(NOTE: This article discusses primarily GCNP South Rim)

The Grand Canyon is one of the most visited sites in the U.S. by foreign visitors. This info can help anyone, not just foreign visitors, plan and enjoy a Grand Canyon experience and focuses on GCNP South Rim. A good rule of thumb is to begin planning a visit at least 6 months in advance if possible. (The photo below is from the collection of the National Park Service and can be used publicly as long as they are attributed as the owner/copyright holder. This view is from Yaki Point  to the east of the Visitor Center and the central village.)

View from Yaki Point 

Visit the National Park Service web site and educate yourself about GCNP.

The Grand Canyon began forming 5.5 millions years ago when a huge lake that is now the Painted Desert began spilling across the flat Colorado Plateau. The water found fissures and low places and began to flow west. The water carried sand, gravel, rocks and boulders which ground away the layers of rock slowly over hunderds of thousands of years. As the river undermined softer rocks, upper layers collapsed into the basin. Several times lava flows blocked the canyon and created lakes which then broke through and continued the erosion of the canyon. When people think about canyons, they envision those in mountains running between high peaks. When seen from high altitude, the Grand Canyon resembles a giant crack in the earth across the mostly flat Colorado Plateau. The only siginificant mountains are the volcanic San Francisco Peaks at Flagstaff, but they are 80 miles from the rim. (The photo below is from the collection of the National Park Service and can be used publicly as long as they are attributed as the owner/copyright holder. This view is an aerial view at the South Rim and illustrates the relatively flat terrain surrounding the huge crack of the canyon.)

 Aerial View GCNP South Rim

The very first thing to understand is the distances and time involved in traveling in the Western U.S. The Grand Canyon of the Colorado River is huge, 277 miles along the Colorado River, roughly a mile deep at its deepest point, and 18 miles across at the widest rim-to-rim. GCNP is 120 miles from east to west. The area where GCNP is located is immense, remote, rugged and largely unpopulated. Closest large cities with international airports are Phoenix (230 miles, 4 hours driving time) and Las Vegas (280 miles, 5-5.5 hours driving time). It is also possible to fly into Flagstaff Arizona, which is 90 miles and about 1.5 hours from the park. The primary mode of travel to GCNP is by automobile. Get a U.S. road atlas or use online maps to familiarize yourself with the region. For an idea of sizes and distances. If you were to take maps of GCNP and Europe to the same scale, and superimpose GCNP over Germany, it would span most of the way across that nation. Or turn it a bit, and it would cover from London to Paris. It spans across most of Northern Arizona in its natural place; the state of Arizona is about the same size in area as Germany.

Basic directions from anywhere: GCNP is located on AZ Hwy 64 60 miles north of interstate highway I-40 at Williams, AZ, 33 miles west of the intersection of I-17 & I-40 at Flagstaff, AZ.

Map of the Grand Canyon area.

The second thing to consider is how much time is enough for a good experience? Experts in TA forums recommend at least 2 days with an overnight stay, though it is possible to have a good experience in one day by arriving early and leaving late. The very best experience would include lodging in the park, and time to see both a sunrise and sunset.

Where do I Stay at GCNP?

The best place to stay at the South Rim is in a park lodge. There are other options as well. See this article which discusses park lodging and other choices.

When considering a trip to the Grand Canyon which requires lodging in the area, you should consider booking lodging before anything else. You can always cancel or change the lodging reservations if necessary. Lodging in the park itself is limited, and availability is often not good. Contact the lodging concessionaire, Xanterra, through their web site reservation system, or their telephone numbers on the web site. Reservations are available for the South Rim a year in advance. There is information in Grand Canyon Traveler Articles and forum pages here in TA about lodging which includes information about park lodges and other lodging close to the park. The closest lodging outside the park is in the town of Tusayan just south of the park, Williams, 60 miles south, and Flagstaff, 90 miles southeast.

How do you get to the Grand Canyon? What if I can't drive myself there?

There is no public transportation all the way to GCNP. The primary means of reaching the park is by driving yourself, which for a visitor means renting a car (or other vehicle; see below). Driving yourself allows you to spend more time in the park on your own time and schedule. Most visitors arrive through the Phoenix or Las Vegas airports (see above for distances and travel time). If you are not comfortable or confident about driving in the U.S., or do not drive, there are some alternatives:

[1] Bus (coach) and other ground tours from Las Vegas or Phoenix. These generally take 12-14 hours time with about 3 hours "on the ground" in the park. A typical tour includes viewing the IMAX film about the Grand Canyon at Tusayan just outside the park, lunch, and stops at 3 overlooks in the park for 30-45 minutes each. At present there is only one bus tour with an overnight stay offered by Grand Canyon Tour Company. To find tours use online searches such as "las vegas grand canyon bus tour." There are numerous coach tour providers in Las Vegas, including the 90-year-old venerable Grayline Tours. Others that the author of this article suggests considering are Scenic Airlines (which offers coach tours as well as air tours), Grand Canyon Tour Company, and GrandCanyon.com. (There are a lot of similarly named companies in Las Vegas, so be sure the name matches.) From Phoenix, known sources are Grayline (luxury coach) and Southwest Tours (van). There are also tours from Los Angeles.

