A Grand Canyon sunrise — Photo courtesy of Arizona Office of Tourism
Arizona’s Grand Canyon National Park is nothing short of a natural spectacle. Millennia have carved a geological masterpiece rising 7,000 feet above sea level before plummeting back down into the powerful Colorado River. The Grand Canyon National Park cares for nearly one million acres of land, thousands of plant varieties and hundreds of wildlife species.
For forthcoming visitors, the area's expansiveness can make trip planning overwhelming. To help streamline the canyon’s outdoor conundrums, we’ve highlighted 10 of the region's best experiences. From soaring over the canyon’s dramatic landscape to skiing across its picturesque trails, these diverse expeditions help travelers navigate the Grand Canyon’s many marvels.
Hike the Bright Angel Trail
Bright Angel Trail switchbacks — Photo courtesy of National Park Service
The Bright Angel Trail is 19 miles round trip and is rather tourist-friendly thanks to its frequent rest and water stations. Still, the Bright Angel Trail flaunts challenging switchbacks and is steeper than it appears. Its semi-shaded structuring gives hikers several reprieves, but despite shading, Bright Angel Trail hikers need to heed summer’s scorching temperatures or winter’s volatile tendencies.
Garden Creek, a verdant area fed by several waterfalls, is a notable scenic pit stop. Keep an eye out for brave athletes preparing to rappel their heights. Other photo-worthy moments include Plateau Point, which unveils stunning Colorado River views and jagged gorges.
The park recommends allotting at least two days to cover the entire trail, and allowing for twice as much time to come up than it takes to go down. During planning, make sure any trail camping plans don’t require a backcountry permit.
Visitors may also hike the trail during the winter months; the park is much less crowded, but icy conditions and freezing temperatures require an additional layer of caution.
Raft the Colorado River
Rafters on the Colorado River — Photo courtesy of National Park Service
Grand Canyon river trip opportunities are plentiful and popular, with each one varying in duration, rapid and raft style, and permitting requirements. Bright Angel Bicycles, the National Park’s exclusive bike vendor, recommends Arizona River Runners and Grand Canyon White Water for 3-13 day experiences powered by motors or oars, with each outing presenting customized hiking and camping opportunities.
Self-guided raft trips, (also known as private river trips) require advance permits that are made available to the public through a weighted lottery. The water released into the Grand Canyon is controlled, so conditions remain relatively consistent year-round. The Grand Canyon’s rafting descriptions and requirements should be reviewed diligently by beginners and returning rafters.
Bike the Rim
A biking couple enjoys a Grand Canyon sunset — Photo courtesy of NPS Video: Blum, Wells, and Wang
Biking Grand Canyon National Park’s roads and Hermit Road Greenway Trail allows visitors to move through the park’s six lookout points and pine forests at a quicker pace – while also avoiding shuttle crowds during peak tourist months. But note, bicycles are not allowed below the Canyon’s Rim or along any paved or unpaved portion of the Canyon Rim Trail.
Bike rentals and guided tours run year round via Bright Angel Bicycles but are only available on the South Rim. Bright Angel Bicycles carries men’s, women’s and children’s wheels, as well as tricycles and tandems. To help bikers along, Bright Angel Cycles mapped several bike route options, and those needing a break from the park's hills can mount their bikes on the shuttles or leave them at their campsite.
Canyon helicopter rides
A couple waits for a Grand Canyon helicopter ride — Photo courtesy of Photographer: Mark W. Lipczynski / copyright 2015 Mark Lipczynski
Helicopters have permission to fly 1,000 feet lower than tour planes, bringing their seated guests thrillingly close to the Grand Canyon’s dramatic edges and dropping depths. Depending on the operator and its Rim routes, pilots can swoop over the Dragon Corridor, Kaibab National Forest, Colorado River and Tower of Ra, and also help riders spot elk, deer and other native wildlife.
Narrated tours come in multiple languages, including Spanish, Mandarin, Japanese, Portuguese and French. Flights vary in length and often follow a loop.
Skydiving over the Grand Canyon — Photo courtesy of Paragon Skydive
Viewing the Grand Canyon from the sky is the ultimate treat, so why not add an unforgettable skydiving experience to an Arizonian vacation? Paragon Skydive is a tandem jump operator conveniently based out of Grand Canyon National Park Airport’s main terminal.
While dropping into the national park is illegal (and unsafe), Paragon participants will rise to altitudes above flight tour heights (13,500 ft to 15,000 ft) before accelerating groundward at speeds over 100 mph – all with the Grand Canyon in sight.
