The Grand Canyon is the Disney World of national parks. First, the wow factor is real and cannot be understated. Visually and geologically, there is no place like this national park. Plus, it’s so big that you can’t take it all in, but you want to, so it’s hard to pull yourself away from gazing at it.
The Grand Canyon is also big and crowded and everything is more expensive than you would like it to be. But there is a lot to do, with something for everyone from super-fit hikers to older travelers with mobility issues. And the crowds are spread out and well managed, so the park feels busy but never quite as crowded as it actually is.
Because of the crowds and prices, planning a trip here takes some extra time and effort. Here are a few things I wish I knew when I began planning my trip.
Grand Canyon Park has a lot to offer…
The park has five lodges, including a ranch on the canyon floor, some very modern; and others older and with more character. It also has a designated area for campers. There is a good internal shuttle service, which means that staying in the park will give you the most time in the park, the best l experienced and probably the best lodging value.
The dining options are just as numerous, ranging from a convenience store and inexpensive cafeteria for campers to a coffee shop in the Bright Angel Lodge and the formal El Tovar dining room.
You can also see the canyon in a few different ways, including hiking, mule and river raft.
You have to plan ahead
We called the El Tovar dining room a month before our visit and were offered the undesirable option of dining at 5:30 or 8:30. We took 8:30 and felt lucky to get it. Three months out, there were almost no hotel options at all near the park (forget in the park) and the options we had were expensive and mediocre.
The Grand Canyon park lodges take reservations a year in advance and rooms disappear quickly. El Tovar dining room starts taking reservations six months out. Depending on your time of year, I’d book 3-6 months ahead to get a reservation between 6:00 and 8:00.
Train visits from Williams, AZ, rafting and other elaborately outfitted trips book 6 months to a year ahead, too. For a decent price on a hotel or campground outside the park I would book six to 12 months ahead, depending on the time of year I would travel. Keep in mind that families in Arizona, Utah and California hit the parks over their respective spring breaks. And foreign travelers start streaming in in April, to beat the summer heat. So I would consider peak season to be roughly Easter to Halloween.
Everything is expensive
In Tusayan, the town right outside the Grand Canyon, we paid $240/night for a two-star hotel. We also paid $4 for a small coffee at McDonalds. The coffee price really bugged me. Some of these high prices are unavoidable, but there are ways to save money here and there.
- To avoid top prices at the hotels, don’t book your trip to coincide with school breaks.
- Book a hotel that offers free parking and breakfast.
- There are a couple of general stores in town where you can pick up sandwiches and picnic provisions for lunch.
- The Maswick Lodge has a pub where you can order pizza by the pie or slice.
- The restaurants in the park were not inexpensive but we felt they offered better value and quality than the places in town.
- The park rangers give great tours and talks for free; make a point of catching up with one. We loved the fossil walk that we did.
Tip: The National Parks Service gives discounts to veterans, seniors and volunteers, and gives families of 4th grade students free access to the parks for one year. You can also buy an annual pass for $80, a deal if you plan to visit at least 3 parks in one year.
You need time
Partly because Grand Canyon and Tusayan are expensive, many visitors are tempted to stay further away – in Willams, Page, even Flagstaff and even Las Vegas – and visit the Grand Canyon for the day. It’s doable and I’ve done this, but your experience in the park is going to be limited. You can take a short walk in the rim trail and if you are driving from the right direction you can enjoy the overlooks along Desert View Drive.
But ideally, you want to give yourself two or three days. So you can take Bright Angel trail at least a short way down into the canyon so you can get beyond the most heavily trafficked stretch of the rim trail to the further, less crowded bits. Or, you can rent bikes, do a ranger activity or fit in extras like the museums or native American dances, and you can make time for dinner at the lodge (which is worth the effort both for the food and the unique room).
One small time saver is to bypass the huge parking lot at the main Visitors’ Center. It’s worth a stop for the movie and daily schedule and, if you have kids, the Junior Ranger workbook. But it’s a long shuttle ride to the parts of the park you really want to get to, especially the further, less busy part of the rim trail. There are smaller lots closer to where you want to be and if you arrive early in the morning (before 9:30) or in the late afternoon you can find a spot in these lots pretty easily.
Tusayan is a disappointing town
You would expect the town that sits outside of the Grand Canyon to be a fairly bustling and sprightly place, but we could not have been more disappointed with Tusayan. Shopping, dining and lodging options were shockingly limited and mediocre (and as I mentioned before, overpriced). The best solution I can offer is to grab the best lodging deal you can find and spend as little of your time as possible in the town.
Luckily, the park itself has pretty good resources. Take advantage of them.