On a recent trip to the western United States, I spent a few nights in Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona. Even if you just show up and hang around the rim for an afternoon, it’s worth it. There’s nothing like seeing that spectacular view for the first time. (The Grand Canyon tour guide I was with placed a paper bag over my head to lead me to the edge of the rim for the grand reveal – you know you trust your guide when….)
If you’re looking to make the most of your here though, there are plenty of unique tings to do in Grand Canyon National Park.
Fun fact: Even though I travel nearly full-time these days, I’m TERRIFIED of flying. But I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to see the Grand Canyon from a fresh perspective…in the sky. A Grand Canyon air tour lets visitors take a comfortable seat in a helicopter, with an experienced pilot.
On my tour, the pilot rushed towards the edge and then swooped low into the canyon. If you want to be simultaneously terrified and thrilled, this is definitely the thing to do. You can fly rim to rim – including the North Rim, and you’ll be able to see the likes of Painted Desert, Zuni Corridor, and Imperial Point. The thing about being in a helicopter is that you instantly feel like the pilot has total control over the aircraft. You don’t get that feeling so much in an airplane. Even if you’re a nervous flyer, I urge you to give this a shot.
There’s no real hike down into the canyon that’s going to be an easy one. And furthermore, it can be quite dangerous. People often overestimate their abilities, because believe me when I say that going DOWN is nothing like going back up. Some prideful hikers think they can make it all the way to the Colorado River and then back up again in the same day without suffering fatigue or heat stroke. Nope, nope, and nope. You’d be surprised by how many get seriously injured this way. To do it in the safest way possible, hire a United States canyoneering guide. If you decide to do it, pack LOTS and lots of water.
There are several well-marked hiking trails. The Bright Angel Trail begins near the visitor’s centre, and follows Garden Creek. This one goes down all the way to the Colorado River – a distance of 9.5 miles, or 4500 feet. Camping here is the usual endpoint. You’ll want to rest before tackling your way back up. It takes a lot longer to do so.
The second hardest hike following the same route is to Plateau Point, with an excellent viewpoint of the Colorado River. This route will take you up to 9 hours to complete, so leave EARLY! Before daybreak is ideal. Plus then you get to see the sun rising over the Grand Canyon.
If those are too hard but you still want to do some hiking, there are other stop points along the Garden Creek route. Really, you can hike for as little or as long as you like.
Considered to be one of the most beautiful sights in the Grand Canyon, it’s rather surprising that so few people tend to go there. In fact, I had never even heard of it until I arrived. Gotta love those top-secret gorgeous destinations.
Havasu Falls is a desert oasis made up of bright blue waters and really stunning waterfalls. Think Guatemala’s Semuc Champey (as discovered on my backpacking trip in Guatemala), or Croatia’s Plitvice Lakes National Park. The Havasu Falls are actually south of the national park, in the Havasupai Indian Reservation. Getting there is a 10-mile hike, starting at the Hualapai Hilltop and carrying along a strenuous route.
Tip: Don’t do this hike unless you want to camp out there. It’s really, really hard. Plus, who wouldn’t want to spend more time next to those glorious falls? You can also stop by the native village of Supai, where the Havasupai people sell souvenirs, snacks, and handicrafts. It’s expensive, but you’ll be supporting the entire community.
One of the most fun ways to see the Grand Canyon is by navigating the Colorado River. Whitewater rafting is probably the most popular way, with a variety of local tour groups offering day trips for all skill levels. The route between Glen Canyon Dam and Less Ferry in the northeast section of the river is the smoothest part, for example.
But if you’re more experienced, check out the action in the westernmost part of the canyon between Diamond Creek and Lake Mead. You can also do multi-day exploration trips, although those are certainly for the more physically fit visitors. Other companies offer motorized rafting trips.
It’s also possible to kayak the Colorado River. Beyond Lone Rock is a popular route, with turquoise waters and gorgeous lakes. You’ll paddle through narrow inlets carved out over millions of years, and you’ll feel like you have the whole of Grand Canyon to yourself.
Alright, so the Skywalk is a little controversial. Environmentalists feel that the Skywalk is obtrusive to the natural environment, and consider it an act of “defacing” this national landmark. Then there’s the Hualapai native tribe, who feel that the Skywalk disturbs native sacred ground (although others are happy for the generated cash). These are just a few things to keep in mind if you decide to visit.
The Grand Canyon Skywalk is a massive, semi-circular bridge made out of glass. This allows tourists (those who don’t suffer from vertigo) to walk out over the Canyon and to view the depths of it from between their feet. If this sounds terrifying to you, it’s because it is. It’s also beautiful.
To get there, you’ll have to embark on a bit of an overnight trip, as the Skywalk is not anywhere near the South Rim or the North Rim (making it inconvenient if you were planning on staying in the Grand Canyon Village). Video or camera equipment is also not allowed, so as not to damage the glass. Or at least that’s what they say…of course photographers are on site to charge you for your images.
Few people have the Inner Canyon on their to-do list, but it makes for a worthwhile visit. There are several trailheads that start at both the North and South Rims, leading directly to the Inner Canyon. It’s located 4700 feet below the South Rim, and 5700 feet below the North Rim. Even better – if you don’t feel like camping out in a tent and carrying all that extra weight, you can stay at a cabin on a ranch.
Just a note: if you don’t take a guide with you, the route can often be difficult to follow. There are also bears and wildlife risks. Hiring a local guide is always recommended.
Inner Canyon offers a more intimate look at what makes up the Grand Canyon. The colours and shapes are astounding: shiny black schist rocks, bright pink granite, and twisted pinnacles are just a few things you’ll see on your journey. Make sure you take time to dip your feet in Bright Angel Creek. You’ll likely want to cool off after all that hiking!
Before you go: Be sure to do lots of planning, whether you have just one day or five. I think many people underestimate the size of the Grand Canyon, thinking you can see just about everything from one main destination. Not so. The Grand Canyon is 277 miles long! Seriously! Figure out what you want to do, prioritize, and map it all out. You’ll be thankful you did.