Grand Canyon National Park
Washington National Parks

Grand Canyon's South Rim
© Mike Leco /

Most people view the canyon from the South Rim Trail.

Grand Canyon National Park

The Grand Canyon is spectacular! It is not just a simple canyon but rather a whole maze of canyons, fissures and gorges worn into the rock with unusual buttes, mesas and rock spires standing between them. The exposed multicolored sedimentary layers take on varying hues as the angle of the sun and shadow change throughout the day. It is truly one of the great natural wonders of the world.

The Grand Canyon is immense. It is almost 200 miles long and about 10 to 15 miles wide. Its deepest parts along the Colorado River channel lie over one vertical mile (1.6 km) below the plateau at its rims.

The Grand Canyon is nearly a mile deep

The rock layers were created at the bottom of a vast sea millions of years ago when sedimentary deposits accumulated to a thickness of nearly a mile. Later, a collision of tectonic plates raised the entire region thousands of feet to form the great Colorado plateau that now lies 7000 to 9000 feet (2100 to 2750 meters) above sea level. The Colorado River slowly formed a basin to carry away water from this region and over the millennia it eroded down through the numerous sedimentary layers. Eventually the river cut this mile-deep channel that we have named the Grand Canyon.

Grand Canyon National Park is located in northern Arizona about 75 miles (125 km) north of Flagstaff Arizona. The South Rim Visitor's Center can be reached via an hour-and-half-hour drive from Flagstaff or a five-hour drive from Las Vegas. The North Rim Visitor's Center is a mere 10 miles (15 km) from the South Rim Visitor's Center "as the crow flies" but you must drive over 200 miles (320 km) to get from one to the other.

The South Rim Visitor's Center

The South Rim Visitor Center is the most popular destination for tourists. It offers the best views, has the most facilities and is the most accessible. The North Rim Visitor Center has fewer viewpoints, has fewer facilities, is less accessible and closes from late October to mid May. Many backpackers, hikers and wilderness campers prefer the North Rim due to its isolation and lack of tourist crowds. The West Rim is actually the western end of the canyon located on the Havasupai Indian Reservation. It is not as deep and is a bit less spectacular, but is favored by many Las Vegas tour operators, as it is only a three-hour drive from the Vegas Strip.

Commercial airline services operate flights between Las Vegas, Flagstaff or Phoenix and the Grand Canyon airport situated a few miles south of the South Rim Visitor Center. Airplane Tours and Helicopter Tours of the canyon depart from this small airfield. The Grand Canyon Railroad operates steam engine excursion trains between Williams Arizona and the South Rim Visitor's Center.

Most people view the canyon from the South Rim Trail. Part of it is closed to automobile traffic from May to October, but free shuttle busses take tourists to all the vantage points. The road east to Desert View is normally open and offers many scenic overlooks into the canyon. The airplane tours and helicopter tours departing from the airport near Tusayan are great ways to appreciate the grand scale of the canyon. For a unique experience, you can take a mule ride down into the canyon. Half day, and overnight rides are available, but you must book your reservations many months in advance.

Sout Kaibab Trail © Mike Leco /
The South Kaibab Trail: There are many trails down into the canyon for serious hikers and backpackers, but you must obtain camping permits from the park rangers before attempting overnight hikes.

Hiking in the Canyon

One of the best ways to experience the canyon, is to hike down into it. Bright Angel Trail that departs from Grand Canyon Village is the most popular route. The trail is a well maintained and has drinking water supplies at several points. Most cautious tourists hike only a short distance down this trail, as the climb back to the rim is much more strenuous than the trip down. Indian Gardens on the Tonto Plateau is about 4 miles (6 km) and about 1,500 vertical feet (500 meters) below the rim. That makes a nice day hike, but remember to always carry a supply of water and some snack food. The temperature down in the canyon is usually much warmer than on the rim. Phantom Ranch, at the bottom of the canyon is 12 miles (20 km) and 5,000 feet (1,650 m) below the rim and is normally attempted as a two-day hike with an overnight stay at the Phantom Ranch Campround. There are many trails down into the canyon for serious hikers and backpackers, but you must obtain camping permits from the park rangers before attempting overnight hikes.

The National Park Service maintains Grand Canyon Village on the South Rim. It contains several hotels and restaurants, a gas station, grocery store, laundromat and several souvenir shops. You can make reservations at the hotels via the National Park Service web site. All of the hotels usually fill up many months in advance.

The village of Tusayan Arizona

The little village of Tusayan is about 6 miles south of the Grand Canyon Village and one mile from the park entrance. It contains several private hotels, a few restaurants, a grocery store, some convenience stores, souvenir shops, gas stations, some bars,an IMAX theater and a small airport. It is usually easier to find accommodations at the private hotels in Tusayan, as they do not normally fill up as far in advance as the park properties.

Read more about the Grand Canyon, including some helpful tips on our Grand Canyon Adventure page!

Written by: Mike Leco
Top Photo Credit: © Michael Borjesson
Photo Description: The Grand Canyon is nearly a mile deep