16 Top Attractions & Things to Do at the Grand Canyon
This incredible natural wonder is found in the US state of Arizona. It's one of those beautiful places that photos or videos just don't do it justice; its size and scope is difficult to understand.
With geology formed in the last two billion years, yes one billion, the 277-mile-long canyon is believed to have started between five and six million years ago. It was formed by the flow of the Colorado River, which still runs through it and continues to erode the geology along its course. The Grand Canyon is up to 18 miles wide in places and up to a mile deep. Imagine standing on the edge, looking down a steep rock face nearly a mile into the river below.
Most visitors flock to the area known as the South Rim, and there are a variety of accommodations available, from tents to a rustic luxury resort by the log-built canyon. There are some accommodations on the remote North Rim, and these are booked years in advance.
Many visitors access the canyon via the historic Grand Canyon Railway, which runs from the city of Williams, Arizona. The 64-mile rail line provides an entertaining way to get to the canyon with food and live music on board. For those who drive, the canyon is about a three and a half hour drive north of Phoenix (or south of Las Vegas).
1. The Grand Canyon, Arizona
The main access point to the South Rim is the south entrance, where the main visitor center is located. It is also possible to enter from the east, at the Desert View entrance, but for most people, this is a less convenient option.
From the South Entrance Visitor Center, you have two main options for exploring the park by road: Hermit Road runs west, past the small tourist area of Grand Canyon Village, more commonly known as the Village, to numerous lookouts. This road is open to private vehicles from December 1 to the end of February, but outside these dates you must use the park's shuttle buses.
The other option, open to cars at any time of year, is Desert View Drive, which heads east from the Visitor Center for 22 miles to Desert View Watchtower. Both tours are fantastic and offer different perspectives of the canyon.
A variety of tours offer exceptional ways to experience the Grand Canyon, from helicopter rides to river rafting. Some of these start right at the Grand Canyon, others start from nearby cities, like Las Vegas.
Deciding in advance when to visit and what to see once you get here can help you maximize your time and make your visit more relaxing and fun.
Accommodation is available in the national park in the Village, and is operated by a park concessionaire. Just outside the south entrance is the small town of Tusayan, with a much larger variety of hotel chains, as well as restaurants and other services.
2. Visitor Center & Mather Point Overlook
If you enter the park through the south entrance, heading towards Williams, the best thing to do is go directly to the visitor center. Some screens show a brief overview of the park and a bit about the history. Park staff are available to answer questions and provide information on hiking trails and attractions.
From the visitor center, a short path leads to Mather Point Overlook, where there are a couple of great viewing areas on a peninsula that juts out into the canyon, with great views over the canyon.
3. Rim Trail
The Rim Trail is a mostly paved walking trail that follows the rim of the Grand Canyon for 13 miles. It runs from the South Kaibab Trailhead, east of the Visitor Center, to Hermit's Rest, at the west end of Hermit Road.
This nearly flat trail, with a mix of sun and scattered tree shade, is one of the most scenic walks in North America, with fabulous views the entire length of the trail.
You can access it in front of the visitor center at Mather Point, in the Village, or from any of the scenic stops along Hermit Road. If you have limited time and are only interested in a short hike, a good option is the section from Mather Point, heading west to Yavapai Point and the Geology Museum.
4. Geological Museum
One of the most interesting and informative exhibits in Grand Canyon National Park is the Geological Museum. The location of this museum was chosen by a group of high-profile geologists in the 1920s because the views from here were the most representative of the canyon's geology.
The museum describes in detail the layers of rock visible when looking through the long wall of windows. Huge diagrams describe the formation of the canyon, from the uplift of the rocks to the erosive power of the water that runs through the canyon far below.
From the windows, you can see the hiking trails below, including a great view of the path to Plateau Point, a branch of the Bright Angel Trail, and a side path that leads to the Colorado River.
5. Hermit Road Drive
Hermit Road is a seven-mile scenic drive along the canyon rim, with numerous overlooks. This is the most popular route in the park.
If you are visiting between the beginning of December and the end of February, you can take this trip in your own vehicle. From March 1 to November 30, you must use the park's shuttle buses, which operate every 10 to 15 minutes and stop at nine viewpoints.
