One of the most famous and visited of all U.S. national parks, Arizona's Grand Canyon deserves to be on your shortlist. A whopping 277 river miles long and a mile deep, it's one of the most impressive canyons in the world. Enter the park's lottery system to raft the whole thing, test your limits (and your quads) on the famous Rim-to-Rim challenge, or gaze over the whole expanse from one of the dozens of scenic viewpoints lining the canyon's edge.
The Grand Canyon is a pretty big deal. As you might expect, that popularity comes crowds, long lines, and booked-up accommodations, especially in the summer and during school holidays. Plan your visit well in advance, and go during the shoulder season to avoid the rush. You can check current conditions online to help you plan.
The Grand Canyon National Park is separated into three main areas.
The South Rim
The South Rim is open year-round and receives the most visitors. Due to congestion, consider using the free shuttle bus in the summer to get the best experience of the park. The shuttle operates on four routes. Here's a pocket map of the area to help you get oriented.
Looking for an alternative to driving into the busy park? The Grand Canyon Railway runs restored locomotives from Williams, Arizona, to the Grand Canyon Village, and is a fun way to see the area. A roundtrip adult ticket will run you between $67 and $219, depending on how much you'd like to splurge.
The North Rim
Due to snow, the North Rim is only open May 15th to October 15th, and getting there from the South Rim is no walk in the park. Your options are to hike from the South Rim to the North Rim on a (fantastic) 21-mile trail, or to drive the 5 hours around. However, only about 10% of visitors go to the North Rim, so if you're not into crowds, consider a visit to the “other side.” Here's the Pocket Map to get you started. Plan your North Rim visit, find camping options, and more here.
The Colorado River — Canyon Floor
Planning a hike into Grand Canyon? Check out this great PDF brochure on the three Corridor Trails and get information on planning and prep, elevation, hiking times, water stops and more.
Be warned! There are no easy trails to the canyon floor, and a hike down isn't for the weak-kneed. The park recommends taking several days to hike down and back, since the elevation loss and gain is so strenuous (in fact, over 250 people get rescued each year). Completing a Rim-to-Rim hike is a great challenge, but it's one that even serious athletes train for to develop the strength and stamina required.
Fortunately, there are plenty of great trails along the relatively flat rim for a more casual outing, and plenty more trails that only wander partway down into the canyon. Try Ribbon Falls from the North Rim, for example.
You can also paddle in for a different kind of adventure
Campgrounds Below the Rim
There are three campgrounds below the rim, all accessible by one of the three Corridor Trails. Bright Angel Campground is less than a half mile from Phantom Ranch (see below) and has year-round potable water. It's situated near the end of both the Bright Angel Trail and the South Kabob Trail.
Designed by Mary Colter and built in 1922, Phantom Ranch sits at the bottom of the canyon like an oasis providing food, water and shelter to those exploring the depths of the canyon. As one of the most unique and popular experiences in the whole park, early planning is essential t enjoy this one. Hoping for your chance to visit? Submissions to the Phantom Ranch lottery are accepted over a year in advance (15 months! Yes, plan that early).
Looking for a different kind of travel experience? Check out the Grand Canyon's mule trips along the South Rim, North Rim, and yes, even to the canyon floor. Just note there may be height and weight restrictions, and possibly a certain level of English proficiency required, depending on which trip you're signing up for. (It may sound like a strange requirement, but Grand Canyon mules are trained to understand English commands.)
When to Go
Try March through May, and September through November, to avoid the crush of humanity, but also to beat the heat. From June to August, temperatures often exceed 100 degrees Fahrenheit at the bottom of the canyon. Note that the North Rim is only open from May 15th to October 15th each year.
Like most U.S. national parks, fees apply. Check out the National Park Service's fee-free days, or get information on permits and entrance fees here. Heading into the Grand Canyon's backcountry? Find everything you need to know on the park's backcountry permit page.
Like most U.S. national parks, dogs are only permitted on a leash up to 6 feet long. Though dogs are generally not allowed on national park trails, you're in luck at the Grand Canyon: Here, dogs are allowed on all 13 miles of the South Rim Trail. Just make sure not to follow any trails below the rim.
Options are more limited on the North Rim—dogs are only allowed on the short Bridle Trail.