The Best Road Trip Grand Canyon Viewpoints
Sometimes you just don’t have enough time to do the things you really want to do. Especially when it comes to planning the stops on a whirlwind weeklong USA cross-country road trip. We knew one thing, though, we were definitely going to stop for another visit at the Grand Canyon. The question, however, was how much time would we need for a Grand Canyon visit? We were limited on time, obviously, but we eventually decided we needed to spend the night in the park so we could have a chance for a spectacular sunrise over the canyon. Lodging books up quickly so we needed to start planning early; we didn’t want to end up out in the cold without a place to sleep.
A Short Visit To Grand Canyon National Park
Nearly six million visitors come to the Grand Canyon to hike, bike, ride, or just gaze out into the canyon. This is not one of your spur of the moment vacations. It requires advance planning no matter what time of year you plan to visit. We typically just add on the Grand Canyon as a stopping point or an add-on, like this road trip around California. On one of our trips, long ago, we were young and foolish and thought we could just roll on up and pitch a tent. That is not the case and we discovered all of the campsites in and near the park were full. We got lucky and found an open tipi available at the Grand Canyon Camper Village (unfortunately they no longer have these unique tents). This time around, we were determined to stay in the park so we went online four months early and made our reservations to stay at the Yavapai Lodge. We should have started even earlier, as the rooms I really wanted, in the El Tovar lodge, were already sold out. After those arrangements were made we started looking at what all we could hope to see and do in an overnight visit to Grand Canyon National Park.
Planning The Visit
We put the Grand Canyon in between Albuquerque and Las Vegas on our cross country road trip. This meant we arrived in the park after lunch (at an excellent Mexican restaurant in Flagstaff named Tacos Los Altos) and would be driving back out the next day. This itinerary allowed for less than twenty-four hours in the park. Is that enough time to visit the Grand Canyon? We researched all of the different South Rim Grand Canyon viewpoints, short hikes, and services and decided on a route that would allow us to drive through the whole park with out needing to backtrack.
We entered the park from the East Entrance driving the twenty-five miles along the rim on Desert View Drive (AZ route 64) stopping along the way at some of the remoter viewpoints like Desert View Watchtower and (my personal favorite) Lipan Point. There are several other spots along the road that offer spectacular views, each worth pulling off the road for a glance. We continued on and checked into our lodge and still had time to explore the Visitor’s center at Mathers Point, check out the Geology museum at Yavapai Point, and stake out a front row seat further down the rim trail for the sunset.
Sunrise Over The Canyon
The next morning we were up at O’Dark Thirty heading towards our chosen sunrise spot on this visit. The roads were nearly empty aside from the other occasional early risers and a few shaggy deer. When we pulled into the parking lot at Grandview point there were only four other cars. The crisp, cold air helped wake us up while we sipped coffee and waited for the sun to come up. The colors on the canyon walls shifted from blue-gray to rosy-pink and blazing oranges. It was absolutely sublime, but over before we knew it. Back at Grand Canyon Village we grabbed a quick breakfast and picked up some snacks and water for our hike into the canyon on the Bright Angel trail. The trail was hot and steep, all the more reason to get started early in the day. Before too long it was time to head back to the car and hit the road for Las Vegas. It was another amazing Grand Canyon adventure.
We’ve taken all of our notes from several trips and put them together to create what we consider these perfect South Rim Grand Canyon Itineraries.
Grand Canyon in Two days
Two days is the perfect amount of time to spend in the Grand Canyon. This allows time for hiking into the canyon, attending ranger led talks, biking along the rim trail, and, of course, enjoying the jaw dropping vistas from all of the best viewpoints. South Rim visitors drive into the park from either Flagstaff, AZ if coming from the east, or Williams, AZ when coming from the west. Our recommendation is to enter the park from Flagstaff through the East Gate and start your Grand Canyon visit at the Desert View Watchtower.
- Before leaving Flagstaff stop at Safeway to top off the fuel tank and fill up the coolers with drinks and lunch items; then head north to the East Gate park entrance.
- Climb the Watchtower, a National Historic Landmark, for 360 degree views of the canyon and the Colorado river; stamp your National Parks passport; and have a snack at the Trading Post.
