Don't Just Stare! 10 Great Tours and Experiences in the Grand Canyon
It’s iconic. It’s dramatic. It’s historic.
The Grand Canyon, a craggy 277-mile-long, one-mile-deep gorge carved by the Colorado River eons ago, is also one of Seven Wonders of the Natural World. And in 2019, the section preserved as Grand Canyon National Park marked a key milestone: It turned 100. Too many people satisfy themselves by standing on the edge, taking some photos, and leaving. But there are so many better ways to get to know the park’s 1.2 million acres by land, river, or air; by horseback, mule, or raft; via helicopter, guided tour bus, or train. No matter the adventure, just be sure to book as far ahead as possible, since many popular options sell out months in advance.
Surround yourself with massive soaring cliffs and endless vistas as you pick your way down the park’s most popular rim-to-river hiking path, the Bright Angel Trail. It’s steep, to be sure, but also easy enough for those in moderately good shape. The century-old trail starts in Grand Canyon Village on the South Rim and zigzags its way down endless switchbacks for 9.5 miles to the Bright Angel Campground. Most day trippers turn around at Indian Garden, about halfway down, for a hike lasting a few hours. The National Park Service, in fact, discourages hikers from going all the way to to the base and back up in the same day, which can take more than 10 grueling hours. Shade, water, and pit toilets are available along the way, but you should carry your own hydration and salty snacks. During the summer, go during the cooler times of day. But whatever the season, this trek will etch itself in your memory as exquisitely as the river has carved the canyon walls.
Looking for bragging rights? Spend the night at Phantom Ranch, the only Grand Canyon lodging below the rim. (Space is extremely limited, so book as far in advance as you can manage.) Accessible only by mule, on foot, or via raft on the Colorado River, the remote facility features rustic stone-and-wood cabins and a main lodge all designed by Mary Jane Colter, the celebrated early-20th-century Grand Canyon architect. Expect to sleep on bunk beds and feast on belt-busting dinners served family-style. And embrace the digital detox—there are no phones, TVs, or web access, and mobile phone service is faint at best.
You don’t have to be a train buff: One of the world’s great rail journeys is the Grand Canyon Railway. Departing from the historic Arizona town of Williams, it chugs each morning on a 65-mile journey north to Grand Canyon National Park. On the two-hour trip, you’ll wind your way up and over Arizona’s 5,000-foot-high Colorado Plateau, passing the red buttes, prairies, and pinyon pines of the high desert along its incredibly scenic route. Performers in authentic Wild West costumes bring the past alive with onboard (and yes, touristy) entertainment. Passengers will have time to explore the South Rim and check out two century-old train depots before returning in the early evening. If you’re lucky, you could end up riding a vintage steam locomotive powered by—thoughtfully—eco-friendly, recycled french fry oil.
Thrill to the challenge of whitewater rafting down the mighty Colorado River. You’ll tackle waves up to 13 feet in the biggest rapids, witness magnificent slot canyons one after the other, and be inspired by a new perspective of the canyon from the bottom looking up. Free of all modern distractions, you can imagine yourself as one of the first Native Americans to paddle these bends at least 8,000 years ago. The National Park Service lists more than a dozen reputable outfitters that offer trips of one to 18 days (sleep under a canopy of brilliant stars in a pure, dark sky) on both smooth and rough water, and tours come in choices that include large motorized rafts, oared or paddle boats, and dories. So climb right in and roll on down the river.
There’s nothing like a bird’s-eye view to absorb the sheer size and scale of the most famous canyon in the world. Soar over the landscape in a circular route on a helicopter tour. With departures from both the South and West Rim (or even from Las Vegas), you’ll fly over the Kaibab National Forest, the world’s largest stand of ponderosa pine, see Marble Canyon and Point Imperial, and skim through Dragon Corridor, the widest and deepest part of the canyon. There are many operators vying for business; Maverick Helicopters offers leather seats, wraparound glass for excellent visibility, and noise reduction features both inside and out. Choppers are not without controversy (some people object to the racket they make, calling the air route "Helicopter Alley"), but there’s no disputing the panoramas they grant visitors.
Saddle up and play cowboy as you clip-clop on a path far below the remote North Rim on the six-day "Grand Canyon Winter Pastures" excursion from Equitours. You’ll camp along the way (be prepared to lend a hand) and eat hearty meals cooked over an open fire. With nearly no other people around, your only trail encounters might be an occasional desert bighorn sheep, mule deer, or condors soaring overhead. It’s a rugged trek into some of the canyon’s least frequented areas, with occasional treacherous stretches. But your reward? Experiencing nature’s majesty and mystery just as the first explorers did.
“Low on traffic and high on wow.” That’s how Bright Angel Bicycles describes the popular 5.5-mile Hermit Road Tour. Built by early pioneers, the historic Hermit Road follows the canyon’s South Rim for seven miles. Riding along greenways and roads closed to traffic reveals sweeping vistas and knockout overlooks, while guides share info on the natural and human history of what you see. Choose between guided and self-guided trips—both are great for families. Either way, a two-wheel adventure is hard to beat.
Whether it’s the subtlety of the early morning or the spectacle of day’s end, sunrise and sunset at the canyon are showstoppers. The best way to enjoy them is on an interpretive bus tour offered by Grand Canyon National Park Lodges. Watch the sun paint the landscape with its brilliant palette—from delicate rosy hues to deep flaming reds. By leaving the driving to a knowledgeable tour guide, you focus not on a steering wheel but on seeing the canyon literally in a new light. Drivers also enrich the experience with informative narration on history and geology. Just be sure to keep your camera handy (as if you wouldn’t).
What can be better than a three-in-one? This daylong, multi-part experience, Scenic Canyon Flight and River Adventure from Adrenaline, combines sky, land, and river excursions. Begin with a one-hour airplane tour of the East Rim, swooping over timeless sights. Follow with a 90-minute four-wheeler tour of the upper Antelope Canyon, maneuvering among labyrinthine formations through dramatic slot canyons. End with a 15-mile smooth-water float trip on the Colorado River, drifting past remarkable petroglyphs etched by ancient peoples. Now that’s one fine day.
Mules have long ruled the canyon, and for good reason. These iconic hybrid animals combine the sure-footedness of a burro with the larger size and strength of a horse, and for many years, they have supplied visitors with the ride of a lifetime. By following the canyon’s East Rim trail on the Canyon Vistas Mule Ride, you’ll thrill to Insta-worthy views of the park at every turn. Guides lead the four-mile, three-hour trek (riders must weigh less than 225 pounds, fully dressed) while sharing tales and tidbits about the canyon’s history, geology, ecology, and more. Yes, the trail is scarily narrow (not for the faint of heart), but consider that mules have carried more than 600,000 visitors safely since 1887.