Bigger than Rhode Island and large enough to influence the weather, Grand Canyon National Park can be overwhelming for first-time visitors.
Millions make a special effort to visit the park each year but some don’t account for the blistering desert heat, sporadic monsoons, trail safety along a whopping 595 miles of hiking routes, or the need to reserve accommodations ahead of time.
To make your trip successful, you need to get the little things right. Here’s everything you need to know before embarking on an adventure to Grand Canyon National Park.
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1. Start early or late to avoid the huge crowds
The Grand Canyon National Park is the second most visited national park in the USA, attracting nearly 6 million people annually. Peak hours are 10am to 4pm, which means busier trails and packed attractions, particularly in Grand Canyon Village. For a more tranquil adventure, either start early or late. Those who opt for a later-in-the-day schedule should prioritize a sunset at the likes of Pima Point, Mohave Point, or Hopi Point.
2. Make use of the free South Rim shuttle bus
While the South Rim Trail is well-paved and provides some 13 miles of canyon vistas, sometimes you need a reprieve. The park runs a free shuttle bus that stops at many of the major sights, from the Hermits Rest in the west all the way to Yaki Point in the east.
The shuttle has stops at some of the canyon’s most popular lodging destinations, too – including Maswik Lodge, El Tovar Hotel, and Yavapai Lodge – making it a seamless, car-free way to get around.
Book early to nab a room in the Grand Canyon National Park © RiverNorthPhotography / Getty Images
3. Book park accommodation six months in advance
Whether staying at a Grand Canyon Village hotel, like Thunderbird Lodge or Kachina Lodge, or deep within the canyon at Phantom Ranch, you’ll need to book well in advance. Reservations for in-park options typically open six months ahead of time and they are snatched up quickly. The Grand Canyon National Park Lodges website is the central hub for all park lodge reservations.
4. Buy a backcountry permit if you plan to camp
If you’re camping overnight in Grand Canyon National Park, you’ll likely need a backcountry permit. These cost $10 per permit, plus $12 per night. The exceptions include stays at Mather Campground and Desert View Campground, plus mid-May to mid-October stays at the North Rim Campground.
5. Leave your dog at home if you want to go into the canyon
Leashed dogs are welcome to take in the canyon vistas above the rim – but that’s it. No pets are permitted into the canyon itself, including hiking trails. The rules are strictly enforced, too. So, if you’re planning to hit the Grandview Trail or a journey to Ooh Aah Point, avoid a headache and leave your four-legged friends at home.
Arrive early if you want an RV parking spot inside the Grand Canyon National Park © Torresigner / Getty
6. Arrive early for parking (especially if you have an RV)
There are four parking lots at the South Rim Visitor Center Plaza, the starting point for most Grand Canyon visits. However, it’s not uncommon for the lots to fill up before noon, especially during holiday weekends. Only one of the four lots (Lot 1, near Mather Point) has RV parking.
Beyond the visitor center, trailhead parking lots are typically smaller, such as the one at Shoshone Point. For RVs, your only other options are Market Plaza and the Backcountry Office.
7. Pack sunscreen and water – you will need both
Preparation will either make or break your Grand Canyon National Park trip. Some of the park’s most popular hikes, like The South Kaibab Trail, do not have water stations en route. Bring more than enough to stay hydrated amid the desert heat.
Pack sun protective gear and sunscreen, too. Even during the sunniest and cloudiest days, the rays tend to sneak up on the unsuspecting. Prepare for hot weather in July and August. Temperatures have previously gone above 120°F (49°C).
It is possible to visit the North Rim in winter, but it requires dedication, fitness, and good preparation © Eric Hanson / Getty Images
8. Ditch the car to visit the North Rim in winter
The South Rim may get all the love, but the lesser-visited North Rim boasts remote trails and a stone-draped lodge. Although the North Rim roads close from December 1 and May 15, due to the snow and ice, the area is still open to adventurous hikers, skiers, and snowshoers. Backcountry permits for the North Rim are available year-round.
9. Keep an eye on the weather during inner-canyon hikes
Monsoon season in Arizona is July to mid-September but strong storms can occur all year round. There doesn’t need to be an immediate storm or several inches of rain to generate life-threatening floods at Grand Canyon National Park, particularly at the inner canyon. Storms from dozens of miles away have led to the loss of life here, so keep a vigilant eye on the weather.
The views may be incredible but don’t get too close to the edge © Getty Images
10. Respect the guardrails (and the unguarded steep cliffs, too)
Although many of the viewpoints along the South Rim Trail have safety guardrails and fencing, the bulk of the park doesn’t. While it may be tempting to get that unhindered photo, do not step beyond the guardrails and be aware of cliff edges. In general – rails or not – it is wise to stay at least six feet away from any Grand Canyon ledge.
11. Don’t pet the animals
The Grand Canyon is full of cuddly-looking animals like bighorn sheep, ringtail cats, and mountain lions. All are wild – don’t pet them. Things can quickly turn dangerous.
12. Avoid throwing anything in the canyon
Throwing anything into the canyon can cause a major headache. A mile deep in spots, the tiniest of objects thrown from the rim can seriously injure hikers, animals and the park’s fauna below. Don’t take anything from the canyon either, it’s a delicate ecosystem.
13. Give uphill travelers the right of way
The park’s busiest trails, such as the Bright Angel Trail, are the total opposite of a secluded experience. At peak times, trails can swell with selfie-pausers, fast-paced hikers, and everyone in between. To keep traffic moving, always give uphill travelers the right of way. And, if you are passing anyone, whether in the heart of a rocky switchback or along a flat stretch, vocalize it for everyone’s safety.