When I began planning our Southwest Adventure itinerary, the Grand Canyon was the first stop to make the list. (After all, it claimed the #1 spot on our 2016 National Parks Wish List!) We were thrilled to finally visit this lifelong goal destination!
Even though the Grand Canyon was a fixed point in our itinerary, we did not make campground reservations prior to arriving. We like to maintain flexibility in our schedule, and the Grand Canyon was a good three weeks into our itinerary, so we knew there was a good chance our arrival date would change more than once. This ended up causing some stress after I read that reservations are strongly recommended beginning March 1 (we arrived March 5), and that South Rim campgrounds are usually full by noon during the busy season.
Fortunately, our luck held, and when we arrived around lunch time we didn’t have any trouble snagging a great spot at Mather Campground — even though the campground was full of spring breakers from the south and midwest. (Who knew spring breaking at Grand Canyon was even a thing?!)
After setting up camp, our first stop was the park’s general store, to replenish the cooler and stock up on firewood. I knew the Grand Canyon was famous for being crowded — it is the second-most visited National Park — but I wasn’t prepared for how developed it is. (When I saw the link for a Grand Canyon “survival guide” on the NPS website, I assumed it would contain information about hazards like dehydration and rattlesnakes. In fact, it’s about avoiding the crowds, which can lead to jam-packed overlooks, long lines, and inability to find parking.) Mather Campground is within walking distance of a well-stocked general store, post office, and laundromat. There’s even a complex shuttle bus system that will take you to most points along the South Rim.
We went to bed that night full of anticipation for the next day, when we’d begin exploring the Grand Canyon in earnest. As always, our first stop would be the visitor’s center, where we’d get the lay of the land, watch the park information video, and collect as many maps and brochures as we could.
Fun fact: the Grand Canyon is really big. That may seem obvious, but I didn’t realize quite how much time it would take to get from one end to the other, and how much there was to see in between. (It’s almost 40 miles from Hermit’s Rest at the west end of the park to Desert View Watchtower at the east end.)
There are so many ways to experience the Grand Canyon — driving, busing, walking, biking, hiking, riding, and rafting — so we decided to divide the rim into manageable chunks and try a few different modes of exploration.
Driving the Grand Canyon
We love walking and hiking, but (as you may have noticed) we also really enjoy being in the car. When we’re checking out a new place, we love to get the lay of the land with a driving tour — and that’s just what we did our first full day at the Grand Canyon. After stopping at the main Visitor’s Center, we took the 25-mile Desert View Drive to the Desert View Watchtower located at the park’s East Entrance.
The Desert View Drive includes six developed canyon viewpoints, the Tusayan Museum and ruin site, and the Desert View Watchtower. There are terrific views along the way, a short hiking trail at the Tusayan ruins, and the Desert View Watchtower offers a cool aerial view of the canyon below.
Walking the Grand Canyon
Our second day at the Grand Canyon we did a combination of walking and riding on the NPS shuttle bus system. Starting once again from the main Visitor’s Center, we walked west on the lovely, paved Rim Trail. Although we paused often for photo ops, it was pretty incredible to be casually.
We also visited the historic Kolb Studio, which I would highly recommend. From there we hopped on the bus and rode rode it all the way to Hermit’s Rest at the park’s west edge. This direction also offered tremendous views; the bus stopped at each overlook and you could choose to walk from overlook to overlook, or just wait for the next bus to come along.
Hiking the Grand Canyon
We didn’t feel sufficiently prepared for a strenuous hike down into the canyon, although I would love to do it in the future — maybe next winter! From what we hear, it’s an incomparable way to experience the canyon in a way that goes far beyond exploring the rim. Even though we weren’t up to a full hike, we definitely wanted to experience in a small way the feeling of being below the rim. Starting at the Bright Angel Trailhead, we hiked about a half mile into the canyon. While that definitely whetted our appetite for more, when we saw how icy the trail was we knew we’d made the right decision to save a big hike for another day.
It’s impossible to describe the feeling of looking out over the Grand Canyon, waiting for your brain to catch up with your eyes and realize that what you’re seeing is real, not just a painting. It is so immense, so layered, and so beautiful — you’ll just have to go see it for yourself!
We experience one “first” at the Grand Canyon that shouldn’t go unmentioned: Our first time camping in the snow! As we drove back towards the campground after a day of exploring, the wind kicked up, the temperature dropped, and we got over an inch of snow in under an hour! Since outdoor cooking wasn’t happening, we took the opportunity to enjoy dinner in the Maswick Lodge while watching the snow fall. And we were extra happy to be warm and dry in the car, instead of a tent.
Campground: Grand Canyon National Park – Mather Campground
- Tent/RV site, no hookups.
- Cost: $14 (off-peak rate)
- Pros: Pleasant wooded sites. Easy access to showers, laundry facilities, and wifi — and, of course, the main attraction, the Grand Canyon! While getting an RV in this campground might take some finagling, the sites were ideal for car camping, with level, paved parking spots.
- Cons: The coin-operated showers were a bit expensive and not within walking distance of most sites in the campground. The presence of ravens in the campground meant everything had to be packed away super securely anytime you left your site.