Can you visit a natural wonder such as the Grand Canyon in one day? Is it worth the long drive if you only have limited time and if so: what is the best way to visit the Grand Canyon in one day only?
I agonized over these and several other questions last spring, when tying down the last details of our US Southwest itinerary. The Grand Canyon is a National Park and after our experience in Yosemite and Joshua Tree, I worried that a short stop would leave us hungry for more.
However, many of my worries turned out to be excessive. While it is worth spending more than one day in Grand Canyon, is it possible to see a lot even in a short time.
This is our take on the best way to see the Grand Canyon in one day.
Visiting the grand canyon in one day: where to go
To state that the Grand Canyon is big is not just unnecessary but also a colossal understatement.
The Canyon is 277 miles/446 km long, up to 18 miles/29 km wide and 6,000 feet / 1,800 meters deep. To travel from one of its rim to the other takes, by car, approximately 6 hours.
This means that unless you have several days to devote entirely to the exploration of the canyon, you need to prioritize and most people end up prioritizing a stay at the South Rim.
The South Rim is the best served area of the canyon in terms of tourist facilities and the one that can be most easily accessed most times of the year (the North Rim gets seasonal closures).
Since we were short on time and had the kids with us, we opted for visiting the South rim.
We visited at the beginning of August and spent one night in the Yavapai Lodge, inside the park, to have a full day of exploration ahead of us.
The best way to see the Grand canyon in one day: itinerary
When planning our visit we decided that the best way to see the Grand Canyon in one day for us was to include some scenic stops in some of the park’s famous viewpoints, participating in a ranger’s talk and a visit to the historical building in the National park.
It worked out really well and this is why I now recommend to follow our itinerary.
First stop: Mather point visitors’ centre
We started our morning with a stop in the visitors’ centre at Mather point. Here, we got maps of the canyon, collected the Junior ranger activity booklet for the kids (see below) and got a sense of the distances and transport options available along the rim.
Equipped with info, we took the short walk to the viewpoint and took in the sight of this colossal canyon. The viewpoint is popular but no matter how big the crowds are, the view shins through.
A path runs parallel to the rim and it is easy to follow and very scenic.
Mather point itself it organised with a viewing platform and binoculars but several spots on the path offer great views.
Second stop: historic buildings and ranger talk
We spent an inordinate amount of time at Mather Point partially because of the amazing photo ops there and part to allow our kids to go thought the junior ranger activities and then made our way to the Verkamps centre, farther East along the rim.
This area of the South rim offers a lot to visitors and to our great surprise, has some absolutely stunning viewpoints offering sweeping views over the canyon.
On arrival, a showcase of traditional singing and dancing had just started and we joined the crowd of bystanders.
The show had two performers: one was sitting and played and sang (sadly, we missed the introduction and explanation about the theme of the song) and the second one was wearing traditional clothing and dancing.
It was a showcase for visitors but nonetheless truly impressive.
The elegance of the costume and the music, with the backdrop of the natural wonder that is the canyon, made it rally powerful and both the kids and I felt it was special moment.
In the same area there is a museum and ranger talks take place.
We sat to listen to one about the history of the exploration of the canyon and learnt about how the perception of it changed over time, going from being a scary place to one that sees tonnes of tourist every year and from all over the world.
In this area you also have a small museum about the canyon history and the Hopi House and El Tovar Hotel which is where we stopped to have lunch.
Lunch at El Tovar Hotel
We had lunch on the terrace of El Tovar hotels and while we had intended this to be a short stop, the weather decided to make it a long one!
As it is often the case in July and August, a thunderstorm hit the Canyon and this forced us to take a break from exploring.
While the kids were a little scared by the thunder, seeing a storm on the canyon from the safety of the terrace was quite a sight.
The brooding sky got suddenly very dark and lightning ripped the air with great brightness. The storm didn’t last long and cooled down the air significant, forcing people to find refuge and reach for jumpers in the middle of the Arizona summer.
Visit desert view
When the storm passed we drove to desert view, our last stop of the day.
The view is a good distance away from El Tovar but it is easy to reach. We chose to drive but the park shuttle serve it regularly too.
