As one of the wonders of the world, and the second most visited national park in the U.S., the Grand Canyon is one of those iconic destinations that merits a visit. But rather than drive through for a quick photo op, it’s important to spend some time here to fully experience and appreciate the splendor of this place, and all the multifaceted components that make it so special. From unparalleled sunset views and hikes, to colorful waterfalls and historic buildings, here are 8 things you need to see on a trip to the Grand Canyon.
It’s impossible to out-sunset the Grand Canyon. As the sun sinks below the looming horizon, casting an orange-pink glow across the craggy canyon walls, it forms a kaleidoscopic explosion that needs to be seen to believe. Due to the varying depths, jagged walls, and myriad textures forming the canyon, the light hits it in different shades, creating a vivid canvas of warm hues. And considering the enormity of this place, you’ll be veritably immersed in color as the entire landscape is bathed in fading sunlight. One of the best—and most accessible—viewpoints to enjoy sunset is the Mather Point Overlook, located an easy stroll from the south entrance visitor center.
Mary Jane Colter has had significant architectural impact on the Grand Canyon, world-renowned for her meticulously designed buildings that now serve as museums and gallery spaces. All of her works are listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and few are more striking than the Indian Watchtower. Accessed via the Desert View Entrance into the park, this 70-foot eye-catcher drew inspiration from Anasazi watchtowers and echoes those influences with its earthy stone facade and petroglyph-like artwork along the interior walls. The structure is beautiful on its own, but it also affords exceptional views of the canyon from an outdoor observation deck on the second floor and another on the top level.
If you don’t necessarily have the time to hoof it along trails, but you’re still eager to get as many sweeping photos as possible, head to Hermit Road Drive, a seven-mile scenic route along the rim that really packs it in with numerous viewpoints heralded as some of the best in the park. Due to the popularity and traffic of the drive during high season (March-November), the road is only accessible via shuttle buses that depart every 10-15 minutes and stop at nine overlooks en route. In the “off season,” feel free to drive your own car and meander at your own pace.
With its turquoise tint and hard-to-access location, Havasu Falls seems almost mythical, but this is one destination that is well worth the added effort to find. Emphasis on “effort,” because the trek to these famed falls requires a permit and a 20-mile roundtrip haul that starts at the Hualapai Hilltop in the Havasupai Indian Reservation. Once there, you’ll be able to swim and drink in the sights of one of the most unique waterfalls in the world. Considering the extensive trip, it’s highly recommended to camp by the falls and spend the night.
Don’t be intimidated by the 13-mile length of this trail—it’s almost totally flat, and revered for good reason. Running along the south rim of the canyon from the South Kaibab Trailhead to Hermit’s Rest, the Rim Trail is a show-stopper of a hike with view after jaw-dropping view to keep you fully entertained. The fact that there’s a healthy amount of tree cover along the trail helps alleviate the heat as well. Of course, if you don’t have time for the full 13 miles, you can always pick and choose smaller segments of the trail at your leisure.
If you’re looking to hike down into the canyon, opt for the Bright Angel Trail. The most popular in the park, you’ll immediately understand the appeal. Departing from the Grand Canyon Village area, the full trail spans 19 miles roundtrip, but for those not interested in hardcore hiking and overnight camping, Bright Angel can be abbreviated to the Indian Garden Campground (nine miles roundtrip) or the much easier Lower Tunnel (1.7 miles roundtrip) or Upper Tunnel (.4 miles roundtrip). Even if you do the latter, you’ll be rewarded with stunning views within the canyon, as the trail takes hikers right up to the edge for as-close-as-you-can-get panoramas. That being said, this clearly isn’t the best option for anyone with a fear of heights.
Gawking at the Grand Canyon is all well and good (and endlessly fascinating), but to best understand the sheer magnitude and history of this behemoth, you should visit the Geological Museum. Not only are the views from the museum wonderful, but it does a great job explaining the geology of the canyon walls and the roaring Colorado River that formed it. Through immersive exhibits and diagrams, the Geological Museum paints a brilliant picture of the park with in-depth background and all-natural lore, and it’s a great primer before heading out onto the trails or scenic drives.
Even if you aren’t staying at the El Tovar Hotel (and considering reservations fill up literally years in advance, it’s likely that you aren’t), this opulent and timeworn property is worth a visit for its architectural significance, its canyon-adjacent vantage point, and its fine dining. If you’ve got time for one meal at the Grand Canyon, make it here at the El Tovar Hotel—you won’t find a more majestic backdrop than this local icon, constructed in 1905 by the same architect as the Santa Fe Railway. Charles Whittlesey designed the El Tovar to mimic European chalets and villas, and that luxury comes through with both its motif and its meals. The dining room features dishes like prime rib hash, salmon tostadas, broiled lamp chops, and duck breast with blueberry compote. For something a tad more casual, head to the Lounge for cocktails and crab cake sliders in an art-filled space with a veranda.
Born and raised in New Hampshire, Matt Kirouac grew up with a love for camping and the outdoors. Though he’s lived in Chicago since 2006, he’s always on the lookout for new adventures. He writes about travel and food for outlets like TripExpert, Money Inc, Upventur, DiningOut, Food Fanatics magazine, Plate Magazine and Zagat, and he currently serves as Chicago editor for What Should We Do?! He’s the author of The Hunt Guides: Chicago (2016) and Unique Eats & Eateries of Chicago (2017).