[2] Air tours from Las Vegas and Phoenix which fly into the Grand Canyon Airport. A tour in the park is included with nearly all of these tours and is the same as above for bus tours, as the park tour is by bus (coach). There are no scheduled commerical flights to the Grand Canyon Airport. There are no rental cars at the GC Airport. It appears that companies offering air tours no longer offer overnight stays (5/2/2011) or air transportation only to GC Airport. It should be noted that there are no helicopter flights to GC Airport. Tours from Las Vegas by helicopter are going to "Grand Canyon West," not GC South Rim. Once at the GC, there are options to take helicopter flights over the canyon. Recommended provider is Scenic Airlines (which is the same as Papillon Helicopters and Grand Canyon AIrlines).

[3] Amtrak passenger train to Flagstaff AZ or Williams Junction AZ, and then using shuttle transportation or taxi to get to GCNP or your lodging. Amtrak trains do not run to the park, however there is a private railroad, Grand Canyon Railroad,  from Williams which travels to GCNP daily. Amtrak has a shuttle from its station at Williams Junction to the GCRR station in Williams, where the GCRR Hotel is also located. GCRR offers packages for visitors arriving by train with overnight at their hotel in Williams and overnight in a park lodge. Xanterra, the park concessionaire, operates GCRR and the GCRR Hotel, and GCRR can also make custom packages with additonal nights at the canyon. Amtrak (and other rail tour companies) also offers special excursions from Chicago which include an overnight stay at the Grand Canyon with all hotels and ground transfers included. Arriving by Amtrak in Flagstaff or Williams, it is also possible to go to GCNP by using Arizona Shuttle; this will require an overnight stay in Flagstaff or Williams or a very long wait considering the arrival times of eastbound and westbound trains, one each direction daily.

[4] Bus using Greyhound to Flagstaff AZ, and then using shuttle transportation from Arizona Shuttle to get to GCNP or your lodging. Greyhound does not stop at Williams AZ.

(NOTE: [3] or [4] on arrival might require an overnight stay in Williams or Flagstaff before continuing to the park, depending on time of arrival. The same is true for departure.)

[5] Private tours which include GCNP in their itineraries, which normally include pre-arranged lodging if overnight at the park.

"Do I need a car?"

You don't need a car in the park, but the very best tour which you can arrange is your own, on your own time, at your own pace, and not one on someone else's schedule. On a typical bus tour, a person gets to see 3 overlooks of the canyon, while the canyon is viewable from most of the nearly 30-mile long South Rim road. By driving yourself and being on your own time schedule, you will see far more of the canyon. If you are arriving from Phoenix or Las Vegas, either is an easy drive (with a few winter exceptions) year-round to GCNP. Within the park there are free shuttles operating to take you around in the central park area and the western overlooks (except the Hermits Rest shuttle does not operate between Dec. 1 and Feb. 28 during which time private vehicles may use the west rim road). The eastern overlooks can be reached by private vehicle or tour bus arranged within the park. From the end of May to the beginning of September NPS operates a shuttle service from Tusayan just outside the park to the GC Village area.

A common question about driving is whether a SUV or similar vehicle is required. All roads to GCNP South Rim and within GCNP are suitable for ordinary passenger vehicles. Most of the trip will be on 4-lane interstate highways. Secondary roads leading to the park and roads within the park are paved 2-lane roads. Neither 4-wheel-drive nor high clearance vehicles are needed. Rent a vehicle based on your needs for economy and comfort. Car rentals are not available at the Grand Canyon or the GC Airport. Closest car rentals would be at the Flagstaff airport or the Flagstaff Amtrak station. Most visitors traveling by car will obtain rental vehicles in Las Vegas or Phoenix.

South Rim? North Rim? West Rim?

The South Rim is the most visited area with the most services and amenities and is the location of the real "West Rim". The North Rim is less accessible, has limited lodging and few services and amenities, and is considered by some to be more scenic. The South Rim is open 24 hours, 7 days a week, all year including holidays. The North Rim facilities are closed for winter weather conditions from October 15 to at least May 15 every year. Roads within the park at the North Rim remain open for some period after facilities close but will also be closed and "chained off" once snow accumulation makes them inaccessible.

What is often mistakenly called the "West Rim" is actually "Grand Canyon West", which is not in GCNP at all but is on private land of the Hualapai Indian Nation about 180 miles from GCNP South Rim. "Grand Canyon West" is a commercial enterprise of the Hualapai tribe. The canyon rim in that area is 2500-3000' lower than the GCNP South Rim. There are few viewpoints, and the area is not as scenic as GCNP. It is where the Skywalk is located and is about 120 miles from Las Vegas, however half of that distance is over poor roads with the last 15 miles an unpaved and poorly maintained dirt road. It should be noted that most rental car companies prohibit taking their vehicles on unpaved roads. Tours are available from Las Vegas by air and by bus to Grand Canyon West. The actual "West Rim" is a 7 mile section at GCNP South Rim between Grand Canyon Village's Historic District and Hermit's Rest (the westernmost viewpoint at the South Rim). The actual West Rim is also know as the West Rim Drive/Hermit's Rest Road.