After a lot of research and one failed attempt (in Las Vegas), I finally made it to one of the world’s oldest and most iconic tourist spots – read on to find out how to spend one day at the Grand Canyon.
Ahh, the Grand Canyon. Over 3 million years old, 277 (river) miles long and 18 miles across (at its widest point), it’s no surprise this natural phenomenon attracts over 5 million visitors a year. It’s equally no surprise that the Grand Canyon is on countless travel wish lists.
It was certainly on mine.
A failed attempt at seeing the Grand Canyon in Las Vegas…and a blessing in disguise
In 2008 I took a whistle-stop trip to Las Vegas. In four days I planned to cram in a look at the strip, a flutter on the roulette, a taste of the legendary Las Vegas cuisine, a world-famous show, a bit of designer shopping (remember, I was a lawyer back then with more money than sense) and, of course, a trip to the Grand Canyon.
As has happened to me more than once on my travels, my trip to the Grand Canyon, which I planned to see by helicopter, was cancelled due to bad weather. With a shrug and a promise to make good on my plans to see the Grand Canyon some other day, I left Las Vegas.
My cancelled trip turned out to be a blessing in disguise…because the trip I eventually took was by far a better way to spend one day at the Grand Canyon.
How to spend one day at the Grand Canyon
Let’s be honest, unless you live close to the Grand Canyon, are a geologist or a serious hiker, you’re probably only going to see the Grand Canyon once in your lifetime. And you’re probably going to see it on a day trip from somewhere outside of the Grand Canyon village.
But that doesn’t mean you need to make a hatchet job out of your visit (like Mr. Griswald, above, and his infamous 2-second look at the canyon in the cult film National Lampoon’s Vacation).
After a lot of research and speaking to a heap of other travellers who had visited the Grand Canyon from different locations, in different styles and using different tour options, I made my decision. What follows is my suggestions for how to spend one day at the Grand Canyon.
Taking a longer trip in western USA? You might like my guide to
Visit from Flagstaff
One of the upsides to the Grand Canyon being so vast is that there is a choice of places you can visit from. However, if you only have one day to spend at the Grand Canyon, I’d highly recommend that you use Flagstaff as your base.
Why? Short of staying inside the park, Flagstaff is one of the closest cities to the Grand Canyon. It’s only 80 miles away and has all of the facilities you need from a base location – good transport links, hotels, hostels, restaurants, cafes and outdoor gear stores.
Plus, the town itself is damn cute.
Where to stay in Flagstaff
Budget: Grand Canyon International Hostel. Check latest prices here.
Budget: DuBeau Motel. Check latest prices here.
Mid Range: Arizona Mountain Inn and Cabins. Check latest prices here.
Luxury Inn: Starlight Pines B&B. Check latest prices here.
Luxury: Embassy Suites by Hilton Flagstaff. Check latest prices here.
You’ll find more details about where to stay in Flagstaff at the end of this article.
Visit from the south rim (and leave from the east rim)
Sure, the Grand Canyon is going to be stunning whichever way you look at it, but the reality is that not all of the rims (or viewpoints) at the Grand Canyon were created equally. Visit from Las Vegas and you’ll hit the west rim, which is nice enough, but visit from Flagstaff and you’ll get the chance to explore both the south and east rims. And, when it comes to superiority, there is no denying that the south rim, which possesses the vistas that you see in TV, in movies and on postcards, is the best rim to visit.
By travelling back to Flagstaff via the East Rim, you get to take in more of the National Park, see a greater diversity of the canyon’s surrounding terrain (think: pine forests), and you don’t end up seeing the same thing twice.
The drive time to the south rim from Flagstaff is around 1.5 hours compared to 5 hours from each of Las Vegas and Phoenix.
A word on the Skywalk Bridge
What about the Skywalk Bridge, I hear you cry?
A trip out to the west rim and the fabulous Skywalk bridge from Las Vegas is one of the most common tours you will see and it’s a tempting proposition.
