Grand Canyon short trip — How to get the most from a short trip

On my first trip to the Grand Canyon, I made a classic beginner mistake: I didn’t leave myself enough time and didn’t do any before the study, so I ended up with a version of the Griswold experience. It was there, huge, gorgeous, yet a little underwhelming. We’re back in the automobile.

Overview of Grand Canyon seen from South Rim © Mark Read / Lonely Planet

And I wasn’t the only one. Most tourists appeared to be driving slowly down the South Rim, stopping at all of the same views, snapping photographs, and doing little more. With such a large park, it appeared like it would require a significant commitment of time and effort to truly appreciate what it had to offer and get away from the throng.
A brief journey to the Grand Canyon, on the other hand, may be rewarding if you know how to make the most of your time there.
We asked two active users of the Thorn Tree travel forum, FlagStuff and eazeliff, for insider suggestions on sites and activities to include in a short trip to the Grand Canyon, one that really goes beneath the skin of the park.

Getting to The Grand Canyon

Most tourists from Flagstaff approach Grand Canyon National Park through Highway 180 North; however, FlagStuff recommends a different route: drive Highway 89 North to Cameron and enter via the less-frequently utilized East Entrance (sometimes known as Desert View). If you’re in Cameron around noon, make a visit at The Cameron Trading Post for Navajo tacos, handmade frybread with green chili and taco toppings. Entering the park from the east allows you to pause at views overlooking the Little Colorado River Gorge and then visit Desert View and Grandview Point along the East Rim.

Desert View Watchtower near the East Entrance © Helena Lovincic / Getty Images / iStockphoto Going over the edge

Going Over The Edge

The view from the South Rim is stunning because of the vast views, but to truly appreciate the Canyon, you need take the time to trek down below the rim and see it on a new scale.

‘A point I would emphasize to my tourists is to enjoy the little little aspects of beauty, such as the pine tree growing between two rocky columns at Moran Point, the boulders hanging at hazardous angles, and the backlighting of early morning light against the Mormon-tea bushes,’ adds eazeliff.

FlagStuff provides numerous suggestions for shorter treks. ‘ If you could only take one short trek in the Canyon, I’d choose the Kaibab Trail to Cedar Ridge (3 miles roundtrip), Skeleton Point (6 miles total), or Grandview Trail to the first overlook (about 2.5 miles roundtrip, but a much more rugged trail). These climbs provide the most panoramic vistas for such a small distance. I’d recommend the Bright Angel Trail to Plateau Point for those looking for a more challenging hike (12.2 miles total). In its higher levels, the Bright Angel is less beautiful than the Kaibab, but for a longer climb, it offers more variety, and this excursion concludes with a truly spectacular view of the Colorado River. For someone who is an experienced hiker and wanted a taste of the backcountry, I might suggest Grandview to Horseshoe Mesa, which is only 6 miles roundtrip but is fairly intense.’

The view from the South Kaibab Trail © melpilgrim / Budget Travel

On the well-known mule trips into the canyon, eazeliff recommends that travelers give them a try.’Yes they smell, and it’s a rough ride, but I regard those mule trips as some of the greatest experiences of my travels.’

Avoiding Crowds

Coming at the correct time of year is the greatest way to avoid crowds. The busiest season is from Memorial Day (end of May) through Labor Day (beginning of September), which is also the warmest season, especially in the Canyon. Crowds begin to thin out in late August as children prepare to return to school and many European visitors return home. The months of December before Christmas, January, and February are the slowest of the year.

‘Don’t be frightened of adverse weather, even in winter,’ advises FlagStuff. ‘Everyone else will stay at home, and as soon as the storm passes, you will be presented to the Canyon at its most spectacular.’ Apart from the winter months, both eazeliff and FlagStuff advocate visiting in October, when the weather is pleasant, the aspens are turning color, and the crowd is decreased to more discriminating visitors.

The view from the South Kaibab Trail © melpilgrim / Budget Travel

Even during the busiest months, walking, even just a little distance away from the parking places, is the greatest method to escape crowds. Shoshone Point, the only South Rim overlook typically blocked to vehicle access, is recommended by FlagStuff for a more tranquil viewing experience. ‘Most of the time, you’ll have to walk there, which is approximately a 3/4 mile level and nice woodland stroll. It’s a wonderful spot, and even on the busiest summer day, it’s extremely calm. Not quite adventurous, but definitely off the usual path.’

‘The main campground, Mather, turns into a small city in summer,’ says eazeliff. ‘I like camping at Desert View, and also a little-known place called Ten-X campground in the Kaibab National Forest just south of Tusayan, a gem which seldom fills up.’

Rocking The Grand Canyon

If geology has always seemed dull to you, the Grand Canyon will prove you wrong. Stop into the freshly refurbished museum at Yavapai Point to learn about the geology and natural history of the Grand Canyon.

‘There are several ranger-led natural history programs on a variety of themes, as well as short informative hikes guided by a park ranger. ‘In general, these programs are good,’ says FlagStuff. ‘There are a number of really nice, very accessible geology and ecology field guides available, and in the past I’ve gotten a lot out of bringing one with me on walks and reading along as I descend through the rock strata and ecological zones.’

Mule Trips

Mule rides are an effective way to see the Canyon © melpilgrim / Budget Travel

Purchase the postcard. The creatures smell, travel on tiny ledges cut into the canyon rock, and have a formidable set of regulations,’ according to a recent New York Times piece. But eazeliff disagrees: ‘Yes, they stink, and it’s a hard ride, but those mule treks are some of the best experiences I’ve had on my travels.’

Food in The Park

‘I don’t believe the meal is terrible, but rather mediocre and expensive,’ writes FlagStuff. At the top end, El Tovar and the Arizona Room provide a distinctive ambiance and acceptable food, but everything else is purely utilitarian. Flagstaff, and to a lesser extent Williams, offer a wide choice of decent eateries, although picky big-city foodies should temper their expectations for a few days.’ But it’s not all bad news on the culinary front: ‘One of my most favorite things to do at the South Rim is have an ice cream cone on the terrace behind the Bright Angel Lodge.’

As The Sun Sets

Sunset viewing is a popular pastime in the Grand Canyon, and the overlooks may get crowded on warm evenings. Visitors should take the shuttle bus from the Village out on Hermit’s Rest Road, get dropped off at a viewpoint, and then hike the Rim Trail to another viewpoint to catch the bus return. ‘The Rim Trail is a fantastic, simple way to get away from the throng, and the sunset views along Hermit Rest Road are spectacular.’

Cape Royal from the North Rim © kojihirano / Getty Images / iStockphoto
Cape Royal from the North Rim © kojihirano / Getty Images / iStockphoto

‘I would suggest that people view the sunset from one of the viewpoints, let the gawkers leave, and stay there to take in the subtleties and otherworldly qualities of the Canyon as it slips into darkness,’ says eazeliff.