If it weren’t for all the car parks, the Grand Canyon would be hard to find. You happen upon it strolling through an unremarkable patch of forest on the high, dry plateau that covers northern Arizona.
“Really?” you think as you stretch the car hours from your limbs. “This is it?”
There is no overture, no forewarning of the monumental abyss ahead. It reveals itself to you at the last possible moment, like an orchestra breaking the silence with a single note: Ta-da!
The Grand Canyon makes a magnificent end point (or way-station) in any Great American Road Trip. Here are our favourite tips to get the most out of your visit, with a few off-the-beaten-Interstate spots to check out along the way.[related_articles]52361[/related_articles]
Before You Go
Choose which rim you’d like to visit: North or South? It takes five hours to drive between them, even though each is visible from the other. Go for the North Rim if you’re seeking solitude and you’ve already reserved your campsite. If it’s iconic views you’re after and you don’t mind the tourist bustle, hit the South Rim instead.
When To Visit
Avoid summer, if you can help it, as the desert (obviously) becomes very hot and the crowds are heavy and constant. March through May and September through November are by far the best times to visit. The North Rim closes between mid-October and mid-May due to snow.
The First Stop
Stock up on your favourite snacks and beverages (we recommend tortilla chips, guacamole and a Grand Canyon Brewing Co. Sunset Amber Ale), and find a quiet spot on the rim for sunset.
Once you’ve gawked at the canyon from above, get a true sense of its scale by hiking down into it.
Take the South Kaibab Trail down, camp by the Colorado River (or stay in a comfy cabin nearby) and hike out the next day via the Bright Angel Trail. It’s a tough two-day walk, but descending through the different layers of coloured rock and wallowing like a hippo in the cool water is worth the effort.
You’ll need a Backcountry Permit, which can be obtained at the Backcountry Permit Office (there’s one at each rim) the day before you hike. Permits cost USD$10, plus USD$8 per hiker.
Desert View is on the eastern edge of the park, and is a first come, first served setup. It usually fills by 1-2pm each day and is closed for the colder half of the year. If you’re arriving late, make a reservation at Mather. If you’re getting in early, gun it for Desert View.
There is plenty of accommodation in the nearby towns of Tusayan, Williams and Flagstaff. However, camping is a great option too, if you have a van, tent, or both. The South Rim has two campgrounds: Mather and Desert View. Mather isn’t fantastic, but it’s a short walk to the park supermarket and communal showers ($2USD for eight minutes of hot water).
The North Rim’s one campground fills up well in advance, so reserve your spot early.
Escape the kitschy “Buffalo Bill” and “Wildcat Willie”-style places near the Canyon and check out the college town of Flagstaff, which is two hours drive away. The chilaquiles at MartAnne’s Breakfast Palace (also known as MartAnne’s Burrito Palace and MartAnne’s Café) are worth the trip alone. For the uninitiated, chilaquiles are a Mexican breakfast staple, a mess of fried corn tortillas, chicken, refried beans, cheese, eggs and loads of salsa.
Don’t ask questions — just eat. You’ll thank us later.
There’s plenty of America to explore between the west coast and the Grand Canyon, beyond the obligatory In ‘N’ Out stop.
If you’re going to the South Rim from Vegas, hop off Route 93 before Kingman to check out the quirky old mining village of Chloride. The mining dried up in the 1910s, and not too much has changed since then. Past Kingman, take the slow road along Old Route 66 for some more time travel, where it’s still the 1960s in Hackberry and Seligman.
If you’re coming from LA, Interstate 10 will take you past Joshua Tree National Park. Once you cross into Arizona, cut north on Route 60 towards the pretty college town of Prescott (dive bars, cheap eats). From there, take winding Route 89A through the old mining town of Jerome and the gorgeous canyon north of Sedona, a perfect appetite wetter for the Grand Canyon itself.
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Quinten Dol is a journalism and creative writing graduate from Brisbane's Queensland University of Technology, and a regular contributor to Global Hobo. He is currently riding his way south from Vancouver, Canada towards Ushuaia, at the southern tip of Argentina.