When planning my cross-country USA road trip, there was no way I wasn’t including the Grand Canyon. One of the most famous natural landmarks in America, even the world, a place I’ve seen photos of for as long as I can remember. I spent 3 days at the Grand Canyon, a full weekend plus a work day. It was a bit of a journey here from Texas, starting with a flight from San Antonio connecting in Phoenix and on to Flagstaff.
A quick overnight in a motel, then I picked up a rental car in the morning to drive an hour and a half to the South Rim of the park. I actually passed my next motel en-route at Valle/Grand Canyon Junction, which was about 30 minutes from the park gates. This was more affordable than anything in Tusayan or inside the park, but not too far to drive in each day. I also got an annual pass for the US National Parks earlier this year at Joshua Tree, which is an excellent option if visiting a few parks in the same year!
On both days, I also made use of the park’s free shuttle buses. They’re much easier than trying to fight for parking everywhere, plus there are a few roads not open to private vehicles anyways. I would drive in and park in the morning, get around by bus and foot, and only return to the car when I was done for the day.
South Kaibab Trail
On arrival on the first of my 3 days in the Grand Canyon, I parked at the visitor centre and hopped on the orange line. This took me to the South Kaibab trailhead, trying to get there early and beat the heat. As the bus wound along the South Rim, I caught my first glimpses of the canyon through the windows, and wow. A breathtaking sight! Arriving at the trailhead, the ground just dropped away, revealing the gaping canyon, filled with towers and plateaus that hide the Colorado River. The rocks are a rainbow of colours, tinged from red through to blue, and speckled with green foliage. And it’s just so vast. It’s like you know it’s huge before going, but that still doesn’t prepare you for the immensity of it, disappearing into the horizon in both directions.
Now, to be honest, I didn’t entirely beat the heat – I could only leave Flagstaff once the car rental opened! – and it was pretty hot by the end of the hike. The thing with hiking in the canyon, is that it’s the reverse of a mountain. You go down into the canyon first, then ascend its steep walls on the way back. Definitely remember to take plenty of water and sun cream! The descent was a series of steep switchbacks and yes, my fear of heights had me a little nervous at times. This canyon is a mile deep!
The first major viewpoint on this route is “Ooh Aah Point”, which lives up to its name. Even though you’ve barely descended any distance, you start to feel like you’re really in the canyon now, moving down and away from the rim. The path was less steep and more meandering from here. My next checkpoint was at Cedar Ridge. When I started, I wasn’t sure if I’d stop here or continue to Skeleton Point. I felt pretty energetic still, but it’s harder to judge when you still have the uphill to go!
I stopped for my packed lunch here and then decided to turn back. A wise decision in the end, as I was exhausted by the time I reached the rim! Going up such a steep path in that desert heat is no joke! Also, both this and the Bright Angel Trail can take up most of the day if you do either in their entirety. If you have 3 days in the Grand Canyon, you could certainly fit both in, but might be short of time for other things. Since I was working on my third day as well, I wanted to see a little of everything in the time I had. The section I completed was still a great hike that I’m glad I did though!
Back at the top, the bus took me back to the visitor centre, where I stopped for a quick bathroom break, a coffee and a look round the gift shop for my souvenir magnet. Then I switched to the blue line which dropped me off in Grand Canyon Village. This is where most of the accommodation and facilities inside the park are, but you have to arrive early if you want to park here. It’s also where the train station is, which was kind of cool to see how the first tourists would come to the park.
I walked up from the bus stop to the South Rim Trail, between El Tovar Hotel and Hopi House and decided to take a peek inside the latter. This sandstone brick structure is modelled after an indigenous Hopi building. Mary Colter is the woman behind it though, as she was the chief architectural designer of several park buildings. No small feat for a woman in the early 1900-1910s! This one functions as a handicraft shop, full of paintings, weaving, pottery and other crafts, many of them made by Indigenous peoples. Even if you don’t purchase anything, you can still browse it like a gallery, so definitely a worthwhile stop.
South Rim & Trail of Time
From Hopi House, I had decided to walk the South Rim Trail back to the visitor centre. This particular section is called the Trail of Time. You can see from the oldest rocks at the bottom of the canyon through to the youngest. Each step you take covers millions of years, as information boards and rocks on display explain it all. I’m not a geology buff, but it’s really cool to understand just how many millions of years it took for this natural wonder to form.
