Are you ready to check the Grand Canyon off your bucket list? It's a big place and I had a lot of questions about how to get there, what to do, where to stay, and more before our Grand Canyon trip.
My family visited the Grand Canyon during spring break. My kids were ages 14 and 16 at the time of our trip, but this is a good destination for all ages.
We had a wonderful trip! And I have LOTS of information to help you make the most of your visit.
Here are my tips for your first trip to the Grand Canyon.
South or North Rim?
Grand Canyon National Park is big, with multiple entrances. The South Rim Visitor Center and the North Rim Lodge are only about 25 miles apart, but it will take you 4 hours (210 miles) to drive around the canyon to get from one to the other. And the view is “grand” from every direction.
Most visitors just pick one – the South Rim or the North Rim. The South Rim is open year-round and has a lot more lodging options and other visitor services. The North Rim is only open during the summer months and is less developed.
There are also East and West entrances to the Grand Canyon. The East and South entrances both access the South Rim, so you can see and do all the same things from either. The East Entrance is inside the Navajo Nation and farther from the park's hub.
Grand Canyon West is an enterprise of the Hualapai Nation, outside Grand Canyon National Park.
We've visited both North and South Rims, but most people visit the South Rim from the South entrance, so that's the focus of this article. Click the link below if you want to learn more about visiting the North Rim of the Grand Canyon.
How Many Days?
One half or full day will be enough for many visitors. That's enough time to see the Grand Canyon from several viewpoints, get photos, see the Visitor Center exhibits, ride a shuttle and walk or bike part of the Rim Trail.
We were satisfied with one full day, but there was a lot we didn't get to do and see.
If you want to hike down into the canyon, ride both the Red and Orange shuttles, explore Desert View Drive, drive to the North Rim, or generally get more than a few highlights, then plan additional days.
Your Grand Canyon National Park entrance pass is good for seven days and it will work at the South, East, and North entrances.
How much does it cost to visit the Grand Canyon? The current fee is $35 for up to 15 passengers in a private vehicle. This fee is good for 7 days.
Since we've been visiting a lot of national parks during the pandemic, we bought a national parks' America the Beautiful Annual Pass. It cost $80, and it's a bargain if you plan to visit 3+ parks per year. It's also good for most national monuments, national historic sites, and other federal lands.
Get all the fee details and buy your pass online at https://www.nps.gov/grca/planyourvisit/
Related: 4 Ways to Save on National Park Fees
When to Go
The South Rim is open year-round. Summer can be quite hot and it's the most crowded season. You can definitely make it work, but consider visiting the North Rim instead. It has cooler weather, is less visited, and is only open in the summer.
Winter temperatures are typically cold but above freezing, with little snow. You can drive all the roads in the winter when crowds are light and shuttles are not operating.
Spring and fall are both good times to visit the Grand Canyon South Rim. You'll generally get pleasant temperatures with somewhat lighter crowds. I'd still plan for crowds, especially during the Spring Break season.
We visited on a weekend in late March 2021. The weather was pretty much perfect. COVID-19 was still a thing, so shuttle capacity was limited and the visitor center was closed. It was fairly crowded in the main areas, but we frequently had the Rim Trail to ourselves.
How to Get There
Most visitors rent a car or drive their own car to the Grand Canyon. This is a remote region with few other easy transportation options. We drove our own car.
There is a small airport near the Grand Canyon. Flagstaff has a larger airport with service from Phoenix, Denver, and Dallas/Fort Worth. The nearest major airports are in Phoenix (3.5-hour drive) and Las Vegas (4-hour drive).
Learn more about getting to the Grand Canyon via bus, train, or tour at https://www.nps.gov/grca/planyourvisit/
Where to Stay
There are two good strategies for picking where to stay near the Grand Canyon – close to the park or close to everything else.
Close to the park
It's smart to get into the park by 8 AM, and the easiest way to do this is to stay inside the park or in Tusayan, just outside the south entrance.
There are several lodges and campgrounds inside the park. These fill fast, so book at least a year in advance for best availability. You may find last-minute openings, so it's worth checking.
