Whether you come to stand on the rim gazing in awe, spend several days hiking deep in the canyon, or ride the rapids of the Colorado River, a trip to Grand Canyon National Park is an unforgettable experience. Located entirely in Arizona, the Grand Canyon stretches for 277 miles of the Colorado River. The forces of erosion have exposed an immense variety of formations that illustrate vast periods of geologic history. One of the most spectacular examples of erosion anywhere in the world, the Grand Canyon is unmatched in the incomparable vistas it offers to visitors on the rim. The Grand Canyon is one of the 7 Natural Wonders of the World.
Grand Canyon is unmatched throughout the world for the vistas it offers to visitors on the rim. It is not the deepest canyon in the world. Both the Barranca del Cobre in northern Mexico and Hell’s Canyon in Idaho are deeper. But Grand Canyon is known for its overwhelming size and its intricate and colorful landscape. Geologically, it is significant because of the thick sequence of ancient rocks that are beautifully preserved and exposed in the walls of the canyon. These rock layers record much of the early geologic history of the North American continent. Grand Canyon is also one of the most spectacular examples of erosion in the world. Nearly five million people see Grand Canyon each year. Most of them see it from overlooks along the South Rim, including Grand Canyon Village, Hermits Rest Road and Desert View Drive. The South Rim, 60 miles north of Williams and 80 miles northwest of Flagstaff, Arizona, is the most accessible part of the park and is open all year.
A much smaller number of people see the canyon from the North Rim, which lies just 10 miles (as the crow flies) directly across from the South Rim. The North Rim rises 1000 feet higher than the South Rim and is much less accessible. Heavy snows close the North Rim from mid-October to mid-May each year. Even in good weather the North Rim is harder to get to. It lies 220 miles by car from the South Rim, or 21 miles by foot across the canyon by way of the North and South Kaibab Trails.
The Inner Canyon includes everything below the rim and is seen mainly by hikers, mule riders and river rafters. Many opportunities exist here for adventurous and hardy persons who want to backpack, ride a mule to Phantom Ranch, or take a river tripdown the Colorado River.
History & Culture
The Grand Canyon has supported humans for over 4000 years. Archaeologists have discovered many fine examples of early human existence ranging from ruins of dwellings, petroglyphs, pottery and dolls. The Anasazi have left behind over 3500 different locations of historical merit throughout the canyon. The Grand Canyon would remain essentially undisturbed until the late 1770’s. Christian missionaries searching for Americans Indians to convert stumbled across the canyon. Until 1848, the Grand Canyon remained part of Mexican territory with large regions still vastly undiscovered. The Mexican-American War placed the Grand Canyon in United States territory. The United States government dispatched several regiments of soldiers soon after the war to fill American maps of the west. And the Grand Canyon slowly opened up to exploration.
Major John Wesley Powell’s expeditions of 1869 and 1871 helped to educate the American public on the majestic nature of the canyon. He consistently mapped the canyon, the river course and studied the indigenous cultures of the area. Major Powell’s many references to “a grand canyon” lent the canyon its name. Prospectors in the late 1880’s continued to open up more of the canyon with their claims on copper and asbestos.
Nature & Science
The Grand Canyon is the world’s most spectacular example of erosion and most remarkable assemblage of exposed of rocks in sequence and intact. The Grand Canyon officially measures 277 river miles from Lees Ferry to the Grand Wash Cliffs. Today the Colorado River through Grand Canyon is bracketed at either end by dams Glen Canyon Dam (Lake Powell) on the upstream end and Hoover Dam (Lake Mead) at the lower end. As a result, the dynamics of the Colorado River have changed considerably. Prior to its impoundment the river carried a sediment load many times what it carries today.
Compared to the rocks in which it is carved, Grand Canyon is geologically young, occurring only in the past 6 million years. The Grand Canyon is the result of erosion, primarily by water. While the Colorado River has played the primary role in creating the canyon’s present depth, runoff from rain and snow and the streams that flow into the Canyon from both rims also helped shape and size the Canyon.
