I had no clue. When I began planning a trip to the Grand Canyon, my Google results were plentiful, actually, overwhelming. My friends from China, Julia (Xiaojian) and Yixian, were meeting me in Flagstaff for a three day exploration of the Canyon.
Five things the websites don’t tell you:
1. Distance to and from various activities is calculated in hours not minutes. For example, the North Rim is five hours from the South Rim.
2. Water is plentiful, food is difficult at best. There are no restaurants or cafes at the Visitor’s Center. There are a few snack shacks which serve ridiculously over-priced sandwiches and drinks. Some of the old hotels serve meals, like the El Tovar (think expensive). In short, BRING FOOD and carry a water bottle.
3. Summer is hot and crowded. Fall or late spring are better choices.
4. Wear a hat. The “dorkier” the hat, the better. Shade is at a premium.
5. Invest in good hiking shoes. The shuttle buses are great, but you will walk great distances.
Following our three day learning adventure, here are my best suggestions on how to do the Grand Canyon:
Note: There are four shuttle bus routes (these are great assists to moving from place to place): orange, blue, red and purple. Buses are FREE.
The closer you are to the Canyon, the more expensive the hotel. Save about $100 on hotel by staying in Flagstaff your first night. You will be changing hotels, so Pack-up and check-out before driving the 1-1/2 hours to the South Rim Visitor’s Center. The most beautiful route with scenery is Hwy 180. Your alternate route is Hwy 64 (straight and flat). Both take about the same time.
Once you arrive at the entrance to the Canyon, there is a $30/car entrance fee. The fee is valid for 5 days (good deal). The Park Ranger will give you a Guide with information and maps. These are available throughout the area. If you loose it, you can always pick-up another one. Follow the signs to the Visitor’s Center, which is a cluster of buildings. Most important: restroom facilities and shuttle bus hub.
A short walk from the Visitor’s Center is Mather Point, a good introduction to seeing the Canyon for the first time. Walk back to the bus hub and take the Orange shuttle to Yavapal Point and the Geology Museum. Walk the Trail of Time (1.6 miles) to Verkamp’s Visitor Center. The Trail of Time has hands-on examples of the geology of the Canyon. You gain a good foundation of the various types of rocks.
At Verkamp’s you’ll find food/water/restrooms and places to rest or buy souvenirs. Please, take time to sit and absorb the massive and colorful Canyon. Everyone has a camera in their hand, snapping one photo after another. Give your eyes and mind time to take its own photos. These will be the pictures that return time and time again.
Depending on your energy level , the Blue Shuttle Bus line has a transfer point at Hermit’s Rest. It’s just a hop and skip to catch the Red Shuttle Bus. All shuttle buses will allow you to jump off and on at any stopping point. The bus driver will give you a quick summary of the high points of each stop. From the Village to Hermit’s Rest would be about a 7 mile hike. The buses run approximately every 15 minutes. There’s never a long wait to move from place to place.
Evening: The Guide you were given at the entrance, provides a list of Park Ranger Programs. The Rangers do an excellent job presenting these program. The presentations are at multiple locations and during various times of day. Free! If you can, take advantage of the programs that interest you.
Where to stay: At the end of Day 1, drive 6.3 miles to Tusayan, AZ, a small village just south of the Canyon where you’ve booked your room(s) way in advance for one night. These rooms cost from $150 to $250+/night. Here’s the beauty of being in Tusayan: you have eliminated the drive back and forth from Flagstaff which saves you time and gas. There are some good restaurants in Tusayan (mostly steak places). Your trip back to the Canyon on Day 2 will be quick and easy. Note: the Purple shuttle bus picks up and delivers to Tusayan Village. You don’t have to drive into the park unless you want to.
Day 2: Biking
Time to get off your feet and on the bike. Bright Angel Bicycle Rentals is my recommendation. They are located at the Visitor’s Center. The tours vary in difficulty and time. The guides are excellent. The number in the group is small (about 7-8 people). The guides are knowledgeable about the finer points of the Canyon. At the bike shop, you will be fitted with bike and helmet. I recommend a bike tour vs. a rental. The tour provides new information and you never worry about getting lost.
Our group took the Yaki Point tour. It was three hours duration, 7 people on the tour and our guide, John, provided great insight into the Canyon’s history and points-of-interest.
Bright Angel offers packages to suit every need. Check out their website at http://bikegrandcanyon.com. Depending on which bike tour you’ve selected will dictate how much time you have for other adventures.
Alternate Idea: The Grand Canyon Railway & Hotel
The train departs Williams, AZ at 9:30 a.m. and arrives at the Grand Canyon at 11:45. Williams is located just off I-40 (the old Route 66). There are six different price ranges from Pullman Car ($65.00) to Luxury Parlor Car ($215.00). The return trip leaves the Grand Canyon at 3:30 p.m. The Grand Canyon Railway & Hotel offers train, hotel and food combos from 1 night to multiple night stays. I did not take the train, but if you have children or grandchildren, I think this would be a fun activity for the family.
Important: Before dark, leave the park and drive to Page, AZ where you’ve made reservations for the night. You can drive north out of the Canyon on Hwy 67 then cut over to Page on Hwy 89A. This route is a few miles longer than going back to Tusayan and then north on US 89N, but the scenery is worth the extra few miles.
Day 3: Page, AZ and the Colorado River Rafting Adventure
You’ve seen the top of the Canyon. Now, it’s time to see it from the river. Page, AZ is near Glen Canyon Dam and Lake Powell. Unless you walk down the Canyon on the trails, this is the most efficient and fun way to be on the river. We booked our rafting trip with Colorado River Discovery. Great group that knows customer service. Yixian and I did the smooth water rafting experience. The trip begins with a short bus ride to the Glen Canyon Dam. In order to get to the rafts, you must pass through a Homeland Security area; therefore, all personal items must be in see-through plastic bags. You can take your camera and wallet. Walking from the bus to the raft, you must wear a hard-hat to prevent any debris from hitting you.
Don’t ask. Just do as you’re told.
The raft carries about 15 people. You sit around the sides. Yes, plan to get wet. These rafts are motorized in order to travel up and down stream. The guides are young and enthusiastic. As you travel, they tell you about animals, plants, trees and history. Stories like the three guys (1983) who set the record on getting through the Canyon in 48 hours. Usually, such a trip is two to three WEEKS.
Seven second video taken from the raft: IMG_0062
The trip, which begins at 1:00, takes all afternoon. You return to CRD headquarters about 6:00. The cost is $86.00/person.
Colorado River Discovery offers many options. Check out the CRD website and select the one that works best for your adventure skills.
Additional adventure in Page: Antelope Canyon Tours
If you have time, add Antelope Canyon Tours to your itinerary. These spectacular petrified sand dunes, created by wind, water and sand, present a sculptured masterpiece.
Cost for an adult is $40.00. Departures almost hourly during the day. Transport is via Jeep. If you love photography, this is a spectacular area to test your skills…or, just snap some shots to record how spectacular Mother Nature can be.
All my life I wanted to see the Grand Canyon. The wait was worth the trip. I hope these tips will assist you in making your trip to the Canyon one as memorable as mine.