Second time in the USA and I’m thinking what to do and see there, and of course, Grand Canyon National Park was in my mind all the time. I went to NJ and NY, and Grand Canyon seemed quite far. But I did my research and realized it’s not impossible. If there’s a will, there’s a way, they say.
When planning to visit Grand Canyon think seriously about driving or picking a tour, the time you have to spend there, your budget, your travel companions preferences and your “to see list”.
A few questions to consider: Do you have a driving license and you are comfortable to drive many hours? Are you able to make a reasonable plan alone? Consider distances, stops, accommodation, limited gas stations etc. Will you visit just one day or you can stay for more days? What you want to see and how far are these landmarks one from another? Do you want to hike or book a helicopter tour? Do you afford to pay for a plane ticket to the closest airport?
In general, Las Vegas is the most accessible way to reach Grand Canyon: it’s definitely cheaper and many tours start from here. Note that Flagstaff airport is closer and more expensive, but you need to be very careful about how to move from there to your hotel or the canyon directly.
Public transportation is not available in the National Park. Therefore, bus tours and car rentals are the two options available.
How did we start to plan for Grand Canyon?
I was not comfortable to drive a car there, as a first time driving in the US. As there’s no way to rely on public transportation for this trip, the tour was the only option to fit our needs.
What Rim to visit on the first trip to the Grand Canyon?
I think this step took us the most time to decide. Basically, there are 3 options: West, South and North Rim.
West Rim is closest to Las Vegas, most crowded but the best option if you have just one day. Due to distances, one-day trips from LV usually stop at the West Rim and most probably you’ve already heard about Skywalk Glass Bridge. But please note this is not part of Grand Canyon National Park, but a separate tourist area run by the Hualapai Tribe out of their reserved lands.
If you ever saw a Grand Canyon picture, chances are it’s from the South Rim. Here you can visit all year round, opposite to North, which is at a higher altitude and it’s open spring through fall. In the South Rim, you are with the crowds, but you have more accommodation options, more services and more viewpoints.
North Rim is just a bit further from Las Vegas, Flagstaff & others. Internet says that here you’ll have fewer tourist services and accommodation options, but it’s definitely less crowded and I feel that’s preferred by the hikers and adventurous tourists.
There’s no Grand Canyon East, officially, but in the eastern part of the Canyon, you have many natural beauties, like Glen Canyon. Normally, you cannot go directly from Las Vegas, so multiple days are required here.
So, why South? We’ve picked it especially because is the closest to reach in the National Park (West was out of discussions) and because the most attractive 2-days tours were going there. I wanted to see more if I had the chance to reach Grand Canyon. For example, Antelope Canyon was also on my list and for me, it was a significant reason to pick the tour. The second day we had time to go in the eastern part and see more canyons shaped by the Colorado River.
All in all, I find Grand Canyon South Rim to be the best option if you want to go on a 2-days tour and you don’t want to be rushed at every stop. While not popular, a one-day tour Las Vegas to South Rim and back is also possible, but it takes about 15 to 16 hrs, so I don’t recommend it.
There are tons of materials about the Grand Canyon’s Rims, and my recommendation is to go through some of them and decide what fits your preferences. Honestly, my ideal plan was a hike rim to rim, impossible in my condition: you need proper equipment, an open season, a companion willing to do this and more time to wander.
Two-days tour: Grand Canyon South to the eastern part
I was mostly interested to see Grand Canyon and Antelope Canyon while going in this tour. But the entire experience was worth it, the landscape is different than everything else I saw.
Day One: Hoover Dam – Grand Canyon – Page, Arizona
Hoover Dam is located on the Black Canyon and while you’ll walk on the bridge to see it, you’ll feel so small and fragile. If I remember correctly, it’s the highest arch dam in the states. What’s cool about it is that links two states: you start walking on the bridge from Nevada and end on Arizona, the copper state. This is the first encounter with the Colorado River if you are on a tour and note that you’ll barely see the river from the South Rim viewpoints.
