The Ultimate Guide to the Grand Canyon, America's Most Iconic National Park

Tick at least one of the World's Seven Natural Wonders off your bucket list this year.

Sam Lloyd/Unsplash
Sam Lloyd/Unsplash
Sam Lloyd/Unsplash

Maybe it’s just us, but boy, are we glad to move beyond the days of virtual experiences. Most things are arguably better in person: Friendships. Museums. Happy hours. Travel. For example, can you really comprehend the overpowering magnitude of the more-than-a-mile-deep Grand Canyon from your phone? Absolutely not.

Friends who’ve been to Grand Canyon National Park have likely come to you, wide-eyed, and expressed how pictures fail to do it justice, warning that “you won’t believe how BIG it is until you see it in person.” We would argue that even once you do see it in person, you might still struggle to believe how truly BIG it is: Spanning an awesome 277 miles from end-to-end, this natural wonder is one of Arizona’s-nay, one of America’s most distinguished landmarks, a bucket list mainstay you have to visit at least once.

Obviously, you can’t just stroll up to the thing. The park is (understandably) enormously popular-in fact, it’s one of the most popular national parks in the US, with 4.53 million visitors in 2021. Luckily, the vast red-rock chasm-carved out over millions of years ago by the Colorado River and designated a national park in 1919-has more than enough room to welcome the tremendous crowds that descend upon it each year. And if its layers of two billion-year-old rock are any indication, it isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. Read on for info on the Grand Canyon’s most iconic sights, the best places to stay nearby, and more cool spots to hit on your next Arizona road trip.

Hugo Soons/Unsplash
Hugo Soons/Unsplash
Hugo Soons/Unsplash

How to get to the Grand Canyon

Located in northern Arizona a few hours from the borders of both Nevada and Utah, Grand Canyon National Park is a notoriously solid weekend or day trip from several nearby cities: It sits about a four-hour drive from Phoenix, just under five hours from Las Vegas, and about 5.5 hours from Tucson (where you can also catch the utterly underrated Saguaro National Park). If you don’t want to spend 8-10 total hours in the car for just one or two hours of canyon time, consider anchoring yourself in Flagstaff or Sedona, both of which sit about two hours from the park.

Most people get here by car or RV (more on road trips below!), but if you just so happen to be one of the mad lads that arrives on a helicopter from Sin City, worry not: there are daily shuttles that’ll take you between the South and North Rims. (Just be aware that the trip between each takes several hours; if you want to hit both rims, plan to stay overnight.)

When to visit the Grand Canyon (and how to beat the crowds)

Undoubtedly, the busiest season at the Grand Canyon is summertime-tourist numbers spike in July and August, and so do the temperatures. If wading through crowds whilst sweating through your t-shirt sounds less than ideal, opt for a different season. Note that while the South Rim is open year-round, the North Rim is closed during the winter season (in 2022, it’ll reopen on May 15).

Now, the real question is this: Is sunrise or sunset better in the Grand Canyon? It’s a longstanding debate, but we’re going with sunrise. The Grand Canyon’s most popular viewpoints can be suuuuper crowded around sunset, which makes waking up early a not-so-bad idea from an Instagram-photo standpoint. As for lookout points, Hopi Point is generally a peaceful place to watch the sunrise. And at the highest elevation, Navajo Point provides an almost 360-view of the canyon and Colorado River.

If an early start isn’t your thing, you also can ditch the crowds by exploring the park’s extensive trail systems. There’s no shortage of day hikes around the Grand Canyon that provide nonpareil scenic views of the landscape.

Lucas Swennen/Unsplash
Lucas Swennen/Unsplash
Lucas Swennen/Unsplash

What to bring & things to know before you go

Step one: Secure your Grand Canyon National Park pass. This pass will get you into the park quickly, so buy and download it onto your phone. It’s $35 per car and is good for an entire week. Next, make sure you come with a full tank of gas. There is only one fuel station inside of the park, located at Desert View on the South Rim. The nearest gas station outside of park limits is in Tusayan, about seven miles south.

Now let’s talk gear. Arizona sees your outdoorsy credentials and raises you scorpions, rattlesnakes, extreme heat, unpredictable weather, and difficult terrain. Whether you’re a seasoned hiker or new to this whole national park thing, consult our list of the best day hiking gear, which covers everything from footwear to hydration.

