When thinking about all the incredible places in the world to see, sometimes it's easy to forget the ones that sit right in your own backyard. In the United States, the Grand Canyon is one of those places. You've seen pictures, and you've heard about this park north of Flagstaff, Arizona, but only seeing it for yourself firsthand will let you truly appreciate its jaw-dropping beauty.
Facts and figures
- On average, the canyon plunges about a mile deep and is about 10 miles wide
- An estimated 1,000 caves lie within the park, and 335 of them have been documented
- At more than 1.2 million acres, the park is bigger than the state of Rhode Island
- Nearly five million people visit every year
Exactly how the Colorado River carved out the canyon millions of years ago is still unclear, but it revealed a cross-section of Earth that dates back two billion years. The Grand Canyon's human history goes back at least 10,000 years, when hunter-gatherers are known to have passed through, and Ancestral Pueblo people made their homes here for several thousand years. But the canyon remained unmapped and largely unexplored by European Americans until the mid-1800s. When the Atlantic & Pacific Railroad opened in the 1880s, it brought an influx of visitors and entrepreneurs. The Grand Canyon was designated a Forest Reserve in 1893, a National Monument in 1908 and became a National Park in 1919.
Things to see and do
The Colorado River divides the canyon into the North Rim and South Rim. The South Rim, 80 miles northwest of Flagstaff, is easier to get to, so it draws more crowds. If your group is less active, a perfectly good way to see the canyon is from one of the South Rim overlooks, including Grand Canyon Village, Desert View and Hermits Rest. (The popular road to Hermits Rest is closed to private vehicles except in November, December and January; a free shuttle bus is available the rest of the year.)
For an easy hiking introduction to the canyon, try the Rim Trail, which is mostly paved and relatively flat. The entire trail stretches 13 miles, but is broken into sections with shuttle stops and ends at Hermits Rest, making it another good way to get to that overlook. For more of a challenge, do the Bright Angel Trail, a steep dirt path that can be hiked varying distances up to 12 miles. Beyond hiking, learn about the natural history of the canyon at the Yavapai Geology Museum, see art and history exhibits at Kolb Studio, climb the 70-foot Desert Watchtower for more terrific views and see the remains of an Ancestral Puebloan village at the Tusayan Ruin and Museum.
To camp in the park's South Rim, make a reservation at Mather Campground, which is open year-round; or from mid-April through mid-October, try the first-come, first-served Desert View Campground, but get there early—it fills every day by 1 or 2 p.m.
At the more secluded North Rim, Bright Angel Point is a must for its stunning views of the canyon, accessible via a half-mile paved walk. Other good day hikes include the easy, half-mile Cape Royal Trail, with views of the Angels Window rock formation and the Colorado River and the five-mile Uncle Jim Trail, which winds through forest and ends at a canyon overlook point. The North Rim Campground is open mid-May through October and reservations are recommended.
Best Time to Go
The South Rim is a year-round destination, while snows close the North Rim from late October to mid-May. Crowds are thinner early spring or late fall. If you plan to drive up to the South Rim, arrive by 9 a.m. to avoid a wait. Otherwise, you can park in the community of Tusayan and take a shuttle.