Grand Canyon Essentials

Photo: Michael DeYoung Photography/Tandemstock

Get to know the vast and other-worldly landscape of this one-of-a-kind park.

Arizona’s Grand Canyon is one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World—and it’s not hard to see why. The marvels of the canyon—its massive scale, rich colors, magnificent rock layers, raging crystalline waters, and pockets of lush greenery—can’t be found anywhere else. Today, millions of people visit every year.

Of course, human activity in the canyon has existed for centuries. Indigenous peoples made their homes in and near the canyon long before colonial explorers “discovered” it—and some still live there. In 1869, John Wesley Powell made the pivotal first trip through the canyon by boat, and concluded, “You cannot see the Grand Canyon in one view, as if it were a changeless spectacle from which a curtain might be lifted, but to see it you have to toil from month to month through its labyrinths.”

Most people don’t have months to follow Powell’s advice, but you can see the Grand Canyon—really see it—with a smart plan and just enough toiling. Here, we’ve distilled this vast wilderness into the essentials you need to know for a perfect visit. 

How the Grand Canyon was Formed

The walls of the Grand Canyon are a staggering one-mile high, exposing layers of at least 40 rock types—some dating back two billion years. These individual layers of varying shades of reds, browns, whites and oranges, from the Tapeats Sandstone to the Redwall Limestone and the Coconino Sandstone, each tell distinct stories of the past. Somewhere between 70 and 30 million years ago, plate tectonics pushed the whole region upward, creating the flat Colorado Plateau. The canyon itself is relatively young, as it was only about six million years ago that  the mighty Colorado River began carving away at the rock. These geologic forces have created the Grand Canyon we know today: a mile deep, 277 miles long, and 18 miles wide.

The Grand Canyon’s Human History 

Indigenous people lived in and roamed what’s now the Grand Canyon for millennia, hunting, farming, and establishing homes. The Ancestral Puebloans lived in the area around 200 BC and stayed for centuries, building dwellings along the canyon rims.  Today, 11 federally-recognized tribes with ties to the canyon are the Navajo (Diné), Hopi, Zuni, Hualapai, Havasupai, Kaibab Band of Paiute Indians, Las Vegas Band of Paiute Indians, Moapa Band of Paiute Indians, Paiute Indian Tribe of Utah, San Juan Southern Paiute Indians, and the Yavapai-Apache Nation.

The Havasupai Tribe still lives inside the canyon, on a reservation of one million acres on the west side.  (It was created in 1882, and took away some 90% of the tribe’s original land). The reservation’s turquoise pools and thundering Havasu Falls are managed by the tribe and visitors make reservations through them, not the National Park Service. The tribe also manages the Skywalk, the glass-floored sidewalk that juts 70 feet from the rim for a stomach-dropping view. Cool fact: The first Native female guide on the river was Havasupai (Shana Watahomigie), who started guiding in 2001.

Visiting the National Park

President Theodore Roosevelt initially protected the Grand Canyon 1906. The national park we know today, established in 1919, is one of the most-visited national parks in the country. In 2019 nearly six million people visited the park. It’s crowded, yes, but only in certain places, and it’s possible to find solitude any time of year. If you want to go to the most popular spots (like the South Kaibab Trail), start around sunrise or visit at less-crowded times of the year (like late fall or early spring).

When visiting the canyon the big choice you have to make is which rim to target (they’re separated by a 4.5-hour-long car ride). The South Rim (3.5 hours from Phoenix) is more developed and much busier, while at the North Rim (4.5 hours from Las Vegas) you’ll find a quieter experience with less amenities. The South Rim is accessible all year, but the North Rim is closed during the winter.



The Grand Canyon is in the high desert: the South Rim is situated at 7,000 feet and the North Rim is at about 8,300 feet. In the winter, it’s cold and snowy on the rims. Visitors can expect freezing temperatures and snowy trails that require traction devices to navigate safely. The advantages of winter are the lack of people and the spectacular views of the reddish canyon walls dusted with snow. But remember, the canyon is so deep that winter is different at the bottom, with much milder temperatures and no snow. A winter backpacking trip here can start in snow and ice at the rim and in one day reach shorts-and-T-shirt weather at the bottom. The North Rim is closed during winter.  


In the spring the snow melts, temperatures start to warm, flowers and plants start coming back to life, and the animals that migrate south for the winter start to return. There’s a good chance to spot elk, mule deer, and perhaps even bighorn sheep. Seasonal creeks flow, making spring the best time for backcountry journeys in areas where water is scarce. The crowds start to ramp up again in the springtime.


As with most national parks, summer is the peak season so it can be crowded, especially at the popular South Rim. It’s also the hottest time of year, and temperatures often reach over 100 degrees at the bottom. Extra water, sunscreen, and sun protection are mandatory. It’s also monsoon season, which means powerful thunderstorms. To beat the crowds and heat, and any storms in the forecast, get an early start. 