Speaking of which: Above all else, be sure to pack a metric fuck ton of water. And drink it heartily, as if you’re a fish out of water-especially if you plan to hike inside the canyon. You’ll be surprised how quickly dehydration sets in, and you do not want to be caught slipping (aka without a full water bottle) when that happens.

Last but not least, it’s up to you to determine which trails and activities you can handle-proceed with caution! Most hikes in the park are relatively lengthy and incredibly steep, descending thousands of feet over the course of just a few miles. Research distances and hike times in advance, keep in mind that getting into and out of the canyon can be a strenuous experience, and don’t be afraid to turn back if things get too difficult. Most importantly, if you’re not an experienced hiker-and even if you are!-the National Park Service advises against attempting to hike from the South Rim, to the canyon floor, and out again all in one day; that midday heat is no joke, no matter how fit you might be.

If you get hungry…

For the most part, the food options inside Grand Canyon National Park have reopened after the pandemic (a few restaurants, including Yavapai Lodge Restaurant and Desert View Deli, remain closed due). Still, you’ll find your choices are relatively limited, so it’s probably best to pack your own meals. You can find essentials at Canyon Village Market and General Store and a coffee bar at Bright Angel Bicycles at Mather Point, where you can conveniently rent a cruiser for the day. Learn more about the restricted park operations here.

Grand Canyon NPS/Flickr
Grand Canyon NPS/Flickr
Grand Canyon NPS/Flickr

The best sights and hikes in the Grand Canyon

The best-known sight in the Grand Canyon is…well, the Grand Canyon. Goodie for you, it’s pretty damn hard to miss. Jokes aside, the park is split into two main parts-the North Rim and the South Rim-both with their own unique viewpoints, hikes, and pros and cons.

The South Rim, which is open year-round, generally sees the most foot traffic. It’s home to the Visitor Center and Mather Point-the most popular (and often crowded) viewpoint in the entire park-as well as the rest of the century-old Grand Canyon Village and overlooks like Yavapai, Yaki, and Ooh Ahh Points. From the South Rim, you can also access Desert View Drive and Hermit Road, along which sit-you guessed it!-even MORE immaculate scenic overlooks.

Along with the Rim Trail, which stretches from the Grand Canyon Village to Hermits Rest, you can also access several hikes down into the Canyon from the South Rim, including the South Kaibab Trail, Bright Angel Trail (along which there are several resting points), the Hermit Trail, and the Grandview Trail.

Courtesy of Grand Canyon West
Courtesy of Grand Canyon West
Courtesy of Grand Canyon West

On the North Rim-which, it bears repeating, closes for the winter from about mid-October to mid-May-you’ll find far fewer tourists. Along with the North Kaibab Trail-the only maintained hiking trail on the North Rim that’ll take you down into the canyon-out this way, you’ll find more trails varying in length from less than one mile (Bright Angel Point Trail, Roosevelt Point Trail, Cape Royal Trail) up to approximately 10 miles (Ken Patrick Trail, Widforss Trail). Also worth mentioning is the 1.5-mile Coconino Overlook, where you can get a clear understanding of the canyon’s immensity without absolutely exhausting yourself.

Looking for the Grand Canyon SkyWalk? You’ll actually find that on the Hualapai Tribal Lands on the West Rim of the Canyon. There, you can step out onto the glass overlook, which stretches out 70 feet over the canyon’s edge, and gaze down 4,000 feet to the Canyon floor below.

Jim Mallouk/Shutterstock
Jim Mallouk/Shutterstock
Jim Mallouk/Shutterstock

Things to do in the Grand Canyon

Pedal around on the park’s biking trails
You spent a lot of time and money on that Peloton, now show us what you’re made of. Cruise across 13-miles of greenway trails and roads on the South Rim. Or, bike the canyon rim along Hermit Road, a bikeable stretch that provides boundless views and access to Pima Point and Monument Creek Vista. 

Saddle up to a mule 
Wrangler-led mule trips are available at the South Rim and North for both trail and inner canyon rides. Rides vary, but most include plenty of time for breaks and photo ops. Reservations can be booked 15 months in advance. 

Explore the canyon on a river trip
Grand Canyon Expeditions Company has been running the river in the Grand Canyon for over 56 years. Offering both motorized and dory trips, each journey covers 277-miles of canyon waters and cruises through 200 white water rapids. Throughout your trip, you can traverse hidden waterfalls, secret canyons, and sleep under the stars. 