- Drive west along the canyon rim on Desert View Drive stopping at Lipan Point for a slightly less crowded view of the canyon and the river below.
- Continue on and turn off the main road to visit the Tusayan Museum (about three miles from Desert View) where you can visit Pueblo ruins and learn about the prehistoric peoples that once inhabited the area.
- Continue along Desert View with stops at Moran Point, Grandview Point, Pipe Creek Vista; have a picnic lunch at Grandview point perched on a rock ledge overlooking the canyon.
- Park at Mather Point and visit the Grand Canyon Visitor Center; find the current info on events, ranger led talks and walks, and watch the movie Grand Canyon: A Journey of Wonder to learn about the formation and history of the Grand Canyon (last showing at 4:30 P.M.).
- If it’s early (before 2 P.M.) and not too hot, go for a walk along the rim trail to Yavapai Point and the geological museum; walk back to your car or hop on the free park shuttle and ride back to Mather Point.
- Check into your lodging; be sure to check your reservation and know your earliest check-in time; be there as close to that time as possible as the lines for visitors checking in can get very long!
- Dinner time! Let’s face it, you didn’t come to the Grand Canyon for the food and there’s not much here to recommend. Still, you need to eat. There are a few options in the park and a few more in Tusayan a few miles south of the park. Watch the time, though, you need to be finished before sunset.
- Start heading to your sunset spot and stake out a front row seat – if there’s time, ride the shuttle to Hopi Point on the Hermit’s Rest line. It can get very crowded here, so be sure and get there at least 30 minutes before sunset (earlier if possible).
- Sunset! Stick around for at least 10 minutes after the sun is down so you don’t miss the spectacular colors on the cliff faces and buttes across the canyon; then get back on the bus before the last one goes by (about an hour after sunset).
- Attend an evening ranger led activity – night hikes, star gazing, cemetery tours.
- Sunrise! This can be very early as there is no Daylight Savings Time here but if you don’t mind rising early it can be totally worth it! Luckily, sunrise is probably the least crowded time in the park so driving isn’t really a problem; head to Mather Point with your early morning coffee and watch the colors change in the canyon.
- Breakfast is a bagel and another coffee from the Bright Angel Bicycles and Cafe right there at Mather point, be sure and fill up your water bottles while you’re there.
- Morning activities – choose between a mule rides, renting a bike and riding the rim to Hopi Point, or hiking the Bright Angel trail down into the canyon; either way plan for 2-4 hours and bring plenty of water and snacks.
- Lunchtime – consider a drive out of the park and into Tusayan for some decent Mexican food at Plaza Bonita, or break out the picnic lunch at one of the viewpoints along Desert View Drive.
- After lunch park the car and ride the shuttles – make your way to the Historic Grand Canyon Village area and visit the Kolb Studio and learn about the adventurous brothers Kolb who lived and worked in this historic five story structure right on the canyon rim.
- Continue on the shuttles on the Hermits Rest line – this road is closed to private vehicles most of the year, and the ride is magnificent; get off the bus at Hopi and walk the trail to Mohave Point; take the next bus and ride to the end of the line and check out the historic Hermits Rest before heading back.
- Dinner and sunset! You know the routine, same as yesterday.
Grand Canyon Day Trip – Is One Day Enough?
If you don’t have time to plan and make reservations early enough, don’t despair. It is possible to visit the Grand Canyon on a day trip, but there will be lots of driving. From Las Vegas, for instance, both the South Rim and the North Rim are about 270 miles or four and a half hours driving time. That’s nine hours round trip. Yikes! If you leave at 6:00 A.M. you could get to the park by 11. That gives you a good four or five hours to explore the canyon, even go on a short hike. Then get back in the car by 5 P.M. and be back in Vegas by 10 P.M. You might laugh, but this is totally doable. The alternative, however, is to spend the night in Flagstaff where there are more hotels and even a last minute room might be available. This allows the visit to the park and even stay for sunset before leaving the Grand Canyon and driving back to Flagstaff which is only about 90 minutes from the Grand Canyon Visitor Center.
