Travel: How to Spend a Day at Grand Canyon National Park
The Grand Canyon is one of America’s largest, and most popular, tourist destinations. The canyon itself is composed of peaks and slopes of layers of red rock that drop down several thousand feet. At its base, the Colorado River snakes through for over 200 miles. At different times of day, the colored rocks reflect the sunlight in a variety of colors, causing the rocks to appear purple, blue, yellow, red or orange.
Most of the canyon is contained within Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona, although some of it is part of the Havasupai Indian Reservation. Prior to receiving national park status in 1919, the area was declared a national monument by Theodore Roosevelt in 1908. Decades later, it was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979. The park covers almost 2,000 square miles.
According to the National Park Service (NPS), the first year the park was established it had almost 38,000 visitors; 100 years later it had over six million in 2018. The NPS works with archeologists to preserve the area’s history and culture while keeping the park visitor ready.
The Grand Canyon averages 10 miles across in diameter. It is divided into two parts, the North Rim and the South Rim. The North Rim, which sits about 8,000 feet above sea level, is closed during the winter months, making it harder to access and therefore less popular than the South Rim, which sits at about 7,000 feet above sea level. The South Rim, open year-round, offers shuttle service to trailheads as well as several ideal spots for watching the sunrise and sunset. However, both offer campgrounds, restaurants, and visitor centers during operating hours.
Despite the enormity of the Grand Canyon itself, it is possible to visit the National Park in just one day. If you want to get an early start, there are places to camp within the park, or the small town of Tusayan, just outside of the south entrance, offers several hotels. Tusayan also offers a few stores, restaurants, and tour options.
Start the day off with the sunrise at Mather Point, near the South Entrance and visitor center. Parking is available close by, but plan to arrive at least an hour before the projected sunrise time. Not only does the area become crowded, but some of the best scenes are before the sun peaks over the horizon.
From the visitor center, there are a few short, easy trails and paths that offer views of the canyon. Several of these paths are paved and accessible for pets, strollers, and wheelchairs. Also available at the visitor center are maps and rangers who can help you plan your trip. If you are up for hiking, there are several shuttles that can take you to the trailhead of your choosing, whether day trip hiking or backcountry hiking. The park offers several ranger-led programs and guided tours, including tours on mules.
If you would rather see more of the canyon and spend less time hiking, the Desert View Drive is a great option. The drive starts near the South Entrance and ends at the East Entrance and offers serval pull-offs and overlooks. These areas are less populated and offer some of the best views of the canyon. Because of the depth and breadth of the canyon, every vantage point offers something different for viewers to enjoy.
Near the end of the Desert View there is a piece of aeronautical history. On June 30, 1956 two aircrafts, presumably unable to see each other due to clouds, collided mid-air, killing all passengers and crew. There is a commemorative plaque honoring all those who lost their lives in that mid-air collision. That accident led to the air traffic control and protocols planes follow today.
Also located near the end of this scenic drive is the Desert View Watchtower. The Watchtower was designed by architect Mary Colter, along with the Hopi House, Hermit’s Rest, and Lookout Studio. When the Watchtower was constructed in 1932, Colter was one of the few women in the architectural field. She fought for architecture that incorporated the elements around it and complimented the natural aesthetic of the area. The Watchtower is 70 feet tall and 30 feet across at its base. It was designed after an Anasazi watchtower and has three levels: a lower level observation room, an upper level Hopi Room that features painting by a Hopi artist, and a rooftop observation deck. The tower provides a 360-degree view of the canyon.
Whether visiting for a day or a week, the Grand Canyon is full of cultural history and unparalleled beauty. Admission to the park is $35 for a personal vehicle for a 7-day pass. More information can be found at NPS.gov/grca.
All photos by Randi Walle