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Desert View Drive

Start: Yavapai Point, about a mile east of Grand Canyon Village.

Finish: Desert View overlook, near the park's east entrance.

Time: About 4 hours.

Highlights: Spectacular views of the central and northeastern canyon.

Drawbacks: Sometimes closes temporarily in winter due to snow.

Desert View Drive goes 2 miles on South Entrance Road, which links Tusayan and Grand Canyon Village. The remaining 23 miles are on the stretch of Highway 64 that links South Entrance Road and the Desert View overlook. An improved road system and new parking lots have enhanced this drive. The Yavapai and Mather overlooks are on South Entrance Road; the remaining seven stops, including six canyon overlooks and the Tusayan Ruin & Museum, are accessible from Highway 64.

1. Yavapai Geology Museum

Yavapai Point features some of the most expansive views both up and down the canyon. The historic observation station here features huge plate-glass windows overlooking the central canyon, and interpretive panels identifying virtually all the major landmarks. There are also exhibits that explain the canyon's formation and geology. The museum is open daily in summer from 8am to 8pm, and 8am to 6pm the rest of the year.

From here, you can spot at least five hiking trails. To the west, Bright Angel Trail can be seen descending to the lush Indian Garden area. The straight white line leaving from this general area and eventually dead-ending is Plateau Point Trail. Directly below the overlook and to the north, Tonto Trail wends its way across the blue-green Tonto Platform. Across the river, find the verdant area at the mouth of Bright Angel Canyon. The North Kaibab Trail passes through this area yards before ending at the river, just below Phantom Ranch. After turning to face east, find the saddle just south of O'Neill Butte; the South Kaibab Trail crosses this saddle.

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2. Mather Point

Visitors who see the canyon only once often do it from here. People entering the park from the south, too, generally catch their first glimpse of the canyon from Mather Point, which offers an expansive, 180-degree view. You can arrive at Mather Point on either the orange or blue shuttle buses or park in one of the four lots surrounding the Grand Canyon Visitor Center. Follow the paved pathway to the tall rock feature above the engraved pavement celebrating the native people traditionally affiliated with the Grand Canyon. Another minute of walking brings you to the canyon rim. Check the schedule in The Guide to see if there is a ranger program in Mather Amphitheater on the canyon rim. The rim trail to the east toward Pipe Creek Vista provides quiet spots for canyon viewing. The rim trail to the west takes you to popular Mather Point with a wheelchair accessible ramp all the way out to the end of the point for stunning views. You can continue along the rim trail toward Yavapai Point.

3. Grandview Point 

At 7,406 feet, this is one of the South Rim's highest spots. In the late 19th century, it was also one of its busiest. In 1890, Pete Berry, one of the canyon's early prospectors, filed a mining claim on a rich copper vein on Horseshoe Mesa (visible to the north of the overlook). To remove ore from the mine, Berry blazed a trail to it from Grandview Point. He erected cabins and a dining hall on the mesa, then, as visitors began coming, added a hotel a short distance away from Grandview Point.

Built of ponderosa pine logs, Grand View Hotel flourished in the prerailroad days. To reach the hotel, which for a brief period was considered the canyon's best lodging, tourists took a grueling all-day stagecoach ride from Flagstaff.

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In 1901, however, the Santa Fe Railroad linked Grand Canyon Village and Williams, putting an end, almost immediately, to the Flagstaff-to-Grandview stagecoach run. Once at Grand Canyon Village, few tourists ventured 11 miles east to Grandview Point, and the hotel went out of business in 1908. The mine fared no better. Plagued by high overhead costs, it shut down shortly after the price of copper crashed in 1907. Only a trace of the Grand View Hotel's foundation remains, but the historic Grandview Trail is still used by thousands of hikers annually, and debris from the old mine camp still litters Horseshoe Mesa.