Almost a mile below the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, the Colorado River, from its origins high in the Colorado Rockies, flows more than 1,400 miles toward the Gulf of California and passes through a series of remarkable canyons, of which Grand Canyon is only one.
In addition to its size, the Grand Canyon shares many things with its neighbors Zion, Bryce, Canyonlands, Arches and Mesa Verde which all lie within the geologic province called Colorado Plateau. This region is characterized by relatively flat-lying sedimentary rocks of great thickness that have been raised thousands of feet above sea level in a series of pancake-like plateaus.
Due in part to climate the semi-arid climate which exists in this part of the U. S., erosion proceeds in a very dramatic fashion. Each of the rock layers within the Grand Canyon erodes in its own manner, giving the Canyon its characteristic stepped-pyramid appearance.
Shales erode to slopes, sandstones and limestones form cliffs; the dark igneous rocks of the Inner Gorge and southern end – more resistant to erosion than the softer sedimentary rocks above – produce the steep-walled narrow gorge. Vertical fractures are common and are responsible for the tall pillars and erosional remnants that are prevalent along the rims. The flat-topped mesas and buttes are characteristic landforms of Southwest where flat-lying sedimentary rocks are present.
Many of the stunning colors of the remarkable features of this landscape are due to the presence of small amounts of iron and other minerals which stain the surface of the canyon walls. The measured thickness of rock in Grand Canyon is about six thousand feet. Each layer represents an interval of time during which a particular environment of deposition prevailed, but many of the layers are separated by gaps of unrecorded time and missing rock layers referred to as “unconformities.”
Most of the flat-lying rocks visible from the rims are Paleozoic in age, recording events that took place on the North American continent hundreds of millions of years ago, long before dinosaurs roamed the earth.
The youngest of these layers is the Kaibab Limestone, the top layer, deposited in shallow warm seas at the end of the Paleozoic period (65 million years ago). Below the rim these layers become progressively older, reaching back into the early Paleozoic.
Four thousand feet below the rim, in the walls of the Inner Gorge, are the oldest rocks of this region: the igneous and metamorphic rocks known as the Vishnu Group. Very different from the sedimentary rocks above them, these ancient schists and gneisses are almost 2 billion years old and form the very basement of the North American continent.
With a sheer drop of 3,000 feet to the Tonto Platform, the Abyss is one of the most frequented stops on West Rim Drive. From the Abyss, you’ll see several isolated sandstone columns, the largest of which is called the Monument.
Bright Angel Lodge
Built of Oregon pine logs and native stone in 1935, Bright Angel Lodge is comprised of rustic cabins set off from the main building. The rocks used in the lodge’s “geologic” fireplace are arranged in the same order in which they are layered in the Grand Canyon and the history room displays memorabilia from the South Rim’s early years.
Bright Angel Trailhead
Starting near Kolb Studio, this trailhead is the starting point for perhaps the best known of all the trails descending to the bottom of the canyon. Originally a bighorn sheep path that was later used by the Havasupai Indians, it was widened late in the 19th century for prospectors and has since become an avenue for mule and foot traffic. The trail descends 5,510 feet to the Colorado River, if you plan on going very far you should have the proper equipment and notify the park representatives at the visitor center.
Desert View and the Watchtower
These spots make for a climactic final stop. From the top of the 70 feet stone-and-mortar watchtower, even the distant Painted Desert to the east and the 3,000 feet high Vermilion Cliffs rising from a plateau near the Utah border are visible. In the chasm below, angling to the north toward Marble Canyon, an imposing stretch of the Colorado River reveals itself.
El Tovar Hotel
Built in 1905, this log structure retains the ambience of its early days. If the weather is cool, stop in front of the stone fireplace to warm your hands. The rustic lobby, a taxidermist’s treasure trove, is a great place for people watching. The back porch provides a front-row seat for viewing the canyon.