Be sure to visit Paragon’s website before arriving to cross-check reservations, as well as clothing and payment requirements and possible shifts in weather conditions.
Canyon skiing or snowshoeing
Tanner trail snow tracks — Photo courtesy of National Park Service
Witnessing the Grand Canyon reframed by white dust is a uniquely exhilarating adventure, and seasoned backcountry trekkers can get their snowy fix during the canyon’s uncongested winter months.
Once the park’s annual road closures occur, the North Rim campgrounds and yurt are only accessible by inner canyon trails from the South Rim, or by hiking, cross-country skiing or snowshoeing.
Due to its higher elevations, the North Rim’s snowpack conditions are more consistent; snowfall on the South Rim dries more quickly than its northern neighbor but conditions here can turn quickly. The Rims average 50-100 inches of snow per year and seasonal temperatures can fluctuate from the lower 40s to subzero numbers.
Some Northern Rim lodges (including Kaibab Lodge) remain operational year-round, but as previously stated, are only available by foot. Camping outside of designated areas will require a backcountry permit.
Ride the Railway
The Grand Canyon Railway — Photo courtesy of National Park Service
For a laid back or family-friendly affair, consider a round-trip on the Grand Canyon Railway. Once the route for ore transport, today’s restored train cars combine western nostalgia with classic hospitality to present a singular Grand Canyon attraction.
The 1923-dated Pullman Car leads the train, followed by the coach cars and a cafe car. A first class observation dome, luxury dome and parlor class (with an open-air back deck) round out the upscale commuter alternatives.
Departing from Williams, Ariz., the railway slithers through forests and traverses prairies before dropping guests at the Grand Canyon’s Southern Rim. Historical characters join riders onboard each way, sharing secrets and tales from the Wild West’s past. The trip measures 65 miles and takes just over two hours in each direction.
Camp at Havasu Falls
The New Falls — Photo courtesy of Havasupai Tribe
The Havasu Falls’ striking waterfall and blue-green pools break through the land’s clay color scheme, creating a dynamic and visually captivating backdrop. The water gets its color from high magnesium levels, and its nutrient-rich makeup nurtures a remote desert oasis.
Havasu Falls is on the Havasupai Indian Reservation, which is outside of Grand Canyon National Park’s jurisdiction. Due to its location, independent camping accommodations must go through the Havasupai Tribe, and advance reservations are strongly encouraged.
This indigenous culture remains respectful to their land, maintaining a single restaurant and a trading post. Hikers departing from Supai village will embark on a 10-mile trek before arriving at Havasu Falls.
Sunrises or sunsets at Hopi Point
Hopi Point sits on the Grand Canyon’s South Rim, and its expansive vistas make it a popular go-to during “golden hours” – the times surrounding sunrise and sunset. The transitioning sun paints the canyon faces with saturated oranges and pinks. Visitors can peer over the Colorado River and through to the Northern Rim.
Hopi Point is a stop on Hermit Road along the West Rim Drive and is accessible via park shuttle, foot, bike or commercial tour. Private vehicles are only allowed from December to February. Arrive at Hopi Point early to dodge crowds and secure an unobstructed view.
Go rim-to-rim via the Kaibab Trail
South Kaibab Trail — Photo courtesy of National Park Service
The Kaibab Trail covers 21 weaving miles, crossing the Colorado River and connecting the Grand Canyon’s North and South Rims. The North Kaibab Trail is infamously steep, rising 1,000 feet higher at the trailhead than the South Kaibab Trail. It's the canyon’s most challenging footpath, offering little shade and no water stops along the way.
While rigorous, the terrain unveils spectacular vantage points and photo ops, including a natural rock archway at Supai Tunnel and waterfalls at Roaring Springs. Experts recommend covering Kaibab's trails at a steady pace, and never condensing a round-trip excursion into a day’s time.
"Take your time on the Kaibab!" urges travel writer Kristin Winet. “Unless you're pitching a tent, remember to go only as far down as you're willing to hike back up!"
Kristin and her husband’s rushed Kaibab attempts once lead to foot blisters and "wind-chapped cheeks and dust-caked clothes."
During summer months, Grand Canyon Park Service insists on beginning the trails in the early morning or early evening to avoid the gorge-trapped heat. Winter welcomes new extremes, occasionally snowing-off trail sections or covering them with ice.