However, here’s what put me off:
- a trip to the west rim and Skywalk still involves 2.5 hrs each way in a car – that’s more time in a vehicle and less time at the canyon compared to a trip from Flagstaff; and
- those pictures you see of the Skywalk, they were taken on opening day…and only day when people (more specifically journalists) were allowed to take cameras onto the Skywalk. The rest of the time, you have to stow ALL of your belongings, including your camera and smartphone in a locker before going out over the rim. It’s a rule that’s imposed so that clumsy folk (like me) don’t drop things over the edge or onto the Skywalk itself, scratching the glass – but it’s a rule that would annoy the hell out of me. If I’m visiting the Grand Canyon and stepping out on the Skywalk, I absolutely want pictures of the experience.
A word on helicopter tours of the Grand Canyon
As I’ve mentioned, my initial plan was to visit the Grand Canyon via helicopter. In hindsight, I’m glad that things didn’t work out. Not only are helicopter tours expensive, the amount of time you get to spend over the canyon is relatively limited. Those 45 or 55 minute rides you’re sold are usually the total time in the air – not necessarily the time over the canyon.
A much better option and better way to explore if you only have one day to spend at the Grand Canyon, and a way more unique experience, is to take a hike below the rim…more on this below…
4 spots you shouldn’t miss from the south rim
Unfold the map of the Grand Canyon and you’re likely to be overwhelmed with viewing opportunities. If you only have one day in the Grand Canyon, here are four of the top sights I recommend.
Mather Point (by Grand Canyon Visitor’s Centre) – the closest viewpoint to Grand Canyon Village and with access to the visitor’s centre, Mather Point makes for a perfect “gasp-worthy” first stop on your Grand Canyon trip. See my main picture at the top of this article – that’s Mather Point. Stunning, right?
Lipan Point: if you think Mather Point is the pinnacle of all views of the Grand Canyon, just wait until you get to Lipan Point where you’ll promptly change your opinion (picture just above). Offering the most expansive view of the canyon, Lipan Point is the the view that makes it onto most postcards and will probably take up the most space on your memory card.
Desert View Watch Tower: the one thing I loved about the Grand Canyon is how it kept surprising me. Climb the steps up the Desert Watch Tower and you’ll get a very visual reminder (courtesy of the perfect cone there) that you’re standing firmly on volcanic terrain.
Tusayan Museum: the Grand Canyon isn’t just about the natural sights, it’s home to many Native American Indian tribes and the Tusayan Museum and ruins is a beautiful stop that provides insight into Indian pueblo life 800 years ago.
Note: if you’re interested in finding out out more about American Indian history and art, I’d highly recommend the Heard Museum in Phoenix.
Do what 97% of people don’t: go hiking in the Grand Canyon below the rim
In our abundantly over-explored planet, it’s getting harder and harder to engage in a travel activity that is only experienced by a minority. So, not only was I staggered to find that only three percent of visitors to the Grand Canyon step foot below the rim, I was overjoyed to find that I could become one of the minority and take a hike below the rim – even though I was only on a day trip.
If I could only give you one recommendation for your day at the Grand Canyon it would be this – make sure you take even the shortest hike below the rim.
Of course, in one day you’re never going to reach the bottom and get back in time for your ride home, but it’s still possible to descend deep enough that the canyon sides tower above you and you obtain a view that is quite unlike anything you (and the 97% of other visitors to the Grand Canyon) see from the top.
On my hike I travelled down the Kaibaba Trail to Ooh-Aah Point – a spot that is aptly named because visitors check out the views in one direction and declare “ooh” before turning to face the opposite direction and declaring “ahh”. For the record, I did exactly that – it’s practically instinctive with that view.
A word on trekking to Ooh-Aah Point on the South Kaibab Trail
The trek to Ooh Ahh Point is just under 2 miles there and back and takes about 30 minutes to descent and 45 minutes to ascend.
I wasn’t in the best physical shape when I did the hike (too many burritos and beers in Mexico) but I was able to manage it.
The trek up can leave you puffing and panting a bit due to the incline and the altitude (think: sucking air through a straw). However, with occasional short stops and enough water, I’d say that all but the most unfit could handle it…actually, I even saw some of the “most unfit” take on the hike and achieve it (though with apparent displeasure).
