On our final trip before the Corona-quarantine (although we didn’t know it at the time), Dan and I spent a long weekend in Arizona for our friends Ashley’s and Tim’s wedding. Their wedding was outside sunny Phoenix, and after their wedding, we visited – for a half day – the totally stunning South Rim of the Grand Canyon in northern Arizona. While we’ve never been big “outdoorsy” people, we totally loved the Grand Canyon, and I highly recommend it. Plus, it’s an easy enough add on to lots of popular destinations and airports out West, including Arizona, Las Vegas, and Southern California. In this post, I give a detailed account of our trip and information that I found helpful, as when planning I found information on the Grand Canyon totally overwhelming and difficult to digest.
Since our friends got married outside Phoenix, we drove from Phoenix (actually Scottsdale) to Flagstaff, which is about a 2:15 hour drive, and stayed the night in Flagstaff. Flagstaff is a college town in Northern Arizona, and it’s a world away from points further South. For example, the mountains surrounding Flagstaff have snow on them! What?! While we did not see much of Flagstaff, we did have a most delicious meal at a pizza restaurant called Pizzicletta (linked below). Seriously, it was amazing. And, they knew the owner of Brick + Dough right here in town of Union City, New Jersey!
For our extremely limited visit to the Grand Canyon, we woke up at 3:45 AM. Why you may ask? Because sunrise was at 6:37 AM and we wanted to be there for it! We left Flagstaff around 4:30 AM (via our rental car, picked up the previous day in Scottsdale) and drove to Grand Canyon National Park. Grand Canyon National Park is approximately 1.5 hours from Flagstaff, largely on a 2 lane road with a lot of potholes. We arrived at the entrance around 5:50 AM and paid the entrance fee ($35/car for a 7 day pass) via credit card. Side note – the park is open 24 hours, but the entrance is only manned from 9 AM; if you go earlier, you must pay by credit card via a parking garage ticket machine thingy.
Once in the park, it was really dark. The only light was that of the sun creeping west (and that was certainly the case for the drive up too). We decided to park at the Visitor’s Center because there is the most parking there, plus there is a sunrise view point about a 5 minute walk from the Visitor’s Center – Mather Point. Following Visitor’s Center signs and after turning around a few times, we found Parking Lots 1 – 4, just in front of the Visitor’s Center and parked there. Note – we would not have had as much trouble if there was more light; I recommend visitors to just follow signs for the Visitor’s Center.
We parked and immediately followed couple into the Visitor’s Center, since we didn’t know where we were going. We assumed they did. However, once in the Visitor’s Center we saw signs for Mather’s Point and walked the 5 minute walk there. On arrival, it was super cold (below freezing) and there were only a handful of people. We set up in a good location and stayed to watch the sunrise until about 6:45 AM.
PRO TIP: When planning your visit, Google the time of the sunrise and plan to arrive to the Grand Canyon 45 minutes before the scheduled sunrise. This will give you time to enter, park, and get to your spot 30 minutes before the sunrise time. For example, when we visited the sunrise time was 6:37, so we got there around 6:00. You will want to watch a full 30 minutes before “sunrise time,” as it takes the sun about 30 minutes to rise.
After the sunrise, we walked 5 minutes back to the Visitor’s Center, dropped some of our excess warm clothing in our car, and grabbed a coffee at a little bike rental shop and cafe in the Visitor’s Center area, called Bright Angel Bicycle and Mather Point Cafe. While the Visitor’s Center did not open until 9, this shop opens around 7 AM when we visited. Bright Angel Bicycle and Mather Point Cafe sells lots of snacks and sandwiches for the day. Prices were reasonable, particularly for such a touristy destination.
Coffee-infused, we next hiked (honestly, walked, hike is a biiiig stretch for what we did) a portion of the Rim Trail. The Rim Trail is an easy, well-marked trail trail along the rim of the Grand Canyon.
