When most people think of the United States, they think of the Grand Canyon. This iconic place is even more impressive in real life than you can imagine and so immense that you can hardly comprehend the scale of the place. It’s simply breathtaking.
It is also the home to stunning trails that will show you the true grandeur of one of the world’s natural wonders. Those who simply turn up and take in a few viewpoints without setting foot on any of the walks are missing what is truly special about the Grand Canyon.
Grand Canyon hikes - the best of the South Rim
There are several trails around the South Rim that are suitable for every type of hiker. The easiest is the Rim Trail, a relatively flat walk that meanders along the rim taking in many different lookouts. However, the truly special ones are those that go below the rim which can be tackled with a stay at the bottom of the canyon (either at Phantom Ranch or camping - both require advanced reservation) or in part on a day hike.
No matter which you choose, you’re in for a treat!
The South Kaibab Trail - Our favourite
The Full Trail: 7.3 miles one way officially however our AppleWatch said 8.3 miles (to Phantom Ranch)
Elevation: 66m (the trail is virtually all downhill)
Ooh Aah Point: 1.9 miles return
Cedar Ridge: 3.1 miles return - Not recommended to go beyond here in Summer
Skeleton Point: 6 miles return - Not recommended to go beyond here any time of year
Elevation - 300 - 400m (about 1,000 feet depending on which day walk you choose) across a very short distance.
Difficulty - Hard
Starting Point - Accessible only by shuttle bus. You can take the hiker express from Bright Angel Lodge or Parking Lot D, or the Orange Line from the Visitor’s Centre.
-There is no water on this trail, so ensure you have plenty when you leave.
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The hike down the South Kaibab Trail is up there with the greatest hikes we’ve ever done. Due to a cancellation (thank you whoever you are!) we were lucky enough to snag a last minute booking at Phantom Ranch at the bottom of the Grand Canyon and this was our chosen route down and one we’ll never forget.
Even if you don’t have a booking at Phantom Ranch, you can still hike part of this trail as a day walk. It isn’t recommended to go beyond Cedar Ridge in the summer and we recommend assessing the weather and how you feel about the hike back as this is a brutal uphill walk back to the rim. If you feel it will be too much you can turn back at Ooh aah point.
You can read all about the hike to the very bottom in our article about Phantom Ranch and staying at the bottom of the Grand Canyon.
If you’re looking for huge, expansive views, then the South Kaibab Trail is for you. This trail zigzags down the canyon with views in several directions, giving glimpses of different parts of the canyon as you go. We spent a lot of the time with our mouths open in awe at the different canyon views and colours, which varied from red to lush green.
It all starts as the path winds steeply down the canyon before settling along one of the canyon walls. In the winter, this section can get a bit of snow and ice, so ensure you have poles and/or traction devices - it would be really unpleasant to hike down this steep slope on ice without some grip!
Soon the track will come out to the famous “Ooh-Aah Point” in just under a mile, a beautiful spot with a sharp drop off that offers panoramic views.
The trail continues to wind back and forth and further down before coming to some stunning narrow ridges and then the much wider Cedar Ridge. This is probably the furthest point that any day hiker should attempt to go in really hot weather as the drop down in elevation is pretty hefty.
You will feel the temperature increase dramatically, even by this point. There are restrooms and a big open space as well as a pretty epic ledge to explore, making this a great place to have lunch before turning around.
If you are here in the cooler months you can continue on to Skeleton Point which will give you a chance to see even more views as well as the greener part of the canyon.
Continuing on (if you are lucky enough to be staying the night on the canyon floor) offers more spectacular views, including of the Colorado River and a section that feels like walking on Mars! It’s a hike we will never forget.
Bright Angel Trail
Full trail: 9.8 miles (one way) officially but our AppleWatch measured 11 miles from Phantom Ranch.
1.5 mile resthouse: 3 mile return
3 mile resthouse: 6 mile return
Indian Garden: 9.4 mile return - It is not recommended to go beyond Indian Garden on a day hike
Elevation: Up 1,000 metres (3,300 feet) from Indian Garden- incredibly steep!
Starting Point: Bright Angel Lodge
-There are water refill points at Indian Garden (all year round, 3 mile (not in winter) and 1.5 mile resthouse (not in winter) as well as restrooms at 1.5 mile resthouse and Indian Garden.
The Bright Angel Trail is one of the most famous in the Grand Canyon and has a justifiably deserved reputation for being incredibly steep and tiring at any time of year! The whole trail leads down to Phantom Ranch on the valley floor of the Grand Canyon, but it isn’t recommended to go beyond Indian River as a day hike, especially in the summer heat.
If you are lucky, you can book a camping spot at Indian River or Phantom Ranch so that you can go further. Otherwise, you’ll still have a beautiful day walk back up to the South Rim.
This is another steep trail but well worth the effort for the chance to see some of the magic of the canyon beneath the rim. If you are walking the Bright Angel as a day track you will be looking at the same view all the way down to Indian Garden, it is an utterly spectacular view but you won’t see different sides of the canyon like on the South Kaibab.
The view is incredible though as you make your way down many switchbacks, through a couple of arches, stopping at scenic rest stops along the way.
The top section can be very icy and covered in snow in the winter, so we recommend getting traction devices to make things easier.
