Grand Canyon, From Rim to Rim

Read our tips for taking in the best vistas and historic sites of this national treasure, one of the seven wonders of the natural world.

Visiting the Grand Canyon should be on anyone’s Top 10 vacation list. This awe-inspiring geological wonder offers sublime vistas across the shockingly beautiful one-mile deep, 18-mile wide and 277-mile long chasm.

The views are so expansive and the colors of the stone and bright blue sky so vivid that it’s easy to spend hours simply staring into the canyon—and there are seemingly limitless vantage points from which to do just that. In addition, there are historic sites along the canyon rim, hiking opportunities throughout the park, rafting trips, pristine nature to be experienced, and any number of family adventures to be had, from participating in a Junior Ranger program (visit any ranger station for an activity booklet), to wildlife spotting and campfire programs. [Read more about Grand Canyon hiking.]

Sightseeing Overview

The South Rim is the most popular destination within the park, and arguably offers the most picturesque views of the canyon, as well as the most visitor amenities for great Grand Canyon sightseeing. You’ll find the majority of lodging and dining options here, and plenty of shops that offer souvenirs, artwork, and books—and everything is clustered together within easy walking distance.

The quieter North Rim is accessible only in the warmer months, from late spring to early fall, and provides a more relaxing Grand Canyon vacation—although it is prohibitively far from the South Rim (about four to five hours by car), so it’s best to pick one or the other for shorter vacations. The canyon floor itself—which is accessible by foot, mule or river raft—holds untold treasures for the hearty souls who are up to discover them. [Read about Grand Canyon tours.]

About a four-hour drive from the South Rim, and well beyond the national park boundaries, is Grand Canyon West, a tourist destination being developed by the Hualapai Tribe, which owns the adjoining Native American reservation. This destination offers tours and curiosities not available within the park itself (i.e., it’s possible to catch helicopter and plane tours from here that dip beneath the rim of the canyon—something that’s prohibited within the park borders). It makes for an interesting day trip, but it should not be visited instead of the park itself, which offers the lion’s share of Grand Canyon attractions.

Getting There

The jumping-off point for the South Rim is from Flagstaff, Ariz., about 90 miles away via U.S. Highway 180. If you prefer to visit the North Rim or Grand Canyon West, it’s best to start from Las Vegas. Note that much of the South Rim is closed to automobile traffic from March to November, but free shuttle buses run regularly to overlooks, trailheads and park lodging.

South Rim Attractions and Architecture

Grand Canyon Village

The center of activity in the bustling South Rim, the Grand Canyon Village, is where you’ll find the majority of lodging and restaurants. Park in the Market Plaza section and catch free shuttles to attractions throughout the park. Also located here is the historic district, built by the Santa Fe Railroad, which is the site of the Grand Canyon Depot—the train stop for the Grand Canyon Railway, which regularly transports visitors from Williams, Ariz., to this spot (and back).

Desert View Watchtower

This elegant 70-foot stone watchtower was designed by famed park architect Mary Colter in 1932 to mimic a prehistoric Native American tower. Climb stairs to an outdoor terrace that offers a stellar view of the canyon and the Painted Desert beyond. The interior of the tower is decorated by murals done by Hopi artist Fred Kabotie.

Hopi House

Next to the El Tovar Hotel, this striking pueblo-style structure was also designed by Colter in 1905, who styled it after buildings of a Hopi village. The structure now serves as an upscale trading post for fine Native American art and crafts.

Lookout Studio

Another Colter design, this low-slung stone structure all but disappears into the landscape when viewing it from afar. The Lookout Studio was built as a souvenir outpost and vantage point for tourists in the early 20th century, and still offers superior views, as well as plenty of trinkets for sale.

Hermit’s Rest

At the end of Hermit Road, this lyrical stone building straight out of a fairy tale was another brainchild of Colter, designed as she imagined a recluse would prefer. The highlight of the interior is a massive fireplace that’s tall enough to walk into (in the summer)—and a welcome source of heat for those resting here in the colder months. The structure now houses a gift and snack shop, and is a convenient place to catch a free shuttle. 

