The South Rim has four major tourist hubs: Grand Canyon Village, Market Plaza, central Visitor Center and Desert View. Where you start your visit may depend on the location of your accommodations, which entrance you arrive through or what you want to do first. The map from the park website (above) encapsulates three of these hubs, and the other images are detailed captures of its insets.
MAIN VISITOR CENTER (map 2):
This one includes the largest parking lots for both both private and commercial vehicles, picnic areas, the Grand Canyon Park Store /cafe and bike-rental center. It's also a shuttle hub to other areas of the park.
GRAND CANYON VILLAGE (map 3):
This area includes El Tovar, Bright Angel, Maswik, Thunderbird and Kachina lodges, Verkamp's Visitor Center, the backcountry information office, dog kennels, an auto repair shop and the largest concentration of restaurants and shops. The Rim Trail passes directly in front of many of these facilities. You'll arrive at this area if you're coming via Grand Canyon Railway from Williams, and mule trips to Phantom Ranch or along the rim start at Bright Angel corral here as well. There are multiple parking areas and is served by free shuttle with connections to other areas around the park.
MARKET PLAZA (map 4):
This is the hub for Mather Campground, Trailer Village and Yavapai Lodge, and has a Chase Bank, post office and large General Store. It also includes the Shrine of Ages - where ranger talks, concerts and religious services are sometimes held - and parking areas, and is served by free shuttle but is farthest away from the rim.
DESERT VIEW (map 5):
Located near the east entrance, 25 miles from the Village, this area includes the Desert View Visitor Center, Watchtower, gas station, trading post, camp store, overlooks, snack bar and a first-come, first-served campground (no hookups). Desert View is not accessible by park shuttle so if you don't have your own vehicle, the alternative is to pedal a bike out here or book a bus tour through the Bright Angel, Yavapai or Maswik lodge desks.
For maps of the entire South Rim and individual sections, see this link:
Grand Canyon National Park has facilities on the North and South Rims: 10 miles opposite each other as the crow flies. They are 220 miles/354 kms (about 5 hours) apart by car and both have the same astonishing scenery. Which one you choose may depend on other parks/cities on your itinerary and/or how you intend to get there. Here are some details which may help you make the decision:
This is the larger and busier of two park centers and has the largest variety of accommodations, visitor facilities, availability of escorted air and bus tours from regional cities and public transit options for access. Additional accommodations are available at nearby Tusayan and Cameron. It sits at 7000 ft. elevation and is open 365 days a year. Driving distances from some major western U.S. cities are as follows:
Las Vegas: 278 miles/447 kms
Phoenix: 231 miles/372 kms
Salt Lake City: 510 miles/821 kms
Albuquerque: 412 miles/663 kms
Denver: 859 miles/1382 kms
Los Angeles: 494 miles/795 kms
Note that these distances will vary depending on whether you use the south or east entrances. See this page of the park website for detailed directions:
This is a good choice for travelers coming from Flagstaff, Phoenix, Sedona, Williams and other points south of the canyon.
This is the smaller of the two park compounds with only one lodge, one campground, more limited facilities, no public transit options, and longer driving distances to alternate accommodations. It is 8000 ft. in elevation and is only open from the middle of May to middle of October due to heavy winter snow. It’s also far less crowded, and temps are a little cooler during summer high season. Driving distances from some major western U.S. cities:
Las Vegas: 275 miles/443 kms
Phoenix: 251 miles/565 kms
Salt Lake City: 392 miles/631 kms
Albuquerque: 467 miles/751 kms
Denver: 690 miles/1110 kms
Los Angeles: 500 miles/805 kms
See this page of the park website for detailed directions:
This is a good choice for travelers coming from Salt Lake City, Denver or Kanab, or are combining their trip with Zion and Bryce National Parks.
The WEST RIM, heavily advertised by tour companies in Las Vegas and Phoenix, is not in Grand Canyon National Park, is not located on the deepest, most expansive part of the canyon, and is ridiculously expensive compared to the $30 per private vehicle (good for 7 days) at the park so avoid this location if you’re wanting the authentic, best-value experience.
This will be your closest visitor center if you are arriving at Grand Canyon Village, and this historic building has a great story!
John Verkamp came to Flagstaff from Ohio in 1898 and started the first souvenir shop at the canyon in a rented canvas tent. Now this was before there was a state of Arizona (1912), before there was a Grand Canyon National Park (1919), and before there was much of a way to get here so business was pretty slow. John lasted a couple of weeks and then threw in the towel.
Things changed with arrival of the Santa Fe Railroad line (1901) and so in 1905, when the El Tovar Hotel was opened, John tried again - with his own tent this time - and did well enough with the new flock of tourists to replace it with something more permanent in 1906. VerKamp’s Curios operated out of this building for 102 years under the ownership of four generations of the family until relinquishing their contract 2007. The structure, listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1974, was purchased by the NPS, and re-opened as a visitor center, bookshop and museum in 2008.