Grand Canyon Railway
In 1989, the Grand Canyon Railway re-inaugurated service along a route established in 1901. The 65 mile trek in restored 1923 cars from Williams Depot to the South Rim takes the vintage train through prairie, ranch and national park land to the log-cabin train station in Grand Canyon Village. The small Railroad Museum is in the original dining room of the old Harvey House.
The view from Grandview, about 7 miles east of Yaki Point, is one of the finest in the canyon. At an elevation of 7,496 feet, the point contains large stands of pine, oalaska and juniper. To the northeast is a group of dominant buttes, including Krishna Shrine, Vishnu Temple, Rama Shrine and Shiva Temple. A short stretch of the Colorado River is also visible. Directly below the point and accessible by the Grandview Trail is Horseshoe Mesa, where you can see ruins of the Last Chance Copper mine.
The westernmost viewpoint and the Hermit Trail that descends from it were named for the ‘hermit’ Louis Boucher, a 19th-century French-Canadian prospector. Canyon views from here include Hermit Rapids and the towering cliffs of the Supai and Redwall formations.
From Hopi Point you can see a large section of the Colorado River the river is nearly 350 feet wide below this overlook, although it appears as a thin line. Across the canyon is Shiva Temple, which remained an isolated section of the Kaibab Plateau until 1937. In that year, Harold Anthony of the American Museum of Natural History led an expedition to the rock formation in the belief that it supported life that had been cut off from the rest of the canyon. Directly below Hopi Point lies Dana Butte, named for a prominent 19th-century geologist.
A half dozen yards west of Lookout Studio are a few steps that descend to the Kolb Studio, built in 1904 by the Kolb brothers, as a photographic workshop. If you look out the window, you can see Indian Gardens, where, in the days before a pipeline was installed, Emery Kolb descended 3,300 feet each day to get the water he needed to develop his prints.
A mile northeast of Tusayan Ruin, this is the canyon’s widest point. From here you can get an astonishing visual profile of the gorge’s geologic history, with a view of every eroded layer of the canyon. You can also see Unkar Delta, where a wide creek joins the Colorado to form powerful rapids and a broad beach. Anasazi farmers worked the Unkar Delta for hundreds of years, growing corn, beans and melons.
A trail at the rim leads west toward this studio, built in 1914 to compete with the Kolbs’ photographic studio, the building was designed by architect Mary Jane Colter to resemble a Hopi pueblo. The combination lookout point, museum and gift shop has a collection of fossils and geologic samples from around the world. An upstairs loft provides another excellent overlook into the mighty gorge below.
Less than a mile from Trailview Overlook, Maricopa Point merits a stop not only for the arresting scenery, which includes the Colorado River below, but also for its towering opening and defunct mine. On your left as you face the canyon are the Orphan mine and a mine shaft and cable lines leading up to the rim. The Battleship, the red butte directly ahead of you in the canyon, was named during the Spanish-American War, during the rise of battleships.
This overlook, about 4 miles north of the south entrance, gives you the first glimpse of the canyon from one of the most impressive and accessible vista points on the rim you can see nearly one quarter of Grand Canyon. The point, named for the National Park Service’s first director, Stephen Mather, yields extraordinary views of the Inner Gorge and the numerous buttes that rise out of the eroded chasm: Wotan’s Throne, Brahma Temple, Zoroaster Temple and many others. The Grand Canyon Lodge, on the North Rim, is barely 10 miles north of here yet you have to drive nearly 210 miles to get from one spot to the other.
Four-fifths of a mile to the west of Hopi Point, Mohave Point also has striking views of the Colorado River and of 5,401-feet Cheops Pyramid, the grayish rock formation behind Dana Butte. Granite and Salt Creek rapids can be seen from this spot.