Kolb Studio

Built in the early 1900s by Emery and Ellsworth Kolb as a photography studio, the Kolb Studio is a lovely timber building perched at the very edge of the South Rim. The onsite bookstore is also the site of touring art exhibits.

Mather Point

If you arrive in the park via the South Entrance, this grand point is the first view of the canyon you’ll enjoy, with an impressive collection of sweeping vistas, interesting buttes and plateaus, and otherworldly spires.

Moran Point

The best vista to see the rapids of the Colorado River, with lovely views of the Red Canyon, this is also one of the best places to observe birds of prey soaring overhead. My family and I spotted half a dozen bald eagles at Moran Point a few winters back—my now-teenage daughter still talks about how magical this experience was.

Tusayan Ruins and Museum

Exhibits of Anasazi culture populate the small museum, but the real draw is outside: the excavated ruins of an American Indian village that dates back more than 4,000 years. Follow a self-guided trail of the Tusayan Ruins and Museum to see the remains of living quarters, kiva fireplaces and storage rooms. Admission is free.

Verkamp’s Curios

This pretty Craftsman-style structure in the Village has been the site of a curio shop and souvenir outlet since 1906. Descendants of founder John Verkamp still run the store. Look for inlaid pocket knives, beaded arrows and other well-crafted Native American items.

Yavapai Observation Station

This is the place to learn about the geology of the canyon, with three-dimensional models as well as interpretive exhibits of the flora and fauna. The indoor station offers a huge, glass viewing-center that opens up to one of the broadest views of the canyon. The overlook here is the place to watch the sunset—a must for any visitor.

Next: North Rim Attractions and Grand Canyon West

North Rim Attractions

North Rim Visitor’s Center

Housing a ranger station, this ought to be the first stop for any visit to the North Rim. Pick up maps, books and information here. You’ll also find restroom facilities.

Bright Angel Point

Bright Angel Point is the best vantage site on the North Rim, with wide-open views of the canyon. Look for the easy Bright Angel Point Trail for additional views of the Bright Angel Canyon and Roaring Springs. Along the way, keep your eye out for fossils and shells.

Point Imperial

Point Imperial is the highest point on the North Rim and overlooks the eastern portion of the canyon. There aren’t enough superlatives to describe the expansive views in the Grand Canyon, but this North Rim gem deserves every glowing adjective available—offering glimpses of Nankoweap Creek, the Painted Desert and Vermillion Cliffs. My family and I like to bring a picnic lunch to spread out at the tables near the overlook.

Grand Canyon West

Grand Canyon Skywalk

This controversial tourist site, owned and operated by the Hualapai people, opened in 2007 with critics claiming it was an eyesore—it encroached on sacred, Native American grounds and was overpriced.

Love it or hate it, this horseshoe-shaped walkway juts nearly 70 feet beyond the precipice and looks down a dizzying 4,000 feet, offering a view of the canyon that isn’t possible elsewhere. The floors and walls of the Grand Canyon Skywalk are clear, tempered glass, which gives the illusion of floating above the canyon—scary, but better than hanging over the edge to catch the views! If you are afraid of heights, don’t even think about this attraction.

Note that visitors cannot carry anything that they might drop, either into the canyon below or onto the floor of the glass walkway, the visibility of which would otherwise be marred easily. This includes purses and cameras (there are lockers available to store your things).

Skywalk tickets must be purchased as add-ons with the required Hualapai Legacy tour (a narrated bus ride through the property that provides historic background). The tour is $29.95 per person, but this does not include the Skyway, which is an additional $29.95 per person. If you drive here yourself, you’ll pay an additional $20 for parking. For reservations, call 877-716-9378.

Destinations: Grand Canyon National Park

Themes: Family Travel, Historical Vacations, Outdoor Adventures

Activities: Hiking, Rafting, Sightseeing