Here you have an incredible observation point over the canyon, you can see you can see the Colorado River make a big bend to the West, and you also have some historical buildings worth visiting.
The only thing that matches one day in the Grand Canyon is one night in the Grand Canyon!
Despite the summer being thunderstorm season at the canyon, we got a really clear night and spent it with our noses up looking at the starry sky.
The Canyon has several good locations for star gazing and even if the kids didn’t allow us to go to the darkest parts of the park, we had amazing views of the Milky way. We were also there on a night when we could see Venus, Jupiter and Mars! It was very special.
Other things you can do in Grand Canyon in one day
Our itinerary is only one of the ways to visit the Grand Canyon. Here are other things you may want to consider.
Take the shuttle bus around the rim
The park is served by an excellent shuttle bus service. Several routes are available and serve all the main observation points and historic buildings.
The shuttle is free to use and is an excellent system to explore the park without having to drive. You can get a full free map at the park’s visitors centres.
Walk the trail of time
As well as impressive to see the Grand Canyon is impressive for its history. A great way to learn about it is to follow the ‘Trail of time’, a section of the rim trail between Yavapai Geology Museum and Verkamps Visitor Center.
This trail is a great place to learn the Grand Canyon’s history and geology in perspective since it has trail markers representing the canyon’s history, rock samples from each layer etc.
Explore the Canyon by bike
A fun way to explore the canyon rim is to take cycle. You can rent bicycles in at the Grand Canyon itself of you can bring your own.
Within the National Park you have several designated bike trails or the Greenway Trail making cycling here very pleasant.
Attend a ranger talk
Ranger talks happen at designated times during the day and they are a fantastic way to learn about the Canyon. You can get a full list of talks aviable, location and time at the visitors’ centre and area always worth attending.
Take a hike
There are many hiking opportunities in the Grand Canyon, many of them pretty challenging. Here are some of the most popular (information on length and difficulty are from the Grand Canyon official info material)
Rim trail (easy): from Hermits rest to South Kaibab Trailhead, this is an easy walk that you can break up taking the shuttle nearby.
Bright Angel Trail: this is one of the most famous Grand canyon hikes and goes from easy(20 minutes) to strenuous (2 days) depending on the exact part explore.
South Kaiab Trail: another famous hike with stretched from easy to strenuous. It’s easiest part can be hiked in about 2 hours while the full hike will take 2 days
Chase sunrise and sunsets photo ops
The canyon is beautiful at all times of the day but sunrise and sunset are special. The viewing point offer great photo ops and while the canyon is popular for overnight stays, you are less likely to meet large crowds than during the day, when day tripper abound.
Get your kids to become Junior rangers
The best way to engage the kids and make them learn about the Grand Canyon is to interest them in the junior ranger programme.
Participating kids get a booklet of info an activities at a visitors’ centre and, in their own time, go though all the tasks suggested.
They are designed to teach about the canyon and go from observation of animals and plants to teaching about the history of the the area and the local population.
If the kids complete the booklet, they return it to a ranger who will get them to pledge to protect the canyon and gives them a badge.
Less than one day in Grand Canyon? More ideas
Even less than one day for the Grand Canyon? Here some ideas for the short on time.
You have 1-2 hours at the Grand Canyon
Start from Mather point and and walk along the rim trail to Yavapai Point and geology museum. Use the shuttle to go to Yaki point and then loop back to the gran canyon visitors centre
You have half day at the Grand Canyon
Start from Mather point and follow the rim trail to the red shuttle route. Explore the historic village and and catch the shuttle to stop at the several viewpoint on the route before looping back to the visitors centre.
Where to see sunrise and sunset at the Grand Canyon
There are several points perfect to see the sunset over the Grand Canyon (or the sunrise, if you spend the night there). Some of the best ones are:
- Yavapai point
- Navajo point
- Hopi point
- Mather point
Day trip to the Grand Canyon South Rim and activities
Many operators offer organised day trips to the Grand Canyon.
These are some of the most popular on GetYourGuide, an aggregation of activities and day trips from several providers offering easy booking and good cancellation policies.
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