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Destination guide for Grand Canyon National Park
Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona, United States of America (USA)
The 277-mile-long Grand Canyon, with a max width of 18 miles and a maximum depth of (only) over a mile, is not the deepest canyon – both Colca Canyon in Peru and Kali Gandaki Gorge in Nepal are more than twice as deep. But the drama of the landscape and the multi-coloured geology of this extraordinary geological phenomenon is unsurpassed.
The gorge, cut over 2 billion years by the Colorado River, resides within the 1.2-million-acre Grand Canyon National Park – the US’s second most visited park.
Helicopter flights are a thrilling way to see it, but other great ways to experience the canyon are viewing platforms, self-driving routes, white-water rafting on the Colorado River and hiking one of the many superb trails.
The primary area of the park for visitors is the so-called ‘South Rim’. It’s the best place for a first visit – it’s the most accessible, and it’s open all year round. It’s also the busiest – 90% of visitors come here. There are over 20 great viewpoints, plus simple hiking and self-drive trails.
Grand Canyon Village near the Park’s southern entrance is home to most of the Park’s hotels, restaurants and attractions. It’s also where you’ll find the Park’s headquarters.
The ‘West Rim’, owned by the Native Hualapia Indians, is the second most popular park of the Park. It’s best if you’re coming from Las Vegas (closer), for a shorter day trip with fewer crowds, and want to do the Skywalk. It’s also the only place to do a one-day white-water rafting tour.
The ‘North Rim’ is for a quieter visit, away from the tourist crowds; usually a second or more visit. You can drive from the South Rim to the North Rim (about 5 hours, 220 miles) – you can also hike it (about 20 miles). There are 3 major viewpoints: Bright Angel Point, Point Imperial and Cape Royal.
Finally, the ‘East Rim’ offers the most authentic, quiet and non-touristy experience; however, it has the least facilities.
When to go
Spring and autumn are the best times to visit, with the most clement temperatures and rainfall is lowest. If you’re heading to the South Rim, you can also avoid the worst of the tourist hoards.
Summer (June to August) throngs with visitors – especially the South Rim – and can get blisteringly hot.
In winter, (December-February) heavy snowfall in winter can shut down parts of the park and ground helicopters. The North Rim is closed from December to mid-May each year. The South and West Rims are open all year round.
Temperatures can vary dramatically in the Park throughout the year, from 40°C to 80 °C, and below freezing in winter, so always take warm clothing, especially outside of summer.
Getting there and away
The closest international airports are Phoenix and Las Vegas, each around 3-4 hours’ drive. You can also fly to Grand Canyon Airport in the nearby town of Tusayan from North Las Vegas, Boulder City, and Henderson, NV airports. From there, get a taxi to the Grand Canyon Village (about $15).
If you’re driving, the Park’s southern entrance is accessed from the Arizona State Route 64 near Tusayan.
Many visitors join organised tours from Las Vegas. It’s a long 4-5 hour drive from Las Vegas to the South Rim; most therefore head to the West Rim (only 3 hours away), making it a feasible, if long, day trip.
There are also many organised tours within the park itself – bus, helicopter, and white-water raft. Organised tours offer the great benefit of hassle-free visits, and informative tour guides.
You can’t self-drive in the Grand Canyon (apart from one scenic stretch – see experiences). Your options are organised tours, or to use the shuttle buses.
Getting around the South Rim is straightforward. The free and reliable hop-on hop-off shuttle buses run a network of four routes that connect the main sights. They run all year round. There’s a downloadable map of them on the NPS website.
There’s also a reliable and frequent shuttle bus service around the West Rim, run by the local Hualapai, that helps you easily see all the different sites there too.
Bus, boat, helicopter, and airplane tours are available from the South Rim. Bus, boat, helicopter, airplane, and white-water rafting tours are available from the West Rim.
Where to stay
Ideally, you want to stay within the park itself. There are numerous accommodation options, though none especially luxurious. You’re not coming here for a luxury stay.
Most accommodation is at the South Rim, with the 3-star El Tovar Hotel the pick of the bunch. You can also stay at the nearby town of Tusayan.
Most people go to the West Rim for day tours, but the Hualapai Indians operate the Hualapai Ranch, which offers simple accommodation in a mock cowboy ranch, with cowboy-themed entertainment, wagon rides, and horseback riding.
At the North Rim, the only option is the legendary Grand Canyon Lodge.
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