Desert View Drive
While the vast majority of visitors to the Grand Canyon enter through the south entrance, head straight for Grand Canyon Village, and proceed to get caught up in traffic jams and parking problems, you can avoid much of this congestion and have a much more enjoyable experience if you enter the park through the east entrance. To reach this entrance from Flagstaff, take U.S. 89 north to Ariz. 64, and then head west. Following this route, you'll get great views of the canyon sooner after you enter the park and have fewer parking problems. Even before you reach the park, you can stop and take in views of the canyon of the Little Colorado River. These viewpoints are on the Navajo Reservation, and at every stop you'll have opportunities to shop for Native American crafts and souvenirs at the numerous vendors' stalls.
Desert View Drive, the park's only scenic road open to cars year-round, extends for 25 miles between Desert View, which is just inside the park's east entrance, and Grand Canyon Village, the site of all the park's hotels and most of its other commercial establishments. Along Desert View Drive, you'll find not only good viewpoints, but also several picnic areas. Much of this drive is through forests, and canyon views are limited; but where there are viewpoints, they are among the best in the park.
Desert View is the first stop on this scenic drive, and with its historic watchtower, general store, snack bar, service station, information center, bookstore, and big parking lot, it is better designed for handling large numbers of tourists than Grand Canyon Village. I find it a much more memorable and enjoyable experience to start a park visit here at Desert View rather than at the south entrance to the park (at Tusayan) and Grand Canyon Village.
From anywhere at Desert View, the scenery is breathtaking, but the very best perspective here is from atop the Desert View Watchtower. Although the watchtower looks as though it was built centuries ago, it actually dates from 1932. Architect Mary Elizabeth Jane Colter, who is responsible for much of the park's historic architecture, designed it to resemble the prehistoric towers that dot the Southwestern landscape. Built as an observation tower and rest stop for tourists, the watchtower incorporates Native American designs and art. The curio shop on the ground floor is a replica of a kiva (sacred ceremonial chamber) and has lots of interesting souvenirs, regional crafts, and books. The tower's second floor features work by Hopi artist Fred Kabotie. Covering the walls are pictographs incorporating traditional designs. On the walls and ceiling of the upper two floors are more traditional images by artist Fred Geary, this time reproductions of petroglyphs from throughout the Southwest. From the roof, which at 7,522 feet above sea level is the highest point on the South Rim, it's possible to see the Colorado River, the Painted Desert to the northeast, the San Francisco Peaks to the south, and Marble Canyon to the north. Several black-mirror "reflectoscopes" provide interesting darkened views of some of the most spectacular sections of the canyon.
At Navajo Point, the next stop along the rim, the Colorado River and Escalante Butte are both visible, and there's a good view of the Desert View Watchtower. However, I suggest heading straight to Lipan Point, where you get the South Rim's best views of the Colorado River. You can actually see several stretches of the river, including a couple of major rapids. From here you can also view the Grand Canyon supergroup: several strata of rock tilted at an angle to the other layers of rock in the canyon. The supergroup's angle indicates there was a period of mountain building before the layers of sandstone, limestone, and shale were deposited in this region. The red, white, and black rocks of the supergroup are composed of sedimentary rock and layers of lava. One of the park's best-kept secrets, a little-known though very rugged trail, begins here at Lipan Point.
The Tusayan Museum (daily 9am-5pm) is the next stop along Desert View Drive. This small museum is dedicated to the Hopi tribe and the Ancestral Puebloan people who inhabited the region 800 years ago. Outside the museum, there are the ruins of an Ancestral Puebloan village, and inside the museum, there are artfully displayed exhibits on various aspects of life in the village. A short self-guided trail leads through the ruins. Free guided tours are available.
Next along the drive is Moran Point, from which you can see a layer of red shale in the canyon walls. This point is named for 19th-century landscape painter Thomas Moran, who is known for his paintings of the Grand Canyon.
The next stop, Grandview Point, affords a view of Horseshoe Mesa, another interesting feature of the canyon landscape. The mesa was the site of the Last Chance Copper Mine in the early 1890s. Later that same decade, the Grandview Hotel was built and served canyon visitors until its close in 1908. The steep, unmaintained Grandview Trail leads down to Horseshoe Mesa from here. This trail makes a good less-traveled alternative to the South Kaibab Trail, although it is somewhat steeper.
The last stop along Desert View Drive is Yaki Point, which is no longer open to private vehicles. The park service would prefer it if you parked your car in Grand Canyon Village and took the Kaibab Trail Route shuttle bus from the Grand Canyon Visitor Center to Yaki Point. The reality is that people passing by in cars want to see what this viewpoint is all about and now park their cars alongside the main road and walk up the Yaki Point access road. The spectacular view from here encompasses a wide section of the central canyon. The large, flat-topped butte to the northeast is Wotan's Throne, one of the canyon's most readily recognizable features. Yaki Point is the site of the trail head for the South Kaibab Trail and consequently is frequented by hikers headed down to Phantom Ranch at the bottom of the canyon. The South Kaibab Trail is the preferred downhill hiking route to Phantom Ranch and is a more scenic route than the Bright Angel Trail. If you're planning a day hike into the canyon, this should be your number-one choice. Be sure to bring plenty of water.