Tusayan is located just outside the park. It's a small tourist town with a handful of hotels and campgrounds, and a shuttle into the park. There are few other towns or lodging within 50 miles of the south entrance. This is a remote, sparsely populated region.
If you want to spend several days in Grand Canyon National Park, I recommend that you stay inside, or as close as possible.
Close to everything else
For our spring break trip, we wanted to stay in one place to visit the Grand Canyon and do other fun things too. We chose Flagstaff, Arizona because it's the largest city near the Grand Canyon. It has many hotels, restaurants, and other high-quality activities.
Because it's farther away and has the most options, Flagstaff has the most affordable hotels near the Grand Canyon. And it's not too hot in the summer.
Flagstaff is a 90-minute drive from the Grand Canyon South or East entrances. That's not ideal, but it works if you just want to spend one day at the Grand Canyon.
Williams is another city to consider. It's 30 minutes closer to the Grand Canyon than Flagstaff but much smaller.
Sedona is another popular option. It's a resort town with plenty of other great activities, but it's 45 minutes farther from the Grand Canyon than Flagstaff.
- 15 Fun Things to do in Flagstaff, Arizona
- Tips for Your First Trip to Flagstaff, Arizona
- 10 Fun Things to do in Sedona, Arizona
Arrive by 8 or 9 AM to beat the crowds. We drove 90 minutes from Flagstaff and arrived at 8:30. We waited about 10 minutes in line at the fee station. We had no trouble finding a parking space in the large lot near the Visitor Center.
The Blue shuttle wasn't running on the day we were there, so we drove to a different parking lot that was closer to the Red shuttle. By 9:30 AM, we got one of the last parking spaces near the Red shuttle stop.
Shuttle bus capacity was limited to 15 people during the pandemic. We waited 30-45 minutes to board the shuttle, with shuttles boarding about every 10 minutes.
We left the park at about 3 PM and were STUNNED to see a 2-mile line of cars waiting to get into the park. At peak times, the wait to just get into the South entrance can be 2+ hours. And then you have to find parking inside.
That's not my idea of fun. For the best experience, arrive early at Grand Canyon National Park.
Things to Do
There are lots of fun things to do at the Grand Canyon. Number One is to see the canyon and take photos. That's what you came for, so take your time and enjoy it.
Mather Point is a short walk from the Visitor Center and that's a good place to start.
After that, I highly recommend that you walk along any part of the Rim Trail between the Village and Hermit's Rest. Much of it is flat and paved, and there are 10 places where you can hop on the Red shuttle along the way. This is where you can get a little space from the crowds and really soak up the spectacular beauty of the Grand Canyon.
No matter what you do, wear hats and sunscreen. I skipped this and got sunburned. The Grand Canyon is high-elevation and you'll burn fast.
Here's what I'd love to do on a future trip.
- Check out the visitor center (it was closed during the pandemic)
- Ride the Orange shuttle to the Geology Museum, Trail of Time, and viewpoints
- Explore Desert View Drive and see Desert View Watchtower
- See the sunrise and sunset
- Hike below the rim (these are strenuous hikes)
- Take a mule trip (learn more below)
- Take a river rafting trip
Shuttle and private tours are the only vehicles that can drive in some parts of the park from spring to fall, due to crowds. I was confused about which shuttle went where, and which we would want to ride before we arrived at the park. Now that I've used it, I'll attempt to explain.
The roads in the South Rim section form a rough “T”. The shuttles will get you nearly anywhere in the T.
Want a visual? Click HERE to see the official park shuttle map.
Tusayan and the South entrance are at the bottom of the T. The East entrance is at the top right, miles beyond the end of the shuttle line. The Visitor Center is at the intersection.
Here's where the shuttles go:
- Purple – Goes from Tusayan to the Visitor Center. If parking is full inside the park or you are staying in Tusayan, you can pay your fee online or at the shuttle stop and ride the shuttle into the park, with no stops between Tusayan and the Visitor Center.
