This article is published in partnership with Hotels.com, who asked us to share our experiences at the Grand Canyon to help you plan for future trips.
As bucket list trips go, it doesn’t get much grander than a trip to Grand Canyon National Park. This natural wonder can’t help but take your breath away, and at 277 miles long, 18 miles wide and a mile deep, it’s almost too grand in scale for mere humans to fully appreciate. To do it even a little justice, you’ll want to spend at least a couple of days here. You’ll also want to do some advance planning to secure accommodations that are just a few steps from the edge of the Canyon itself. It will definitely be worth it because you will have front-row access to everything there is to do at the Grand Canyon South Rim.
What to do at the Grand Canyon South Rim
When it comes to what to do at the Grand Canyon South Rim, read on: there are driving routes and walking trails that offer spectacular viewpoints for stunning sunrises and sunsets; hikes that take you down into the canyon; and historic sites where you can experience the spirt of this land and the generations of Native Americans and adventurers who have called it home.
By staying overnight on the rim there’s an added bonus, too: after the day-trippers and crowds have left, you’ll be rewarded with quiet nights, starry skies and views of the Canyon by moonlight. (You may even see one of the Park’s 4-legged visitors who wander the area regularly after dark!)
Explore the Overlooks on Desert View Drive
If you are looking for some of the best daytime views of the Grand Canyon, this 25-mile drive can’t be beat. The road hugs the rim of the canyon from the Park’s eastern entry point to Grand Canyon Village itself, with more than a half dozen pullouts with impressive overlooks. Allow for about a half day (with your camera in tow of course!) as every overlook offers a view that is unique. Whichever direction you drive it, this route along the Grand Canyon South Rim proves the old adage that getting there really is half the fun.
Visit Desert View Watchtower
At the eastern end of Desert View Drive at the East Entrance to Grand Canyon National Park you’ll find the historic Desert View Watchtower. Not only does this location offer incredible views of the Canyon, the architecture and inspiration for the Tower itself is interesting.
Built in 1932 by renowned architect Mary E.J. Colter, the building was inspired by ancient Native American watchtowers in the Four Corners region of the Southwest U.S., particularly the Round Tower at Cliff House in Mesa Verde, Colorado.
Designed by Colter to aesthetically fit into its surroundings, the Desert View Watchtower’s exterior was constructed with rocks that were not overly shaped or worked, so that the structure would blend in as an extension of the canyon walls themselves.
Inside, the circular observation room known as the Kiva Room is named after the important ceremonial gathering places built by Puebloans for rituals and meetings (similar to the subterranean kivas built into the cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde).
Climb higher up the tower’s spiralling staircase and you’ll see murals and images on the walls and ceiling that depict Hopi life. However, at the very top of the tower the walls are left intentionally undecorated, so that the views of the canyon are the only thing to admire.
TIP: It’s worth visiting here at dusk as the Desert View Watchtower is beautifully lit at sunset, and the views looking west are stunning.
Hike the South Kaibab Trail
There are dozens of trails in Grand Canyon National Park, many of which are strenuous and definitely not for the beginner, and some that will even take you right to the bottom of the gorge. Henk and I wanted a reasonable return hike not an endurance test, so we decided to hike a part of the South Kaibab Trail that would maximize the views along the way and give us the most visual bang for our buck. An added plus was that the South Kaibab trailhead was a little east of Grand Canyon Village, so the trail was a little less busy than the South Rim’s very popular Bright Angel Trail.
Remembering that every step down would require a return step up, Henk and I set out for the Cedar Ridge waypoint, 1.5 miles and 940 vertical feet down. The trail itself was very well maintained and not terribly difficult, and we even saw families with young children doing the climb.
At about 1 mile into our descent we came to Ooh Ahh Point, a bend in the switchbacks that, if the name was any indication, promised an inspiring view. We weren’t disappointed: the view did live up to its expressive name and gave us a new vantage point where we could admire the canyon in both directions from below the rim.
Cedar Ridge was a little farther again, but worth the extra steps that led us out onto a plateau that jutted into the Canyon. This gave us views up, down and into the gorge (and as an added bonus there were washrooms here which we took advantage of before heading back up to the rim).
TIP: Before doing any hiking at the Grand Canyon, it’s always a good idea to consult with the Park staff who can advise you on a trail that is appropriate for your ability, as well as what you should bring with you.
Have Drinks on El Tovar’s Covered Veranda
After hiking any of the Grand Canyon’s trails, drinks are well deserved, and one of the best places to enjoy a cocktail is on the veranda of the historic El Tovar Hotel.
The El Tovar Hotel is an icon on the Grand Canyon South Rim, dating from 1905 when it first opened its doors to greet the elite with its European-Scandinavian design. Built during the era of refined railway travel, many considered El Tovar the most elegant hotel west of the Mississippi, and the property has hosted everyone from Theodore Roosevelt to Oprah Winfrey.
