What to see in Grand Canyon: a first timer’s complete guide

Perhaps the most famous National Park in North America, the Grand Canyon attracts nearly six millions visitors from all over the world annually. At 277 miles wide — and up to a mile deep at its lowest point! — the canyon is an impressive natural sight that, thanks to its grandeur and prestige, and can indeed be overwhelming to visit. Mapping out a plan in advance and bringing along a serious Grand Canyon travel guide is really the smartest way to make the most of the sprawling landscape.

A few quick facts: The Grand Canyon is part of Grand Canyon National Park, which was established by the National Park Service in February 1919. The canyon itself, however, is estimated to be anywhere between six million and seventy million years old, with records of human inhabitants dating back 12,000 years ago. The natural respite, in fact, offered protection and various resources for native people, and, separate from the National Park limits, Hualapai, Havasupai and Navajo reservations also border the canyon. Cultural events and volunteer opportunities with tribal leaders, community members and more occur throughout the year, for visitors to better understand and support indigenous people.

When tourists discuss visiting the Grand Canyon, they often refer to the rims, The South Rim being the most popular. Not only is this area open year-round, but it’s home to Grand Canyon Village, several historic lodges, and popular day hiking trails, like Bright Angel Trail. About 4.5 hours away by car, The North Rim is significantly more rustic, with only 10% of Grand Canyon visitors venturing out to this lesser-seen area. Visitors will drive along the East Rim for views of the Colorado River and the West Rim is most notable for its suspended skywalk.

Ready to take on the Grand Canyon? Mic has all the details you need to easily plan a trip out west!

How to get there

Flagstaff Airport (FLG) is the closest commercial airport to the Grand Canyon, and just about a half hour drive to Williams, Arizona, from where the Grand Canyon Railroad departs for the park. Driving from further cities is also easy, with trips between Phoenix International Airport (PHX) and Las Vegas International Airport (LAS) to the South Rim at four to five hours, respectively.

Vehicles will pay $35 for a pass to enter the park, and the pass can be purchased online in advance to save time. Several national holidays, like Martin Luther King Jr. Day and Veterans Day also offer free entry.

What to do

View the canyon! Of course, views are best during the day and conclude with sunset each night, so you’ll want to get an early start. The complimentary South Rim shuttle bus operates four different routes (depending on the season), to take visitors between different viewing points.

You’ll want to start your trip at Mather Point, which not only welcomes you to the Grand Canyon with picturesque views, but houses a visitors center where you can quickly take in the geological and cultural history of the canyon.

Avid adventurers can hike down into the canyon to see sites like Havasu Falls, though anyone entering the canyon needs advance plans to camp (or stay in a dorm at Phantom Ranch) overnight before making the return trip up. Overnight campers must also obtain a backcountry permit before hiking.

Those with less outdoor experience can enter the canyon on a range of shorter hikes that don’t require sleeping outside, or just take advantage of the viewing points on the South Rim or the Skywalk on the West Rim.

Architecture enthusiasts will also want to add Mary Colter’s six prominent early 20th Century buildings to their itinerary, particularly the Desert View Watchtower, which offers elevated views of the canyon.

And of course, mule rides are a classic Grand Canyon diversion for those not afraid to hop on an animal on the edge of a giant hole. Overnight trips from the South Rim must be booked over a year in advance, but shorter, hour-long rides from the North Rim, as well as through the Kaibab National Forest, can be booked with shorter notice.

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Where to stay (and eat)

Grand Canyon hotels are available, but visitors also have the option of staying inside the park (lodges tend to book up well in advance). Forget FOMO, because there aren’t views at night, and stars are viewable from anywhere in the region, plus, there are a few more dining and shopping options outside the park. The Grand Hotel ($195/night, depending on seasonality) is about a 15 minute drive from Grand Canyon Village and home to a bar and restaurant for convenience.

Those particular about food may prefer a rental where they can prepare their own meals, but for those who just want a warm lunch or dinner, you can check out The Arizona Room for a seated meal and sweeping views of the canyon or Desert View Trading Post for a quick (but good) cafeteria-style meal. Those eager to splurge can make a reservation at El Tovar, the so-called fine dining spot of the canyon, but those more conscious can also head to El Tovar’s bar for a glass of Arizona-made wine and a relaxing evening by the lobby fireplace.

When to visit

Grand Canyon National Park is open year-round, with benefits to each season. Spring and Fall offer temperatures in the 80s and 90s, and slightly thinner crowds than the booming summer months, when families across America (and beyond) make their annual pilgrimage to the majestic site. In the winter, the Grand Canyon in snow is magnificent, the weather isn’t too hot and crowds are at their thinnest, so you can take your time snapping the perfect selfie.

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What to bring

Assuming you’re not roughing it (and if so, you should be experienced enough in the outdoors that you know what you’ll need), you’ll want to pack hiking boots or sneakers with a good grip and support, weather-appropriate exercise clothing and layers, as the temperature can change rapidly in different parts of the canyon. Hats and sunglasses are of course necessary in all seasons, and a selfie stick may serve you well in getting some of those over-canyon shots. Bring a portable battery to recharge your phone or camera — outlets will be limited — and before you depart, pack snacks like granola bars, peanut butter packets, jerky or whatever you like to munch on to avoid paying the elevated prices (and braving the limited selection) at the park’s general stores. You’ll also want to pack a reusable water bottle — hopefully one that keeps liquids cold — and, out of respect for the environment, a reusable coffee cup you can use in the morning instead of wasting a paper one. Reusable straws and utensils are also a common sight among nature-seekers. Oh, and hand sanitizer. Never travel without hand sanitizer.