Experiencing a truly unforgettable visit to Grand Canyon National Park requires more than simply stopping and staring
It is perhaps America’s best-known natural wonder. But few of the 5 million people who visit Grand Canyon National Park each year ever do more than stare down into the canyon’s depths from overlooks along the rim. Then it’s back in the car and on to the next destination on their vacation itinerary.
Which is a shame when you realize just how many unforgettable experiences there are to be had in this spectacular swath of northern Arizona.
To prove our point, allow us to suggest a few must-do adventures for any motorhome traveler contemplating a multiday visit to this dramatic national park.
On the Rim
Rather than the typical visitor’s routine of popping out of the car for a quick look around, the best advice we can offer you is to slow down. Luckily, Grand Canyon National Park’s popular South Rim offers several pleasant ways to do just that. Park the motorhome in Lot 1, which has pull-through spaces for RVs.
Walking part of the 13-mile Rim Trail that extends from Yavapai Point east of the main visitor center to Hermits Rest is a good way to start. The section that begins just west of Bright Angel Lodge is especially nice, as it offers a paved surface and shade from the hot desert sun. Shuttle buses here also allow you to catch a ride to a viewpoint farther up the road if you find you’re temporarily maxed out on marching.
If wheels are more your speed, Bright Angel Bicycles, located across the plaza from the Grand Canyon Visitor Center, offers both bike rentals and guided tours. It also operates a small café where you can relax and grab a bite to eat before or after your ride.
Walk of Ages
While anyone can see the dozens of rock layers exposed on the canyon’s walls, it’s hard to comprehend just how long it took the roaring Colorado River to carve through them to create this 277-mile-long gorge.
To get a feel for the enormity of that process, take a stroll on the 2.8-mile Trail of Time, which starts at the Yavapai Point Geology Museum and ends at the Verkamp’s Visitor Center. While you’re walking in this direction, the trail takes you back through the canyon’s lifespan, with every 3 feet equaling 1 million years of geologic history. Rocks brought up from the mile-deep canyon let you see and touch actual samples of the stone layers you’re looking out at from the viewpoints along the way.
The South Rim also has plenty of human history on display. High points in Grand Canyon Village include the Bright Angel Lodge, with its stone fireplace that exactly replicates the layers of rock found in the walls of the canyon itself. Then there’s the imposing El Tovar Hotel, a structure that has been welcoming guests since 1905, more than a decade before there was such a thing as Grand Canyon National Park.
And while we’re on the subject of architecture, be sure to check out the natural stone constructions of park architect Mary Jane Colter, including the Desert View Watchtower near the park’s east entrance and the faux miner’s cabin known as Hermits Rest at the western terminus of Hermits Road. Known for her perfectionism, Colter is said to have directed the placement of each stone on the façade of the seven-story tower, and directed her workmen to rub soot around the cabin’s hearth and place cobwebs in the corners to give it a lived-in look.
Into the Canyon
If you think the Grand Canyon looks impressive from the top down, you really owe it to yourself to see it from the bottom up.
To get into the canyon you have several options. There are two main hiking trails from the South Rim — the Bright Angel and the South Kaibab — that lead down to the Colorado River more than a mile below. Both are considered strenuous and are not to be attempted lightly.
If the idea of hoofing it down the trail on your own two feet doesn’t sound appealing, you might want to try making the trip with the help of the four strong legs of a sure-footed mule. Mules have been a go-to source of transportation for canyon visitors looking to get below the rim for more than a century. Trips from the South Rim, which can sell out months ahead of time, descend to Phantom Ranch, where you can stay the night and return the next day.
Perhaps the easiest way to see the canyon is from the river itself. While traditional multiday whitewater raft trips through the main part of the canyon need to be booked as much as a year in advance, the Hualapai tribe in Peach Springs, Arizona, 140 miles west of the park, offers one-day whitewater trips from what they call Grand Canyon West. If that sounds a little too hair-raising, Grand Canyon Discovery offers peaceful flat-water floats on the Colorado from the organization’s offices in Page, Arizona, 130 miles northeast of Grand Canyon Village.
The Other Grand Canyon
Up to this point we’ve been talking about the Grand Canyon’s more heavily visited South Rim. But there’s another distinctly different side to Grand Canyon National Park, namely the North Rim.
While getting to this opposite side of the canyon requires a bit of driving — it’s a very scenic 215 miles from Grand Canyon Village — the payoff is well worth it. And not just because of the 15 different kinds of cookies filling the glass case at the Jacob Lake Inn, located at the intersection of U.S. Highway 89A and state Route 67, where you’ll turn to reach the North Rim.
For one thing, this side of the canyon is home to a plethora of wildlife, not the least of which is the tufted-ear Kaibab squirrel, a species so ideally adapted to its environment that it’s found nowhere else on the planet. Endangered California condors can be spotted soaring above the cliff faces, while elk, bear, and even the occasional gray wolf can be spotted in the meadows or along the tree line.
While we’re on the subject of animals, there are mule rides offered on the North Rim as well. The upside here is that, because it’s less crowded, you may be able to book some saddle time on relatively short notice. The downside is that rides here don’t descend very far into the canyon itself.
The good news is that you can get spectacular views of the canyon from a number of easy-to-reach viewpoints. For starters, walk out to Bright Angel Point, located just behind the impressive Grand Canyon Lodge. You can also drive to Cape Royal and Point Imperial overlooks, the latter of which has the distinction of being the highest viewpoint in the park at 8,800 feet.
Here’s one final, simple way to see Grand Canyon National Park in a light that only a small number of visitors will ever know: Take the time to look up after the sun has gone down.
After watching one of the canyon’s spectacular sunsets, stick around to watch the stars come out. Be sure to ask at one of the park’s visitor centers if there’s a ranger-led astronomy program scheduled during your visit. If so, you’ll be able to learn more about what you’re seeing and even look at astronomical objects through telescopes.
Even if there’s not an official astronomy talk, don’t let that stop you. Simply find a dark spot, lay back and watch the cloudlike Milky Way rise in the east in one of the few places where it’s dark enough for this arm of our own galaxy to cast shadows on a moonless night.
A Grand Adventure
Ultimately what we’re suggesting is an approach we think will help you get the most out of your visit to Grand Canyon National Park. With a little planning and forethought, you can take your time and find your own unique adventures as you explore America’s best-known natural wonder.