To read the reviews about visiting Grand Canyon National Park is to discover a tale of two rims and a set of visitors divided over which, in fact, is better.
The South Rim, sprawling and staggering, is easier to access and can be seen in a quick day trip for everyone from Las Vegas newlyweds to Phoenix families. Set at a lower elevation, it affords multihued, layered views of the opposite rim and is lined with hiking paths.
The North Rim, on the other hand, is further flung and less tourist-friendly. If you are going to the North Rim, you’re going to want to stay a while.
In October, my family had the opportunity to visit both rims. Here are some thoughts on visiting and what to do once you get there. Side note: If you’ve seen the spine-chilling photos of people suspended over the Grand Canyon on a horseshoe-shaped skywalk, that’s Grand Canyon West – it’s not part of the National Park System and is owned by the Hualapai Tribe.
The South Rim
The Grand Canyon was the second most visited national park in 2019 with nearly 6 million visitors, and nearly all of those visitors, with the exception of about 200,000, visited the South Rim.
It was difficult to believe that a brief five-minute walk from a parking lot could lead to one of the most magnificent views on the planet, but that was indeed the case at the South Rim.
Open all year, the South Rim affords many incredible access points for photos and also welcomes activities such as hiking, biking, scenic drives, mule rides, rafting trips and backcountry camping (permit required).
One classic way to access the park is to take the Grand Canyon Railway out of Williams, Ariz. In the summer, the train leaves at 9:30 a.m. and arrives at the South Rim’s Grand Canyon Depot, constructed in 1910, at 11:45 a.m. Spend the afternoon enjoying the canyon, then head back to Williams at 3:30 p.m.
During our visit, we brought an RV, so we stayed at the Williams/Circle Pines KOA Holiday (koa.com/campgrounds/williams), which was well equipped for our family with amenities including a pool, a go-kart track, a playground, a jumping pillow and a mining station. No RV? No problem. This KOA also has cabins, wagons, tipis and tent sites.
If you’re in need of sustenance, don’t miss the Grand Canyon Brewing Company (grandcanyonbrewery.com) in Williams, where we will long remember the hearty burgers, supple Bavarian pretzels and loaded mixed green salads.
The North Rim
Even though the North Rim is only 10 miles from the South Rim as the crow flies, it’s a five-hour drive between the North and South Rim villages. If you’re wondering if it’s worth the drive to visit both rims, I can assure you it is.
One of the advantages to visiting the North Rim during the pandemic, which, unlike the open-year-round South Rim, is only open May 15 to Oct. 15 annually, was that we were able to book an incredible western cabin at the Grand Canyon Lodge North Rim. (Typically these cabins book up as soon as the reservations are released in Jan.)
I expected to hear complaints about the cabins, which come with rocking chairs on the porch but do not have TVs or WiFi access, from my kids, who range in ages from 5-12. But instead of playing games or texting friends, I found that they eagerly turned their eyes to the bright spread of stars above and the layers of oranges, reds and browns that stretched out as a panorama directly in front of our porch.
Our favorite part of the trip was an evening hike along the Bright Angel Point Trail, which is just a half-mile and offered views of the canyon that will forever remain etched in our memories. Our kids loved this hike so much that we took it over and over again, each arrival at the end of the trail offering different and equally as incredible perspectives.
Grand Canyon enthusiasts will tell you that a mule trek is an essential rite of passage when visiting either of the rims, so one morning my two oldest daughters and I set out on a one-hour trek. Twenty minutes into our ride, just as we reached one of the most precarious portions of the trail that edged on a sharp drop into the canyon, my daughter’s horse tripped over a tree limb and ended up on his front knees, as if praying in reverse. I didn’t know horses could bend that way, but we needed those prayers — I’m not sure my daughter will ever climb aboard a horse again. That said, if you’re more daring than we are, the trip was gorgeous and informative – three-hour treks are also available.
Mules aside, our time at both rims of this spectacular national park is something we will never forget. Unplugged and truly in awe of the nature in front of us, it was easy to see why millions of people make this their destination each year.
If You Go
The Grand Canyon’s South Rim is about a 16-hour drive from Austin and a four-hour drive from the Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport.
The park has lodges at both rims. They tend to book up quickly, though, so make reservations well in advance. The South Rim is open year-round; the North Rim is only open May 15-Oct. 15.