As the heat fades, so do the crowds. Fall is a great time for hiking in the canyon, both for the more moderate temperatures and for the changing colors. Look out for the aspens and cottonwoods to turn shades of yellow and orange.

Things to Do

There aren’t many secrets left in a park as popular as the Grand Canyon ( But there are still plenty of ways to get away from the crowds and experience the remarkable landscape much as it has existed for millions of years. But it’s such a big park that it’s easy to get overwhelmed by all the choices. Use this cheat sheet to get started.   

Backpack from Rim to Rim

Some of the Grand Canyon’s most magnificent areas can only be reached on foot. Here’s the best multiday trek below the rim for first-time Grand Canyon backpackers. 

Rim to Rim: This popular route follows some of the busiest trails in the Grand Canyon. So why do we recommend it? The 23-mile (one-way) route from the South Rim to the North Rim delivers a highlights tour of Grand Canyon scenery and is by far the best choice for first-timers. That’s because Grand Canyon hiking is notoriously harder than most people expect, so it’s wise to start on a route with well-marked trails and developed campgrounds with drinking water, food and pack storage, and bathrooms. And don’t mistake easier for easy: This hike delivers more than 10,000 feet of elevation change. 

You can hike this route in either direction, connecting the North Kaibab Trail and Bright Angel Trail. Starting at the North Rim is slightly better, as you go down instead of up the North Kaibab Trail, which drops 6,000 feet from rim to river. Going this direction also allows you to stay a night at Indian Garden Campground, breaking up the climb up the Bright Angel Trail.  There are three campgrounds en route: Cottonwood (about seven miles from the North Rim trailhead), Bright Angel (at the bottom of the canyon, 14 miles from the North Rim), and Indian Garden (amid an oasis of cottonwoods, about 19 miles from the North Rim). Allow at least three nights to really enjoy this trek and explore the Grand Canyon’s wonders. A backcountry permit is required ( If you’re hiking from rim to rim in one direction, you’ll need to arrange a shuttle back to your car. Trans Canyon Shuttle offers rides in both directions (

Take a Day Hike

With a light pack and a long day, you can experience much of the Grand Canyon’s epic scenery on a day hike. From easy jaunts along the rim to steep and challenging paths, there’s something for everyone. Wherever you go, make sure you’re prepared for the weather and have all the water, food, and gear you need for a fun and safe day out.

Rim Trail: This flat, 13-mile trail from the South Kaibab Trailhead to Hermits Rest hugs the South Rim of the canyon, providing continuous great views. And with numerous shuttle stops along the way, it’s easy to do all of it or however much suits your schedule.  A portion of the trail is paved and it’s wheelchair accessible from Lookout Studio to the South Kaibab Trailhead. And unlike with other park trails, you can bring your leashed dog on the Rim Trail.

Bright Angel Trail: This South Rim trail is popular (and steep) but absolutely worth it. Most people go as far as Indian Garden Campground (nine miles round-trip), where there’s drinking water and shade. But you’ll lose the crowds and score amazing views if you go all the way to Plateau Point  (12 miles round-trip) for a vista of the river.

North Kaibab Trail: This is the only maintained trail into the canyon from the North Rim and has many options for out-and-back hikes of any length. Head down to Supai Tunnel (four miles round-trip) for views of steep canyon walls or to Roaring Springs (9.4 miles round-trip) for a full day out. 

Camp on the Rim

Car camping at the Grand Canyon is available at National Park campgrounds on both the South and North Rims, as well as in the surrounding Forest Service land. 

North Rim Campground: This is the only campground on the North Rim that’s inside the park. It’s open from May 15 to October 31 (the North Rim is closed for winter), and is the best choice if you’re trying to get away from summer crowds on the South Rim. Reserve one of 78 sites on The campground is flanked by the Transept Trail and close to the rim of the canyon (tip: book sites 14-19, they are right on the rim). There are three ADA campsites and RVs up to 40 feet are permitted, though there are no hookups.

Mather Campground: With 327 sites and open year-round, Mather is kind of like a small village within Grand Canyon Village (there are restaurants and shops nearby, and campers can get ice, firewood, and groceries at the camp store). This is a good choice if you want to camp close to all the South Rim sights. This South Rim campground is just a short distance from the Bright Angel Trail, the Rim Trail, Mather Point, and the Visitor Center. Reserve on

Float the Colorado River

There are two different types of river trips in the Grand Canyon: commercial and non-commercial. The latter is for folks who can execute a trip on their own (you know who you are). The commercial trips are run by professional guides (book trips a year or two in advance). Over a dozen outfitters operate ( trips in the canyon, from Lees Ferry to Diamond Creek (226 river miles). They use a variety of boats, from motorized rafts to paddle and oar rafts, and wooden dories. River trips are up to 18 days long. 

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.