Ready to add the Grand Canyon to your bucket list?
Unlike most American tourist attractions, the Grand Canyon is not near a major airport and requires some planning to visit. The fact that it's among the most popular sights in the US, attracting more than 4.5 million visitors each year, is a good clue that you also need to book ahead.
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3 Grand Canyon travel tips
1. The best place to gather information is the National Parks website.
2. There’s also a lot of information and a directory of tours at The Canyon.
3. The National Parks offer “cell phone audio tours” where you can dial different numbers at various points along the rim and get a two-minute narration on aspects of the canyon.
The stunning Havasu Falls in the Grand Canyon
When considering a trip to the US many travellers consider including the Grand Canyon on the itinerary until they study a map and calculate the logistics involved. Despite the planning challenges, the Grand Canyon is worth the trip. Like the Taj Mahal and Machu Picchu, it is a sight that will leave you breathless with awe no matter how many times you have seen it on film.
3 Grand Canyon fast facts
1. The Grand Canyon is a very impressive case of erosion. It's a chasm that has taken at least three million years to form and is now 433 km long, 30 km wide and 1600 metres deep.
2. The cross section of rocks exposed reveal most of the geological history of the earth. And six of the world's seven climatic belts are represented here: from Arctic alpine on nearby peaks to Mexican desert on the floor of the canyon.
3. The Colorado River that formed the canyon is 2333 km long and drains 12 per cent of the USA.
Nature's artwork: Witness the result of over three million years of erosion
But no statistics can give an indication of the sense of wonder experienced when you first stand at one of many lookouts and see the extent of mesas, rock walls and pinnacles extending in an endless vista below your feet. The canyon creates its own climate, too. In winter the ground may be carpeted by snow while summer thunderstorms provide very dramatic sound and light shows.
3 ways to get to the Grand Canyon
1. The nearest large airports to the Grand Canyon are Las Vegas and Phoenix.
2. It's a shorter drive (3.5 hours) from Phoenix via Flagstaff to the South Rim. From Las Vegas it’s about 4.5 hours.
3. The only practical way to get around is by rental car. But on a typical summer day there are many more cars than there are South Rim car spaces. Even so, a car is still the best way to follow the 40 km rim drive eastwards from Grand Canyon Village through a series of viewpoints to Desert View Watchtower.
Enjoy the stunning views at Desert View Watchtower
When to visit
The South Rim is open year-round but the higher North Rim is closed by snow from October until May. During summer months the South Rim is so crowded with visitors that it can detract from the experience. This is the time to visit the North Rim that only attracts about 10 per cent of visitors to the park. Throughout the year it's possible to have mist, cloud and fog obscure the view completely. However, when the mists part it's as if a magical curtain is torn aside to reveal an unmatched spectacle.
Visitors arriving in summer are likely to be confused because Arizona is one of the three US states to not have daylight saving.
Hotels and camping
Many spur-of-the-moment visitors may miss the Grand Canyon after being told that "you've got no chance unless you booked accommodation months ago". That may be true for the premier lodges within the National Park such as the venerable El Tovar Hotel but the cheaper park lodges not on the canyon rim can have daily vacancies even in peak season.
The community of Tusayan lies just outside the southern boundary of the park and is about 10 km from the rim and Park HQ. There are several hotels here that may have accommodation at short notice. There are several campgrounds in and near the park. The only accommodation within the park on the North Rim is Grand Canyon Lodge but there's a campground and a couple of lodges outside the park.
Watch the sunset over the North Rim
Surveys reveal that most visitors to the Grand Canyon stay less than four hours. That's enough to have a quick look, buy the T-shirt and grab something to eat. It's not long enough to see how the mood of the canyon changes with the light throughout the day. Staying longer is worthwhile and, surprisingly, even South Rim has low key and quite good facilities with no golden arches or garish "Grand Canyonland" type architecture in sight.
At the very least you should take the time to walk along the west rim. The unfolding panorama as you walk adds a grand sense of scale to the landscape. There's also a comprehensive range of tours and talks given each day by rangers; some are just for families.
Rangers warn you not to attempt to walk down to the river and back in one day. Fortunately there are several tiers to which you can descend in a few hours. The most popular are the Bright Angel and South Kaibab trails.
If you do wish to camp below the rim you must obtain a permit five months ahead. The other option is to stay at Phantom Ranch at the bottom of the canyon - it has dormitories, cabins and a restaurant but is often booked out a year in advance.
The famous overnight mule trips down to Phantom Ranch should be booked 13 months in advance. There's a shorter three-hour ride along the rim. You must weigh less than 91 kg fully clothed.
Take a ride along the rim of the canyon on a mule!
After looking into the canyon the best way to get a balanced overview is to raft through it. The river trips are from one to 18 days and generally require reservations months beforehand. Remember that it is much, much hotter at river level than it is on either rim.
If your interest is more in bright lights than deep clefts you can simply stay in Las Vegas and take a flight over the Grand Canyon. Fixed wing flights are cheaper, helicopter flights are much more dramatic but may not go as far across the canyon.
In 2007 a dramatic new attraction opened at Grand Canyon West, outside the National Park and about three hours from Las Vegas. The Grand Canyon Skywalk operated by the Hualapai Nation lets you stand on a glass walkway 20 metres out from the canyon rim where you can look down at the canyon floor 600 metres below your feet.
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