The hike itself is really easy too, since it’s just a flat walk along the top of the rim. There are a couple of points where you can exit early to a bus stop if you don’t want to walk the entire thing. I was quite happy to though, as I was still completely in awe of the canyon. Like, I kept catching myself with my mouth hanging open in wonder! There were also condors swooping through the skies that I would stop to watch from time to time. Even though it’s all the same canyon, each area looks a little different, with all the rock formations. I managed to glimpse the brown waters of the Colorado River a couple of times as well.
The trail led me to the Yavapai Geology Museum. I’d seen that it stays open later than everything else, so I’d planned to go after work on my last day. Unfortunately, Google Maps had the wrong times and it was already closed! Continuing on, I came to Mather Point, one of the most popular viewpoints along the South Rim. It was pretty busy so I squeezed in for some pictures, before returning to the visitor centre. Then it was back in the car and out the park again.
Bright Angel Trail
Another early start for the second of my 3 days in the Grand Canyon to beat the hike for my hike and nab a parking spot in the village! Bright Angel is one of the classic hiking trails, and again, you go downhill into the canyon first. After a few smaller switchbacks I soon came to the arch that spans the trail. It’s a popular photo spot for sure, but also another amazing example of the rock formations here. The switchbacks continued and I kept pausing to take photos of the wildflowers. Growing around the sides of the path, they added a spark of purple or white in amongst the hues of the canyon.
I passed plenty of people heading uphill already, some carrying gear from an overnight camping in the canyon! I’m sure it’s a great experience, but I was already so happy with the views that I didn’t feel like I was missing out. And that’s a long hike back up! I was a little nervous when passing people on the trail sometimes though since it’s a narrow path with a steep drop. That fear of heights again!
The views here were no less astounding than the day before. I was still so thrilled and awestruck by it all! Like the day before, I didn’t go all the way to the furthest checkpoint, 3 Mile Resthouse. I made it to 1.5 Mile Resthouse and decided to turn back there after how exhausting the uphill was yesterday. It was still a great taster of the hike though, with incredible views!
El Tovar Hotel & Dining Room
Once I made it back to the South Rim, I followed the trail along the edge again. This is the busiest, most built-up part of the Rim Trail, with numerous buildings to explore. There are a few options for eating, but I was headed for the El Tovar Hotel. This is the premier hotel inside the park, offering amazing views right by the edge of the rim. Way, way out of my budget to stay there, but you can still check out the lobby and the small exhibit about the park’s history.
I also decided to grab lunch at the El Tovar Dining Room – cheaper than going for dinner! You can tell it’s an older building throughout, and the dining room is all dark wood panelling. There’s artwork depicting the local indigenous tribes and culture as well. Service here is fairly formal, such as the staff uniforms, but many guests were dressed casually like myself, fresh off the hiking trails. The food was tasty too, so although not the cheapest lunch option, a nice experience as a one-off!
Lookout Studio & Kolb Studio
While I was by the village anyway, I popped into a couple of the other buildings here. Lookout Studio is another Mary Colter design, modelled after indigenous structures again. She also took inspiration from the natural landscape, as the studio seems to grow naturally from the side of the canyon. Visitors can walk out onto its terrace which functions as an observation deck for (yet more!) fantastic canyon views. Inside the building, you’ll find a small gift shop.
Next door, Kolb Studio is an art gallery which was hosting a special event the weekend I was there. The annual Celebration of Art sees artists from across the USA travel to the canyon. It starts with their Paint Out event, where they live paint canyon scenes. I missed this since it was earlier in the week, but was able to see the gallery exhibition. This includes the live paintings, but also each artist brings several other paintings of the canyon. These are then available for purchase over the following weeks. All proceeds go to the Grand Canyon Conservancy, the charitable body that protects the canyon.
It was a really cool exhibit, as every artist has their own style. So, even though they all painted the same subject, the works were all completely different! Plus, the exhibit meant the basement of the studio was open (which it usually isn’t). This is an artist’s residence area, so I got to see the living quarters and the incredible terrace! It juts over over the rim and has floor-to-ceiling glass walls to offer uninterrupted views of the canyon. You can easily see how so much art is inspired here!
