The Grand Canyon is one of the truly breathtaking, awe-inspiring places on our planet! Here’s how to spend one day in the Grand Canyon to get the most out of your trip!
In this Grand Canyon itinerary, you get to see the highlights of a trip to Grand Canyon National Park include the viewpoints from the rim, hiking the Bright Angel Trail down into the canyon, staying at Phantom Ranch on the floor of the canyon and, for the really adventurous, riding the rapids of the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon.
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Visit America’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites!
This post is part of a series on visiting the USA’s great UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Other World Heritage Sites nearby include Mesa Verde (Colorado), Chaco Culture (New Mexico), and Taos Pueblo (New Mexico).
The Perfect One-Day Grand Canyon Itinerary
Here’s what you need to know to plan your day, from where to stay to how to get there and what to do.
An Overview of the Grand Canyon
Grand Canyon has the north rim and the south rim. The north rim is higher in elevation (about 8,000 feet, compared with 7,000 feet at the south rim) and the season is, therefore, more limited (it gets snowed in during the winter). There are fewer amenities (though it does have a lodge, the Grand Canyon Lodge) and it is harder to get to. However, there are also fewer people.
The main access point, and the place most people visit, is the South Rim. Grand Canyon Village right on the south rim has several lodges and campgrounds, restaurants, shops, and other amenities.
To the west of Grand Canyon Village is Hermit Road. It is seven miles/ eleven km from the village to Hermit Point, with nine designated viewpoints along the way. This is open to traffic December – February; the rest of the year, it is serviced by a free frequent shuttle bus.
To the west is Desert View Road, a twenty-five-mile/ forty-kilometer scenic drive that is open to traffic year-round. It has six designated viewpoints, as well as five unmarked pullouts and five picnic areas.
How to Get to the Grand Canyon
There are several ways to get to Grand Canyon National Park. The nearest big town to the south rim is Flagstaff. Flagstaff is located on the famous Route 66 and has an Amtrak train station and a small airport with several flights daily to and from Phoenix, Denver and Las Vegas.
From Flagstaff, it is easy to rent a car or take a shuttle bus to Grand Canyon Village on the south rim. The eighty-mile drive takes about an hour and a half.
It’s also possible to drive from Las Vegas to Grand Canyon in about 4.5 hours.
The closest airport to the canyon is actually the tiny regional airport Grand Canyon Airport at Tusayan, only seven miles away. However, although there are some flights from Las Vegas, this airport is mostly used for scenic flights over the canyon.
An alternative way to get to the south rim is to take the historic Grand Canyon Railway. The train, which has several classes, including glass-domed observation carriages, leaves daily from Williams, which is about thirty miles east of Flagstaff along Route 66.
The train departs Williams for the sixty-five-mile trip at 9:30 AM (arriving at 11:45 AM) and returns from Grand Canyon at 3:30 PM (arriving at 5:45 PM). This is aimed mostly at day trips. With less than four hours at the canyon, it doesn’t leave a lot of time to do much other than the main highlights, but it is a good option if you are short on time.
The easiest way to get to the north rim is to drive, though there are occasional shuttles between the north and south rims and from Flagstaff.
Getting around the Grand Canyon
There are free shuttle buses on the south rim that ply several routes from Grand Canyon Village, including around the village; west along Hermit Road; east along Desert View Road out to the Yavapai Geology Museum and the South Kaibab trailhead; and south to the nearby town of Tusayan, where there is a park and ride.
You can drive Hermit Road December – February and Desert View Road all year round.
The Best Time of Year to Visit the Grand Canyon
The best time to visit the south rim is spring and fall. It is open all year round, but winters can be bitter, with nighttime temperatures below freezing and summer can be very hot and crowded. Spring and fall see fewer people and cool days (though nights can still be chilly and it can still be hot at the bottom of the canyon).
The north rim is only open from mid-May to mid-October.
How to Spend One Day in the Grand Canyon
It is possible to spend one day in Grand Canyon National Park and see the highlights. However, I would recommend staying longer if you can.
It is definitely worth getting up early for the sunrise. The views of the Grand Canyon shrouded in early morning mist and haze that slowly burns off as the darkness turns to light, are magical. Then the formations of the canyon glow an especially beautiful color as the first rays of sunlight hit them.
