Neither words nor pictures do Grand Canyon National Park justice—it's truly a place you have to see to believe. Officially named a national park in 1919, the Grand Canyon is one of the top-visited parks in the country with more than 5 million visitors per year. Whether you're just soaking up the sweeping views from the top or hiking into the depths of the canyon, this is one of the most iconic parks in the U.S. for a reason.
Some tips for visiting the Grand Canyon:
• A common mistake when visiting the Grand Canyon is to just take some pictures at one overlook and then call it a day. Take the time to visit a few scenic viewpoints to fully appreciate it, book a tour, or, better yet, take a hike. The South Kaibab, Rim, and Grandview trails all offer short routes and stunning views.
• The Grand Canyon has excellent public transportation and shuttle services, which can keep you from getting stuck in traffic and stressing about parking.
• Plan ahead. The park is a popular destination all year round. Make reservations and book tours as far in advance as possible. Cancellations do happen, though, so if you prefer to fly by the seat of your pants, keep in mind that the best time to check for last-minute openings is about two days in advance.
Generally accepted to be less crowded than the South Rim, the North Rim offers a nice visitor center and the Bright Angel Trailhead, which is less than a mile out and back. It takes you to the gorgeous Bright Angel Point, offering panoramic views of the canyon. There are several other hikes and overlooks to be found on this side of the canyon as well, so schedule plenty of time for exploring.
Part of what makes the Desert View Watchtower so iconic is the crumbling base and random windows—and it was intentionally designed to look that way. No detail was left unnoticed by early 20th century architect Mary Colter, who designed a lot of the buildings in Grand Canyon National Park, including Hermit's Rest and Bright Angel Lodge. Colter's designs combine traditional Southwest architectural styles with rustic and Native American elements.
Architecturally, the tower's interior is incredibly detailed, with multiple staircases and varied levels that allow you to see all the way to the top from the bottom floor. The windows are furnished with reflectoscopes, a viewing instrument that enhances the colors and tones of the landscapes you view through it.
The interior first floor of the tower, known as the Kiva Room, is now a gift shop. You can climb to the top of the tower to check out the observation deck, which offers stunning views of the eastern part of the canyon's South Rim. There's something special about viewing the natural wonder from atop a watchtower that blends history and cultures in a way that's unique to the Grand Canyon.
The view from Moran Point on the South Rim is popular, and for good reason: You can really sense the vastness of the canyon from here. You'll also get great views of the colors of sediment in the rock and the play of light and shadow on the canyon. Glance 8 miles across the canyon to the North Rim's Point Royal, and marvel at how it's a 215-mile journey to reach it by road.
The South Rim is the most popular place in the entire national park due to its easy access and amenities. But the view is pretty epic here, too. It can get really crowded at sunrise and sunset, but it's worth it to see the entire canyon lit up at its colorful best.
Yavapai Point is the lookout that is the furthest north on the South Rim. Since it's the closest to the Colorado River, it offers a different view. It's a quick walk west from Mather Point, and parking here is a little more limited.
Some of the dining spots in the park are notorious for being pricey and occasionally mediocre, but the Arizona Room is a solid choice for lunch or dinner. The steakhouse-esque menu features lots of local twists on classic staples with ingredients like prickly pear, agave, green chile, native squash, bison, and cornmeal incorporated into the dishes.
If you think the Grand Canyon looks impressive from the overlooks, just wait until you see it from the air. Papillon Grand Canyon Helicopters offers helicopter tours that range from half an hour to four hours or more, plus jeep excursions, river rafting trips, bus tours, and more.
The famously beautiful Havasu Falls is located just outside the national park, on Havasupai Reservation land. Advance reservations are required for all hikers and campers, but these sell out quickly. Check out havasupaireservations.com for more information.
It's nice to leave the park and its parade of lodge dining rooms and find some local gems, too. Red Raven is a great option for lunch or dinner if you're craving something a little funkier. It offers dishes like ginger beef salad, brochette of lamb, fruit and cheese plates, and other exciting options.
Elves Chasm is a magical grotto that's only reachable via a tour that includes a hike, and then by rafting down the Colorado River—but it's one of the coolest and best-kept secrets in the Grand Canyon.
The best time to visit the Grand Canyon: Spring and summer are the most busy times to visit the Grand Canyon, and summer means often-intense heat and afternoon thunderstorms. The North Rim closes in the winter, and it does occasionally snow here, but crowds thin out a bit. Fall is also a great time to visit, when the temperatures start to cool off, even though it might still be crowded.