We picked up the Rim Trail back at Mather’s Point and walked .7 miles to Yavapai Point, another popular spot to watch the sunrise (there is a parking lot with restrooms here, too). Yavapai Point is also home to a small museum and gift shop. While small, the Geological Museum is informative and the views from the museum were stunning. Plus, the Geological Museum offers great views of the Grand Canyon from inside. A good idea in bad weather or with a traveler who prefers to be inside.
After picking up a free map from the gift shop at Yavapai Point (since the Visitor’s Center was closed when we started our hike), we continued our walk along the Rim Trail to Verkamp’s Visitor’s Center, located in the Grand Canyon Village about 1.4 miles from Yavapi Point. As between Mather’s Point and Yavapai Point, the hike (er, walk) was easy and along flat terrain. In fact, we saw people of all sorts walking this trail, including those in strollers and wheelchairs. The trail is either paved or flat dirt and at certain points, the trail splits between a smaller trail right along the Grand Canyon and wider trail a bit further away for those needing more space (the views were not as good from the wider trail, but the trail did not split very often). In any case, its accessible to most people!
About 45 minutes later, we arrived at Verkamp’s Visitor’s Center and the Village! This area of the Grand Canyon is more commercial than even the Visitor’s Center and is home to the historic El Tovar Hotel, the longstanding Verakamp Visitor’s Center, and the well-known Hopi House, an interesting gift shop showcasing tourist trinkets as well as high quality Native American-made products, such as jewelry, blankets, and sculptures. Pretty close to the Village is the Market Plaza, which holds other lodging, a US Post Office, and the Park Amphitheater. You can walk between the Village and Market Plaza easily.
At the Village, we took about a million pictures, strolled through the Hopi House and had breakfast in the dining room at the El Tovar Lodge. Breakfast at El Tovar was pretty cool, but it did not have the views I expected from the dining room. Prices were reasonably for such a space and the food was quite good. I ordered the Breakfast Quesadilla and Dan ordered an Eggs Benedict (but he did not love the “ham” they used). Including my mimosa (hey, when on vacay), our total was $40.19. Not bad for a fancy breakfast at the Grand Canyon.
Even if you do not eat at El Tovar, I recommend going inside to view the rustic, Old West interior. There is a neat gift shop inside and free public restrooms in the basement. And pro tip – while we did not have reservations, I recommend making reservations at El Tovar for meals, especially dinner. The Grand Canyon was very slow when we visited, but even then dinner reservations were a must. El Tovar Hotel also books up months in advance (as do most National Park hotels, some up to a year in advance). Make reservations very early if you really want to stay here.
When walked back to Mather’s Point after breakfast, taking many, many more pictures along the way; it was just too pretty not to! The walk back took us a bit over an hour and by the time we reached our car it was downright warm, a big change from the below freezing sunrise temperatures. We also noticed many, many more people on the trail on the way back, whereas the trail was practically empty on our initial hike after sunset, which was much more enjoyable. If you want the best experience, go as early as possible.
We headed back to Phoenix via car to catch our red-eye flight around noon and felt that we had satisfactorily seen the Grand Canyon. However, I would love to return and explore more of the park and the surrounding area. There are tons of trails that we did not do, including more of the Rim Trail, in addition to programs but on by the park and other excursions run by third parties. If you have questions, here are some quick answers for planning your trip, but feel free to reach out to me!
Cost. When we visited in March 2020, the cost was $35 per vehicle (NOT per person) for a 7 day pass. No extra cost to walk the trail, visit the Geological Museum, or use the restrooms.
Parking. Parking is free, and there are parking lots at various locations around the Grand Canyon. We parked at the Visitor’s Center and at 5:50 AM, parking was abundant. By the time we left around noon, there was not a spot to be found and people were parked on the side of the road (I do not think this is allowed). Its generally said that the Visitor’s Center parking lots fill by 10 AM. There is also parking at the Village and Yavapai Point. Parking is clearly marked with signs in the park and again, its free, just place your entrance ticket on your dashboard. Its highly recommended to park in one place and take the shuttle buses around, rather than driving between points. I second this recommendation – you’ll waste a ton of time looking for parking.