All the viewpoints along this route offer incredible viewpoints over the canyon. Although it may be the source of some debate, some of the best views can be obtained from Maricopa Point, Hopi Point, The Abyss, and Pima Point. If you're short on time, you may want to skip the last stop, Hermit's Rest.
6. Bright Angel Hiking Trail
The most popular hike in the park is the Bright Angel Hike, which departs from the Village, where the shuttle bus to Hermit's Rest begins its route. This is a long hike, but many people choose to hike the trail only a short distance to get a feel for the hike. The entire route, roundtrip to Bright Angel Campground, is 19 miles and takes two days.
Many serious hikers choose to go to the Indian Garden Campground, which is a nine-mile round-trip hike and takes between six and nine hours. Note that this includes a strenuous hike with over 3,000 feet of elevation change.
For a small sample of the trail, the upper tunnel is only 0.4 miles round trip and takes less than 30 minutes, and the lower tunnel is 1.7 miles and takes between one and two hours. This hike hugs the canyon walls, with steep cliffs and steep drops on the outside of the trail. It is not suitable for people with a serious fear of heights. Some parts of the trail are in the shade and can be covered in snow or ice, even when conditions at the top are hot and dry.
7. Desert View Drive
While most people tend to gravitate toward Hermit Road, the 22-mile Desert View Drive is just as, if not more impressive. One of the main differences is the view of the Colorado River, which is much more visible from some of the stops along this trail than on the route further west. Here, you can see whitewater rapids and long, wide sections of the river winding through the canyon in the distance.
There are fewer stops along this route, but all of them are worth the time to enjoy the viewpoints. Moran Point is definitely a highlight, with a beautiful view over the Colorado River from the eastern end of the parking area and a myriad of different colors visible on the rock faces throughout the canyon.
Lipan Point has more wonderful views of the Colorado, but it is also a noteworthy spot for bird watchers. This is the most direct route through the canyon for migratory birds, which use this narrower section in their flight path.
Grandview Point is one of the highest vantage points on the South Rim. From the observation area, the Grandview hiking trail descends in a steep descent, quickly disappearing from view. This is a strenuous hike on a maintenance-free trail and best suited for serious hikers. Trail conditions here are tougher than Bright Angel; slippery in spring and hot in summer.
From Navajo Point, the last stop before Desert View Watchtower, the watchtower is visible on the right and can be a good photo opportunity if you have a long lens. The last stop is Desert View, with the watchtower standing proudly on the edge of the cliff, and it is definitely a highlight on this tour.
Also located along Desert View Drive is the Tusayan Ruin and Museum. The museum itself is quite small, with information about the people who inhabited this area and a short trail through the ruins that offers an up-close view of the dwellings.
8. Desert View Watchtower
Desert View is the first stop in the park if you are coming from the east and entering the park through the Desert View entrance. This is a full service stop with a general store, trading post, and campground, but the main attraction is the famous Indian Watchtower.
Despite its appearance, the 70-foot tower is not an ancient crumbling stone ruin. It was built in 1932 and is one of four structures in the park designed by Mary Jane Colter, all of which are on the National Register of Historic Places.
The structure is designed to look like an Anasazi watchtower, and a lot of attention was paid to detail in its creation. The tower is built around a concrete and steel structure, but the stone exterior, with uneven roofs, creates a dramatic effect as it blends in with the surrounding colors. The interior walls, visible on all levels from the circular balconies and stairways, are covered with what are supposed to look like petroglyphs and ancient works of art.
There is an open-air observation deck on the second level and an enclosed observation deck on the upper deck, with incredible views of the canyon and the desert beyond on the east side.
9. Lookout Studio and the Kolb Gallery
In the Village, the Lookout Studio and Kolb Gallery are located along the canyon wall. The Lookout Studio is housed in one of the Mary Jane Colter buildings found throughout the park, featuring a traditional stone design, meant to resemble a ruin. The studio sells souvenirs and trinkets, but it also has two outdoor observation decks that look out over the Grand Canyon.
A short walk west of here is the Kolb Gallery, in a dark brown wooden structure. This historic Victorian house was built in 1905 and belonged to the Kolb brothers, who were the first adventurers in the park. Today, the building serves as an art gallery, with changing exhibits, a small shop that sells books, and information on the life of the Kolbs. The Kolb Gallery is near the beginning of the Bright Angel Trail.