Be warned – it can be chilly, especially in spring and fall, so dress warmly. Best spots to see the sunrise over Grand Canyon include Maricopa Point and Hopi Point along Hermit Road.
After watching the sunrise, head back to your lodge or campground for breakfast.
If you are reasonably fit, pack a lunch and lots of water and head down below the rim for a hike along Bright Angel Trail. This is the most popular and most accessible trail in the canyon. The trailhead is near Bright Angel Lodge.
To do the full hike, you will need to stay overnight at the bottom of the canyon, but it is possible to hike part of the way. The trail starts easy and goes through a tunnel carved in the rock. Then is starts down a series of steep switchbacks.
There are rest stops at the 1.5 and 3-mile points. Both are good turning back points. If you are fit and enjoying being below the rim, continue on to Indian Garden. This is the furthest you can safely go and return in the same day. Indian Garden has some picnic tables and trees to give shade. There is water available to refill your water bottle.
If you are less fit, or just want an easier day, but are still up for a hike, then hike along the Canyon Rim Trail, and take the shuttle bus either there or back. Head west and stop off at Trailview Overlook, which has great views of the Bright Angel Trail’s switchbacks, Maricopa Point, Powell Point, and Hopi Point.
You can take the shuttle bus (every 15-30 minutes) between viewpoints if you prefer not to hike.
Depending on how long you have hiked (or shuttled), you will either have lunch on the trail or head to one of the casual cafes for a light lunch at the top of the rim.
A recommended pick is Bright Angel Lodge. This rustic lodge is worth taking a look around after lunch.
The History Room has a famous “Geologic Fireplace” designed by famous architect Mary Colter. It is made of layers of rocks taken from the different layers of rocks that form the canyon. The base of the fireplace is made with stone from the bed of the Colorado River all the way to the top of the fireplace which is built of rock from the rim of the canyon. Even its shape is designed to represent common rock formations in the canyon.
There is plenty more to do at the Grand Canyon Village. Take a break from hiking and stock up on souvenirs. Hopi House was also designed by Mary Colter in accordance with Hopi designs. Inside, this is the perfect place to browse and buy Native American art, which make a great souvenir of your travels to the southwest.
Relax a little on the porch of the El Tovar hotel if you are worn out from all that activity.
In the late afternoon, take the shuttle or drive east along Desert View Road to Yavapai Point. There is a small but interesting geological museum that explains the various layers of rocks within the canyon and how the canyon was formed.
The lookout there has views of the Colorado River (which you can’t actually see from many of the rim viewpoints) and Phantom Ranch. You will need binoculars or to use their telescope to see it.
Walk along the East Rim Trail to Mather Point, which has stunning views of rock formations Vishnu Temple and Temple of Zoroaster. This is a popular spot to see the sunset.
For your evening meal, it is worth splurging on dinner at the El Tovar Hotel. Many of the national parks in the United States have grand lodges, and EL Tovar, built in 1905 right on the edge of the rim, is Grand Canyon’s jewel.
Even if you don’t stay there, make a reservation for dinner in the main dining room. Be sure to take some time to explore the lodge – the lobby with dark log pillars and beams and animal heads mounted on the walls is an absolute must-see.
If you take an evening stroll around Grand Canyon Village, keep an eye out for the elk that often wander around the area.
How to Spend Extra Time
This is the perfect one-day Grand Canyon itinerary, but there are plenty of things to do that could fill a much longer vacation. Additional highlights include:
Stay overnight at Phantom Ranch at the bottom of the canyon
There is a complicated lottery system because the cabins and dorms there are so popular, but it is worth the effort. The Bright Angel Trail is the most popular trail down to the canyon floor, but there is also South Kaibab Trail (you can hike down one and up the other) and also the North Kaibab Trail, which you can combine with one of the South Rim Trails for the intense Rim-to-Rim Trail.
Tip: A mule porter service is available that you can use to carry your backpack down and up so that you only have to hike with your day pack (recommended!)
Ride the river rapids through the canyon
If you have time and a sense of adventure, nothing beats following in the steps of John Powell and riding the rapids of the Colorado River through the canyon.
There are three different types of transportation – regular white water rafts, where you do the rowing and an experienced guide controls the raft; large motorized rafts in which you sit in comfort and aren’t as affected by the rapids; and small wooden dories (boats similar to the ones that were used on the first trips through the canyon), with a guide doing the rowing and guests bailing water out when traversing the rapids (recommended).