- Blue – Operates between two stops at the Visitor Center and Village/lodges. You can usually take the Blue to the Red, but it was not running during our visit.
- Orange – This is the east side (top right) of the T. It runs from the Visitor Center to the Geology Museum and Yaki Point. 5 stops.
- Red – This is the west side (top left) of the T. It runs from the Village/lodges to Hermits Rest, with 8 stops in between. It only stops 3 times on the way back.
With just one day, we focused on the Red shuttle and were happy with our choice.
We waited at the shaded shuttle stop with views of the Grand Canyon for 30-45 minutes. Capacity was reduced to 15 people per shuttle during the pandemic, so even though a new shuttle loaded every 5-10 minutes, it took a while for our family to get to the front of the line.
Our strategy was to ride all the way to Hermit's Rest without getting off at all. We enjoyed a picnic at Hermit's Rest, then alternated between walking the Rim Trail and using the shuttle on the way back.
I recommend this strategy on busy days (even after the pandemic) because if you hop off on your way to Hermit's Rest, it's hard to know how long you'll have to wait before you can hop on another shuttle. Shuttles will arrive frequently, but you will not be able to board if they are full.
Our family of four and a larger group of eight rode all the way to Hermit's Rest, so our shuttle stayed full. Most people who wanted to board our shuttle at various stops had to wait for another. Small numbers (1-2 people) had better luck but families had a hard time reboarding together on the route to Hermit's Rest.
On the way back, we had no trouble reboarding our whole family on any shuttle, anytime.
Where to eat
The Grand Canyon has full-service and fast-service restaurants inside the park. We did not try any.
There is also a grocery store in the Village, where you can buy picnic or camping supplies.
We bought groceries in Flagstaff and packed a picnic into the park. We ate on the big boulders at Hermit's Rest. It was a lot of fun, and so convenient to always have our lunch, snacks, and drinks with us.
Be sure to bring plenty of drinking water! The Grand Canyon is high-elevation (which makes you feel thirsty) and it can be very hot in the summer. There are filling stations in the park, so it's smart to bring reusable water bottles.
Grand Canyon with Kids
Is the Grand Canyon a good place to visit with babies and toddlers? I think so.
Most of the major viewpoints have safety railings and most of the Rim Trail is wide, paved, and not right on the edge of a cliff. I didn't see any strollers on it, but you could do it. Backpack baby carriers are even better.
Use common sense and keep an eye on little ones, and your family should be fine. Nature is so good for kids.
Be sure to stop at the Visitor Center to pick up a free Junior Ranger booklet for kids ages 5-12. It's filled with fun and educational activities. Complete and return it to the ranger desk at the end of the day to earn a free collectible ranger badge.
More Ways to See the Grand Canyon
We drove into the park, rode the shuttle, and walked a few miles of the Rim Trail. However, there are several other ways to enjoy the Grand Canyon. They include:
- Bicycle – Much of the Rim Trail is wide, paved, and mostly flat. We saw many families cycling inside the park. You can bring your own bike or rent bikes inside or outside the park. Shuttles have bike racks but no space for trailers. You can also book bike tours.
- Grand Canyon Railway – You can ride a historic train with onboard entertainment from Williams, Arizona into the park. The train station inside the park was an easy walk from the Red shuttle stop. Learn more at https://www.thetrain.com/
- Mule Trip – Sure-footed mules have been carrying visitors into the Grand Canyon since the 1800s. You can book 3-hour or overnight mule trips. Kids must be at least 9 years old. These tours fill fast, so book up to 15 months early for best availability at https://www.grandcanyonlodges.com/plan/mule-rides/
- Private Tour – Traffic is limited to shuttles and private tours in several sections of the park for most of the year. If you want a tour guide to plan a great day for your family, and you want to skip the shuttle lines, then consider booking a private tour of Grand Canyon National Park.
The Grand Canyon is a fantastic, bucket-list destination, but it's helpful to know what to expect and go with a plan. It's no fun to get stuck in a long line at the entrance or hunt for a parking space.
I hope that our experience helps your family plan a great trip!