Grand Canyon Village & Vicinity
Grand Canyon Village is the first stop for the vast majority of the nearly four million people who visit the Grand Canyon every year (though I recommend coming in from the east entrance and avoiding the crowds). Consequently, it is the most crowded area in the park, but it also has the most overlooks and visitor services. Its many historic buildings add to the popularity of the village, which, if it weren't so crowded all the time, would have a pleasant atmosphere. For visitors who have entered the park through the south entrance, that unforgettable initial gasp-inducing glimpse of the canyon is usually at Mather Point, which is down a short paved path from the Grand Canyon Visitor Center. The visitor center, with its large parking lots, is also a good place to park your car. From here you can get around the South Rim by shuttle bus.
Continuing west toward the village proper, you next come to Yavapai Point, which has the best view from anywhere in the vicinity of Grand Canyon Village. If you can bring yourself to drive past Mather Point and delay your initial glimpse of the canyon for a few minutes longer, Yavapai Point actually makes a better first view of the canyon (although parking spaces here are limited). From here you can see the Bright Angel Trail, Indian Gardens, Phantom Ranch, the Colorado River, and even the suspension bridge that hikers and mule riders use to cross the river to Phantom Ranch. Between Hoover Dam (downstream) and the Navajo Bridge upstream near Lees Ferry, a distance of 340 miles, this is the only bridge across the Colorado. Here you'll also find the historic Yavapai Geology Museum, which has big walls of glass to take in the extraordinary vistas. The geology displays here are the park's best introduction to the forces that created the Grand Canyon and should not be missed. The museum is open daily from 8am to 8pm in summer (shorter hours other months). Yavapai Point is a particularly good spot from which to take sunrise and sunset photos. If you want to do some walking, the paved Grand Canyon Greenway extends 3.5 miles east to the South Kaibab Trailhead and 3 miles west, passing through Grand Canyon Village along the way.
Continuing west from Yavapai Point, you'll come to a parking lot at park headquarters and a side road that leads to parking at the Market Plaza. Grand Canyon Village proper is west of these parking areas, and a paved pathway that leads along the rim here provides lots of good (though crowded) spots for taking pictures. The village is the site of such historic buildings as El Tovar Hotel and Bright Angel Lodge, both of which are worth brief visits to take in the lodge ambience of their lobbies. Inside Bright Angel Lodge you'll find the Bright Angel History Room, which has displays on Mary Elizabeth Jane Colter and the Harvey Girls. Be sure to check out this room's fireplace, which is designed with all the same geologic layers that appear in the canyon. Adjacent to El Tovar is the Hopi House Gift Store and Art Gallery, a historic souvenir-and-curio shop. Built in 1905 to resemble a Hopi pueblo and to serve as a place for Hopi artisans to work and sell their crafts, this was the first shop inside the park. Today, it's full of Hopi and Navajo arts and crafts, including expensive kachina dolls, rugs, jewelry, and pottery. This shop is open daily; hours vary seasonally.
To the west of Bright Angel Lodge, two buildings cling precariously to the rim of the canyon. These are the Kolb and Lookout studios, both of which are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Kolb Studio is named for Ellsworth and Emory Kolb, two brothers who set up a photographic studio on the rim of the Grand Canyon in 1904. The construction of this studio generated one of the Grand Canyon's first controversies -- over whether buildings should be allowed on the canyon rim. Because the Kolbs had friends in high places, their sprawling studio and movie theater remained. Emory Kolb lived here until his death in 1976, by which time the studio had been listed as a historic building. It now serves as a bookstore, while the auditorium houses special exhibits. Lookout Studio, built in 1914 from a design by Mary Elizabeth Jane Colter, was the Fred Harvey Company's answer to the Kolb brothers' studio and incorporates architectural styles of the Hopi and the Ancestral Puebloans. The use of native limestone and an uneven roofline allow the studio to blend in with the canyon walls and give it the look of an old ruin. It now houses a souvenir store and two lookout points. Both the Kolb and Lookout studios are open daily; hours vary seasonally.
Hermit Road leads 8 miles west from Grand Canyon Village to Hermit's Rest, and mile for mile, it has the greatest concentration of breathtaking viewpoints in the park. Because it is closed to private vehicles March through November, it is also one of the most pleasant places to do a little canyon viewing or easy hiking during the busiest times of year: no traffic jams, no parking problems, and plenty of free shuttle buses operating along the route. Westbound buses stop at eight overlooks (Trailview, Maricopa Point, Powell Point, Hopi Point, Mohave Point, the Abyss, Pima Point, and Hermit's Rest); eastbound buses stop at only Pima, Mohave, and Powell points. December through February, you can drive your own vehicle along this road, but keep in mind that winters usually mean a lot of snow, and the road can sometimes be closed due to hazardous driving conditions.