Usual trekking rules apply: Make sure you have good footwear, sunscreen, plenty of water and energy snacks to keep you going. Mmmm….snacks…
You can find more good hiking tips and details about the South Kaibab Trail here.
Look for dinosaur footprints at The Cameron Trading Post
The reality is that most tours are going to take you to one of the Grand Canyon trading posts a.k.a centres set up to sell to tourists. As someone who has little to no interest in this kind of shopping (small bag, limited space and questionable authenticity of goods), I tend to zone out when a tour bus rolls into the car park of these kinds of joints. However, the Cameron Trading Post was different. While the shoppers loaded themselves up with souvenirs, I took myself dinosaur footprint spotting.
Hint: you’ll find one on the floor by the door to one of the stores and another inside near the back on the right wall.
Planning your trip: I used the USA Lonely Planet Guidebook. Although it’s not filled with pictures, it’s got all the details you need including train and bus routes and times as well as local maps. If you’re not travelling beyond the the Grand Canyon, save space in your case and take the smaller version dedicated just to the Grand Canyon.
If you’re a more visual person, check out the DK Eyewitness Arizona & The Grand Canyon complete with images and 3D guides to major sites.
Reasons to take a tour versus visiting the Grand Canyon on your own
I’m only ever a fan of organised tours when they promise an enhanced experience compared to anything I can arrange on my own. And a day trip to the Grand Canyon was definitely one of those moments when I was glad I put myself under the instruction and supervision of a tour guide.
I opted for a tour with All-Star Grand Canyon Tours, the company that comes out top on TripAdvisor for tours to the Grand Canyon from Flagstaff.
Why opt for a tour to the Grand Canyon versus a DIY trip? Well…
Transport – a door to door service – I didn’t have my own wheels in the USA and as a solo traveller, the cost of hiring a car can be expensive when you’re footing the whole bill. My tour company picked me up at my hotel and dropped me back at the end of the day. Also, All-Star Grand Canyon Tours have a modified bus with luxury seats so you don’t have to sit uncomfortably close to the dude who was already overdue a shower before he went hiking below the rim.
Fascinating facts – imagine having a wealth of facts and geological information fed to you at the right moment by an expert geologist. Many times I’ve visited places of historical and geological significance without the benefit of a guide and each time my experience was inferior because of it. What’s the point in staring at rocks if you don’t know anything about how the canyon got there, how big it is, the river’s role in it’s creation, pop culture and for those who love a bit of gore, the death stats (for example, more than one man has met his maker taking a wazz over the edge after a few too many beers).
Did you know: for every step you take down into the canyon, you’re stepping back 60,000 years in time. That fact was delivered to me by my guide, Molly, as I started my descent on the South Kaibab Trail…and as someone who has always wanted to time travel, it completely blew my mind.
Experienced backpackers for your hike – experienced hiker or not, it’s nice to have an expert on hand if you plan to hike below the rim…just in case you get into a tangle with one of the many mules that rule the roads there.
Access to an amazing telescope – one of the highlights of my tour was the supersonic (non-technical term) telescope that my guide, Molly, carried with us everywhere. Being able to spot rafters on the river or hikers who were a few days into their journey really added some context to the size of the canyon…especially when I wasn’t able to spot the same things with my naked eye (even with my glasses on).
Someone to take your picture (if you’re a solo traveller) – I recently wrote about some of the downsides of travelling solo and horrible, too-many-chins selfies was one of those disadvantages. It may seem silly out of context to promote the benefit of an on hand photographer as a reason for taking a tour to the Grand Canyon, but when get to the canyon and realise no matter how hard you try, an arm-length shot simply won’t do, you’ll agree with me on this one.
Parking, especially in summer, can be a ‘mare – another highly practical point, but one not to overlook is that those 5 million visitors need to put their wheels somewhere. Take a tour and that worry goes away.
Source (and carry) your lunch! There’s one thing that’s guaranteed the world over – the expense and mediocrity of the food at famous sights. Instead of cramming crappy fried food in my mouth at one of the Grand Canyon eateries, I was treated to a delicious roast beef deli sandwich and gourmet picnic complete with pasta salad, fruit, pickles and crisps (chips) all laid out with proper plates, napkins and silverware. And the lazy-lump that I am, I was kinda glad I didn’t have to carry it.