About 5 mile east of Grandview Point, Moran Point was named for American landscape artist Thomas Moran, who was especially fond of the play of light and shadows from this location. He first visited the canyon with John Wesley Powell in 1873 and his vivid canvases helped persuade Congress to create a national park at the Grand Canyon. Not surprisingly, Moran Point is a favorite spot for photographers and painters.
Just over 1 mile east of Lipan Point lies 7,461 feet Navajo Point, the probable site of the first Spanish descent into the Canyon, in 1540. Just west of this point the highest elevation on the South Rim is the head of the Tanner Trail, a rugged route once favored by gold prospectors, rustlers (also known as Horsethief Trail) and bootleggers.
This point provides a bird’s-eye view of the Tonto Platform and the Tonto Trail, which winds its way through the canyon for more than 70 miles. To the west, two dark, cone-shape mountains Mt. Trumbull and Mt. Logan are visible on clear days. They rise in stark contrast to the surrounding flattop mesas and buttes.
About .5 miles beyond Maricopa Point, this large granite memorial stands as a tribute to the first man to ride the wild rapids of the Colorado River through the canyon in 1869. John Wesley Powell measured, charted and named many of the canyons and creeks of the river. It was here that the dedication ceremony for Grand Canyon National Park took place on April 3, 1920.
This overlook provides a dramatic view of the Bright Angel and Plateau Point trails as they zigzag down the canyon. In the deep gorge to the north, flows Bright Angel Creek, one of the few permanent tributary streams of the Colorado River in the region. Toward the south is an unobstructed view of the distant San Francisco Peaks, Arizona’s highest mountains, as well as of Bill Williams Mountain and Red Butte.
Tusayan Ruin and Museum
Three miles east of Moran Point on the south side of the highway is the entrance to this museum, which contains evidence of early habitation in the Grand Canyon and information about ancestral Pueblo people.
This lookout, provides an exceptional view of Wotan’s Throne. Due north and capped by limestone is Buddha Temple. To the east is Newton Butte, with its flat top of red sandstone. At Yaki Point, the popular Kaibab Trail descends to the Inner Gorge, crosses the Colorado over a steel suspension bridge and wends its way to rustic Phantom Ranch.
Grand Canyon National Park is unique among national parks because, in addition to its natural geologic wonders and incredible wilderness resources, it is also a small town in itself, containing a multitude of hotels, restaurants, gift shops, various stores and a variety of services. Grand Canyon National Park is also huge! So many activities can take place at different locations and seasons. There are numerous activities available at the Grand Canyon, but most occur on the South Rim’s Grand Canyon Village. Hiking opportunities range from leisurely walks on well-defined paths through gently rolling country to arduous multiday treks to the bottom of the canyon and across to the other rim. Park rangers or visitor-center personnel can provide you with information about routes. South Kaibab Trail, starting near Yaki Point on East Rim Drive near Grand Canyon Village, connects at the bottom of the canyon (after the Kaibab Bridge across the Colorado) with the North Kaibab Trail.
Plan on two to three days if you want to hike the gorge from rim to rim (if you do this, a good strategy is to descend from the North Rim, as it is more than 1,000 feet higher than the South Rim). South Kaibab Trail is steep, descending 4,800 feet in just 7 miles, with no water or campgrounds and very little shade. The trail corkscrews down through some spectacular geology, closely following the 300-million-year-old Supai and Redwall formations; look for (but don’t remove) fossils in the limestone when you take your frequent water breaks. If you’re going back up to the South Rim, ascend Bright Angel Trail.
Accommodations for hikers along the way include the campgrounds at Indian Garden and Bright Angel, or Phantom Ranch. The steep, 9 mile Hermit Trail beginning at Hermits Rest is recommended for experienced long-distance hikers only. For much of the year, no water is available along the way; ask a park ranger about the availability of water at Santa Maria Springs and Hermit Creek. The route leads down to the Colorado River and has inspiring views of Hermit Gorge and the Redwall and Supai formations. Six miles from the trailhead you’ll come across the scattered ruins of Hermit Camp, which the Santa Fe Railroad ran as a tourist camp from 1911 until 1930.