Because you probably won't want to stop at every viewpoint along this route, here are some tips to help you get the most out of an excursion along Hermit Road. First of all, keep in mind that the earlier you catch a shuttle bus, the more likely you are to avoid the crowds (buses start 1 hr. before sunrise, so photographers can get good shots of the canyon in dawn light). Second, remember that the closer you are to Grand Canyon Village, the larger the crowds will be. So, I recommend heading out early and getting a couple of miles between you and the village before getting off the shuttle bus.
The first two stops are Trailview Overlook and Maricopa Point, both on the paved section of the Rim Trail and within 1 1/2 miles of the village, and thus usually pretty crowded. If you just want to do a short, easy walk on pavement, get out at Maricopa Point and walk back to the village. From either overlook, you have a view of the Bright Angel Trail winding down into the canyon from Grand Canyon Village. The trail, which leads to the bottom of the canyon, crosses the Tonto Plateau about 3,000 feet below the rim. This plateau is the site of Indian Garden, where there's a campground in a grove of cottonwood trees. Because the views from these two overlooks are not significantly different from those in the village, I suggest skipping these stops if you've already spent time gazing into the canyon from the village.
Powell Point, the third stop, is the site of a memorial to John Wesley Powell, who, in 1869 with a party of nine men, became the first person to navigate the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. Visible at Powell Point are the remains of the Orphan Mine, a copper mine that began operation in 1893. The mine went out of business because transporting the copper to a city where it could be sold was too expensive. Uranium was discovered here in 1951, but in 1969 the mine was shut down, and in 1987 the land became part of Grand Canyon National Park. Again, I recommend continuing on to the more spectacular vistas that lie ahead.
The next stop is Hopi Point, which is one of the three best stops along this route. From here you can see a long section of the Colorado River far below you. Because of the great distance, the river seems to be a tiny, quiet stream, but in reality the section you see is more than 100 yards wide and races through Granite Rapids. Because Hopi Point juts into the canyon, it is one of the best spots in the park for taking sunrise and sunset photos (remember, shuttle buses operate from 1 hr. before sunrise to 1 hr. after sunset).
The view is even more spectacular at the next stop, Mohave Point. Here you can see the river in two directions. Three rapids are visible from this overlook, and on a quiet day, you can sometimes even hear Hermit Rapids. As with almost all rapids in the canyon, Hermit Rapids are at the mouth of a side canyon where boulders loosened by storms and carried by flooded streams are deposited in the Colorado River. Don't miss this stop; it's got the best view on Hermit Road.
Next you come to the Abyss, the appropriately named 3,000-foot drop created by the Great Mojave Wall. This vertiginous view is one of the most awe-inspiring in the park. The walls of the Abyss are red sandstone that's more resistant to erosion than the softer shale in the layer below. Other layers of erosion-resistant sandstone have formed the free-standing pillars that are visible from here. The largest of these pillars is called the Monument. If you're looking for a good hike along this road, get out here and walk westward to either Pima Point (3 miles away) or Hermit's Rest (4 miles away).
The Pima Point overlook, because it is set back from the road, is another good place to get off the bus. From here, the Greenway Trail leads through the forest near the canyon rim, providing good views undisturbed by traffic on Hermit Road. From this overlook, it's also possible to see the remains of Hermit Camp on the Tonto Plateau. Built by the Santa Fe Railroad, Hermit Camp was a popular tourist destination between 1911 and 1930 and provided cabins and tents.
The final stop on Hermit Road is at Hermit's Rest, which was named for Louis Boucher, a prospector who came to the canyon in the 1890s and was known as the Hermit. The log-and-stone Hermit's Rest building, designed by Mary Elizabeth Jane Colter and built in 1914, is on the National Register of Historic Places and is one of the most fascinating structures in the park. With its snack bar, it makes a great place to linger while you soak up a bit of park history. The steep Hermit Trail, which leads down into the canyon, begins just past Hermit's Rest.
Activities Outside the Canyon
If you aren't completely beat at the end of the day, check the entertainment schedule at Tusayan's Grand Hotel (tel. 928/638-3333). Cowboy singers, country bands, and Native American dancers all perform here regularly.
For a virtual Grand Canyon experience, you can see an IMAX movie at the National Geographic Visitor Center, 450 Ariz. 64 (tel. 928/638-2468; www.grandcanyonimaxtheater.com), in Tusayan outside the south entrance to the park. A short IMAX film covering the history and geology of the canyon is shown throughout the day on the theater's six-story screen. Admission is $13 for adults and $9.50 for children 5 to 10. March to October, there are shows daily between 8:30am and 8:30pm; November to February, shows are daily between 10:30am and 6:30pm.
Outside the east entrance to the park, the Cameron Trading Post (tel. 800/338-7385 or 928/679-2231; www.camerontradingpost.com), at the crossroads of Cameron where Ariz. 64 branches off U.S. 89, is the best trading post in the state. The original stone trading post, a historic building, now houses a gallery of Indian artifacts, clothing, and jewelry. This gallery sells museum-quality pieces, but even if you don't have $10,000 to drop on a rug or basket, you can still look around. The main trading post is a more modern building and is the largest trading post in northern Arizona. Don't miss the beautiful terraced gardens in back of the original trading post.
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.