Growing up in Arizona, the Grand Canyon was practically in my backyard. I still vividly remember my first visit, part of a family summer road trip, when I was 10 or so. Oddly enough, it is not the vast canyon expanse I remember the most but instead all the different people who had traveled so far to visit. I’m pretty sure it was the first time I heard Chinese, as we passed a group of Asian tourists posing for pictures on the Canyon’s rim. To us kids, the Grand Canyon was cool but in a state like Arizona, blessed with gorgeous deserts, the red rocks of Sedona, the petrified forest, and dense pine forests, I suppose the true wonder of the Grand Canyon was a bit overlooked.
Since growing up and moving away from my small Arizona town, I have been blessed enough to travel the world, seeing some of the most iconic places on earth. From man-made wonders like the Taj Mahal to a safari on the wild, African savannah, I have definitely crossed off a few bucket list items. When I meet people traveling, if I tell them I am from Arizona, the first response is to ask me about the Grand Canyon. In the same way I have crossed oceans and continents to get to their little corner of the globe, they imagine doing the same to see the Arizona beauty I took for granted all my life.
To be honest, I began to feel a bit bad about the whole situation. Sure, I had been to the Grand Canyon, while plenty of lifelong Arizona residents never have, but I honestly didn’t remember it as that impressive or grand. Surely it couldn’t have been better than the impressive landscape of the Uyuni Salt Flat or as magical as a Costa Rican cloud forest? As they say, perhaps it was just a matter of seeing the grass green on the other side. Experiencing a new place and culture can cement memories, making that trip of a lifetime across the globe more vivid and exciting than the wonders you have seen a hundred times back home.
With that in mind, I decided it was time I gave the Grand Canyon a second look.
Literally millions of people from around the world visit the Grand Canyon each year and most of them come during the summer. While the title of the article is Summertime at the Grand Canyon and I planned my own visit mid-summer, I would not recommend you do the same. First of all, this is Arizona and it gets HOT in summer. The rim of the Grand Canyon can still be quite nice in the summer but as soon as you start hiking down into the canyon, the sun and heat will only get worst and worst. While the rim might be a manageable 80 degrees, at the bottom of the canyon it is normal for summer temps to hit 115 degrees and up.
Add to that the summer crowds! The Grand Canyon has become a family road trip highlight and with summer as peak road trip session, the Canyon can feel more crowded than a day at Disneyland. If you can, skip midsummer visits and instead try and see the Canyon late spring or early fall. The first week of May or last week of September are the best with perfect weather and fewer crowds.
Finding myself in Arizona, mid summer, with a few days free, I decided that despite the crowds and heat, I needed to give the Grand Canyon a second chance to wow me. Years of international travel had opened my eyes to the beauty of the world and I was hoping this new appreciation would help me finally see the wonder of my own little backyard treasure.
The Grand Canyon has two Rims – the North and the South. If you are visiting for the first time, the South Rim is probably your best option. It has much more in the way of accommodation options and activities. Plus it is way easier to reach than the North Rim which is more rustic, rugged, and basic. Visiting the South Rim in summer though definitely requires some planning ahead… which I did not do. There are a few hotels and lodges in the park, as well as some campground spaces but they all book up months in advance of the summer season. Right outside of the park there are hotels where you can usually find a room a few weeks in advance and if not, the town of Williams, about an hour’s drive from the park often has rooms available even in the middle of summer.
If you stay outside of the park, just leave your car at the hotel and grab one of the area shuttles. Private shuttle companies run from Williams, Tusayan (the town right outside of the park gate), and even from Flagstaff if you’d rather stay in the city. Once you are in the park, you will have access to everywhere you want to go using the park’s bus system. Not only is it the environmentally friendly choice, it is also the smartest option considering how hard it is to find parking in the middle of the summer season inside the park.
You can’t really see the Canyon well from the road which is definitely a good thing as your first glimpse will be walking straight up to the edge. The Canyon really is massive – running for over 270 miles and in places as much as 18 miles wide. It is deep too with the average depth around one mile. As I first looked out over the expanse, what hit me the most was the flat canyon rim, nearly perfectly level. The effect is that the canyon is nearly invisible until you are literally at its edge. From there is drops off immediately, in some places straight down while in others it steps its way down the rugged cliffs.
Yes, it is grand and yes, it takes your breath away but if you really want to see the canyon in all her glory, as a memorable site you will never forget, make sure you are there for the sunrise. The canyon is impressive in its size but the real beauty of the canyon are in its layers. As the Colorado River carved its way through this region, it exposed layer upon layer of stone. In the morning sun each distinct layer seems to glow, some red, others rich brown, a few strikingly white.
When people think of hiking the Grand Canyon they are usually picturing a hike to the Canyon floor and back. While this is definitely a hike of a lifetime, it really isn’t for everyone. Hiking from the rim to the river is realistically a multiday trip. At the bottom of the canyon there are camping options but they book up extremely fast and there is a strict limit on the number of people allowed to camp in the canyon each night. For a day hike, you can get a taste for the canyon by taking the popular Bright Angel Trail which starts near the main Grand Canyon Village. The hike is challenging but not impossible and since you won’t be able to make it to the bottom, you can decide your turnaround point based on your skill level. In summer, for a full day hike you’ll want to turn around no farther than Indian Garden while in the cooler months experienced hikers can usually make it to Plateau Point and back, at 12.2 miles roundtrip.
I’ll be honest, I’m not much of a hiker. While hiking a bit down into the canyon is part of the experience, visiting in the middle of summer, I was much more interested in the Rim Trail. Running all along the south rim of the canyon for a full 12 miles, the Rim Trail is not only easy but also gives you some of the best views of the Grand Canyon. Much of the trail is paved and there are trees proving shade in many sections. Even in the summer months, the trail can seem empty at times, especially at the far end near Hermit’s Rest. Lookout points run all along the trail and it is a good idea to give yourself extra time since you will probably be stopping to take a hundred pictures.
For me, this was the best part of visiting the canyon. The trail is peaceful, beautiful, and lets you focus on where you are, rather than leaving you panting as you try to climb back out of the Canyon. Kids run along occasionally and you will hear a whole world of languages as people pass by and smile in greeting. If you time it right, you can even meet up with scheduled park ranger programs. These are held throughout the summer along the Rim Trail and let you learn more about the history, geology, and myths of the canyon from resident park rangers.
The Grand Canyon is incredible, there is no doubt about that. While I think it does have the power to wow visitors and leave you speechless, I think the magic of the place is often lost on people. Whether the heat or the crowds, the schedule of activities and long hikes or the commercialized feel of the main Grand Canyon Village, there is plenty to distract from the Canyon itself. To really understand the magnificence of the Canyon, you need to see and experience it as the Native Americans and early explorers did. Whether that means heading to the less popular North Rim, planning a multi-day hike into its heart, or just getting away from the crowds for a few moments of peace on the Rim Trail, there is always a way to find that perfect once-in-a lifetime Grand Canyon moment. Finding at least that moment was all I needed to understand while people come from far and wide to visit this unique place. It truly is a wonder of the world.