4. Moran Point 

This point is named for landscape painter Thomas Moran, whose sketches and oil paintings introduced America to the beauty of the canyon in the years before photography. After accompanying John Wesley Powell on a surveying expedition in 1873, Moran illustrated Powell's book, The Exploration of the Colorado River and its Canyons. The federal government bought one of Moran's paintings, The Chasm of the Colorado, and sent it to Congress. It and other works helped lure the first tourists to the canyon in the 19th century.

Moran Point is the best place from which to view the tilting block of rock known as the Sinking Ship. Standing at the end of the point, look southwest at the rocks level with the rim. You'll see the Sinking Ship beyond the horizontal layers of Coronado Butte (in the foreground). It's part of the Grandview monocline, a zone where rocks are bent in a single fold around a fault line. Looking down the drainage below Coronado Butte, you'll see the ancient (1.25 billion years old) Hakatai Shale layer‘s red splotches that give Red Canyon its name.

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The first white people to see the canyon probably saw it from somewhere on the rim between here and Desert View. In 1540, Spanish explorer Francisco Vásquez de Coronado was scouring the Southwest for the mythical Seven Cities of Cíbola, with its equally mythical fortune in gold. After hearing of a great river and settlements north of the Hopi pueblo of Tusayan, he sent a small force, led by Garcia Lopez de Cárdenas, to explore the area.

Hopi guides led Cárdenas and his men, who began the journey in armor, to the South Rim somewhere near here. Upon seeing the Colorado River, the Spaniards initially estimated it to be 6 feet wide. (It's closer to 200 in this area.) When Cárdenas asked how to reach it, the Hopi, who had been making pilgrimages to the bottom of the canyon for generations, professed not to know. For 3 days, Cárdenas's men tried unsuccessfully to descend to the river. In the process, they learned what many canyon hikers would later discover: What appeared to be easy from above was actually extremely difficult. They gave up, and no one of European descent returned to the canyon for 200 years.

5. Tusayan Ruin & Museum 

By studying tree rings in the wood at these dwellings, archaeologists determined that parts of this 14-room stone-walled structure were built in 1185 by the Ancestral Puebloans. Among the pueblos that have been excavated near the Grand Canyon, Tusayan Ruin and Museum was the most recently occupied. By 1185, most of the Ancestral Puebloans had already left the canyon. For unknown reasons, however, this pueblo's dwellers stayed, despite a prolonged drought (known from tree rings), and despite the nearest year-round water source being about 7 miles away.

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A self-guided tour takes you through this small, collapsed pueblo, which includes the stone foundations of two kivas, living areas, and storage rooms, all connected in a U-shaped structure.

This dwelling, like many Ancestral Puebloan abodes in present-day Northern Arizona, has a clear view of the San Francisco Peaks, including Humphreys Peak, which, at 12,633 feet, is Arizona's highest point. This mountain range formed when volcanic matter boiled up through weak spots in the earth's crust between 1.8 million and 400,000 years ago. The descendants of the Puebloans, the modern Hopi, believe that these peaks are home to ancestral spirits known as Kachinas.

Built in 1932, the Tusayan Museum, open daily 9am to 5pm (admission is free), celebrates the traditions of the area's indigenous peoples. Displays in this dimly lit historic building include traditional jewelry, attire, and tools, as well as historic photos. It's worth coming here just to see the 3,000- to 4,000-year-old split-twig figurines, made by members of a hunter-gatherer clan sometimes referred to as the Desert Culture. Excavators found these mysterious figurines of deer and sheep under cairns (piles of stones) in the canyon's caves. Allow about 30 minutes to tour the ruins and museum. A guided ranger tour called "Glimpses of the Past" is offered here at 11am and 3:30pm in summer.

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Note: Vault toilets are available at the Tusayan Museum.