Trips last several days and typically traverse the first (eastern) half of the canyon, from Lee’s Ferry to Phantom Ranch (with a hike up Bright Angel Trail); the second (western) half of the canyon from Phantom Ranch to near the start of Lake Mead; or the full canyon (this is usually done by the motorized rafts, which are faster).
Seeing the layers of the canyon rise or fall above you as you proceed down the river; hiking into side canyons; camping on sandy beaches, and riding class V white water rapids is an experience you will never forget.
Take a mule ride
A popular activity is to take a mule ride. There are two options.
The easiest and shortest is the three-hour mule ride. It leaves from Yaki Barn in Grand Canyon Village and consists of a one-hour ride through woods to a canyon viewpoint, then about an hour at the rim of the canyon, before another one-hour ride back.
If you aren’t used to riding a mule or horse, this will be enough for most folks, as it uses different muscles from the ones you are used to and you may get quite sore.
A much longer ride is down the canyon along Bright Angel Trail to Phantom Ranch, where you can spend one or two nights. This is an alternative to hiking if you prefer to ride rather then walk.
Drive Desert View Road
The 25-mile drive has several lookouts, pullouts and picnic areas, as well as the Tusayan Museum and Ancestral Puebloan site (ruins). The drive ends at the watchtower, a brick tower where you can climb its 85 steps for stunning 360° views.
Take a Scenic Flight over the canyon
For a birds’ eye view of the canyon, a flight in a light airplane is hard to beat. 40-45-minute flights leave from Grand Canyon Airport in Tusayan. Get there 30 minutes prior to departure. Recommended.
Visit other sites in Grand Canyon Village
There are several historic sites to visit in Grand Canyon Village.
Kolb Studio: Built in 1904 by the Kolb brothers as a home and studio, this building is perched right on the edge of the canyon near Bright Angel Lodge. There is a small museum and the Grand Canyon Conservancy’s bookstore, as well as wonderful views of the canyon.
Lookout Studio: The other studio on the rim of the canyon, this one was built by Mary Colter. It was designed as a place where you could photograph the canyon, and it is one of the best places to do so; you can see miles of the Bright Angel Trail zigzagging its way down the steep sides of the canyon walls.
There are multi-level porches on the canyon’s edge. Tip: pose with the canyon in the background as you get your photo taken from a terrace above – it’s a great angle.
Grand Canyon Railway Depot. This is one of the oldest wooden train depots in the US and worth a quick look. It is just down the hill from the El Tovar hotel.
No matter what you do, how you see it, or how long you stay, you will definitely be wowed by the enormity and incredible beauty of Grand Canyon.
James Ian from Travel Collecting has traveled to 82 countries and all seven continents. He uses his website to help people have fun travel experiences that focus on meaningful interactions with the local culture and environment.
Originally from Australia, he has lived in the UK, Israel, Japan, and on a Caribbean cruise ship. He now lives in New York City and travels whenever he can!
5 Things to Pack for Your Trip to the Grand Canyon
The Lonely Planet Southwest USA guidebook. It can be kind of a pain to find the major guidebooks once you land, or you’ll find them overpriced. I always like to pick mine up ahead of time.
An Unlocked Cell Phone so that you can use a local sim card while here to help navigate public transportation and when you’re on the road. (For people without American cell phone plans).
Backup Charging Bank for your cell phone since you’ll be using it as a camera, GPS, and general travel genie.
A Great Day Bag so you can carry what you need with you (like your camera, snacks, water, sunscreen, cash, etc). My current favorite is the Pacsafe Citysafe, which is especially great for Arizona because it has many anti-theft features designed to deter pickpockets. It also transitions to a night bag more easily and won’t embarrass you if you go to dinner directly after sightseeing all day.
Don’t Forget About Travel Insurance!
Before you leave for Arizona make sure you have a valid Travel Insurance Policy because accidents happen on the road. I pay for World Nomads, and I happily recommend them. It’s especially important to get travel insurance if you’ll be hanging enjoying time in the beautiful (but occasionally slippery) outdoors.
I have been a paying customer of World Nomads for travel insurance for three years, and I happily recommend them. If you get sick, injured, or have your stuff stolen, you’ll be happy to have the ability to pay for your medical bills or replace what’s stolen or broken.