When most people think of Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona, they instantly conjure up images of the South Rim. This isn’t uncommon. In fact, many people don’t realize that there are actually two parts to Grand Canyon National Park. Though they’re separated by about twenty miles as the bird flies, getting between the two sides requires a five-hour road trip or 2 – 3 day hike across the bottom of the canyon (which also requires a permit).
Visiting the Grand Canyon isn’t like visiting other national parks. In fact, the two rims are so drastically different that they should possibly be considered two separate parks. They have different elevations, vegetation, atmospheres and activities. Which rim is best for you? Consider the following:
The South Rim of the Grand Canyon receives 90% of the park’s visitors for two main reasons:
1. It’s more accessible from several of Arizona’s largest cities and Las Vegas than the North Rim, which makes it easier to enjoy as a day trip.
2. It’s easier to catch the famous Grand Canyon views. A rim trail with several viewpoints easily accessible from the road makes it simple to enjoy the view without a whole lot of work.
I visited the South Rim of the Grand Canyon over Christmas. It was snowy, cold, stunningly beautiful and surprisingly crowded. We reserved a cabin several months in advance and enjoyed the picturesque views from along the trail on the rim, which was especially lovely in the snow. Despite the cold and icy conditions, there were still several tour buses running through the park. Hermit Road was closed to traffic, but the rim trail wasn’t, so hiking along that trail parallel to the road led to almost completed isolated conditions.
If you’d like to visit the South Rim, here are a few things to keep in mind:
1. It is open year round. This is one of the main advantages of visiting the South Rim instead of the North Rim. Life on the South Rim occurs year round … even on holidays. Restaurants and food courts are open regardless of when you visit. The juxtaposition of visiting the South Rim in the winter as well as the summer provides two very different viewpoints of the same canyon.
2. There is a change of seasons. Regardless of the fact that the Grand Canyon is in Arizona, it is located at a high elevation, and the South Rim is blanketed in snow in the winter. Be prepared for winter conditions with a warm jacket, gloves, hat and snow boots. In the summer, temperatures can easily hit 100 degrees. Sunglasses, cool clothing, sunscreen and hats are essential. Drink lots of water … and then drink some more.
3. The South Rim is crowded. Whether it’s the middle of summer or the middle of winter, the South Rim is crowded. Tour buses are plentiful and tourist amenities are well stocked and visited. I recommend you park your car and take advantage of the shuttle bus, which gets around most of the South Rim fairly efficiently. Due to the popularity of the park, if you want to camp here, book as far in advance as possible; reservations are accepted at Mather Campground up to six months in advance.
4. There is more infrastructure. Don’t want to travel far from anything? When you visit the South Rim, you’ve got cafeterias, restaurants, shops and lodges. Need OJ for the morning? Stop by the grocery store. Want to take home some turquoise jewelry as a souvenir? You have a choice of places to shop.
5. The South Rim has more activities. In addition to the mule rides and plenty of shopping, the South Rim is also where you’ll find the Kolb Studio, Hopi House and other diversions beyond peeking over the rim into the Canyon. If you want to participate in a scheduled activity, such as a mule ride, you’ll need to make a reservation in advance.
6. Hiking opportunities are minimal. There is some hiking on the South Rim, but, for the most part, trails are short and not particularly challenging (unless you head into the canyon). They are also very accessible from the road, which means that it can be exceptionally difficult to escape the crowds.
7. It is easily accessible. If you want to take a day trip from Las Vegas, Sedona or Phoenix, you can. There are scenic drives along the rim that make it easy to hop out and check out the famous Grand Canyon views. If you want to say you’ve seen the Grand Canyon, the South Rim is probably the right rim for you to visit.
»Read more about my Christmas at the Grand Canyon.
The remaining 10% of the Grand Canyon’s visitors head for the North Rim, which requires a very specific commitment to reach because it’s not just on the way to anywhere else. Unlike the South Rim, there is no airport or rail service, and you must drive in.
I visited the North Rim over the Fourth of July, and, unlike Christmas on the South Rim, which required a cabin reservation months in advance, I reserved a campsite just a couple days before the holiday weekend. In the middle of the summer — when the South Rim is baking in the heat — the North Rim is surprisingly cool and comfortable. At 8,000 feet in elevation, it is covered in trees, which provides a natural shade covering.
If you’d like to visit the North Rim, here are a few things to keep in mind:
1. It is not open year round. Due to its elevation, the North Rim is completely blanketed in snow in the winter, so it is only open from May through October. If you’d like to snowshoe in, you are welcome to do so, but for all intents and purposes, the North Rim is closed during the winter months.
2. There are not as many amenities. You can buy firewood and camping basics at the North Rim, but the extensive shopping options are not available here. The North Rim is also lacking in extensive museum-esque exhibits and guided tours. There is one campground, and you can and should make reservations in advance.
3. It is much more relaxed. Because so few people visit the North Rim, those who do reach it find it to be exceptionally relaxing. The tree-covered campground is reminiscent of what you might find in any community, and the emphasis isn’t so much on the Grand Canyon as it is on getting away from it all. The lodge has a large deck overlooking the canyon, and in the evenings, visitors gather here with the park firefighters and employees to chat and relax.
4. The views are different. I would argue that, though the views of the Grand Canyon are impressive on both rims, if you want to see the views, you should go to the South Rim, mainly because there are more places to peek over the edge. I appreciate the views on the North Rim because they are dramatic, but in a more subtle way. At night, you can see the traffic on the South Rim.
5. Hiking is plentiful, scenic overlooks are not. There is a scenic drive on the North Rim, but it doesn’t trace the rim quite as elegantly as the one on the South Rim does so there aren’t as many viewing areas. To get the most out of the North Rim, you’ll need to hike to the edge via lengthier and less accessible trails.
6. People visit the North Rim for the ambiance, not the Grand Canyon. Kids ride their bikes around the campground, parents play cards on the lodge deck and hikers wander through the woods. The point of the North Rim isn’t specifically to check out the canyon but rather enjoy the atmosphere of a quaint and comfortable summer vacation. The Grand Canyon is a secondary consideration and bonus to the North Rim.
7. It is difficult to reach. Fill up with gas along the way because the gas on the North Rim is pricey. Come prepared to spend at least a few days. The drive in takes so long that it’s just not worth visiting for a single day.
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