My final destination for the day was Hermit Road. This is another route only accessible by the shuttle buses, no private vehicles allowed. It takes you west from the village along the South Rim, with several viewpoints where you can get off to look around and then hop back on the next bus. Take note, most of the stops are only on the outbound route so be sure to get off then as you might not be able to on the way back! I didn’t stop at every single one, but selected a handful of the most popular.
Starting with Maricopa Point, I hopped off to take in the sweeping views. As mentioned, even though it’s all the same canyon, each location offers different shapes and colours in the rocks for unique views. From Maricopa, it’s less than a mile’s walk to Hopi Point, passing Powell Point en-route. I opted to do this and rejoin the bus there, ambling along the easy, flat rim trail. Powell Point has a memorial and Hopi Point is one of the most popular sunset locations.
Continuing west, I stopped at Mohave Point next, where the Colorado River starts to become more visible. It looks so small from up here that’s it seems incredible, almost unbelievable, that the river is responsible for carving out this majestic canyon. My final viewpoint was Pima Point, where you can sometimes here the Grade 6 rapids down below. A reminder of how wild and powerful the river is! By this time of day, the colours were starting to change and glow as the sun got lower in the sky. But sunset was for tomorrow. Today, it was time for the bus ride back to the village and the drive out the park again.
Desert View Watchtower
For the final of my 3 days at the Grand Canyon, I worked most of the day and then set off for the park in the late afternoon. I wasn’t using the shuttle bus this time, as my destination was Desert View Drive, which doesn’t have a bus line. Time to practice my driving again then! I followed the road for about half an hour, all the way out to Desert View Watchtower. This is another Mary Colter design, a tall sandstone brick tower. It stands on a bend in the canyon to look back along it to the west.
The sun was already getting low in the sky, casting light and shadows up the canyon. Again, the view looked completely different here to the previous two days. The rocks were more yellow, less red, with greenery making it lush and vibrant. Inside the tower, glass walls take you even closer to the canyon edge. I wandered around for a while, taking in the views, still as wonderstruck as the last two days.
Desert View Drive
Back in the car, I retraced my route along Desert View Drive again, back towards the visitor centre. I had two more viewpoints: Moran Point and Grandview Point. Luckily, although each had only a small carpark, I had no trouble finding a space! I only stopped for 10 minutes or so at each one, since I was in a race with the sun this evening. There is a small hiking trail at Grandview Point, but I was short on time for that. Each point opened up to another incredible vista. Seriously, I think you’d struggle to get a disappointing viewpoint of the Grand Canyon! New rock formations at each location, and colours getting increasingly orange and red as the sun continued to sink.
Sunset at Mather Point & Geology Museum
Racing back along the road, I parked up at the visitor centre again and headed down to Mather Point for sunset. I’d saved this for my last day, partly for practicality – since I was starting late after work anyways and I’d had a couple of days to get used to the road before driving it in the dark. But it also seemed fitting to close out my 3 days at the Grand Canyon with sunset, something everyone raves about here. Mather Point is a very popular location, and the ledge was crammed with people. I ended up walking from there along to the Geology Museum, taking in all the views and colours along the way.
The sun sets to your right, so I was walking towards it. But the actual sun and its dip below the horizon isn’t what you’re here for. It’s all about the canyon colours, as the changing light makes the rocks come alive and glow. A medley of burning reds, glowing pinks, and inky purples appears below you. While it was a view I’d seen by day, it takes on a whole other character at dusk. Of course, the sky lights up too, orange fading into pink as the sun goes down. Then I had a few minutes of admiring the desert plants silhouetted against the violet of twilight, with the moon shining bright overhead. Even the drive out the park gave me some beautiful desert dusk landscapes before it got dark entirely!
Three Days at the Grand Canyon
After one more night at my motel, I returned the rental car to Flagstaff. Then I continued my journey west by bus again, to the glittering lights of Las Vegas!
The Grand Canyon is a world-famous natural wonder for good reason and it didn’t disappoint. Sometimes I find because I’ve travelled so much in the last decade, it takes more to ‘wow’ me now. But the Grand Canyon sure did, causing my jaw to drop and my eyes to grow wide in wonder every day! I clocked up an impressive step count on all the hiking routes too. It’s great that some are flat, rim trails though, easy for most ability levels. And getting to experience the artwork at the various galleries only added to my appreciation of the canyon’s beauty. It’s a poignant reminder of the forces of nature too, with its astounding age and depth. Definitely an unforgettable highlight of my USA trip!