When planning our first visit to the Grand Canyon, my husband and I agreed that the journey should be as substantial as the destination itself. We decided to fly to Las Vegas, rent a car and take 10 days to loop around the 277-mile-long gorge carved by the Colorado River, being sure to see the less-visited North Rim.
Here’s what we experienced on our nearly 1,200-mile road trip that touched three states: Nevada, Utah and Arizona. Spoiler alert: There are as many worthy stops to make outside Grand Canyon National Park as inside.
Nevada's Valley of Fire State Park; Photo by MeLinda Schnyder
LAS VEGAS TO THE NORTH RIM
The first day of our September circumnavigation provided the most extreme scenery of the entire route. It started northeast of Las Vegas with a drive through Nevada’s Valley of Fire State Park. The main park road delivers dramatic rocky landscapes in countless shades of red, and we took time to drive the six-mile White Domes Road, where towering formations engulfed us.
Then came Zion-Mount Carmel Highway, a scenic byway that zigzags to the top of the canyon through a tunnel bored into sandstone cliffs and along a mesa featuring a checkerboard grid. The 25-mile route took us through the south canyons of Zion National Park (a park entrance fee is required), leading us to our first overnight in Kanab, Utah. We’ve explored southern Utah’s beautiful collection of national parks on previous trips, so we stayed on mission despite the lure of the surrounding scenery.
Angel Canyon at Best Friends Animal Sanctuary in southern Utah; Photo by MeLinda Schnyder
With so much to explore around the Utah/Arizona border, we allotted just one day inside Grand Canyon National Park’s North Rim. Even after driving through several stunning parks already, I got chills when I saw the steep, multihued canyon walls framed by three massive windows as we stepped inside the sunroom at the 1937 Grand Canyon Lodge. We hit the highlights in our brief exploration: Bright Angel Point for striking views into Bright Angel and Roaring Springs canyons and the equally must-see overlooks at the 8,803-foot-tall Point Imperial and Cape Royal, both accessible along a 23-mile scenic drive.
Need to know: Roads and services at the North Rim close for the winter; the 2023 season is scheduled for May 15 through October 15.
Side trips: Springdale, Utah, just outside Zion National Park; Vermilion Cliffs National Monument (in northern Arizona), with areas featuring brilliantly colored cauliflower rock at White Pocket and rippled sandstone layers at The Wave.
White Pocket within Vermilion Cliffs National Monument in northern Arizona; Photo by MeLinda Schnyder
NORTH RIM TO THE SOUTH RIM
The reason so many visitors to the Grand Canyon skip the North Rim? The drive from the North Rim to the South Rim is 220 miles and takes a bit longer than four hours.
With one-and-a-half days allotted to the South Rim, we parked our car outside our room at the national park’s Yavapai Lodge and then focused on exploring the mostly paved 13-mile Rim Trail. The trail connects the main overlooks and interpretive displays of the inner canyon as well as historic buildings and park facilities at Grand Canyon Village. We walked most of the trail, though shuttles are available to take visitors to each overlook.
While our hotel room was basic, not having to commute outside the park meant I saw two sunsets and two sunrises from the rim.
Need to know: Plan a Grand Canyon vacation at least a year in advance for ideal lodging, dining and activity choices. By the time I booked, there were no options in available room type, but I was lucky enough to score in-park lodging for our September visit two months out (with persistent phone calls to the reservation center).
Side trips: Page, Arizona, offers access to tours of Antelope Canyon, a Navajo Nation park, as well as Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, where you can explore Lake Powell, see the Horseshoe Bend overlook and take a guided smooth water rafting tour on the Colorado River.
Redstone Trail at Lake Mead National Recreation Area in Nevada; Photo by MeLinda Schnyder
SOUTH RIM TO LAS VEGAS
Need to know: The Hualapai Tribal land is 250 miles from the South Rim and 130 miles from Las Vegas.
Side trips: Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument, just north of Flagstaff, Arizona, as well as the towns of Sedona, Williams and Kingman; Hoover Dam; Lake Mead National Recreation Area
While our 10-day road trip wasn’t long enough to delve into everything we came across or to hike into the canyon, it made for a fun, memory-packed vacation. The grandest of canyons is grand, indeed.