A word on the train from Williams
I researched and quickly dismissed the idea of taking the Grand Canyon train from Williams. Usually, I’m a big fan of train trips and was hoping the Grand Canyon train might be a little like the one in Copper Canyon, Mexico.
All the train really does is provide a mode of transport from Williams to the Grand Canyon. When you’re at the National Park you’re on your own..and worse, you’re on your own without your own transport. In other words, it’s an expensive way to get to the Grand Canyon without any enhanced advantaged when you arrive.
My trip to the Grand Canyon was six years in the making from my failed attempt to visit from Las Vegas to the amazing experience I eventually had visiting from Flagstaff. It’s a fair amount of time to ruminate on the topic, but something that completely paid off.
Taking a one day tour of the Grand Canyon
There are lots of tour companies to consider – be careful which one you choose or you might end up looking like the poor people in the photo above!
Below are a few to check out. I’ve included the company I booked with as well as some alternatives in case you’re not staying in Flagstaff. And, because taking a helicopter ride over the Grand Canyon is probably on some of your bucket lists, I’ve included that too.
Grand Canyon Spirit Helicopter Tour from the South Rim – 45 minutes in the sky, flying over the south rim. If I was taking a helicopter ride, I’d take this one. This trip departs from Tusayan, a village on the edge of the Grand Canyon park, about 1hr 15 minutes’ drive from Flagstaff.
Grand Canyon Helicopter Landing – if the sky is the limit (literally and in terms of budget), then go all-in; and by all-in I mean all into the canyon. This tour lands you on the Grand Canyon floor for a glass of Champagne (of course) while you’re stood right next to the Colorado river. Departure is from Las Vegas and will probably tick more than one of your bucket list boxes in one trip.
Grand Canyon West Rim and Skywalk Tour from Las Vegas – if you’re in Vegas and you really want to step out on the skywalk over the West rim, then take this tour. It also includes the Hoover Dam and comes at a good value price.
Where to stay in Flagstaff
The town of Flagstaff is quaintly compact so it shouldn’t be difficult to get a spot right in the centre (or within a short drive) – which is a good idea because there are plenty of places you’ll probably want to dine out.
Budget: DuBeau motel
A great budget accommodation option slap bang in the middle of Flagstaff, this motel is minutes from the train line and has both private and dorm rooms (from $25/$50 including a basic breakfast and taxes).
Budget: Grand Canyon International Hostel
Ideal if you’re travelling solo or after more of a traditional hostel vibe. It also has a brilliant location close to the DeBeau motel.
Mid Range: Arizona Mountain Inn and Cabins
If you’re looking to create that mountain town feel, the Arizona Mountain Inn and Cabins offers relaxation and is perfect for some romance that’s just a short drive from Flagstaff.
Luxury Inn: Starlight Pines B&B
Home from home…with the possibility of actually being nice than being at home, Starlight Pines B&B is a quaint alternative to the chain brands dotted around town.
Luxury: Embassy Suites by Hilton Flagstaff
A little further out of town (though still within walking distance and with nearby cafes and restaurants), the Embassy Suites by Hilton will provide all the usual services you can expect from a high-end chain with a mountain feel to boot.
Not found what you’re looking for? Click here for the top 10 hotels in Flagstaff (according to TripAdvisor).
Useful information for visiting the Grand Canyon in one day from Flagstaff
I took the Beginner Day Hike with All-Star Grand Canyon Tours (cost $250).
An alternative tour if you don’t feel strong enough to take a hike in the Grand Canyon (or have a smaller budget) is the Grand Canyon Deluxe Day Tour from Flagstaff (cost $200).
I’d highly recommend staying a few extra days in Flagstaff. The mountain feel to the town calls you into a warm bar at night for a beer and bowl of chilli while the cafes serve up a warm brew during the day.
The Greyhound station is a short ride out of town. If have a smartphone, you can download the Uber App (it’s a private hire taxi service I use a lot when I travel) and get your first ride up to $30 free using my promo code jof22.
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My tour of the Grand Canyon was courtesy of All-Star Grand Canyon Tours.