Many who have made the rafting trip down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon say it is the adventure of a lifetime. Trips embark from Lees Ferry, below Glen Canyon Dam near Page, Arizona. Those that run the length of the canyon can last from three days to three weeks. Shorter treks, also starting at Lees Ferry, let passengers off at Phantom Ranch at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. You’ll pass through a great amount of white water, including Lava Falls rapids, considered the wildest navigable rapids in North America. For those who would like a more tranquil turn on the Colorado, there are also one-day, quiet-water raft excursions that begin below Glen Canyon Dam near Page.
Mountain-bike enthusiasts revel in the network of dirt access roads that lace the North Rim, among them a 17 mile quad killer that leads to Point Sublime, overlooking the inner canyon’s Granite Gorge and its fierce rapids. A network of trails fans out north of Point Sublime, leading to other vistas to the west; mountain bikers who follow those trails are likely to have the place to themselves during most of the year.
Grand Canyon Village (South Rim) is located 60 miles north of Interstate 40 at Williams via Highway 64 and 80 miles northwest of Flagstaff via Highway 180. Only ten miles from rim to rim as the crow flies, the North Rim is 220 miles (about 4 1/2 hours) from the South Rim by car.
The North Rim is 44 miles south of Jacob Lake, AZ, via highway 67.
Try to visit the Grand Canyon in the fall or spring. You might encounter cold weather during those periods, but chances are good that most days will be clear and pleasantly cool or even warm. Since the crowds have thinned, reservations are much easier to come by and in some cases prices drop. The Grand Canyon’s South Rim has an elevation 7,000 feet above sea level. Such an elevation means snow in the winter and cool nights, even in summer. The Inner Canyon (below the rim) has a distinctly different climate, since at the bottom along the Coloardo River, elevation is almost a mile lower. Temperatures along the Colorado River at the canyon bottom can reach 120 degrees F.
The North Rim is 8,000 feet above sea level (1,000 feet higher than the South Rim) and can receive snow throughout most of the year. Weather is particularly unpredicatable in spring and fall so visitors should be prepared for a variety of climates. The North Rim is closed in winter.
Summer temperatures on the South Rim are relatively pleasant (50’s-80’s F) but inner canyon temperatures are extreme; daytime highs at the river (5000 feet below the rim) often exceed 120 degrees F. North Rim summer temperatures are cooler than those on the South Rim because of its increased elevation.
Winter conditions at the South Rim can be extreme: expect snow, icy roads and trails and possible road closures. Canyon views may be temporarily obscured during winter storms; in such cases entrance fees are not refundable. The North Rim is closed in winter.
Spring & Fall
Spring and fall on both rims and the Inner Gorge weather is quite unpredictable. Visitors should be prepared for sudden changes in the weather and a variety of climates.
Grand Canyon National Park
P. O. Box 129
Grand Canyon, AZ 86023
Phone: 520-638-7888 (recorded information)
River Permits: 800-959-9164
Camp Reservations: 800-365-2267
Backcountry Office: 520-638-7875
Mule Rides North Rim: 435-679-8665
Mule Rides South Rim: 303-297-2757
The main park visitor center (South Rim) is located just east of Grand Canyon Village, approximately six miles north of the south entrance station. Hours: 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. (longer hours during peak season).
Interpretive centers are also located at Yavapai Observation Station, Tusayan Museum, Desert View and the North Rim (mid-May through late October only; located in the lobby of Grand Canyon Lodge).
Operating Hours & Seasons
At Grand Canyon National Park, the South Rim is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. The North Rim is closed from late October to mid-May.
Pets must be leashed inside Grand Canyon National Park and are allowed on developed rim trails in the South Rim. Pets are not allowed below the rim. Exceptions are made for service animals.