You’ll find the same ranger-staffed information desk and assortment of park-related books, t-shirts and whatnot here but the museum is well worth some time as it covers, through visual timelines and artifacts, the story of the VerKamps and others who created not just a park but a community on the rim.
John, his wife, Catherine, and others of the Verkamp family are buried in Pioneer Cemetery. See my review:
See this page of the park website for hours and more interesting information:
This is our accommodation of choice at the canyon but even if you’re not bunking at Bright Angel, there are all sorts of reasons to visit the lodge as it’s another of the park's historic treasures.
There has been a hotel here near the head of Bright Angel Trail since 1896, when James Thurber built a small guesthouse for travelers coming from Flagstaff by stagecoach. Thurber added tent accommodations a couple of years later, and the operation changed hands at least once before coming under the jurisdiction of the park and ownership of the Fred Harvey Company.
In 1916, the company tasked staff architect Mary Colter to design new guest accommodations to replace the aging complex* - which she did - but WWI and the Great Depression delayed construction until 1933. Her new “cottage village”, intended as a middle-class alternative to the dignified, expensive El Tovar, was finally completed in 1935, and still stands today.
It is quintessential Colter in that it incorporates indigenous materials, reflects historic architectural styles of the region - in this case rustic pioneer, Spanish Colonial and Pueblo - and harmonizes with the natural landscape. The cabins, no two the same, were carefully situated to preserve existing trees and plants. Note especially two very old structures - the Bucky O’Neill and Red Horse cabins - retained from the previous compound.
The centerpiece of the lodge’s lobby is Colter's enormous fireplace (under renovation during our 2014 visit) which illustrates the geologic history of the canyon from oldest layers to most recent, and decorated with her “bright angel of the sky”: a large, colorful thunderbird above the mantle. The information desk here is a destination for visitors interested in mules rides, bus tours, float trips and whatnot.
Off the lobby is a nice (free) little museum of artifacts and displays covering the Fred Harvey Company’s decades of history as the park’s principle concessioner until sold to Xanterra in 1968. Also off the lobby is a coffee shop (good mocha lattes!) that serves as the bar in the evenings, and is decorated with amusing murals by the same Hopi artist, Fred Kabotie, who painted Desert View’s tower.
Top it all off with a couple of restaurants, ice cream parlor and gift shop. So, you see, lots of reasons to put this on the “must-do” list!
*Source: Historic American Buildings Survey, National Park Service, U.S. Dept. of the Interior, 1982
This is the largest of the three Visitor Centers and the one you should start with if you’re day-tripping through the South Entrance. It has the biggest parking area (get here EARLY) and is a hub for the free shuttles which travel to Grand Canyon Village, Market Plaza, Tusayan and Hermits Rest. Cruise the exhibits, fill your water bottle, sign the kids up for the free Jr. Ranger program, and talk to a Sr. ranger about the best activities for you and/or your family.
Most of all, see the excellent, 20-minute film - "Grand Canyon: A Journey of Wonder" - in the funky "Science On a Sphere Theater.”
You may also view the film on youtube although it’s better on the sphere:
See where this is located on this map:
Note: I see that visitors are confusing the free film shown here with the IMAX theater ($) in Tusayan, about 7 miles south of this Visitor Center. If you want to see that one, you’ll need to drive or take the Tusayan shuttle (seasonal) as it’s outside of the South Entrance.
If you’re walking the Rim Trail, take a little science lesson along the way. The Trail of Time and Million Year Trail together are a 1.3 mile interpretive timeline of the canyon’s geologic history with rock samples, viewing tubes and informative signage to explain how this wonder came about, and help you to grasp how vastly old some of its layers are.
Starting on the Rim Trail near Yavapai Geology Museum, east of the village, start at Year Zero of the Million Year Trail and walk west, backwards through time, from current day through prehistoric history to one million years ago. The span of time measured in every meter is progressively scaled from single years to increments of 100,000. At this point you start the Trail of Time, with markers every meter on the path equaling one million years until you reach the last one near VercKamp’s Visitor Center. When you’re all finished, you will have walked through 2 billion geologic years; the age of the oldest exposed layer of the canyon.
You may also do this the opposite way - going forward in time - or simply take in whatever is nearby if you're out for a shorter stroll. Sound confusing? It’ll all make sense once you get there!
More information here:
Note: an additional stretch of trail extends another 1.6 miles west to Maricopa Point. Adding this section is a total walk of 4.5 billion years, and calls for a cold beer.
