I remember visiting the Grand Canyon for the first time when I was in high school. I have great memories of that trip, and always wanted to go back, but for some reason that took almost 40 years. So earlier this fall, Jason and I packed up the car and drove to Grand Canyon National Park. While it would be ideal to have several days to fully explore the park, we didn’t have that much time. Fortunately, it is possible to see the Grand Canyon in two days and have a wonderful time!
To make the most of our two days, we spent three nights in the area. We arrived on a Friday night and returned home Monday. We opted to explore the South Rim which is the best known and most visited part of the park. Hopefully, during a future trip we can explore more of this natural wonder.
Hiking Bright Angel Trail
We woke up early on Saturday morning and headed to the Bright Angel Trailhead. If you’re not familiar with this trail, it’s definitely the best known and busiest in the park, so getting an early start is important. The entire length of the trail is eight miles, but the National Park Service does not recommend doing this in one day since it requires an uphill return trip of the same distance. We hiked just one and a half miles down and then began the 1,000 foot ascent.
Seeing the Grand Canyon from the rim is awesome, but getting down into it is even better. As we descended, each switchback opened up new views of the colorful rock layers. As one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World, it’s impossible not to be in awe of this six million year old site.
There’s a resting point at 1.5 miles that includes water and a restroom. We took a short break, had a snack, and then began climbing back uphill. We weren’t in a rush, so we had several short breaks to catch our breath and appreciate the views. This trail gets really crowded, but we enjoyed the camaraderie of so many fellow hikers.
Bright Angel Trail Tips:
- You should definitely be in good shape to hike this trail.
- We found our hiking poles very helpful on the ascent, so I recommend bringing your own, or buying some before your visit.
- The warmer the weather, the earlier you should start your hike. There’s not much breeze in the canyon, so it can get really hot
Eating and Shopping In Grand Canyon Village
According to the health app on my phone, we hiked a total of 18,500 steps and climbed the equivalent of 81 flights of stairs. After eating the lunches I had packed, we decided to reward ourselves with ice cream. Fortunately the Bright Angel Trailhead is very close to the Grand Canyon Village which offers accommodations, shops, restaurants, and cafes. We made our way to Bright Angel Fountain and ordered a scoop of canyon crunch.
The Village is home to the famous El Tovar Hotel which opened its doors in 1905. At the time it was considered the most elegant hotel west of the Mississippi River. In 1987 it was designated as a National Historic Landmark.
Across from the hotel is Hopi House. Also built in 1905, this multi-story stone building is shaped like a Hopi pueblo. It was designed by architect, Mary Coulter, who is responsible for several historic buildings in the park. It houses Native American arts such as jewelry, baskets, and textiles. Definitely spend some time browsing this large shop which is full of beautiful wares.
Lookout Studio, built in 1914, was also designed by Mary Coulter, and is perched on the edge of the South Rim. Head inside to browse the gift shop or enjoy the outdoor overlooks that are opened during good weather.
Throughout the village are a few other restaurants and souvenir shops. We definitely enjoyed browsing in this area for a while. But beware that parking is very limited, so arrive early or take the free shuttle bus instead.
Dinner In Tusayan
After returning to our hotel for a nap, we were ready to venture out for dinner. We stayed in the small town of Tusayan, just outside the park. In addition to the many hotels, there are dozens of restaurants and shops. As fans of Mexican food, we opted to have dinner at Plaza Bonita which was a short walk from our hotel. The food was delicious, and as a vegetarian, I really loved the veggie options on the menu. It didn’t hurt that the margaritas were also large and tasty. In fact we liked this place so much we returned the next night.
There are several steak restaurants in Tusayan, but their menus offered few veggie options. If you are a meat lover, you’ll find plenty of options on the main street of town.
Inside the park are several restaurants as well, but currently many of them are closed for dine-in service.
