The Grand Canyon is one of the most popular national parks in the US, and for good reason. It’s mind-boggling how big it is, and it’s incredibly gorgeous. I visited with a couple of friends in 2003 but Andy had never been there, so I insisted we add it to our US road trip itinerary. Here’s what we did for 3 nights and 2 days in the Grand Canyon, where to get the best views, and tips for planning your own Grand Canyon itinerary.
Grand Canyon itinerary
Since the Grand Canyon is a bit remote, you should give yourself plenty of time to get there and explore and enjoy the park. The Grand Canyon south rim is about a 4 hour drive from the Phoenix airport and a 5 hour drive from the Las Vegas airport. This means if you’re flying in from somewhere else in the country, that first day doesn’t even count.
The suggestions detailed below are for those of you who like a more leisurely pace. I find that trying to jam too many things into a short amount of time is not enjoyable, so I always recommend slowing things down a little.
Also, if you are a more active person than we are, consider more serious hiking for your Grand Canyon itinerary.
What to see in Grand Canyon in one day
One day in the Grand Canyon is tough. It’s such an amazing park, and there’s so much to see. But if you’re on a tight schedule, here’s my suggestion for the Grand Canyon in a day.
Start at the section near the visitor center. This is where you’ll find the more popular lookout points, like Mather Point, and you can dip your toes onto Bright Angel Trail to get below the rim. The visitor Center can also give you maps and info on any closures you need to know about.
After that, hop on the orange bus line. It has a stop at Mather Point, and then it takes you east of the visitor center for some great views. Some sections are closed to private vehicles. One of the stops is Yaki Point where you can get some gorgeous photos. If you’re a serious hiker, the South Kaibab Trail starting point is a stop on this bus route.
Either have a picnic lunch at a designated spot, or go to the Maswick Lodge food court or the general store/deli near Yavapai.
Finish out day one by driving out to Desert Tower and the viewpoints along the way. There is no bus route out this way, so you’ll need to drive it yourself. Desert Tower offers fantastic views of the Grand Canyon, and you can actually see bits of the Colorado River from here.
What to see in Grand Canyon in 2 days
Andy and I spent 2 days in the Grand Canyon, and I felt like that was a good amount of time to see a lot of different sections of the south rim.
On day two at the Grand Canyon, I recommend taking the Hermit’s Rest bus. This is the red line, and it has lots of stops on the route going away from the central part of the park, but only a few stops coming back.
Take the bus and get out at a handful of stops along the way. There are easy hiking trails along the rim that you can follow for a more active experience than the day before, plus there are some wonderful views here.
Eventually make your way to Hermit’s Rest and admire the view. The canyon changes drastically from one part of the park to another, and this is another example of why you should really see it from different angles. This can take as long as you want it to, depending on how much walking you want to do.
If you only have one day at the Grand Canyon and you prefer a little more hiking than the one day itinerary above, you can swap out the Desert Tower and do Hermit’s Rest instead.
Other activities for your day could include the Grand Canyon museums and historic buildings, guided walks/hikes, a guided cycling tour, or even book a helicopter tour.
Keep reading for more info about the places I’ve mentioned in this Grand Canyon itinerary and to hear more about our personal experiences visiting the park.
Bright Angel Trail and nearby viewpoints
Bright Angel Trail is the popular trail you can hike to go below the rim. It goes all the way to the bottom of the canyon. You need to be in really good shape to hike that far though (and you can’t hike down and back in one day), or even to hike any significant section of the trail. It’s hot, and the hike back is uphill, which means if you wait until you’re tired to turn back, you might not make it.
Andy and I aren’t in the best physical shape, so we only hiked for about 15 minutes before turning back. We could’ve gone a bit farther, but we we both more interested in going to some viewpoints.
The beginning of Bright Angel Trail is basically in the central part of the south rim, so you can wander around nearby for more views. This also means it’s where you’ll see the biggest crowds. The views are definitely worth checking out here, but keep reading to see why it’s well worth venturing farther.
Orange bus line: South Kaibab Trail, Yaki Point, Mather Point
The park has several bus lines that help you make the most of your visit to the Grand Canyon. The first one we took was the orange line, which goes east from the main part of the park to the South Kaibab Trail area and Yaki Point. South Kaibab Trail is another popular hiking trail, which we didn’t do, but some friends of ours were there just a week or so after us and they loved it.
It stops several times along the way, and we got out for photos at Yaki Point as well as Mather Point, close to the visitors center, for photos. Part of this route is only accessible by taking the bus, so there were significantly fewer people out at Yaki Point than at the center of the park. The views are also much different out this way, so it was fun to get multiple perspectives of the canyon.
