Considered one of the seven natural wonders of the world, the Grand Canyon is on most people’s bucket lists to visit during their lives. Averaging around 6 million visitors every year (pre-pandemic), the Grand Canyon is not only one of the most popular U.S. national parks, but it is also one of the biggest at 1,902 square miles. Given the sheer scope of the park, many would-be visitors naturally have a lot of questions about the Grand Canyon. Here we discuss where the South Rim and North Rim are located, plus when is the best time to visit the Grand Canyon, and which activities are popular.
Where the Grand Canyon is Located: South Rim and North Rim
Grand Canyon National Park is located in northwestern Arizona. The park preserves the Grand Canyon, a stunning and massive 280-mile gorge of the Colorado River that is about one mile deep. The river splits the park into two units, the South Rim and the North Rim.
The South Rim is the more commonly visited unit, seeing about 90% of all visitors, and it’s located about a 2-hour drive from Flagstaff, AZ, and about 4.5 hours from Las Vegas, NV. The North Rim is a 4-hour drive from the South Rim, and about 2.5 hours from Page, AZ, or 3 hours from St. George, UT. Because of the distance between the two units, it’s challenging to visit both rims during the same trip.
Visits to the Grand Canyon are often combined with stops at other nearby national parks. These stops include the so-called Mighty 5 national parks in Utah (Arches, Bryce Canyon, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, and Zion.) Other popular stops include the five national parks considered part of the Grand Circle. In addition to the Grand Canyon, the Grand Circle parks include Black Canyon of the Gunnison N.P. and Mesa Verde N.P. in Colorado, Petrified Forest N.P. in Arizona, and Great Basin N.P. in Nevada. And, of course, there are plenty more amazing sites, including national monuments, national recreation areas, state parks, and more!
Best Time to Visit: South Rim and North Rim
Located at an elevation around 7000 feet, the South Rim is open to visitors year-round. Visitation is highest from May through September, with crowds peaking during July and August. The summer months see warmer temperatures—daily average highs in the low- to mid-80s—which make hiking into the canyon more challenging. If you want to hike down into the canyon, it’s important to remember that temperatures rise about 5.5 degrees Fahrenheit for every 1000 feet descended. Another phenomenon to note is summer monsoon season, which runs from July through mid-September. During this time, sudden afternoon thunderstorms can happen frequently.
Visitation is only slightly less during the milder months of May and September, which see daily average highs in the 70s. March, April, and October similarly see only slightly smaller crowds and have daily average highs in the 50s to 60s. These spring and fall months are preferred for hiking down into the canyon.
The least visited times of year are from November through February. Winter conditions predominate during this time, with frequent cold weather and possible snow.
Figuring out when to visit the South Rim should be based on which activities you plan to pursue. If you only want to stop at the lookouts and walk along the rim trail, then any time of year will work. If you want to hike down into the canyon, then spring or fall is probably your best bet. Regardless of when you go, it’s important to make reservations for lodging or camping well in advance, given the popularity of the park.
Best Time to Visit: North Rim
The North Rim is located at a higher elevation than the South Rim, over 8000 feet. As a result, temperatures are typically in the 70s during peak summer season. The North Rim is closed during the winter months, from roughly December through February. If you plan to stay close to the rim, then any time from spring through fall works for a visit. But if you plan to hike into the canyon, you’ll want to stick with spring or fall due to the hot summer temperatures in the inner canyon. Learn more about visiting the North Rim, including hiking, camping, and lodging information on the park webpage.
Things to do at the Grand Canyon: South Rim
Most visitors to the Grand Canyon tend to stay on the South Rim, enjoying the views from a variety of famous viewpoints.
To the west, the Hermit Road takes visitors to nine scenic viewpoints which offer dramatic views into the heart of the Grand Canyon. From March through November, the road can only be accessed by taking a free shuttle bus from Grand Canyon Village.
Heading east from Grand Canyon Village, the Desert View Drive is a 23-mile road where private vehicles are allowed to access six canyon overlooks. The drive ends at the Desert View Watchtower, at Desert View Point, which offers one of the park’s best views down to the Colorado River.
Another popular activity is day hiking. It’s important to recognize that hiking to the Colorado River and back in a day is incredibly challenging and virtually impossible, due to heat, from May through September. Such rim-to-river attempts are only for expert hikers or trail runners in peak physical condition. From Grand Canyon Village, on Bright Angel Trail, the round-trip distance is 15.6 miles with an elevation loss and gain of 4,460’, each way! Every year, several hundred people have to be rescued by park emergency personnel because they get in over their heads. Instead, set your sights on more reasonable and shorter day hikes.
One opportunity for South Rim hiking is to select a short distance on the Rim Trail, which stretches 13 miles between the South Kaibab Trailhead and Hermits Rest. Much of this trail parallels the Hermit Road, discussed above, so you can take the shuttle to shorten your hike. Another popular hike is the short but steep out-and-back (about 2 miles round-trip with 600 feet of descent and ascent) to Ooh Aah Point on the South Kaibab Trail.
Where to Stay at the Grand Canyon: South Rim
There are six lodges and hotels located at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. Each of these lodgings accepts reservations, and all of them book up well in advance, especially during particularly busy times like spring break, summer months, and fall weekends.
There are three campgrounds at the South Rim. Mather Campground, located in Grand Canyon Village, is the biggest with 327 sites, all but ten of which are reservable from March through November. Nearby, the Trailer Village RV Park has 123 sites, and reservations can be made up to 13 months in advance. Located near the park’s eastern entrance, the Desert View Campground has 49 sites, all of which can be reserved from late April through mid-October.
Because of the limited options for staying overnight in the park, some visitors to the Grand Canyon stay in the gateway community of Tusayan, located 7 miles south of Grand Canyon Village. Many more hotels are available in the cities of Williams and Flagstaff.
Other Activities: Backpacking, Bicycling, & River Trips
There’s no shortage of things to do at the Grand Canyon, but many of the more advanced activities require extensive planning and obtaining permits ahead of time. One activity is backpacking inside the canyon from either the South or North Rims, which requires obtaining a backcountry permit. You’ll need to conduct research into trails and camps—or join a guided trip.
Another popular activity is bicycling on the park roads, especially the 13-mile section of Hermit Drive which is closed to private vehicles.
Finally, no article about the Grand Canyon is complete without mentioning what many call the trip-of-a-lifetime: rafting the Colorado River through Grand Canyon. There are a variety of river trips possible in the national park. These range from short motorboat trips that last a few days to longer oar-boat trips that last several weeks. A river trip on the Colorado River offers one of the best ways to experience the beauty and wilderness of the Grand Canyon.
We hope you have found this information helpful for planning your trip to Grand Canyon National Park. There’s plenty more information to share, so if you have a comment or a tip, please leave it below!
Cover photo: Hopi Point at Sunset. NPS/Michael Quinn