Even if you aren’t staying at El Tovar, a visit to the hotel is a must-do, whether it’s to enjoy an adult beverage or have a meal. And if you are staying here and are lucky enough to score the Fred Harvey suite, you’ll be rewarded with unobstructed views of the canyon right from your suite’s enormous terrace.
Explore the South Rim’s Edge (Safely) on the Canyon Rim Trail
The Canyon Rim Trail is a 13-mile paved trail that runs along the South Rim from the South Kaibab trailhead in the east, through Grand Canyon Village and all the way to Hermit’s Rest in the west. Like Desert View Drive, it is one of the Park’s most scenic routes, offering countless opportunities to view and photograph the Canyon. But being flat and paved, it is also an easy path to explore on foot or by bike, so you can leave the car behind.
Along the Canyon Rim Trail you’ll encounter some iconic viewpoints, including Powel Point where Grand Canyon National Park was actually dedicated back in 1920, Hopi Point and Mohave Point which are very popular for sunsets in particular, and Pima Point, at the far western end (where there’s a gift shop and restrooms as well).
TIP: Grand Canyon National Park offers a FREE shuttle bus service that makes 14 stops along the Rim Trail, so if you do decide to visit only a few key overlooks, you can use this service to hop on and hop off and save walking in between.
Visit the Historic Kolb Studio on Canyon Rim Trail
Two young adventurous brothers, Ellsworth and Emery Kolb, came to the Grand Canyon from Pennsylvania at the turn of the twentieth century hoping to find their fortunes. They did so not by staking a mining claim, or working at the new hotels (although Ellsworth did work at the newly-opened Bright Angel Hotel for a brief time). Instead, they saw an opportunity to become “Photographic Explorers”, capturing imagery of the Canyon and becoming one of the first specialty tourism service operators in the Park.
The Kolb’s unique service was to photograph visitors as they rode mules down Bright Angel Trail, then develop those photos in real time and offer them for sale as a souvenir. To take full advantage of visitor traffic, the Kolbs built their studio right on the Canyon’s edge at the top of trail. That studio is now a museum, the Kolb Studio, and worth a stop on your exploration of the Rim Trail if only to appreciate the perseverance and ingenuity of these entrepreneurs, and the historical impact they had in promoting the Grand Canyon through their photography.
Watch a Native American Performance at Hopi House
Hopi House is another of architect Mary Colter’s Native American-inspired buildings on the Grand Canyon’s South Rim. As the chief architect for the Fred Harvey Company (that developed many of the Park’s visitor amenities), Colter constructed this building in 1904 as a dedicated marketplace for selling Native American crafts, something it still does today.
Hopi House is also the site where Native American dances are presented to visitors, and it’s well worth planning your day so you can watch one of these free performances. The skilled dancers in their colourful regalia are beautiful to watch, and we were particularly fortunate on our visit when we saw a Hopi hoop dancer perform.
Take a Helicopter Ride Over the Grand Canyon
Something as huge as the Grand Canyon is difficult to appreciate even from its multiple overlooks and trails. But a bird’s-eye view can put its size and scale into even better perspective, so it’s definitely worth the splurge to take a helicopter ride over the Canyon.
There are several companies who operate flightseeing tours over the Canyon out of Grand Canyon Airport, some of which even offer landing tours outside of the National Park. But even if you just opt for an aerial tour, I can say from experience that nothing compares to the feeling when you fly over the lip of the Canyon and the gorge literally drops down below your feet. It’s better than any theme park ride.
Venture Outside the Park and Out Onto Skywalk
If you have time to explore outside Grand Canyon National Park, head towards the Hualapai Indian Reservation about 4 hours west, where you’ll find one of the Canyon’s modern engineering marvels: Skywalk, the second-largest cantilevered glass bridge in the world.
Skywalk’s 10-foot wide U-shaped glass walkway extends 70 feet out over the rim of the Grand Canyon, giving visitors the opportunity to ‘Walk the Sky’ and look down into the gorge – with nothing but 4,000 feet of empty space below your feet and the bottom. This is the only place you can make that claim – and the only safe way you would want to try it! Definitely worth the drive.
TIP: You won’t be able to bring your cameras or cellphones onto Skywalk, but there are photographers on-site to capture your walk (and we can thank the Kolb brothers for that idea!).
Wonder at this Wonder of the Natural World
It may be one of the seven Natural Wonders of the World, but visiting the Grand Canyon isn’t about putting a checkmark in a box. Once you see its size and its ever-changing vistas, you’ll want to spend time here to marvel at the beauty and drink in the atmosphere of this unique part of the world.
Even then, chances are one visit to the Grand Canyon won’t be enough.
*Advisory: We acknowledge that this may not be the right time for travel for everyone. For those who are travelling at this time, follow all necessary protocols and regulations to help keep everyone safe: wear a mask, bring sanitizer and wash your hands often. Also check destinations and businesses for the latest updates on policies and closures. And be sure to book hotels that offer free cancellation in case you need to change your plans.