10. IMAX Movie at the National Geographic Visitor Center
In the town of Tusayan, just outside the southern entrance to the Grand Canyon National Park, is one of the oldest IMAX theaters in existence, and watching a movie here has been a long-standing tradition for families who come to the Canyon.
The movie, Grand Canyon: The Movie (Grand Canyon: The Hidden Secrets), one of the longest-running IMAX movies shown at the same location, is a 34-minute movie and starts at half an hour. In addition to watching the movie, visitors can also get information about the park or eat something at the hotel cafeteria.
11. Nearby: Little Colorado River Overlook
Leaving Grand Canyon National Park on the east side of the South Rim, through the Desert View entrance, the first signposted scenic overlook offers an incredible view over the Little Colorado River. This stop is on Navajo land, and in the parking area, Navajo artists sell handmade jewelry.
A short walk on a wide path past the parking lot leads to two picnic tables and an observation area (with railings) with direct views of a portion of the gorge. From the edge, the Little Colorado River is visible far below.
12. Skywalk & Eagle Point
If you've seen images of the glass bridge jutting out over the Grand Canyon and have your heart set on this experience, Eagle Point on the West Rim can be reached in about a four-hour drive from the South Rim. This horseshoe-shaped glass walkway spans 70 feet above the canyon, allowing you to look down.
You can also dine at the Sky View Restaurant and take in the Skywalk. Other things to do here include watching Native Americans dance and visiting the Native American village.
13. Helicopter Flight over the Grand Canyon
If you want to fully appreciate the grandeur of the Grand Canyon, take a 25-minute Grand Canyon helicopter tour and fly over the chasm for a bird's eye view. These tours depart from the Grand Canyon Airport in Tusayan, less than a 10-minute drive from the park's south entrance. This flight takes you through the Dragon Corridor, the widest and deepest section of the canyon, and several other key attractions.
14. Grand Canyon Railway Adventure from Sedona
You can combine a luxury train ride through the desert with Grand Canyon sightseeing on a full-day Grand Canyon Train Tour from Sedona.
This tour provides a pick-up service from your hotel in Sedona and takes you to the train station in Williams. The train then travels through the Arizona highlands to the southern rim of the Grand Canyon, where you will then have free time to explore and a guided tour of the rim.
This is one of the easiest ways to see the Grand Canyon, without the hassle of driving or parking.
If you have time to spare, you can enjoy some sightseeing in Sedona or Williams.
15. Grand Canyon White Water Rafting Trip from Las Vegas
Raft 40 miles down the Colorado River on a full-day Grand Canyon whitewater rafting trip from Las Vegas. This is a 15-hour trip departing at 4 a.m., with hotel pickup and drop-off, a van ride and a short helicopter flight to the Colorado River, a full day of whitewater rafting through the Grand Canyon, and a back to Vegas.
16. South Rim Mule Rides
If you're interested in going down to the Grand Canyon but not up for the hike, mule rides are offered year-round from the South Rim. Mules take guests up the Bright Angel Trail on a 5.5-hour drive to spend the night at Phantom Ranch, then return the next day. http://www.grandcanyonlodges.com/things-to-do/mule-trips/
Where to Stay at the Grand Canyon
There are four hostels in the Village at Grand Canyon National Park, and these can only be reserved through the park concessionaire. All other accommodations near the south entrance are in Tusayan town, a five-minute drive from the park gate. Here, there are a variety of hotel options, along with restaurants ranging from fast food chains to high-end restaurants. Here are some highly-rated hotel options in Tusayan:
Renovated from top to bottom in 2021, the luxurious Grand Hotel at the Grand Canyon offers well-appointed rooms with rustic charm.
The Holiday Inn Express has also been recently renovated, with spacious rooms with microwaves and refrigerators. Buffet breakfast is included in the room price.
The only hotel in Tusayan that accepts pets (fee applies) is the Red Feather Lodge. This property consists of two buildings; one is motel style with self service rooms and the other is a traditional hotel with interior corridors. A free shuttle to the park is available to guests from mid-May to mid-September.
The Canyon Plaza Resort also offers a free shuttle service, with oversized rooms and an on-site restaurant.
All of these hotels offer seasonal outdoor pools and are located in close proximity to each other and within walking distance of restaurants. For a more complete look at hotels, check out our comprehensive guide to the best hotels in the Grand Canyon.