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You haven’t seen the Grand Canyon until you’ve seen it on foot. As a professional hiker who’s walked must-see destinations around the world, I can verify that the Grand Canyon is worthy of its title as “one of the Seven Natural Wonders” and it is definitely one of the best hiking destinations in the US. The trick most people miss when visiting the Grand Canyon is that the best views aren’t from the top. The Grand Canyon is so big, that you need to hike into it to get the real scope of its size and beauty.
Hiking in the Grand Canyon
At 18 miles long and more than 6,000 feet deep, the Grand Canyon exhibits 2 billion years of geology along the Colorado River. When you hike down into the canyon, you get to see those red, rust, rose, white, and burnt orange rock sequences up close. Arizona’s dry air preserves these colorful rocks well. You’ll see layer upon layer of what geologists consider some of the most complete geologic columns in the world.
You can access the Grand Canyon from either the North or South Rim. The Colorado River bisects the Kaibab Plateau, which means both sides have trails that are relatively flat on the rims. Trails that drop into the canyon are much steeper. At an average elevation of 8,000 feet, the North Rim is about 1,000 feet higher in elevation than the South Rim. Because of the diversity in elevation throughout the park, it’s home to five of the seven life zones in the world and three of the four types of deserts in North America. When you hike in the canyon, you get to see a lot of ecosystems in relatively few miles of walking.
When is the best time to visit the Grand Canyon?
While I prefer the ecological diversity, lack of crowds, and cooler temperatures at the North Rim, it’s important to note that, during winter and early spring, it’s covered in snow and road access to it is closed. The South Rim is open year-round and is easier to access, especially if you’re flying into a major airport like Las Vegas or Phoenix. To give you an idea of the difference in crowds, 90% of the park’s visitors are at the South Rim.
I also think that spring and fall are the best times of year in the Grand Canyon. On both Rims, temperatures are milder and trails aren’t as crowded with folks on summer vacation. The North Rim may seem more remote, but it’s relatively close to other national parks and monuments like Zion and Grand Staircase Escalante. If you time it right, a North Rim visit can coincide with a Western National Park tour.
Be prepared for varying temperatures and conditions
It goes without saying that the Grand Canyon can get hot. Temperatures in the canyon vary by elevation and season. The bottom of the canyon along the Colorado River can be 30° warmer than on the Rim. In summer, the Inner Canyon gets above 100 ºF on most days. I always start hikes into the canyon at sunrise or pre-dawn, bringing electrolytes and more water than I think I need (the park recommends carrying at least a gallon per person per hike).
Sun protection — including sunglasses, a sun hat, and sunblock — is essential. Snow and ice are common in the winter and early spring. If you’re visiting at that time of year, check first with rangers to make sure your trails are safe for travel. The Grand Canyon claims lives every year and rescues are common. Be prepared and check weather and conditions before setting out on any of these hikes at any time of year.
Plan your stay ahead of time
Whether you’re visiting the North or South Rim, I recommend making reservations for hotels and campgrounds months before your trip. If you are visiting during a popular time or making a last minute decision to visit, there are hotels available outside the park. I often stay (or at least eat) in the town of Tusayan, which is about 2 miles south of the South Rim entrance station. Kaibab, Arizona, or Kanab, Utah, are the closest towns to the North Rim, both about a 1.5 hour drive from the North Rim entrance station.