There’s a reason it’s the second most-visited national park in the U.S.
As far as national parks go, the Grand Canyon is one of those places you can’t ignore. It’s big, it’s iconic, it never fails to exceed expectations.
“Even we have a hard time wrapping our heads around this wild landscape,” confessed Emily Davis, who spends her days fielding inquiries at the park’s Public Affairs Office. “We get a lot of questions about how the canyon was formed, how did it get here...people are trying to figure it out, because it just doesn’t look like anything else.”
Before you plan a trip out to America’s second most-visited national park, here’s what you should know:
1. Winter’s a fine time to go…
Winter means fewer crowds, and fewer crowds means more one-on-one time with knowledgeable park rangers. Use this as an opportunity to ask questions about the geology, enjoy longer, more in-depth tours, or simply take a deep breath and appreciate the solitude. When else will you have the opportunity to have a 1.2 million-acre park all to yourself?
2. …as long as you pack accordingly
However, if you’re planning a winter visit, don’t show up in shorts and a t-shirt. After all, this is northern Arizona. At an elevation of 7,000 feet, winter is an unavoidable reality. During the colder months (December, January, February), the Grand Canyon can receive as much snow as Cleveland, Ohio, with nighttime temps getting down to -2 or lower.
3. Know how to make an entrance
Of the park’s three entrances, only two—the South Rim and Desert View—remain open year-round. And while each side has its perks, the easternmost entrance (Desert View) ranks as the most impressive. For starters, it’s more remote and harder to get to, so you’re less likely to get stuck behind other cars. Plus, if you’re driving up from Flagstaff, you’ll enjoy an incredibly scenic route along US 89, through National Forest, painted desert, and Navajo land.
4. Don’t skip the Watchtower
Once you cross the threshold at Desert View, you’ll want to pull over immediately and visit the Indian Watchtower. The circular, 70 foot-tall tower has been a trademark of the park since it went up in 1932, and is the work of Mary Elizabeth Jane Colter (who also worked on other important structures throughout the park). Inside, it features a spiral staircase lined with original paintings by a Hopi artist—when you’ve climbed to the top, you’ll be able to see all the way across the canyon and out to the San Francisco Peaks.
(New this year, the watchtower has been converted into a travel heritage center, with weekly cultural demonstrators. If you show up on a weekend, you’ll get to hear first-person accounts from a member of the Navajo or Hopi tribes.)
5. Treat yourself to a night at El Tovar
There are six hotels located inside the sprawling park, though only one of them, El Tovar Hotel, truly caters to the luxury set. Built right on the rim, the 1905 Swiss-style chalet couples fabulous views with high-end dining (Teddy Roosevelt and Albert Einstein both were guests here). Just don’t expect to enjoy it all from your window: architect Charles Whittlesey oriented the building in such a way that guests are forced to venture outside their rooms and experience the canyon up-close.
6. Unleash your curiosity
For an entrance fee of $30 per vehicle, visitors certainly get their money’s worth. The admission includes access to all sites within the park, as well as parking, shuttle bus service, and, most importantly, access to guided ranger tours. The website’s calendar offers detailed descriptions of the various geology talks and wildlife tours scheduled throughout the week—a worthwhile resource, if you want some of those burning questions (Why are the rocks red? How deep is Grand Canyon? When did it form?) answered.
7. Stay for the full day
There’s plenty to see and do in a single-day visit, if you budget your time accordingly. Generally, six hours is enough to drive to all the different look-out points along the canyon rim. The 25 mile-stretch along Desert View Drive contains 11 stop-offs (about half of which are unmarked).
During sunset, the one you won’t want to miss is Lipan Point. Punctuated by bright, extremely colorful exposed rocks, the site peers out over a 90 degree bend in the Colorado River. “When the sun is setting, it lights up the river below, and you can see all the amazing colors from the rocks,” gushed Davis. “You just drive up to it, get out of your car, and you’re right at the edge of the canyon.”