Mather Point is a very popular viewpoint since it’s so close to the visitors center. There were lots of people there, and I’ve seen pictures of it at the height of summer when it’s way worse. Again, it’s worth checking out this view, but don’t let this be the only view you see.
Desert Tower viewpoints
Also towards the east, there’s another section worth visiting called Desert Tower. This part does not have a bus route, so you’ll have to drive. The tower at the farthest point gives you a nice view of the eastern end of the Grand Canyon.
We also pulled of at almost every viewpoint along the drive back. Because I can never have enough pictures of a beautiful landscape. Give yourself plenty of time to enjoy each new angle. I loved that you could see the Colorado River much more easily from out here as compared to the viewpoints near Bright Angel Trail.
Red bus line: Hermit’s Rest
On our second day at the Grand Canyon, we took the red line, which goes west to Hermit’s Rest. There are multiple stops going out but only a few going back.
We got out at many stops on the way out and then either got the next bus or hiked to the next stop. There’s a trail that hugs the rim along this whole bus route, so you can hike sections of it or not, as you wish. Some sections are longer than others, so look at the map ahead of time.
This route is closed to private vehicles at certain times of the year, so there were very few crowds to contend with. It was so quiet while we walked, and it was easily the most enjoyable part of our 2 days in the Grand Canyon.
What is this hurricane coming through the desert?
Andy and I really wanted to see the North Rim. It’s supposed to be yet another different view of the canyon, and since fewer people visit, it’s quieter. But the campground options sounded less than appealing, and the lodges were all booked up. So we made the potentially ridiculous decision to leave early on our last morning, drive up to the North Rim, and then continue (with some backtracking) to our next stop, Page, AZ.
But it was not meant to be.
We started seeing on the news that a hurricane was headed our way. Yes, you read that correctly. We were in the deserts of Arizona, and a hurricane named Rosa was making a path through Mexico and Arizona.
As we began our drive out of the Grand Canyon South Rim area, dark clouds were already making their way over our path. We could see fog rolling into the canyon as we drove by. And then the rain began to fall. We had already decided to scrap our North Rim plans, but this cemented it.
Huge downpours pommeled us as we drove through northern Arizona, in places forcing us to slow to well below the speed limit. Luckily we seemed to be a little ahead of the worst of it, and eventually we made it to Page.
I read that this storm provided Phoenix with its wettest October day on record. So in a region of the country known for being hot and dry, we just happened to be there for incredibly wet weather, which also lowered the temperatures in AZ and UT (where we’d be in just a couple days) for the remainder of our trip.
Where to stay at the Grand Canyon
While planning this road trip, I saw that late September/early October was typically a much colder time of year for night time temperatures. Not wanting to sleep in our campervan popup in freezing temperatures, we opted for a hotel.
There’s lots of lodging near Grand Canyon National Park, and we chose to stay nearby but not IN the park because it was a little cheaper. We stayed at the Grand Canyon Plaza Hotel in Tusayan for 3 nights.
This was not the best hotel we’ve ever stayed at. But it was adequate. We didn’t get their breakfast since we still had all our food in the van, plus the room had a mini fridge. We did eat dinner at the bar restaurant on our first night, and it was not very good. So I wouldn’t recommend eating here. However, it was a decent enough place to sleep if you don’t want to camp or stay in one of the park’s properties.
Andy and I actually had pretty good luck with food inside the park, and you can read about where we’d recommend in his post here.
Why you should buy a national park pass
The normal entrance fee for Grand Canyon National Park is $35. If that’s the only park you’re visiting on your trip, and if you don’t plan on going to more than two national parks all year, it’s fine to simply pay the fee. But if you’re going to multiple parks, it is well worth buying a national park pass.
The America the Beautiful pass costs $80 and is valid for one year. It covers admission for the pass holder plus anyone else in the car. While shopping at REI, the cashier mentioned they sell the national park passes. Many times throughout our trip, I was so happy we bought one through them because we didn’t have to worry about it anywhere along the way.
I don’t think I need to convince you to visit the Grand Canyon. It is truly spectacular. You can see the highlights in one day if that’s all you have, but I think it’s worth spending at least 2 days in Grand Canyon National Park since there’s so much to see. If you’re a big hiker, you could easily spend longer hiking several trails as well as enjoying the viewpoints.
You might also enjoy:
- 2 Days in Kings Canyon National Park
- 2 Days in Yosemite National Park
- 1 Day in Sequoia National Park
- 1 Day in Death Valley National Park