During the month of March we visited the South Rim of Grand Canyon national park. Our over all impression is that of true amazement at the enormity of the canyon. It’s one of those things that a picture can’t really capture because it’s almost hard for your brain to grasp how deep and large it is, even in person. That being said, it is one of those parks that has many views of essentially the same thing from different angles. On the first day your jaw will drop repeatedly, on the third day you may be thinking yep, that’s pretty cool. The point being, if you only have a day or two and don’t want to hike below the rim, you can really take in the best the park has to offer. It’s definitely a must see in a person’s lifetime and we plan to return and explore it’s deeper wonders.
Where to stay
We chose to stay in the Kaibab National Forest just outside of Tusayan where dispersed camping is allowed for free. About a half mile up road 320 we found a spot large and flat enough for our 33′ rig which allowed our dogs to have some freedom. We were essentially 5 minutes outside of the park gates and just a couple of minutes from groceries and gas. There are tons of spots along this route for car camping and smaller rigs as well. The local ranger station can provide details on this and other routes that allow dispersed camping.
Within the park along the South Rim there are three campgrounds to choose from. Only one has RV hookups and it can also accommodate RV’s up to 50 feet. The other two do not provide hook ups and have length limits. Also within the park are a number of resort and cabin options including Phantom Ranch which is in the bottom of the canyon but requires special arrangements to access. Outside of the park along highway 64 between Tusayan and Valle there are other RV park and Hotel options to choose from.
Many, but not all roads are accessible by car. Some routes however are accessible only by free shuttle buses (red, blue and orange routes). The red route for instance can only be accessed by bus unless you acquire a permit for those with mobility issues. Parking can be an issue despite the park having multiple lots. We found parking near Market Plaza or the Maswik lodge less stressful than looking for a spot near Bright Angel. Once you get parked just take the buses where you want to go.
What to See/Do
Bright Angel Area (Blue Bus Route)
If you only have one day focus your activities in the Bright Angel area. This area will give you a good mix of services such as restaurants, visitor centers and gift shops along with amazing views of the canyon and the Bright Angel trail. Here is a description of some of our favorites. The Lookout Studio is a 1914 studio built right on the cliff edge and has a telescope view of the canyon. Hopi House is a pueblo style building built in 1905 and is now a gift shop containing a large selection of Native American crafts. There is easy access to the paved Rim Trail which provides an easy stroll along the canyon and services in the are. One of our favorites in any national park are the free ranger talks. We attended one about fossils where they walk you over to where there are hundreds of fossils in the rock right along the rim trail. If you’re interested in the geology of the canyon they have a great talk on that as well. There are tons of other gift shops and two visitor centers in this area. There are various restaurant options but we really only ate at one since we packed a lunch every day to eat along the way. Keep in mind that this is the most popular and crowded area of the park.
Hermit’s Rest (Red Bus Route)
The red bus route on the West side of the park is only accessible by bus unless you receive a handicapped permit. There are multiple viewpoints along this route, the most spectacular being Hopi Point and Pima Point. The end of the line is Hermit’s Rest, a historic retreat built in 1914. It’s an awesome stone structure right on the cliff edge. We walked past the building up the trail a little way and had a picnic lunch overlooking the canyon and watching the ravens soar above and below us.
Desert View/East Entrance (Orange Bus Route)
The road to the Eastern entrance of the park can be traveled by car. The Orange bus route travels along a portion of it and has access to Yaki Point and the South Kaibab trailhead which is not accessible by car. Along this route is the geology museum so if you really want to learn about the canyon wall this is the place to go. Yaki point does have a spectacular view so you may want to take it in. Continuing along towards the East entrance there are several viewpoints but the highlight on this section is Desert View watchtower. The tower was built in 1932 to replicate a pueblo watch tower. The interior murals were painted by a Hopi artist and a climb to the top will give you 360 degree views of the area. We think it is worth the drive out to see this.
First things first – take water! Oh, and then take water! Also, it is ill-advised to attempt to hike down to the river and back in a day since it’s nearly 5000 ft of elevation and temperatures in the bottom can easily be 20 degrees hotter than on the rim. All overnight stays below the rim require a permit and there is an involved application process.
The Rim Trail is a great option for minimal elevation gain since it follows along the rim. It can be accessed at multiple points so a nice option is to combine bus and rim trail travel along your site seeing route.
Bright Angel trail is the most popular trail in the park so the upper trail can be quite crowded with folks who just want to go down a half mile or so, as well as groups of mule riders. This trail can be taken all the way through the canyon and out to the North Rim, permits required of course. The views are stunning but it will likely be crowded.
The South Kaibab trail is one route to the river that intersects with the bright angel trail and can be used to through hike to the North Rim. Since it is less popular I chose this trail for my “below the rim” experience. I hiked to the Cedar Ridge rest stop, 1.5 miles and 1,120 feet below the rim. It was quite a climb out but if you’re up for it I recommend taking the opportunity to get below the rim for a different perspective!
Always be on the lookout for wildlife. Every evening there will be ample Mule Deer and Elk viewing along the roads – don’t drive too fast! There are a lot of Ravens soaring overhead and below the rim among other birds. We saw multiple Scrub Jays and various sparrow type birds. We unfortunately weren’t lucky enough to see a Roadrunner or California Condore however we spoke to people who had seen them while we were there. There is a squirrel with long ears like a horned owl called Albert’s squirrel which is fun to see and there are lots of lizards. And of course those of the domestic variety roaming the forest.
With the orientation of the South Rim the sun actually sets behind/to the side of your view of the canyon however the shadows and colors it casts on the canyon walls is breathtaking. Make it a point to catch at least one sunset at a viewpoint while you’re there. We didn’t take in a sunrise since we’re not morning people but I imagine it would be beautiful.
Outside the Park
Cameron Trading Post
Established in the early 1900’s, the trading post served as a place for the local Hopi and Navajo to barter and trade their wool and animals, among other items, for dried goods. The trading post is still in business today and specializes in native american artwork, jewelry, blankets and other crafts. There appeared to be a LOT of genuine native american goods and of course some look-alikes or imported goods. One of the best parts is that there is a Navajo woman who weaves blankets on a large loom right inside the trading post so you can see the skill it takes to create one of the amazing Navajo wool blankets. You can make this a part of your Grand Canyon experience by exiting the park on highway 64 on the East side. The trading post is about 30 minutes outside of the boundary. On the same property is a restaurant and motel.
Navajo Roadside Stands
Along highway 64 between the East entrance of the park and Cameron you are traveling on Navajo land. Along the route you will see many road side stands where Navajo people are selling their hand-made goods. Since we were there in March most of them weren’t occupied but in the height of the tourist season there will be a lot of opportunity to purchase beautiful artwork, blankets, jewelry, Navajo food and other crafts directly from the artists and meet some really great people.
Road 320 to Grandview Lookout
An alternate entrance in to the park is along road 320 in the national forest (the one we camped on). It comes out near Grandview Point but on the South side of the road by a lookout tower. If you want a slightly different view of the park and rim climb up and take a look! It is a mountain road (unpaved) and was quite muddy when we took it in March. I expect it would be dusty in the summer.
We hope this gives you an idea of what to expect at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. We loved it and plan to return!