The Grand Canyon: How to See It and How to Save

by  Kristen Boatright | Jul 6, 2018

Peeking over the rim of the Grand Canyon, into the mile-deep, 277 mile-long gorge can take your breath away—and maybe even bring a tear or two to your eye. It’s no surprise, then, that more than six million visitors head to Northern Arizona each year to check this famous national park off their bucket lists.

We explored the Grand Canyon as part of a guided tour with Trafalgar, a luxury tour operator that offers a variety of national park and western itineraries. This means we were able to weigh the benefits of doing a package tour like this one versus planning the trip on your own. Clearly there are some pretty big differences between these two methods. We've outlined some of them—plus some general tips for must-see sights—below.   

The Basics: Ways to See It

Whether biking, hiking, floating, or flying, there are many ways to explore and enjoy the Grand Canyon. If you're booking a package or a tour, check to see if it includes any of the following. The details below will help you understand what you're getting, and if it fits your needs. 

For adventurous travelers, there are dozens of trails of varying difficulty levels from both the North and the South Rims. Two of the most popular—the 9.5-mile Bright Angel Trail and the 7-mile South Kaibab Trail—lead into the canyon from the South Rim and end at the Bright Angel Campground; both are strenuous and are best tackled by those who have some hiking experience. If you want a less-crowded route, opt to leave from the North Rim. The North Kaibab trail is a 14-mile trek to the Bright Angel Campground.

Day hikes along either rim are perfect for those with less time, and if you’d rather see the sites on two wheels, bikes are permitted on all paved and unpaved park roads (but not below the rim) and are available to rent on the South Rim. You can also drive or even book a train trip.

The grandest views of the canyon are from high above or far below. A Grand Canyon Helicopter tour is well worth the splurge (typically $259 per person, which may or may not be included in a package) for the once-in-a-lifetime views. The tour takes you over the Kaibab National Forest then high above the Colorado River into the deepest and widest parts of the canyon.

The Skywalk at Grand Canyon West, on tribal lands five hours by car from the South Rim, is another option for those seeking a unique viewing experience. This horseshoe-shaped, glass-floored lookout is set 70 feet out from the canyon rim and more than 700 feet above the plateau below. It costs $82 per person for the least-expensive package. If you’d rather look up at the canyon walls, rafting trips on the Colorado River are a popular way to see the sites from below. We've described these in more detail below.

On Your Own vs. A Package: Comparing the Costs

Organized tours are among the most popular ways to experience the Grand Canyon. There is something to be said for having all of the details planned and executed for you, plus tour leaders and guides are knowledgeable about the ground your covering and provide interesting anecdotes along the way. Tour operators like Trafalgar and Contiki include one- or two-day stops at the Grand Canyon on dozens of their itineraries, priced from $1,706 per person and $1,569 per person, respectively. Park admission, some meals, all ground transportation, and accommodations are included. But if you’re really looking to explore the Grand Canyon specifically, you may find you don’t have enough time in the park on these types of tours. Each tour and itinerary is different—some offer more free time while others are more active and are geared toward adventure—so it’s best to ask questions before you book.

Another popular package option are the guided summer rafting trips through the Canyon. They are highly recommended for adventure-seekers, but they can be pricey—plan for $4,000 or more per person for a full-canyon trip. Authorized outfitters offer motorized, oar, and paddle trips from three to 18 days through much of the canyon’s 226 miles of river, from Lees Ferry to Diamond Creek. Note that many outfitters have limited availability and book up quickly, and you can understand why. This is truly a bucket-list experience.  

A great Grand Canyon trip is, of course, doable on your own, without a tour. You'll need to factor in the price of transportation, meals, accommodation in or near the park, and and admission fees. Seven-day park passes start at $20 per person without a motorized vehicle, and go up to $35 per motorized vehicle that includes all of the vehicle's passengers.

There are six lodges on the park grounds at the South Rim with rooms starting as low as $85 per night. At the North Rim, the Grand Canyon Lodge has rooms from $141 per night. If you decide to hike below the Rim into the canyon, you can rent a two-person cabin at Phantom Ranch for $149 per night or snag a spot in one of the multi-bed dorms for $51 per person.  

What You Should Know

Cooler temperatures in early spring and early fall mean pleasant daytime weather and smaller crowds. March through May and September through November are the best times to visit. The park’s peak season is the summer, which means many more tourists and limited accommodation. It also means hot weather. The inner canyon’s average high temperature in July is 106 degrees. 

Be prepared if you plan to hike. Check your route, the weather, and water availability before heading out. Hike with a buddy and don’t attempt to hike from either rim to the river and back in one day, especially in the summer months.

Some iconic spots, like the famous Havasu Falls, require a special permit and these book up months in advance. Reservations can only be obtained through the Havasupai Tribe’s website.

Tips to Save Time and Money

Flagstaff may be the closest airport, but it's better to fly into Las Vegas McCarran or Phoenix Sky Harbor and drive. Given that these are the eighth and ninth busiest airports in the country, you’ll have a lot more air transportation options—and thus lower prices. 

Go in the off-season. Park admission is the same throughout the year, but lodging in and around the park and airfare are cheaper during the colder months. If you go during the summer, consider buying your park admission passes online. Lines at the South Entrance Station—the park’s busiest—can be long and slow-moving during peak season. 

Buy an annual pass. If you love America's national parks and think you’ll find yourself crossing several off your list in one year, look into the America the Beautiful annual pass. It’s $80 per year and will get you into National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands. You can also save on park admission by visiting on one of several designated free days, which coincide with the first day of National Park Week, National Public Lands Day, and Veterans Day each year.

Consider camping. You can pitch a tent at one of four developed camp grounds throughout the park for $18 per site, per night (three tents are allowed per site). Backcountry camping is allowed in the park with a permit.

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