6. Lipan Point 

With views far down the canyon to the west, this is a marvelous place to catch the sunset. From here, you can see the Colorado River winding its way through soft, red shale before disappearing behind the black walls of the Inner Gorge. In the area between two of the river's sweeping curves, Unkar Creek has deposited a large alluvial fan. From A.D. 800 to 1150, the Ancestral Puebloans grew beans and corn in this rich soil. Archaeologists have found many granaries and dwellings in the area. At least some of the Puebloans migrated to the rim during summer to farm and to hunt the abundant game there.

7. Navajo Point

Like Lipan Point, Navajo Point offers fine views of the Grand Canyon Supergroup, a formation of igneous and sedimentary Precambrian rocks that, in many other parts of the canyon, has altogether eroded. Long, thin streaks of maroon, gray, and black that tilt at an angle of about 20 degrees layer this formation. They're visible above the river, directly across the canyon. As you look at these rocks, note how the level, brown Tapeats Sandstone layer (525 million years old), which in other locations sits directly atop the black Vishnu Formation, now rests atop the Supergroup -- hundreds of feet above the schist. Where the Supergroup had not yet eroded away, the Tapeats Sandstone was often deposited atop it, protecting what remained.

8. Desert View 

Here you'll find the Watchtower, a 70-foot-high stone building designed by Mary Colter, whose architecture style was fittingly organic. She modeled it after towers found at ancient pueblos such as Mesa Verde and Hovenweep. Like Colter's other buildings, this one seems to emerge from the earth, the rough stones at its base blending seamlessly with the rim rock.

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The Watchtower is connected to a circular observation room fashioned after a Hopi kiva -- a ceremonial room that often adjoined pueblo towers. To climb the Watchtower (which is free), you'll first have to pass through this room, now used as a gift shop selling Navajo rugs and Native American art, crafts, and jewelry. The shop is open daily 8am to sunset (shorter hours in winter), and the observation deck can be accessed until 30 minutes before sunset. The walls inside the Watchtower are decorated with traditional Native American art. Some of the finest work here is by Hopi artist Fred Kabotie, whose depiction of the Snake Legend, the story of the first person to have floated down the Colorado River, graces the Hopi Room. At the top is an enclosed observation deck, which, at 7,522 feet, is the South Rim's highest point. A roadway and parking lot have eased accessibility to Desert View.

The rim at Desert View offers spectacular views of the northeast end of the canyon. To the northeast, you'll see the cliffs known as the Palisades of the Desert, which form the southeastern wall of Grand Canyon proper. Follow those cliffs north to a significant rock outcropping, and you'll see Comanche Point. Beyond Comanche Point, you can barely see the gorge carved by the Little Colorado River.

In 1956, where the gorge intersects the Grand Canyon, two planes collided and crashed, killing 128 people. Most of the debris was removed from the area where the rivers unite, but a few plane parts, including a wheel, remain. (None are visible from here.)

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The flat, mesalike hill to the east is Cedar Mountain. This is one of the few places where the story told by the rocks doesn't end with the Kaibab Limestone layer. Cedar Mountain and Red Butte (a hill just south of Tusayan along Hwy. 64) were both deposited during the Mesozoic Era (245-265 million years ago). They linger, isolated, atop the Kaibab Limestone, remnants of the more than 4,000 feet of Mesozoic deposits that once accumulated in this area. (Sedimentary rock like this is usually deposited when land is near or below sea level, as the land in this area used to be. It erodes when elevated, the way the Grand Canyon is now.) Though nearly all of these layers have eroded off the Grand Canyon, they can be seen nearby in the Painted Desert, the Vermilion Cliffs, and at Zion National Park.

This is the last overlook on Desert View Drive, and it has a visitor center, a general store, a snack shop, restrooms, and a gas station (gas is available here 24 hr. a day with a credit card). Rangers often give sunset talks here in summer. Past Desert View, Highway 64 continues east, roughly paralleling the gorge cut by the Little Colorado River. The canyon heads northward toward Lees Ferry, gradually becoming shallower and narrower. You can reach the banks of the Colorado River at Lees Ferry by vehicle. To get there, take Highway 89A and look for the signs to the short spur road leading to the river.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.