How to Enjoy a Visit to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon

Visiting the South Rim

Standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon for the first time was an experience I will never forget. I was in awe, with a total loss of words. No pictures, no video recordings can ever prepare you for the first glimpse of it.

Grand Canyon South Rim 1

The rock layers, each a different color, as you look deeper into it takes your breath away. It stretches on for miles and you can see all the way to the other side, the sheer size of it leaving you speechless. It seems impossible to fathom that a river carved it all. Here, in the desert of Northern Arizona, the rocks leave a valuable geologic record of what was going on over 500 million years ago on Earth.

Although it seems to stretch as far as you can see, looking at it from the top you don’t realize that it consists of thousands of miles of smaller canyons, mesas, volcanoes and a web of drainage that connects the Grand Canyon to the rest of the world. It all seems totally inaccessible.

Grand Canyon South Rim 2

Then you see the trails that lead into the depths of it, and you feel like you need to walk on them it, at least for a short distance, to feel like you are part of this wonder of the world. You hike a few steps on the closest trail you see, most likely the Bright Angel Trail. Quickly realize that it is descending so fast, it will be hard to get back out of it. So, you turn around and promise yourself that you will make it to the bottom one day. Just not today.

Grand Canyon South Rim 3

If you want to hike down to the bottom, you can find a few trails, as well as mules to carry your packs. You might want to stay overnight, in the camp ground on the bottom. But for now, just enjoy the scenery from the top, eye level with the birds.

The Grand Canyon Is Home to Indigenous People

The human history in and around the Grand Canyon stretches back at least 13000 years.

The Hopi, one of the tribes who still lives in the proximity, consider it sacred ground. For them, one of the points in the bottom of the canyon, is their ancestral home, their place of origin.

The Hualapai and Havasupai have inhabited the South side of the Canyon. The Havasupai still live on the bottom of the Canyon, far from civilization, since there is no road to their village, only an eight-mile long trail. You do have to hike there, if you want to visit them. They consider themselves the guardians of the sacred ground of the Grand Canyon system.

The Southern Paiute inhabited the North side of the Canyon and for them it is also holy land.

The Zuni have their place of origin in the depths of the Canyon a well.

The Navajos and the Western Apaches also inhabit the area, though they have arrived a bit more recently, but still hundreds of years before the Spaniards.

For all of these tribes, who have lived here for centuries, the canyon is sacred land, in one way or another. If you catch a glimpse of it, you will understand why.

Grand Canyon South Rim 4

You Are In a National Park 

Given its beauty, geological and historical significance, you would have thought that the Grand Canyon was the first National Park in the US. It wasn’t so easy though. The first bill to establish the Grand Canyon as a National Park was indeed introduced in 1882. However, it took until 1919 (February 26th) to actually designate it as such.  Miners opposed the bill, since they wanted to get to the copper, zinc and silver at the bottom. Developers wanted to build a railroad on the bottom of the Canyon, so they fought against the bill as well.

All is well if it ends well.  After much debate, we have one of the natural wonders of the world designated as a National Park and as such, protected from developers. For now at least. Or so it seems.

Sunset at Grand Canyon South Rim

My Visits Over the Years

The first time I’ve seen the Grand Canyon, I was visiting it as an out-of-state tourist, over twenty years ago. While it seemed a bit crowded, we were able to enjoy it. Now we live so close to it, we can see it multiple times a year if we want to. And we have seen too much development around it.

Now, there are moments when I get to the South Rim, to the Visitor Center and I want to run. There are so many people, I cannot get to the Canyon for a glimpse. But if you take some time, you can still get away from the crowds and have a moment to enjoy your surroundings. The view itself never loses its magic.

But you do have to walk to enjoy it. If nothing more, just walk the rim trail.  Even on the busiest day, you might find yourself alone on some stretches of it.  Take a break at each of the educational stops, and learn about the ages and consistency of the rocks that make up the Canyon.

Sure, you can take the shuttle. In fact, if you can’t walk, do take the shuttle instead of driving. Free to ride, it runs on compressed gas, so it doesn’t pollute like your car would.

But I always felt that we would miss something if we just rode the shuttle and stopped at each overlook. We dragged our kids, even when they were young, on the rim walk. They have complained at times, but overall, they had a better time. On our last visit, we would have missed the deer grazing by the trail, if we didn’t walk.

The park has seen too much development in the past two decades. A brand-new town was built just outside of the park’s boundaries, by the South Rim. Other than hotels and other amenities, it offers helicopter tours, and an I-Max movie theater so see the Canyon if you can’t make it a few more miles into the park. The problem is, the helicopter tours, and all sorts of other tourist traps are hurting the environment in the Canyon. If we want to keep it for the next generations, we need to take better care of it.

This natural wonder is fragile, and its National Park status protects it.  But just outside the boundaries things are getting too built up. If everything that is proposed at this time happens, it will turn into an amusement park, instead of the National Park. I hope it won’t happen.

If You Go 

Expect big crowds if you go, no matter the season.  It is the worst during the summer, but it might still be crowded in November, even on weekdays.  Try to walk in the morning, if possible.

No matter how crowded it gets, if you walk the rim trail, you might find yourself alone on some stretches of the it. Better yet, you can walk down a few meters either on the Bright Angel Trail or the Kaibab trail.  You don’t need to go to the bottom to enjoy the feel of being in the Canyon.

You can take the shuttle at a few different points through the trail, if you get too tired or the desert sun gets to you. Please remember to carry water and wear a hat if you walk any distance.

As spectacular as the South Rim is, our favorite side is the North Rim, mainly because it is more remote.  That’s where the historic Grand Canyon Lodge is, and you can stay in small cabins in the forest surrounding the rim.  To visit that side, you need to make reservation well ahead.