We were really surprised by just how green this section of the Grand Canyon was as we’d always thought of the whole area as a desert. However, Indian Garden is a permanent source of water and provides a lush, green area that attracts birds and other animals such as Mule Deer.
After the steep descent, the trail follows the valley down to Indian Garden which is a great stop for lunch before making the epic climb back up to the rim. You’ll notice the increase in temperature when you’re down here! It isn’t recommended to go beyond Indian Garden on a day walk, but those who are lucky enough to have a reservation to stay at the bottom of the canyon are in for a treat.
The rest of the trail from Indian Garden to Phantom Ranch is largely flat and you’ll wonder through a green tree covered path with the canyon walls soaring above you before you come to the Colorado River. You follow the river for quite some time before crossing over the bridge that will take you to Phantom Ranch (or the Bright Angel Campground).
The Rim Trail
Distance: 1 - 13 miles (21 km) one way - but you can stop at any point and get a bus back
Elevation: Largely flat but with some gentle inclines
Starting Point: Hermit’s Rest or South Kaibab - take the shuttle bus from Bright Angel Lodge
If your legs hurt at the thought of either the Bright Angel or Kaibab Trail, then the Rim Trail is the hike for you. This walk joins up many of the viewpoints offering you panoramic views of many different parts of the canyon. It’s an easy trail and one where you can use the free park shuttle to hop on and off along the way.
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Both ends of the trail are only accessible by the shuttle bus system in the park and you cannot drive/park at Hermit’s Rest or South Kaibab. It takes about 30 minutes to get to Hermit’s Rest from Bright Angel Lodge. We chose to walk from Hermits Rest back to Bright Angel Lodge which was roughly seven miles.
If you are visiting in the winter, we recommend bringing traction devices as some of the path is still snowy. This can get icy and a little precarious with how close the path runs to the edge of the rim.
The Rim Trail is initially paved until Monument Creek Vista, before turning into a traditional dirt trail for most of the way to Bright Angel. The trail rarely deviates more than a few metres from the edge and you’ll stop at many lookout points along the way.
The views got better as the walk proceeded, culminating with our favourites at the Abyss, Hopi and Powell lookouts which offered panoramic views that really showed the huge scale of the canyon.
The great thing about the Rim Trail is that there are several points you can explore which aren’t fenced, giving you uninterrupted views of the Canyon - perfect for those edge of the world photos.
This hike gives you some incredible views but for us was not quite as exciting as either the Bright Angel or South Kaibab Trail. If you can catch a sunrise or sunset on this trail you won’t be disappointed.
Hopi is the most famous spot for both sunrise and sunset as it is the highest point on the walk. We actually preferred Powell Point as it juts right out into the canyon and has areas which are not fenced off as they are at Hopi.
Grand Canyon Entrance Fee
If you plan to visit more than three US National Parks in a year then we highly recommend purchasing the $80 America The Beautiful Annual Pass.
If not entrance for a car and all passengers is $35, valid for seven days. If arriving on a motorcycle the fee is $30.
What to pack for the Grand Canyon
We recommend stocking up on hiking gear to make sure you’re comfortable on the trails. We both wear Merrells and they have served us well for years. We also use Osprey backpacks and carry a resuseable water bottle to cut down on single use plastics.
You can check out our recommendations on Amazon below.
Where to stay for the Grand Canyon
For a fully comprehensive guide, check out our separate article on where to stay in the Grand Canyon. Otherwise, here’s a brief summary.
Grand Canyon Village
If you possibly can the best place to stay is in the park itself. In peak season it is notoriously difficult to get reservations so book as far in advance as you possibly can.
Bright Angel Lodge
We stayed in several lodges (travelling in low season meant we could make last minute bookings but we couldn’t get all the dates we wanted in one lodge) and our favourite was definitely Bright Angel. The rooms were really lovely and clean and had a good feel about them. We had shared showers which were always spotless.
Maswik Lodge was ok if you can’t get into Bright Angel, it’s pretty tired and dated but does the job. The rooms are larger than any of the others and come with 2 queen beds which make it an attractive option for families.
My parents stayed in El Tovar which is the most luxurious lodge on the rim and it was nice, but we felt it overpriced. The rooms are not very big and they aren’t fancy, so apart from proper mugs and some sweets in your room we don’t think it’s worth the upgrade from Bright Angel. The restaurant at El Tovar was by far the best in the village.
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Outside the village - Tusayan
If you can’t get into the park itself then the nearest village, Tusayan, is around 15 minutes from Bright Angel and only 2 minutes from the entrance to the National Park. The hotels tended to be similar prices to those inside the park, so we didn’t go for this option. We did eat here though and surprisingly the food was more expensive than inside the park.
The best option is the Best Western Premier - Grand Canyon Squire Inn. The rooms here are spacious, comfortable and come with everything you’d expect from the better Best Western brands.
Outside the village - Williams
If you can’t get reservations at any of the above then your next best bet is Williams. It’s around an hour from Bright Angel Lodge and is significantly cheaper than anywhere near the park. We stayed at Red Roof Inn Plus and it was pretty reasonable, especially as it was the cheapest accommodation we had in the whole of our American trip.
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Are you planning a trip to the Grand Canyon? Which hike would you go for? Let us know in the comments below!