Grand Canyon National Park: A User's Guide

BETTER IN PERSON: A mere image can't convey what the human sees, looking down at the Grand Canyon from Mather Point. Patrick Tr/Shutterstock
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Even at Mather Point, the first-stop overlook at the South Rim, where you’re likely to be shoulder to shoulder with camera-toting tourists, the word "grand" falls short of describing what sprawls out beyond the rail. The scale of Grand Canyon National Park in northern Arizona strains the vocabulary. It is nearly a mile down to the Colorado River that cuts through the canyon. It is 10 miles, or more, across to the North Rim, which at about 8,000 feet above sea level, cuts across the horizon 1,000 feet higher than where you’re standing. And in between are countless side canyons, buttes and temples. More than 1 billion years of geology on display.

An overwhelming percentage of the visitors to Grand Canyon National Park visit the South Rim. The North Rim — which is closed from late October to mid May — is a five-hour drive of 215 miles from South Rim Village.


After leading an 1857 expedition up the Colorado River and into the Grand Canyon, Lt. Joseph Ives wrote in his report: “The region is, of course, altogether valueless. Ours has been the first, and doubtless will be the last, party of whites to visit this profitless locality.”

Ives was a bit off the mark. Tourists discovered the Grand Canyon in the late 19th century and hotels popped up on the South Rim long before the area was designated as a national park. The El Tovar Hotel, an elegant 78-room lodge of dark-stained peeled logs and stone, opened in 1905 — 14 years before President Woodrow Wilson signed legislation creating Grand Canyon National Park.

Things to do

canyon hopping in Grand Canyon

Many visitors to Grand Canyon National Park — too many, in our view — come and go without wandering more than 100 feet from their car. The various overlooks – Mather Point, Grandview Point, Moran Point — certainly provide jaw-dropping views. But if you’re doing that sort of tour, at least make the drive east on Desert View Drive to the Desert View Watchtower, a 70-foot tower that provides what may be the best views along the South Rim.

The best way to take in the views is to walk. The 12-mile Rim Trail stretches from Pipe Creek Vista west to Hermits Rest and is accessible from many overlooks and most of the lodging in the park. Most of it is paved and most of it is flat, something to be grateful for at 7,000 feet. Take time to take in at least a portion of the trail.

The hike down — and back up — the South Kaibab Trail to Cedar Ridge is much more rigorous, but the payoff is stunning views up and down the length of the canyon. It’s just 1.5 miles from the parking lot to Cedar Ridge, but you drop nearly 1,200 feet. Which means you have to climb nearly 1,200 feet. It’s steep. And oh so worth it.

Why you’ll want to come back

Sunsets are magic here. The light is different. You’ll be amazed at how many variations of red exist. You want to be here for at least two. Take the free shuttle bus to Hermit’s Rest, the most westerly overlook, for one. Then, study a park map to find your own spot. Take someone whose hand you like to hold.

Flora and fauna

Because of the elevation changes in the park, five of the seven North American life zones are present in the park. Than means 1,500 plant, 355 bird, 89 mammalian, 47 reptile, 9 amphibian, and 17 fish species are found in the park. Visitors to the South Rim are almost certain to see mule deer, red squirrels, rock squirrels and tassel eared Kaibab squirrels. Lucky ones will spot elk. And really lucky ones will spot bighorn sheep, an endangered California condor or a mountain lion.

By the numbers

  • Website: Grand Canyon National Park
  • Park size: 1,217,403.32 acres or 1,904 square miles
  • 2010 annual visitors: 4,388,386
  • Busiest month: July, with 647,636 visitors
  • Slowest month: January, with 120,409 visitors
  • Funky fact: There are 167 species of fungi found in park

This is part of Explore America's Parks, a series of user's guides to national, state and local park systems across the United States. W e'll be adding new parks all summer, so check back for more.

Inset photo of hikers on Deer Creek Trail: National Geographic