The Grand Canyon is one of the United States’ most popular national parks with almost 5 million visitors per year. It’s not hard to see what draws so many visitors: the vast canyon is a mind-boggling 1 mile deep and 10 miles wide with the colorful bands along the canyon wall that light up the view.
Although the Grand Canyon has two major access points, the North Rim and the South Rim, about 90% of the visitors go to the South Rim. And, while hiking from the south rim of the canyon to the north side is only about 21 miles long, driving from the south rim to the north rim would takes about 4.5 hours. This causes a dilemma for visitors who are curious where to get the better view but not interested in doing the 21-mile rim-to-rim hike.
I’ve personally visited both sides and see pros and cons to both access points. I’ll break down each here so you can make an informed decision for your own visit!
There are a few things to consider when deciding between the North Rim and the South Rim of the Grand Canyon; luckily the view you get is not one of them! Both sides have gorgeous views into the canyon. The decision can come down to three important factors: season, drive time, or minimizing crowds.
It’s important to note that the South Rim has a wider variety of amenities and activities than the North Rim to support the larger number of tourists. If you’re interested in specific hikes, tours, etc. make sure to research that before deciding on which access point to visit.
The North Rim is about 8,000 feet in elevation and gets a good amount of snow each season. For this reason, the North Rim is fully open between May 15 through October 15 only. You can still access the North Rim in November for day use but there’s a chance that early snow will close the only road into the park. We visited on the last possible day before the road closed due to snow.
If visiting in the winter months, the decision is easy – the South Rim is the only open portion of the Grand Canyon.
Peak season for the Grand Canyon is between end of May and beginning of September. The summer months are also the hottest months in at the Grand Canyon. July is the hottest month at the Grand Canyon where the South Rim average’s high temperatures in the mid-80’s.
The Grand Canyon can be a madhouse during summer months. I visited the South Rim in July and there were LOTS of people at each view point, shuttle buses, and parking was a bit stressful. Alternatively, I visited the North Rim in November before it closed and it was the complete opposite experience: cold and peaceful.
My personal preference would be to visit the North Rim in the fall when temperatures are mild, crowds slim down, and then hike rim-to-rim. This way you get the best of both worlds if you’re up to the challenge!
Accessing the North Rim can be a bit trickier than the South Rim since it is not very close to any major airport. Arizona Highway 67 South is the main highway to get to the North Rim and closes during the late winter months or during snow storms. The North Rim is a great addition to a Southwest road trip if visiting Southern Utah and Northern Arizona.
From Las Vegas, it’s about a 4.5 hour drive to the North Rim. We started in Las Vegas so we could stop at Valley of Fire State Park – a must see if you’re in the area.
Kanab is about 80 miles north of the North Rim. If coming from Las Vegas, you will pass through St. Georg, Hurricane, and Kanab, Utah – these are great basecamps for visiting Zion National Park and Bryce Canyon. Staying in Kanab will also allow you to see some of the beautiful landscape in Grand Staircase Escalante.
It’s about the same of amount time to drive from Las Vegas to Grand Canyon’s South Rim but you’ll pass through Flagstaff, Arizona instead.
If the Grand Canyon is your main destination or starting point, flying into Flagstaff or Phoenix, Arizona would be the most direct option. Flagstaff is about 80 miles southeast of the park entrance.
The Grand Canyon has something for everyone – easy pull-offs with epic views to multi-day adventures hiking or rafting. Deciding on what to do all depends on how much time you want to spend and what level activity you’re looking for.
In my opinion, you can spend one full day at the Grand Canyon driving to the view points and doing one or two short to moderate length hikes. This will get you great vantage points to take in the grandness of it all.
It’s important to note that there are not really “easy” hiking options into the Grand Canyon and the National Parks Service warns against trying to hike the canyon in one day. It’s best to walk along the top of the canyon unless you are prepared for overnight camping.
For details on more adventurous options, start by checking out the “things to do” section on the national parks website.
Highlights to check out at the North Rim of the Grand Canyon:
A short walk from the main parking lot to get sweeping views straight into the canyon. Bright Angel Point is a very easy, paved trail only about 0.5 miles long. This is a great point to bring some coffee and watch the early sun light up the canyon.
After visiting Bright Angel Point, hop back into the car and take a leisurely drive to Imperial and Cape Royal Viewpoints. The total drive time is about 50 minutes or so but you’ll take much more time exploring the pull-offs and enjoying the different angles into the canyon that they offer.
You can check out the NPS site for the North Rim day hikes or Alltrails for trail ideas and recent reviews. One relatively easy trail that stood out to us was the Uncle Jim Trail. It’s about 5 miles and loops through forest and canyon views. We ended up opting for a shorter, lesser known hike, Cliff Spring Trail. This is a short 0.5 mile, out and back trail near Cape Royal viewpoint. I recommend it for something different to do that is pretty quick and easy.
Highlights to check out at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon:
Easily accessible from the Grand Canyon Visitor Center, the viewpoint is a great place to watch the sunrise.
About 1.8 miles from the South Kaibab trailhead, the Ooh Aah Point is a popular lookout into the canyon.
The South Rim has many overlooks to stop and explore. However, if visiting during peak season, parking can be tricky.
While there are lodging and camping options within the Grand Canyon park, I did not stay in one on either visit to the North Rim or the South rim. Options within the park are great if you are short on time and want to minimize any driving time.
You only have one option if you want to stay on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon: Grand Canyon Lodge. The lodge books up fast so make reservations well in advance of your planned visit.
Outside of the park, I would suggest staying in Kanab, Utah which is about 80 miles north. Kanab has lots to see and explore nearby.
There are many more options for lodging within the park at the South Rim. Two entities handle lodging reservations: Xanterra Parks & Lodging and Delaware North. A full breakdown of their options can be found on the park website.
For outside of the park, I would suggest staying in Flagstaff, Arizona which is about 80 miles southeast of the park. You’ll find many more hotels typically at a cheaper price.