A Grand Canyon Sunrise
One of my goals for this trip was to see a Grand Canyon sunrise. So on our second morning we woke very early, dressed warmly, and headed to the rim. After some research we selected Mather Point to watch the sunrise. It was still dark when we arrived, so the lights on our cell phones were very helpful. And since the temperature was 33 degrees, we brought with us a warm blanket and thermos of hot coffee.
Watching the sunlight slowly spread over the canyon was magical. While we could hear hushed talk around us, most people remained quiet so we could enjoy the experience. At the beginning there were about a dozen people, and by the time we left almost a hundred. This is a popular activity in the Grand Canyon.
My only caution if you plan to see a sunrise is to be very careful while driving in the park in the dark. Elk often feed near the roads which are unlit, so watch your speed.
After the sun came up we were seriously hungry, so we drove to the village and had breakfast at the El Tovar Dining Room. The focus of the dining room is large picture windows providing a view of the pastel colored canyon. Be sure to look at the murals on the walls which depict customs of four Native American tribes--the Hopi, the Apache, the Mojave, and the Navajo. The breakfast was really tasty and the service impeccable.
Hiking The Grand Canyon Rim Trail
Our second hike was along the Rim Trail. Fortunately it was far flatter and therefore much easier. Stretching from the South Kaibab trailhead west to Hermits Rest, this 13 mile trail is mostly paved. Since the Rim Trail passes through the village, it also gets pretty crowded. But all the scenic viewpoints along the way are what make this hike worth it.
We hiked about six miles of this trail. Once again I packed our lunches, so we found a quiet spot at noon and enjoyed lunch with a view. Whenever possible, we pack lunches when we hike and look for a scenic place to eat. These have been some of our favorite meals of all time.
Exploring The Trail Of time
Along the Rim Trail is a 2.83 mile interpretive walk called The Trail Of Time. Each meter walked signifies one million years of Grand Canyon's geologic history. Bronze markers detail your location in time while exhibits explain how the Grand Canyon was formed. This was an excellent learning experience that I’d highly recommend, especially if you’re traveling with kids. According to the National Park Service, this experience was intended for all the people that are not able to get down into the canyon. For us it was a nice complement to our hike along Bright Angel Trail the previous day.
Best Hotels Near Grand Canyon
There are several great lodging options in Grand Canyon National Park including the historic El Tovar Hotel. However, these do book up fast, and can be very pricey. While we were visiting, many of the restaurants within the park were closed, so we opted instead to stay in Tusayan, just outside the park. Here there are plenty of dining options ranging from McDonald’s and Starbucks to high-end steakhouses.
We stayed at the Best Western Premier Grand Canyon Squire Inn. We stayed in a one-bedroom suite with a balcony which overlooked the outdoor pool and an outdoor bar. There’s also an indoor pool and bowling alley (the pools were open during our visit, but I’m not sure about the bowling alley). We enjoyed breakfast one morning at the restaurant. Our room was very clean and well-appointed. I was happy with this hotel and definitely recommend it.
Best Time To Visit The Grand Canyon
Since I’ve only visited the South Rim, I’ll share my advice for when to visit that portion of the park. Whenever possible, it’s best to travel during shoulder season, meaning the time right before and right after peak season. Not only are there fewer people, but typically prices for accommodations are lower as well. For the Grand Canyon, peak season is summer--June through August. It will be crowded if you’re visiting during the summer. And if you’re planning to hike into the canyon, it can get very hot during the summer as well. If travel is only possible for you during summer, then plan to start each day early.
We visited in the fall, and the crowds were manageable. Temperatures can be as low as 30 degrees at nighttime, but daytime temperatures can reach the upper 70’s. Fall is a great time for hiking in the canyon. April and May temperatures are similar, so also a nice time for visiting.
If you really want minimal crowds, visit in the winter. There will be snow, but according to the National Park Service, just 10% of people visiting each year come during the winter. I’ve seen the photos of snow in the upper portion of the canyon and it's beautiful.
With 1,902 square miles of canyon to explore, there’s no way to fully appreciate the Grand Canyon in 2 days, but it’s a darn good start. I look forward to many return trips to this natural wonder.