You’ll even have unparalleled access to less-traveled areas, including a natural amphitheater called Redwall Cavern and the Havasu Creek Confluence, the largest tributary of the Colorado River. It’s instantly recognizable by its turquoise blue waters and this confluence connects you to places like Mooney Falls and Beaver Falls. And yes, it’s definitely worth the hike.

Bailey Made
Bailey Made
Bailey Made

Where to camp, glamp, and stay near the Grand Canyon

Surprise surprise, lodging and campsites near the Grand Canyon fill up ridiculously fast and often require advance booking. We’re talking 15 or more months prior to your trip.

That’s the case at Phantom Ranch. Accessible only by mule or on foot, Phantom Ranch’s location at the bottom of the canyon gives you an entirely different perspective of this natural wonder. The rustic cabins and dorms have creature comforts like restrooms, showers, and bedding, making it an ideal spot to stay if you’re tackling the iconic rim-to-rim hike

Under Canvas is a glamping outfit that provides on-site dining and ultra-luxe amenities. It’s set upon acres and acres of pinyon and juniper forest in Valle, Arizona, a quick 25-minute trip from the South Rim. Their luxury canvas tents are outfitted with working restrooms, comfy beds, private decks, and wood-burning stoves and firewood. Sure beats a sleeping pad!

Looking for an Airbnb nearby? There are dozens of easily-bookable options both large and small in the area, including unique yurts, a tiny homea Navajo hogan (or earth house), an Old West-themed loft, and more.

Steven Wilcox/Unsplash
Steven Wilcox/Unsplash
Steven Wilcox/Unsplash

The best road trips to and from the Grand Canyon

Most Grand Canyon visitors fly into Phoenix, which is about 231 miles and 3.5-hours from the park. You can also travel by way of Flagstaff Pulliam Airport, or McCarran Airport in Vegas. If you want to rent a car (or an RV!) and hit the open road, these cities and towns make worthwhile stops and are all within easy driving distance from Grand Canyon National Park.

60 miles away via Highway 64
The gateway to the Grand Canyon, this Northern Arizona town is brimming with Americana kitsch and is home to shops, cafes, breweries and tasting rooms, and a museum dedicated to all-things Route 66. The historic train depot offers direct service to the canyon along the Grand Canyon Railway.

80 miles away via Highway 64 and 180
Laidback Flagstaff boasts big views of the San Francisco Peaks and countless trails to explore. Book a room downtown at the historic Hotel Monte Vista or opt to stay in a cabin. Before hitting the road, pop into Proper Meats and order all of the fixings for a Grand Canyon picnic lunch. You’ll be so glad you did.

108 miles away via Highway 89 and 64
Antelope Canyon and Horseshoe Bend are two very good reasons you should stop in Page, Arizona. Stay overnight in a vintage-style airstream, outfitted with all of the modern amenities you need, and wake up to views of Lake Powell. Also check out the Vermillion Cliffs Monument nearby, which rocks some seriously trippy landscapes like something out of a Dr. Seuss fever dream.

119 miles away via Highway 89, I-40 and 64
Sedona has a hippie-dippie, new-agey reputation, but just go with it. The town is positioned against a gorgeous backdrop of red rock buttes and pine forests and offers easy access to Red Rock State Park and trailheads like iconic Bell Rock and Devil’s Bridge. And, don’t skip the vortexes, or vortices.

Las Vegas
126 miles southeast via Highway 93
The most accessible part of the Grand Canyon from Vegas is Grand Canyon West, about two hours away. It’s home to the Skywalk-you know, that terrifying, yet somehow also very thrilling bridge made of glass that hangs over the canyon 4,500-feet above the ground. Vegas also serves as a major hub for adventure companies. Helicopter tour over the canyon, anyone?Want more Thrillist? Follow us on Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest, YouTube, TikTok, and Snapchat.

Lauren Topor Reichert is a Phoenix-based writer and photographer. She has seen the Grand Canyon from the top and from the bottom and still can’t decide which view is best. Follow her adventures around Arizona and beyond on Instagram.

Tiana Attride is Thrillist’s Associate Travel Editor. She, much like the Canyon, is grand.


Ditch your Phone for ‘Dome Life’ in this Pastoral Paradise Outside Port Macquarie 

A responsible, sustainable travel choice for escaping big city life for a few days.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’.  Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health. 

Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid. 

Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.  As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor. 

To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power. 

Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks. 

It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties! 

An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:

‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.” 

Off-grid holiday status: unlocked.

Where: Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, Port Macquarie, 2001 Toms Creek Rd
Price: $450 per night, book at the Natura Domes website.

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