5 Things to Know Before Visiting the Grand Canyon

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The Grand Canyon is the Disney World of U.S. national parks. First, the wow factor is real and cannot be understated. Visually and geologically, there is no place like this national park, and even UNESCO agrees.

Plus, it’s so big that you can’t take it all in even though you want to. It’s hard to pull yourself away from gazing at it.

Grand Canyon Desert View Overlook

The Grand Canyon is not only big, it’s 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, especially if it’s part of a complete Arizona road trip. Here are a few things I wish I knew when I began planning my trip.

1. Grand Canyon National 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 along its many trails, taking a mule ride, and rafting down the Colorado River.

Grand Canyon Bright Angel Trail
Bright Angel Trail

2. 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.

  • CLICK HERE to search Booking.com for Grand Canyon hotel options.

The Grand Canyon Railway trip from Williams, 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.

Grand Canyon El Tovar dining room

3. 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.

Grand Canyon NPS Ranger Talk

4. You need time

Partly because Grand Canyon and Tusayan are expensive, many visitors are tempted to stay further away – in Williams, 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).

Grand Canyon Rim Trail

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.

5. 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 as well as the following resources to help you plan your trip.

Helpful trip planning links

Grand Canyon guided tours

The folks at Get Your Guide are the world’s largest online platform for booking tours, attractions and activities. To see a list of all their available tours in and to the Grand Canyon, click here.

Related reading about the Grand Canyon

For books about Grand Canyon travel on Amazon’s website, CLICK HERE.

Other National Park articles to read

Colorado River, as seen from north rim of Grand Canyon, pines in foreground. Text Overlay: travel tips grand canyon visiting secrets

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Written by Eileen Gunn

Eileen Gunn is a veteran journalist and the founder and editor of FamiliesGo!. You can also follow her on PinterestFacebook, and Twitter.

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9 thoughts on “5 Things to Know Before Visiting the Grand Canyon”

  1. This is a great list, we also don’t like Tusayan. I would like to add one more, and that is to know the difference between the West Rim and the National Park. The West Rim is not part of the national park and is quite the tourist trap; it is best avoided. The national park is what you visited and is what is considered classic Grand Canyon, we take people there on trips like these and they absolutely love it. When we take people to the West Rim, the reaction is a lot less enthusiastic.

    Reply
  2. Hi Linda,

    We intend to visit the Grand Canyon in the future. This year we are going to Madeira during the Easter holidays, but it is quite possible that we will be able to do it next year. Thanks for the tips!

    Reply
  3. I appreciate that you said that it is cheaper in the restaurants in the park and that they have better quality. We’ll be going away next week, and I’ve heard that everything is expensive around the Grand Canyon. I wanted to thank you for giving tips on how to find good deals near the area.

    Reply
  4. Thanks for all of the tips and info! We’ll definitely work on planning and booking this trip early! We’re making a trip to Yellowstone and Glacier this year. The plan is to do a smaller road trip in 2019 then finally get to the Grand Canyon in 2020.

    Reply
  5. Thank you for all the information about The Grand Canyon. My family has been thinking about going there for a vacation, and we wanted to know a little more before we went. I’m glad you mentioned to plan at least 6 to 12 months ahead. That would give us a lot of time to plan.

    Reply

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