We stopped twice in the Grand Canyon, at Mather Point and Bright Angel, about 1hr 30min per viewpoint. While Mather Point is the highly popular, you have a huge land to view and to admire from there. Also, you can walk around for more angle views and breathtaking landscapes. At the second stop, at Bright Angel you have a lodge, a lookout and a bookstore studio, so occasions to buy stuff. I had the great chance to see the sunset here, so this is a special place for me. I have to say this is the highlight of my trip to the US. You’ve probably never seen those pinkish colors in the sky over the red rocks of the canyon. We also managed to walk a bit down the Bright Angel trail, and seeing the rocks becoming taller and taller around you is also impressive.
Day Two: Lake Powell – Horseshoe Bend – Upper Antelope Canyon
We spent the night in Page and from there we left toward Lake Powell. Usually, you can take a boat ride, but it was not open for us at that time. The scenery is nice, you see different levels of the stones and cliffs and it makes you think how this happened and in what centuries? Glen Canyon Dam is close by, but not as huge as Hoover Dam.
Then we moved to Horseshoe Bend. Formed on the Glen Canyon, it’s a tourist attraction due to its natural curved shape, similar to a horseshoe.
Antelope Canyon was the next and the last stop of this tour. Run by Navajo Indians, all tours are carefully organized in small groups. We picked Upper Antelope Canyon, but there’s also a lower canyon. After 10 min drive in the desert, you see something like a fissure that flood and rainwater formed in time. Words can’t tell, but the shapes, the colors, the narrow path make all an experience to remember. The tour guides will teach you how to make good pictures with a smartphone, using vivid or vivid warm mode on. I was not willing to use the phone, not eager to move to filters, thus adjusting the settings to the camera was a nasty piece of work.
What to pick between Upper and Lower Antelope Canyon?
As you have to do research for the canyon’s rims, here you’ll also have to read about Lower and Upper Antelope. Upper Antelope is the most visited, though it’s a bit more expensive than the Lower. Internet says that Upper is better because of the shapes and light beam. My feeling is that many people are drawn back by the fact that Lower Antelope has a few stairs to climb.
Interesting fact: the most expensive photos in the entire world was taken in the Upper Antelope Canyon
Grand Canyon Tour Price
We picked the most affordable tour, via Globerouter, though prices are very similar and we paid 250 or so for the 2-days tour.
Talking about the price, I’d recommend paying attention to what the tour includes. Add all the additional costs and then decide what’s cheapest. For example, many of the tours do not include Antelope Canyon entrance fee, so you need to pay that separately. Helicopter tours are also very popular, and if you fancy this, add more cash (actually make it double), and do the same if you pick any extra; Lake Powell boat ride is another example.
Consider your leaving and returning point, and make it as convenient as possible, as close to your hotel. Either one day or more, you will leave very early in the morning and return late in the night, so you want to stop directly at your hotel or close by.
Meals were the main disadvantage for me. You stop on the way at gas stations or fast food restaurants. Expect McDonald’s, Burger King, Subway etc. The exception was the dinner & second-day launch in Page Arizona, where we went to a Chinese restaurant, an all you can eat menu that was very tasty & fulfilling. No one will force you to eat in a place, but unfortunately, there aren’t many opportunities. If you have a special diet, bring something from home. In our tour were mainly Chinese and Indians plus us (the only two Europeans) and I saw groups with packs and disappointed by the fast food options (& even sandwiches).
When to book to tour?
During summer it’s hot and rather crowded, so I’d be precocious and book some weeks in advance, or even months. There are many tours from Las Vegas, so that’s an advantage for you especially if you need just one day tour.
We’ve planned it on fast forward, but we booked the tour two or three weeks in advance, and this was in November, in the extra season to say so. Don’t imagine that no one will be in the parks or at the viewpoint – that’s not the case, even in November. Mather Point within Grand Canyon, Horseshoe Bend, and Antelope Canyon were packed with tourists, though everyone talked about how light it is.
Grand Canyon is one of the most visited locations in the United States and I can see why! Plan it well in advance, take care if you wander around and you will have an amazing experience.