Sal Santiago writes about travel, minimalism, philosophy, and living an alternative lifestyle.
Best Months to Visit the Grand Canyon
The month of May is a great time to visit the canyon. After the busy time of spring break during March and April, the crowds begin thinning out. May is a slower, quieter time in the park, and perfect if you want to avoid the crowds and the chaos. After the pandemic shuttered the main visitor center is now back open along with a free shuttle between Tusayan and the South Rim. This will operate into the early fall.
There seems to be a permanent sign posted for those driving in to expect at least a one-hour delay at the park entrance. This is rarely the case during the month of May, and after September when the crowds die down. As part of my job for a tour company near the canyon, we keep an eye on the entrance gate Webcam, and there is often no line at all at the gate. It's a good idea to arrive at the park before 9:30 am, or in the afternoon after 2:30 pm or so. The lines are the longest midday and wind down in the afternoon. All of this changes after Memorial Day, when the busy summer season begins.
Hiking, Viewpoints and Shuttles to See the Canyon
Many people come to the park on the spur of the moment. They drive here with just the day to see as much as possible, or even just a few hours. The structure of the park is such that you can really see a lot in a day. Once you park at the Visitor’s Center at the South Rim, you are steps away from Mather Point. A great first point to take in the amazing views of the canyon. If the weather is good and you feel like walking, the paved South Rim Trail is right here. You are less than a mile away from Yavapai Point. About two and a half miles away from the Bright Angel Trailhead. There are incredible, breathtaking views all along this trail. It is very safe as well. There is fencing in the places where it is needed, very close to the edge.
There are currently three shuttles operating along the South Rim, the orange, blue, and red lines. The shuttles are free and run every 10–15 minutes. You just hop on and hop off at the viewpoints where you would like to spend more time and explore. The red line heads to the Hermit's Rest Trail. No cars are allowed on this road, only the park shuttle and bicycles. It is about a 5-mile route. The South Rim walking trail also follows this route, so you have the option to walk part of the way, and ride the shuttle for part of the way, and back. Two of the most popular viewpoints along this route are Hopi Point and Pima Point. They are recommended places to watch the sunrise over the canyon.
The orange shuttle will take you on a short 5 to 10 minute ride to Yaki Point. There is no trail to this viewpoint, so you have to take the orange shuttle to get there.
The main road you can drive in the park is Desert View Road. It is a 25-mile paved public road, that follows along the south rim, east to the Desert View Watchtower. There are viewpoints all along this road. Some have limited pull-out areas where you can stop for a few moments. Some have larger parking areas and you can walk a short distance to the actual viewpoint. A few of the most popular places to watch the sunset are along this route, facing towards the West: Moran Point, Lipan Point, and Navajo Point. The Desert View Watchtower viewpoint has some of the best and clearest views of the Colorado River. As of this writing the Desert View Watchtower is still closed, but you can walk around outside it, and the views from this point are incredible in several directions. The structure itself was built by the architect Mary Anne Colter and opened in 1932. It was designed as a tribute in the style of Hopi buildings.
If you just have a day, and perhaps have limited mobility, you can still see a tremendous amount just staying along the South Rim. On a clear day, you can see 10 miles across to the North Rim. If you want to go deeper into the canyon, the only way to get there is by foot, or booking a mule ride there. These mule trips are booked up to one year in advance.
The two most famous trails to hike into and explore the canyon in more depth, are the Bright Angel Trail and the South Kaibab Trail. Both of these trails are about 9 miles down to the Colorado River. To hike an entire trail, it is best to leave early in the morning, as it will likely take the entire day. Also, if you are just traveling into the area, the elevation will definitely be a huge factor. The South Rim lies at about 7000 feet (2,100 m), and you are descending about one mile into the canyon. The climb back up will take twice as long as the descent, and is very strenuous.
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Pay Attention to the Heat
An important point to remember: if you are visiting in summer, be prepared for the intense heat. The floor of the canyon is on average 20 degrees hotter than at the rim. If it's 90F (32C) at the rim, it will be about 110F (43C) in the canyon. This makes for extremely challenging conditions at the end of the hike, during the most difficult stretch, the ascent back up. As the signs posted near here say, "Descending into the canyon is optional. Hiking back out is mandatory."
Many people choose to hike just part of each trail. The views are still going to be amazing, and it is much less strenuous if you only go a few miles. On the South Kaibab Trail for example, many people will hike about one mile to Ooh Aah Point or Cedar Ridge. On the Bright Angel, there is the 1.5-mile Rest House, the 3-mile Rest House, and the Indian Garden which is about halfway to the river. Indian Garden is the only place in the canyon where there is a water refilling station. This is important to know and helps with planning. Many people underestimate the heat. The park service is sent on roughly 600 rescue calls per year, mostly during the summer season. Dehydration, elevation sickness, heart issues, happen with alarming frequency during that time.
Best to be prepared with more water than you think you'll need and lots of salty snacks. And if possible, avoid hiking during the hottest hours of the day, between 10 am and 4 pm or so. There are shaded places in the canyon on the Bright Angel, and cottonwood trees to rest under at Indian Garden. The South Kaibab Trail is entirely exposed to the sun. Take great care in planning, and don't push past your limit during the brutally hot months of summer. I would avoid long hikes in the canyon during this time of year. You don't want to end up as the latest addition to the already rather thick book Over The Edge: Death in The Grand Canyon. New chapters are added each year.
All of that said, hiking into the canyon is an awesome experience. You get to see the rock layers up close and places that you cannot see from the rim. It is definitely worth it. You just need to be better prepared than you would on most other hikes. The mile ascent back to the rim is one of the most challenging hikes there is.
The Most Important Information
After a long day spent exploring the canyon, where can I get a cold beer or an ice cream?
Grand Canyon Village has a market with grab-and-go sandwiches and other food options. Very close to the Bright Angel Trailhead, there are places for ice cream and beer. Yavapai Lodge has burgers, beer and an outdoor patio. The historic El Tovar Lodge requires reservations for a sit-down dinner at the restaurant.
There are options in this area for coffee, bagels, and sandwiches as well. The Bright Angel Bike Store near the Visitor's Center also has a cafe. This is the one bike rental location in the park. There are hotels and rustic lodges in Grand Canyon Village right along the South Rim and Mather Campground is in a central location nearby.
A population of about 2,000 live in the village year-round. There is a library, a community rec center, and even a community cemetery for those who spent years in the park and chose it as their final resting place.
No matter if you have just a day, or an entire week, you won't run out of things to see and explore. If you avoid the peak times of the year (summer and spring break) you will likely have the park mostly to yourself. You can truly soak in the peace and relax both near the village and along the rim. And of course, you can marvel at the incredible vistas!
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.