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A First Timers’ Guide to the Grand Canyon

Published 30 March 2016

Alexandra Gregg

Visiting the Grand Canyon tops many a travel bucket list, but having a truly memorable experience takes a lot of careful planning. After all, it’s not called the ‘Grand’ Canyon for nothing – this big, beautiful world wonder is incredibly vast, so how, when and where you see it is key. You don’t want to make the classic rookie error of heading there at midday, on the wrong side and during peak tourist season – otherwise you may find the whole thing a bit, well, underwhelming.

RS Grand Canyon sunset - shutterstock_119302513

The teams at Round the World Experts and Flight Centre UK have a wealth of knowledge when it comes to the USA though, so we’ve asked them for the top tips they’d give to first timers visiting the Grand Canyon. Here’s what they had to say:

Take a helicopter ride

We love seeing the Grand Canyon from the air – it’s one of the most thrilling, exciting ways to take in the amber icon’s vastness.

RS Grand Canyon helicopter shutterstock_134639528

Our Experts say:

"Seeing the Grand Canyon by helicopter is fantastic to see just how huge it really is. While the ride is worth it, it’s not cheap, which is why I would recommend just taking the cheaper shorter ride over a longer more expensive one. Once you are up in the air you’ll see incredible views of the canyon regardless."
- Lauren Burvill, Content & Community Manager

"Take a helicopter trip from Las Vegas that takes you to the bottom of the Canyon, where you touch down and have a glass of champagne! It’s amazing. Afterwards, you fly back to Vegas at sunset where you see the lights of the Strip. One word: EPIC. It’s probably one of the most memorable experiences of my life."
- Dominique Kotsias, Destination Owner – USA, Canada, Caribbean & Mexico

Visit during the golden hours

Any good photographer will tell you that the best time to capture the perfect snap is during the golden hours – the periods of time around dawn and dusk, sunrise and sunset. These times aren’t just great for taking a picture though; they’re perfect for creating a truly atmospheric setting for you and your travelling companions to soak up and cherish forever.

RS Helen -grand_canyon_sunrise

Our Experts say:

"The nights in Arizona may be cool, but it’s worth baring the chill to witness the sunrise over the Canyon. This is the perfect time to really appreciate its mightiness and the incredible force of nature. I begrudgingly woke up at 4am to travel to the ridge of the Grand Canyon as the sky transformed from starry black to a soft blue. We weren’t the only ones who had the plan to get up early, but what amazed me was the utter silence, despite the crowds. Nothing has quite succeeded my top life moments than listening to the birds sing as the sun filled in the empty vastness of this great orange canyon."
- Helen Winter, Social Media Executive

"Do it at sunset! The 40-minute plane ride remains one of the most memorable moments of my life – the way in which the sun illuminated the magnificent colours of the canyon was breathtaking. The majestic cliffs lit up in warm oranges and deep reds as the sun sank lower. It was unforgettable."
- Tess Watkins, Escapes Executive

"What better way to end your day at the Canyon then catching the sunset from the southern rim? It’s an incredible sight but the best spots to watch from can get pretty crowded, so unless you don’t mind a few random heads fighting for space in your perfect sunset photo, it’s best to find a good spot and get there early."
- Chris Steel, Brochure & Marketing Executive

Get up early

Getting up at the crack of dawn or earlier is not uncommon for tourists visiting the Canyon. You can cram more into your day, beat the worst of the crowds (and the blistering desert heat) and be around for sunrise and sunset too.

Our Experts say:

"At midday in the middle of August, the Grand Canyon can get mighty warm. Starting early is a must-do for most hikes within the Arizona/Utah region, but it’s even more important in the Canyon as you hike downwards, but then have the even more difficult challenge of hiking upwards on your way back. Make sure you have the energy and enough water to do this. I hiked the Cedar Ridge, an easy-going 2-3 hour hike, perfect for those looking to spend more time taking in the view than clambering narrow trails." 
- Helen Winter, Social Media Executive

Pick the right side

As we mentioned, the Grand Canyon is huge, which is why visiting the right part is crucial – especially if you’re short on time. It can be viewed from four different areas: the South Rim, Grand Canyon West, Grand Canyon East and the North Rim. Each side is different and has its own merits, the South Rim, for example, is open year-round, has plenty of tourist amenities and offers that quintessential Grand Canyon view that you get on all the postcards. The North is more nature-filled while the West boasts the Skywalk and Navajo Falls, and the East is home to the Little Colorado River Tribal Park and the oft-photographed Horseshoe Bend.

Our Experts say:

"The south rim is the most scenic. If they do it as a day trip from Vegas it makes for a longer drive, but it is worth it as it is less crowded. There are also many accessible hiking trails where you can literally look on any direction and not see another human being!" 
- Claus Gurumeta, Journeys Travel Experience Merchandiser

Stay somewhere with Canyon views

Maximise your time in the Grand Canyon by picking a hotel or campground where you can even look out across the desert expanse as you eat your dinner and breakfast too. There are plenty of hotels with views across the geological marvel, as well as spots where you can pitch a tent.

RS Grand Canyon tipi shutterstock_79886614

Our Experts say:

"El Tovar is a great place to stay because it’s right on the Canyon Rim, so you have a view without having to even leave the hotel."
- Angela Griffin, Journeys Experience Coordinator

"Quite a few years ago I ended up staying in a tipi – mainly because all the hotels were full when we pitched up looking for somewhere to stay. It was very basic but made the whole experience seem much more authentic… and memorable." 
- David Forder, Head of Marketing, Flight Centre First and Business

Drive… if you dare

From Vegas, Phoenix and Flagstaff, the Grand Canyon is a common commute, one that offers plenty of freedom and can form part of a once-in-a-lifetime road trip experience. That said: it’s not necessarily an easy journey. You’ve not only got different road rules to contend with, but also the added pressure of driving to the best sections of the Canyon and making the most of your stop there. Make sure you prepare and plan well in advance to make sure the drive goes smoothly.

RS grand canyon drive shutterstock_233738026

Our Experts say:

"Driving is the hardest way to see the Canyon. Even using a sat nav can get you very lost as the Canyon is so big; it can take you to parts you don’t want to see so make sure you get the right information to put into the sat nav. The plus side though, is that you can stop-off to see the Hoover Dam along the way." 
- Carrie Lee, Marketing Manager, Flight Centre

Skip the Skywalk

Tourists by the coachload head for the glass-bottomed Skywalk so they can stand suspended, 1,200 metres above the Canyon floor. And while this attraction offers a truly unique perspective of this landmark, it does have some problems – including a pretty steep pricetag (US$79pp).

Our Experts say:

"The Skywalk is so crowded that you have to walk around it in a line and you can’t really stop to admire the view as there are too many people getting on it constantly. Also, you’re not allowed to take your camera with you so you don’t drop it, which means no photos of the canyon."
- Claus Gurumeta, Journeys Travel Experience Merchandiser

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