When it comes to visiting the Grand Canyon, there’s a big question: Which side is the best to visit? The Grand Canyon is huge, stretching 18 miles wide and 277 miles long, with entrances on its north, east, south, and west sides. With so many options, it can be tough to decide. In this article, we’ll help you figure out which side of the Grand Canyon is right for you.
South Rim Vs North Rim for First-timers?
For first-time visitors to the Grand Canyon, the South Rim is the best choice. It offers easy access from Phoenix, shorter driving distances compared to the North Rim, and a wide range of viewpoints, trails, and visitor facilities. The South Rim is open year-round with milder weather and various activities like hiking, mule rides, and camping. While it can get crowded during peak times, it provides an excellent introduction to the Grand Canyon’s awe-inspiring beauty.
The Grand Canyon Village located on the South Rim has everything that new tourists need to fully enjoy and learn everything they want to know about the Grand Canyon. That’s why I always recommend to go to the Grand Canyon South Rim for first-timers.
Many visitors choose to fly into Phoenix then drive to Flagstaff, stay overnight, then finish the drive the next day.
A 3.5-hour drive from Phoenix may seem long, but compared to the nearly 6-hour drive to the North Rim, heading to the South Rim is the more popular and convenient choice.
Once you get to the South Rim/Grand Canyon Village, you can take your pick of viewpoints, trails, lodges, and visitor centers to spend time in!
Historic Bright Angel Lodge is a must-visit, and if you’re lucky you might even be able to snag a reservation for a night’s stay here right on the edge of the canyon.
When tourists catch their first glimpse of the incredible expanse of the Canyon, don’t be surprised to hear a lot of “oohs!” and “aahs!”.
Nobody ever forgets their first time seeing this magnificent natural wonder and the South Rim offers endless viewpoints from which to take it all in.
Take a short stroll down Bright Angel Trail at Grand Canyon Village or catch the shuttle to the South Kaibab trailhead a mile away to get below the rim and open up some more views.
While there are drop-offs up to 500 feet or more from the edge of the Grand Canyon on the South Rim, don’t fret if you’re afraid of heights or have kids! Several viewing areas have fencing near the edge to keep everyone safe; this is another advantage that the South Rim has over other areas in the park.
The South Rim is open year-round, while the more remote North Rim is closed to public access in the winter months. The weather is usually a little milder as well, although snow and cold temperatures are still common. Hiking the Rim Trail is a great way to enjoy some views along the South Rim without dealing with the strenuous climb in and out of the canyon.
One of the only cons of the South Rim is that it can get very crowded and busy during the most favorable times of the year, such as early summer and fall.
Overall here’s why you should go the South Rim if you’re visiting the Grand Canyon for the first time.
Pros of the South Rim:
- Accessibility: The South Rim is more easily accessible for first-time visitors, with options to fly into Phoenix and then drive to Flagstaff, making it a convenient starting point for exploring the Grand Canyon.
- Shorter Drive: The South Rim is closer to major transportation hubs like Phoenix, making it a shorter drive (3.5 hours from Phoenix) compared to the North Rim (nearly 6 hours). This is advantageous for travelers seeking convenience.
- Varied Amenities: The Grand Canyon Village on the South Rim offers a wide range of amenities, including viewpoints, trails, lodges, and visitor centers, ensuring tourists have everything they need for an enjoyable experience.
- Accommodation Options: Historic Bright Angel Lodge offers an opportunity to stay right on the edge of the canyon, providing a unique lodging experience with breathtaking views.
- Abundant Viewpoints: The South Rim offers numerous viewpoints from which visitors can take in the incredible expanse of the Grand Canyon, providing unforgettable moments and photo opportunities.
- Safety Measures: Several viewing areas on the South Rim have fencing near the edge, enhancing safety, especially for those afraid of heights or traveling with children.
- Year-Round Access: The South Rim is open year-round, providing visitors with the flexibility to explore the Grand Canyon regardless of the season.
- Milder Weather: The South Rim typically experiences milder weather compared to the North Rim, making it more comfortable for outdoor activities.
- Diverse Activities: Besides sightseeing, the South Rim offers a wide range of activities, including hiking, mule rides, camping, cycling, helicopter rides, bus tours, and jeep off-roading tours, catering to various interests.
- Breathtaking Views: The Visitor Center at Mather Point and the Desert View area offer breathtaking views of the Grand Canyon, providing opportunities for visitors to appreciate the natural wonder’s size and beauty.
Cons of the South Rim:
- Crowds: The South Rim can get very crowded and busy during peak seasons like early summer and fall, which may lead to longer lines and limited parking.
- Beauty: In my opinion, the North Rim is the most beautiful area in the park.
In summary, the South Rim of the Grand Canyon offers convenience, accessibility, safety measures, varied amenities, and a wide range of activities, making it an excellent choice for first-time visitors. However, it can get crowded during peak times, which may be a drawback for those seeking a quieter experience.
A Glimpse of What Awaits You at the South Rim
The activities at the South Rim (besides just taking in the views) include hiking, mule rides, camping, cycling on approved routes, scenic helicopter rides, taking a guided bus tour, and jeep off-roading tours.
The Visitor Center at Mather Point is many visitors’ first stop, and the views here are truly breathtaking. You can faintly see the Colorado River, looking like a small green ribbon at the bottom of the Canyon. The Colorado River is what formed the Canyon over thousands of years, and it’s hard to fathom its size and power from above!
