It’s impossible to undersell the Grand Canyon, nature’s active history lesson formed by at least five million years of erosion from the Colorado River. After all, just look at it—registering a mile deep in some places and as much as 18 miles across, it’s awesome.
“When you see it for the first time, it’s the scale of it all. You can’t compare the scale of it to anywhere else in the world,” says Joelle Baird, public affairs specialist for Grand Canyon National Park, which covers 277 miles of the Colorado River and surroundings in northern Arizona, including the entirety of the massive canyon. “There are other canyons in the world that are steeper, but the vastness of the Grand Canyon is incredible,” she says. “There’s a reason it’s one of the wonders of the world.”
But the canyon isn’t merely a stunning picture of rock layers of burning red, orange, and gray shale, limestone, and sandstone; it’s also an outdoor playground for hikers and cyclists. A perfect day here may include catching a breathtaking sunrise, hiking down toward the river, picnicking on the rim, and then taking in a magnificent sunset in the great wide open.
Most visitors experience the canyon from the South Rim, closer to major highways and home to the park’s visitor center, the main onsite campground with RV parking, and a village offering lodges, restaurants, and shopping. If it’s an option, though, Baird suggests checking out the North Rim. (Roads are generally open only from May to October because of frequent snowfalls, so make sure the roads are clear before setting out.) This will give you the chance to still have a breathtaking view with the added bonus of having only a fraction of the sightseers who mill like ants along the South Rim.
If you’re here to hike, Baird recommends first-timers try the mostly paved Rim Trail that parallels the south edge of the canyon for 13 miles. Experienced backpackers can descend 5,000 feet into the canyon, maybe via the Bright Angel Trail, which has multiple water stops and restrooms. More challenging is the South Kaibab Trail to Skeleton Point, a steep six-mile round trip with no water along the way—but you will see mules on the dirt path, carrying gear to and from the canyon’s base for intrepid folks overnighting along the river.
As to when you should plan your trip, Baird says the canyon is a year-round spectacle, its views always a little different depending on the season. But fall? You really can’t go wrong then.
“We have some fall colors and oak trees here,” she says. “Especially after Labor Day, we see a downturn in visitation, so October and November are great times to visit.”
The large Mather Campground (nps.gov./grca, from $18 per night) along the South Rim has 326 campsites accommodating everything from tents to RVs—no hookups, though, so bring a generator—but from March to November spots go quickly, so reserve well in advance. Another option for RVs is the neighboring Trailer Village (visitgrandcanyon.com, from $49), which has spots with hookups, plus camper services including laundry and a general store.
At the South Rim you can munch on breakfast burritos and pick up picnic supplies like fruits and vegetables, cold cuts, and trail mix at Canyon Village Market & Deli (visitgrandcanyon.com). The closest town to Grand Canyon National Park is Tuyasan, six miles south on AZ-64. While the area isn’t known for fine dining, it has a comforting Mexican restaurant in Plaza Bonita (myplazabonita.com), home to filling enchilada plates. For cocktails, the best spot in town is the Wagon Wheel Saloon (grandcanyonplaza.com), where bartenders serve up inexpensive margaritas and mudslides inside the Grand Canyon Plaza Hotel.
Little ones will get a rush out of traveling on the Grand Canyon Railway (thetrain.com), which has been in operation since 1901 and these days combines a smooth trip through enchanted desert with live music and—look out—train robbers.
The Grand Canyon is a fun place to bring out the bike. Visit Bright Angel Bicycles & Mather Point Café (bikegrandcanyon.com) to rent bikes, trailers, and wheelchairs for your Rim Trail ride.
Grand Canyon National Park
Distance from Houston: 1,417 miles
Drive time: 21 hours