What to bring and wear. First, check the weather for the entire day you plan to visit and then layer accordingly. That is the most important thing! The temperature can change drastically throughout the day. For example, when we visited at sunrise the temperature was below freezing, but by 11 am it was close to 70 degrees. Layering is your best bet. If you are going in the morning, evening, or in the winter, I recommend brining a hat, gloves, and a scarf. In addition to layers, bring sunglasses, sunscreen (even if its not warm!), water, and wear walking shoes (you don’t need hiking boots if you are only doing the Rim Trail). I also recommend brining a portable cell phone charger.
Getting around the Grand Canyon. As you can see, we simply walked. However, if you can’t walk that far or simply don’t want to, the Grand Canyon National Park offers fee bus shuttles that go all over the park. We did not utilize the shuttles, but they run from the major sites all day. Pick up a schedule online or at one of the Visitor’s Centers. We saw the shuttles, and they looked like regular city buses.
Food. On our morning, we saw food at three places: the Cafe at the Visitor’s Center, Verkamp’s Visitor’s Center, and El Tovar Hotel. The Cafe and Verkamp’s sell very casual to go food and drinks, such as pre-packaged sandwiches (many choices (including vegetarian) such as PB&J, turkey and cheese, chicken salad when we visited) and pre-packaged snacks (chips, cookies, etc.), many of the healthier, organic variety. Prices were reasonable for a National Park. As you read above, El Tovar serves full meals all day in a formal dining room. Options were numerous and portions were a good size. You can also bring in your own food, which is a good way to save money and time. We saw a lot of visitors doing this.
Where to stay. As discussed, we stayed in Flagstaff, about 1.5 hours away by car. We liked where we stayed and were able to enjoy an excellent dinner at Pizzicletta in Flagstaff, as it is a real city with industry besides just tourism. We would stay in Flagstaff again when visiting the Grand Canyon.
Aside from Flagstaff, and while I am certainly no expert, we found the following places to stay, in order of proximity to the South Rim. First, inside the park is El Tovar Hotel. El Tovar is an old school, classic National Park hotel. Think wood decor and animal heads on the wall. El Tovar books up far in advance. There are a few other lodges near El Tovar inside the park, including Bright Angel Lodge and Yavapai Lodge.
Just outside of the Grand Canyon National Park is the small town of Tusayna. While we did not stop in Tusayna, it was clear in passing through that Tusayna is quite touristy and mainly serves visitors to the Grand Canyon. Tusayna is home to several hotels, including some national chains, and a variety of restaurants. Further afar is the town of Williams, only 20 minutes closer to the Grand Canyon than Flagstaff. Williams has hotels and restaurants and is about a 1 hour drive to the Grand Canyon. Finally, a number of people we met stayed in Sedona, about a 2 hour drive from the Grand Canyon.
STEAL OUR TRIP
Grand Canyon National Park: Park website. Lots of information here, including current events and demonstrations and closures. Definitely review before visiting for the most up-to-date information.
Bright Angel Bicycle and Mather Point Cafe: Cafe where we picked up coffee, which also rents bikes. The website mostly has information about bike rentals.
El Tovar Lodge: Where we ate breakfast in the park.
Double Tree by Hilton Flagstaff: Our hotel in Flagstaff. Pro tip – they will prepare a breakfast box if you are leaving super early for the Grand Canyon (cost unknown).
Pizzicletta: The most awesome pizza restaurant in Flagstaff with a stellar wine list (half price bottles on Mondays!). 2 locations. If they take recommendations, recommended as the space is small.
ON A BUDGET
The Grand Canyon is an excellent destination for budget travelers. Visitors can have a great experience in the park without spending any money aside from the entrance fee. Bring your own food and drink into the park to save money on that front, but I did not find the prices inside the park terribly expensive.