What To See In The Grand Canyon in One Day
- Climb the Desert View Watchtower
- Learn about the original inhabitants at the Tusayana Museum
- Have a picnic with a grand view at Grandview Point
- Talk with the rangers and watch the movie at Grand Canyon Visitor Center
- Rock out at the Yavapai Geology Museum
- Walk through a million years on the Trail of Time
Best Time To Visit Grand Canyon National Park
A good argument can be made for visiting the Grand Canyon at almost anytime of the year. Each season comes with its pros and cons and the changing light and weather can have striking differences on the cliff faces and buttes within the canyon. In winter, there are significantly fewer visitors to the park, but of course, extreme cold weather, snow and ice, and morning fog can hinder outdoor activities. Spring brings a thaw in the cold weather and rising temperatures, but it can still get very cold and snowy. Along with the warmer weather, schools around the country are closing for spring vacations in April and this double whammy of better weather and vacation time can make for some very crowded weekends in the park. Summer is hot, hot, hot with temperatures in the canyon dangerously high for hikers. Visitor populations are at their peak as well, so unless your Grand Canyon trip includes rafting on the Colorado river, this is the time to avoid a visit. Fall sees the crowds beginning to lighten, and the temperatures begin to dip back down into the temperate range with possible snowfall in late fall.
So when is the best time? I really like spring and fall in the Grand Canyon, of course those are my two favorite seasons anyway, but the crowds are beginning to thin out and the chances for good weather are still high. In spring, try to plan a visit two weeks after Easter since spring break will be over and kids will be back in school. In late April, there is still the chance for a late snow storm, but the usual temperatures are mild and pleasant with high temperatures at the rim in the mid sixties. In the fall, try to plan your trip in the last two weeks of October when the crowds are dropping off and the temperatures are in the high sixties.
Grand Canyon Itinerary Practical Info
As I mentioned before, it is imperative to make lodging arrangements as early as possible, even up to 13 months in advance for the most popular options or during peak travel months in the summer. That being said, there are some campgrounds in and around Grand Canyon National Park with some non-reserved spots. Lucky campers arrive in mid-morning (between 10:00 and 11:30) to score a spot in the Desert View campground near the East Gate entrance or at the TEN-X campground south of the park in Kaibab National Forest. These are both excellent campgrounds and strictly first come, first served.
All hotel accommodations in or near the park, on the other hand, are highly unlikely to be available without a reservation. With the more popular park lodges located on the rim–El Tovar and Bright Angel–selling out the quickest. Yavapai Lodge is handled through a different operator. It’s not located right on the rim of the canyon but it is in the park and the rooms are spacious and well maintained. For the best prices deal directly with the two official vendors.
Power Tip: Reservations open 13 months in advance on the first day of the month. For example, to book a hotel for any night(s) in June 2021, be sure and go to the website on 1 May 2020. Visit Grand Canyon Lodges or Visit Grand Canyon for lodging inside the park.
Lodging outside the park is limited in the near vicinity but there are some good options in Tusayan four miles down the road out of the South Gate entrance. The better option here is the Grand Hotel at the Grand Canyon. About an hour further down the road there are many more hotels and some campgrounds in Flagstaff and Williams.
The majority of sites and attractions at the Grand Canyon are found in the South Rim section of the park. There are two entrances, and both of them are open 24 hours a day so it doesn’t matter which one you use to enter the park. Our recommendation is to use the quieter East Gate entrance near Desert View. This route, heading north on US-89 out of Flagstaff and then west on AZ-64, is less busy and more scenic. We’ve compiled some common Grand Canyon South Rim driving times below:
- Las Vegas, NV – 280 miles, 4.5 hours
- Flagstaff, AZ – 80 miles, 1.5 hours
- Williams, AZ – 60 miles, 1 hour
- Phoenix, AZ – 230 miles, 4 hours
- Tombstone, AZ – 410 miles, 6.5 hours
- Los Angeles, CA – 490 miles, 7.5 hours
Driving in the park can be difficult or even impossible during peak seasons. It’s better to park in one of the parking lots and ride the free shuttles. In fact, there are a few roads that are closed to private vehicles throughout most of the year. For example, you will need to ride the shuttle to get to Yaki Point or Hermits Rest, both of which are must visit spots in the Grand Canyon.