Visitor Centers are the best places to start exploring any National Park! You can talk to the rangers, browse the book shop, and pick up all sorts of helpful information for planning your days. The North Rim is remote, has fewer facilities, is closed from mid-May from mid-October, and only has one route in/out but the views are still stunners.
There are two facility sections of the park: the lodge/Visitor Center area, and the campground/camper store area. You can see those on the map in my screen capture (above) from the park newsletter.
Reference the website for seasonal hours:
These are fun, and they’re free! The NPS rangers serve up a host of science and history lectures at points all around the park, and at different times of the day. At the North Rim, we got an astronomy lesson in front of a roaring fire on the lodge’s terrace. At the South, Ranger Jill took us on an afternoon walk of the Village, and told us stories about the relationships past residents and explorers had with the canyon. After dark that evening, we trotted over to Shrine of the Ages for Ranger Robb’s “Keeper’s of Time” presentation.
Other park goings-on - not necessarily involving rangers - may include films, artist-in-residence talks, musical performances, volunteer programs, and all sorts of good stuff.
What’s going on during your visit? Scheduled programs and events are listed on the park website and in the downloadable program guides available online. Others will be posted at the Visitor Centers: another good reason to make one of those your first stop.
Most of these are handicap accessible, and age-appropriate Jr. Ranger programs are available during the summer.
Find the program guides here:
The Grand Canyon Visitor Center is so immense it's its own area. You can't park right next to it, you either have to walk or take a shuttle bus. There are tons of outdoor displays and the inside (which is huge) is still in the process of trying to fill the area with more displays. Suffice to say, this can be a day trip in itself and certainly will fill a few hours if the weather is not cooperating or if you have a few hours in the middle of the hot day to kill.
Rangers are very helpful in helping you plan your visit. We did a six month trip to just about every National Park out west and the Grand Canyon staff was at the very top of the list with regard to knowledge and helpfulness. And that's not even counting the backcountry rangers, who should be given another big pat of the back. When I was there to work out the details of our upcoming backcountry trip I mentioned I needed some white gas for my stove and one of them pulled out a nearly full container and said someone had donated it when they were leaving the park. She gave it to me at no charge. It wound up lasting us for the entire six month trip, nearly 30 nights of backpacking!
One great thing about the Grand Canyon is they make getting drinking water for free easy. There are faucets perfect for refilling your water bottles at the Visitor center and lots of them. Drink it. It's only free, but it's essential to desert survival.
Having a disability is not much of a handicap here: this is one of our most accessible parks for visitors who require wheelchairs, walkers or scooters to get around, or other types of assistance. While not every overlook or historic building may be explored on wheels, or every ranger program enjoyed by the hearing impaired, every effort has been made so that the park is welcoming for a wide range of diverse abilities.
• All restaurants and visitor centers, and almost all of the book/gift shops and restrooms are accessible.
• ASL tours are available with prior arrangement
• All the lodges and several of the campgrounds have wheelchair-accessible accommodations/sites
• TTY phones are available at three South Rim lodges
• Shuttle buses on the South Rim have wheelchair lifts and “kneel" steps (but can’t accommodate scooters)
• Leashed service animals are allowed inside all facilities and on all trails
• Permits are available for scenic drives otherwise closed to private vehicles: useful if using a scooters or large wheelchairs which can’t be accommodated on shuttles, or for visitors with difficulties frequently moving in and out of a car.
• Much of the 13-mile Rim Trail (South Rim) is paved, as are some other paths around the park
• Wheelchairs and tandem bikes can be rented at Bright Angel Bicycle (near the main Visitor Center, South Rim), and a few loaners are available for free at the North Rim Visitor Center
There’s too much to cover in one review but the NPS has an excellent accessibility brochure which can be browsed or downloaded before you go!
It may be 5 or 6 million years old but this elderly dog has a few new tricks...besides eating up unwary tourists taking selfies, that is. If you have a cell phone - and can get service - you can dial into ranger mini-tours at 4 locations on the North Rim and 26 on the South.
Stop at a sign like this one
Enter the stop number
Listen to a 2-minute lesson on stuff like the geology, architecture, wildlife or human history of the park while you walk
You can also load these tours onto your iphone or MP3 player, or dial them in for a preview at home. Oh, and it’s free - although visitors from abroad will want to be cautious of roaming fees on individual mobile plans.
The rock layers that make up the walls of Grand Canyon Range from fairly young to old. Kaibab Limestone, deposited approximately 260 million years ago, forms the cap rock in most of this region. The oldest rocks exposed at the bottom of the canyon,gneiss(NICE) and schist, date to as much as 1,800 million (1.8 billion) years ago.
The canyon itself formed over the last 5-6 million years. Tentative evidence suggest that the lower 2,000 feet of the canyon's depth was carved in the last 750,000 years.