Head 23 miles east of Grand Canyon Village to the Desert View area, where you’ll find a few more viewpoints including the Desert View Watchtower which affords you some extra wide views of the canyon from the top of an old fire watchtower.
Campgrounds are located nearby, as well as a market deli and trading post. If you come from Highway 89A/Cameron, Desert View is usually your first chance to get out of the vehicles and see the Grand Canyon in all its glory.
For something a little more adventurous and far off the beaten path, visit the Skywalk, located on the Hualapai Native American Reservation about 250 miles west of the Grand Canyon Village. While technically outside of the park boundaries, the Skywalk is a popular tourist spot for those who want to feel a little adrenaline. The glass-bottomed walkway juts out over a sheer cliff face, 70 feet away from the rim.
Can I See the Grand Canyon Without Entering the National Park Boundaries?
Yes, but you’ll either need to access the Grand Canyon from nearby Native American Reservations (which often requires permits) or find a local jeep or van tour that takes you into the backcountry on either rim. The South Rim park boundary covers more of the rim in either direction from the Village, but the North Rim is more remote with more off-roading required to get to outlying parts of the Canyon.
For first-time visitors, it’s not recommended to stray outside the park boundaries; you have everything you need within Grand Canyon National Park to get the most out of your trip. You could easily get lost on the primitive dirt roads, and outside of the park, you’re less likely to have reliable cell phone service.
What is the Most Beautiful Part of the Grand Canyon?
While the South Rim is the most popular and easily accessed, the North Rim has my heart for being the most beautiful area of the park (in my opinion!). Sitting about 1,000 feet higher in elevation than the South Rim, the North Rim gets more snow every year and has a different kind of environment. The trees here are a mixture of aspens and Douglas firs, as well as Ponderosa Pines. You might also see more wildlife near the North Rim including condors, elk, bison, deer, and even mountain lions!
The North Rim is a longer drive from “civilization” and so is usually less crowded than the South Rim, making it a more quiet experience and easier to find some peace among nature. The views from the North Rim are a little different as well, with deeper crevasses below and forest that stretches up to the very edge of the rim itself.
The North Rim Lodge is one of the only places to stay on this side of Grand Canyon National Park, and there are designated campsites nearby as well. The North Kaibab Trailhead is only a short drive from the Lodge and is where many long-distance hikers start their trek across the canyon.
The only way to access the North Rim Lodge area is by taking Highway 89A to Jacob Lake (don’t forget to stop at the inn here for delicious cookies and dinner!) and you can even stay here if the North Rim Lodge is full. It’s about an hour’s drive from Jacob Lake to the North Rim, so many choose to stay here during their trip.
Should I Stay Inside or Outside of the Park?
Reservations at Grand Canyon National Park’s several lodges and inns tend to fill up very quickly, so you may have to stay outside the park, especially if you plan your trip last minute. On the North Rim, Jacob Lake Inn is the closest option for staying overnight near the park if the North Rim Lodge is full. On the South Rim, you have many more options.
Tusayan is a small village just south of the entrance to the Grand Canyon, with several restaurants and hotels to choose from. A few great options include:
Inside the park and near the South Rim, you have a few options for overnight stays; just keep in mind that these may fill up months in advance so plan accordingly!
Looking for an overnight stay that is outside the norm? If camping isn’t your thing, but sleeping under the stars is something you’ve always wanted to do, book your trip at Under Canvas Grand Canyon or Clear Sky Resorts, which both offer beautiful settings and opportunities to sleep inside large canvas tents (glamping style) or inside a clear-topped dome that gives you incredible views of the starry skies above.
Best Tours to Take At/to the South Rim
For a guided van tour that lets you catch all the best sights on the South Rim and has a pickup in Las Vegas, book this tour here.
If you want to take to the skies to see the Grand Canyon from a vantage point that few get to see, book a helicopter tour here or here.
If you want to see some of the other beautiful natural wonders in the area, book a day-long tour to see the Grand Canyon, Horseshoe Bend, and Antelope Canyon all in one trip! This tour (like many professional tours of the area) takes off from Las Vegas, only about 2 hours away from the South Rim. Book your tour here.
Download an audible tour to save some money and drive your own vehicle! This is a convenient option for those looking for more information on what they are seeing, but don’t want to spend the day in a bus or van with strangers!
Visiting the Grand Canyon is a bucket list item for many tourists, and even for some local Arizonans who just haven’t made the trip up north yet! The South Rim is more easily accessed from Phoenix, Flagstaff, and Las Vegas, so it is usually busier but also has a lot more to see and do than the more remote North Rim.
To see everything and learn more about the history and geology of the Grand Canyon, it can be great for newcomers to book a tour or spend more than just a day at the park. My personal favorite way to experience the Grand Canyon is hiking below the rim to the Colorado River, but that may not be possible for all visitors!
First-timers to the Grand Canyon can get plenty out of their trip by enjoying Grand Canyon Village, Mather Point, and Desert View Point on the South Rim. The Grand Canyon can be an unpredictable place, so staying on the rim may be the safest and most enjoyable option for first-time tourists. However you decide to enjoy the Grand Canyon, you’ll be sure to remember your first glimpse for years to come!
For more adventures in the area check out my guide to horseback riding in the Grand Canyon.
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