bug: Grand Canyon National Park and Northern Arizona

We just took a week-long vacation in September to three National Parks in Arizona and Utah. Visiting the National Parks is a recent pastime we’ve adopted as a couple in the last few years. We try to visit at least one new National Park each year and so far we’ve been to seven of the 61 in the past four years. If we can add 2-3 more each year, we should be able to see them all before we retire.

The Grand Canyon is one of the most visited National Parks in the United States (#2 actually, with 6.3 million visitors last year) and is one of the seven natural wonders of the world. It’s famous for two major things: its width and depth, as well as the geological history that the canyon walls tell us. I’m excited to share a few pointers on traveling to Grand Canyon National Park!

I visited the Grand Canyon for the first time four years ago and honestly, I was underwhelmed. It was a short partial day visit as a part of a bigger trip where I visited mid-day, during National Parks Week (when admission is free) and only had time to see the Visitor Center and the Rim Trail. My underwhelming experience was completely shaped by those factors. This time on my repeat trip, I made sure to time our visit so it was outside of peak season, and budgeted extra time to see the Canyon at different times of day and to be able to hike down into the Canyon. You can only really appreciate the scale of the Grand Canyon if you hike partially down into it.

I wanted to make a note that we only visited the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. The more isolated North Rim offers a much wilder experience, but fewer amenities. The North Rim can be hiked to from the South Rim in a backpacking trip (24 mile hike) but it is nearly a four hour drive from one Rim to the other as you have to drive entirely around the Canyon. Only 10% of the visitors to the Grand Canyon make it to the North Rim.

Tips for visiting Grand Canyon National Park

Yavapai Lodge (offering very standard hotel room amenities)
  • Where to stay: We stayed in the park at the Yavapai Lodge – park lodging almost always offers fewer frills than lodging outside the park, but it’s very convenient and reduces your time you’ll spend in line waiting to get into the park, especially if you are spending multiple days in the park. You need to book your lodging WAY far in advance for National Parks, too – at least 6 months, but upwards of 12 for certain parks and times of year. We booked our reservations 10 months in advance at the Grand Canyon and had limited options at that time. You can see a full list of lodging in-park and in the gateway community of Tusayan here.
  • How to Get There: The most direct way to travel to the Grand Canyon is by flying into Phoenix, Arizona, but it is only about 30 minutes longer by car to travel from Las Vegas, Nevada. The Grand Canyon is about 3.5 hours from Phoenix and 4 hours from Las Vegas.
  • How to Get Around: One of the best features of Grand Canyon National Park is the FREE shuttle service! You can park in Tusayan at a variety of parking lots and take a free bus into the park. All the major attractions and trailheads are connected by the shuttle system. You will need to pay an entrance fee, just as you would in your car, when you arrive in the park on the Shuttle. Many lodges in Tusayan also offer transportation into the park during peak season (Memorial Day-Labor Day).
Yavapai Lodge (Lobby), Tavern and Restaurant
  • What to Eat: There’s a dining option for everyone in the park, everything ranging from coffee and quick snacks to fine dining. Higher end restaurants in the park do take reservations and you should make them as far out as possible! While in the park we visited the Yavapai Lodge Tavern (with a great outdoor patio with fire pits), the Canyon Market General Store (a full fledged grocery store for hiking snacks), the Yavapai Lodge Restaurant (more of a cafeteria style option for breakfast), and the Harvey House Cafe (casual dining for dinner) because we DIDN’T make reservations in advance at El Tovar or the Arizona Room and were starving. One thing I love about the full-service restaurants in the National Parks it that they seem to always offer high quality vegetarian and dietary-sensitive meal options.
  • Where to Hike: We hiked to Cedar Ridge on the South Kaibab Trail (3 miles round trip). The thing to remember with hiking into the Grand Canyon is that you have to hike back up on your back! Hiking back up the Canyon can be exhausting and take twice as long as it takes you to hike down. While we felt we could go further than 1.5 miles on the way down, we were glad that we didn’t go too much further with how hot it was that day. Cedar Ridge is a great stopping point as it offers a nice flat area for a lunch or snack break and does have pit toilets. There is no water available at this point, so you should plan on carrying at least 1 liter per person in your group. This section of the South Kaibab Trail took us about 2.5 hours to hike and featured an 1,140′ elevation change (down, and then back up) with steep and narrow switchbacks.
  • What Else to See and Do: Make time to stop at the Visitor Center and to walk the Rim Trail. The Visitor Center and nearby Yavapai Museum of Geology share information about what you are looking at in the Grand Canyon – the geological history, the wildlife and the history of the park. The Rim Trail is a fully paved, ADA-accessible walkway that meanders along the edge (from a safe distance!) of the Grand Canyon between various shuttle stops, scenic lookouts and hiking trailheads. Even if you are a not an avid hiker, this scenic walk will provide different perspectives of the Grand Canyon.

On the Ride to Grand Canyon National Park

If you are traveling from Las Vegas, Nevada:

If you are traveling from Phoenix, Arizona:

  • Set aside time to hike and explore Downtown Sedona
  • Enjoy the beautiful scenic drive on Highway 89A just outside of Sedona
  • Visit Montezuma Castle National Monument, an authentic indigenous cliff dwelling village

Antelope Canyon in Page, Arizona

You might recognize some of this scenery as a wallpaper option on both Apple and Microsoft Computers in the 2000s. I never had any idea where these wallpaper photos were taken, but when I found out that they were taken in a slot canyon in Northern Arizona, not too far from Grand Canyon, I knew I had to visit.

Antelope Canyon has two sections – Upper and Lower. Lower Antelope Canyon is narrow at the floor and widens at the surface and Upper Antelope Canyon features the opposite with wide and spacious rooms inside the base of the canyon. Both slot canyons offer stunning visual intricacy and photo opportunities. If you suffer from any claustrophobia whatsoever, I do not recommend that you visit Lower Antelope Canyon. This is a great post comparing both Canyons and which might be a better fit for you.

Slot canyons, like Antelope Canyon, are very common in Northern Arizona and Southern Utah and are formed by water wearing through rock over time. They are deeper than they are wide and many in this region of the United States are a lovely pinkish red sandstone material.

Antelope Canyon is located on the Navajo Nation reservation and you must book a guided tour through one of several guide services. We paid approximately $50 per person for a 1.5 hour tour of the Lower Antelope Canyon. The photo opportunities were absolutely stunning, but for me personally the experience was very headache-inducing. The canyons were crowded – especially at the beginning when you descend down six flights of stairs into the canyon from the surface. You are in the canyon in a long line of hundreds of people at once and your speed is entirely at the mercy of how long people take photos in front of you. Our 1.5 hour tour was an hour longer than to be expected and I had a really hard time with the confinement toward the end of the tour. The photos are stunning and I’m glad that I took the tour, but if I were to go back to the area, I’d take a tour of the Upper Antelope Canyon and try to go during a time of year where it might be less crowded.

I’m happy that the Navajo Nation is able to share a significant feature of their home and monetize the asset through these tours, but I think that the number of people in the Canyons at any given time does need to be reduced somehow. Despite the fact that there were only 10 of us to our tour guide, it was an overwhelming amount of people in a small space. I did not feel that if someone had a medical emergency that they would be able to receive treatment or be evacuated quickly.

If you’re looking to plan a trip to Grand Canyon National Park or Northern Arizona, be sure to use the resources from Visit Arizona. I’m old school and love to plan my trips ‘by the book’ and I recommend you see if your local library stocks Moon Travel Guide for the Grand Canyon. Happy travels!

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