We got good advice from a friend who lives in New York to fly to Phoenix (instead of Vegas) for a road trip to Grand Canyon South Rim. And apart from that useful tip to shape your itinerary to one of the 7 natural wonders of the world, this post will answer queries on best viewpoints at the south rim of Grand Canyon, how best to plan your one day trip to Grand Canyon and also on Grand Canyon bike tours.
But first, why was flying to Phoenix from San Francisco good advice, you may ask? Well, it made us stop overnight in Sedona and see its stunning red rocky mountains. The Sedona stopover turned out to be worth for all that we had been told. And the drive from Sedona to Grand Canyon via Flagstaff – considered one of the 10 most scenic drives in USA – was beautiful.
Back to our trip to the majestic natural wonder that is Grand Canyon. This along with our trip to Yosemite National park with kids made up for most of the outdoor adventures on the US west coast.
With more than 200 miles in length and over a mile deep, it is difficult to comprehend the vastness of Grand Canyon even when you are standing at the rim and looking all around you.
The Grand Canyon bike tour, gazing at the star-studded night and the dawn chase for the sunrise towards the East Rim were our top experiences. There are many other US national parks that make for fabulous family holidays, that I hope to visit in future.
A quick stop at the Grand Canyon Village
We reached Grand Canyon South Rim in the afternoon. Thankfully, no long lines at the entrance point (I am told the entry points can get choked in peak season). But soon enough, we saw road signs stating ‘work in progress’ on the main road which did slow down the traffic.
We reached the Grand Canyon Village and got parking easily at the village. The first stop was the Information Center, excellent to get quick information on transportation inside the Canyon, hikes, what to do inside the Canyon in a couple of hours or half a day.
I knew from prior research that even the shortest hike – the popular Bright Angel hike – was too much for my 7-year-old daughter. So we wondered how to go to the best viewpoints at the Grand Canyon South Rim.
There are distinct colour-coded shuttle buses running on different routes that take you to various scenic points across the South Rim. Instead of taking a shuttle bus, we opted for a more active way to see the South Rim.
There are only a few scenic points that you can drive to. Which is a boon in disguise, because it ensures traffic doesn’t choke up the roads around Grand Canyon South Rim (unlike our experience in and around Yosemite village).
Bike the Grand Canyon south rim for the best viewpoints
Biking the south rim has to be the best way to see Grand Canyon up close (besides hiking of course which as a family we decided not to). And this works well even if you are on a one day trip to Grand Canyon. After having done the Hermit Road Tour offered by Bright Angel company, I can say this is amongst the best Grand Canyon bike tours on offer.
Bright Angel Tour & Cafe is right at Mather Point in the Grand Canyon Village. We quickly signed up for their 3-hour Grand Canyon bike tour that was to start in 1/2 hour – enough time to grab a quick snack at the cafe. I then selected a cool blue bike for my height. And my husband got a tandem bike with 2 seats so that my daughter could enjoy this adventure with him. All the bikes were loaded behind a van that took the group to a starting point. A brief set of rules and we were all set for our biking adventure!
The Hermit Road Tour takes you through paved roads and some roads that are closed to public traffic. It is easy to bike this 5.5 miles journey and I would recommend it for anyone, from 3-year-old kids to elders. They even have trolleys that can be attached to parents’ bikes for babies/toddlers to sit behind. At certain points, public shuttles do go on the same road and you need to be careful, move on the right side and let them pass.
Experiencing the South Rim from the best viewpoints is not the only adventure we had, although that was the main attraction. The guide also talked about local flora and fauna, how the Canyon was formed and some funny incidents of people taking photos around the rim.
Did you know that ravens are one of the most intelligent birds on the planet, or that the California condor is the largest flying bird in North America?
One of the most interesting points at South Rim is the Hopi Point. Although you can see the various segments that were deposited at different times and formed the distinct layers throughout the Canyon, things get even more amazing at Hopi. Information board at Hopi Point explains all the amazing details about the layers, time zones they were formed.
The lowest layer formed about 1.7 billion years old (yeah, that’s correct!) and named Vishnu Schist lies exposed at a lookout from Hopi Point.
We took the private van back to the Village from Hermits Rest which is located at the western end of the Hermit Road. Hermits Rest has a snack bar and gift shop featuring Native American handicrafts and other park souvenirs.
Don’t miss the sunset and the star-studded night
Everyone is curious to know the best viewpoints of Grand Canyon South Rim for both sunrise and sunsets.
Hopi and Pima points (on the red route shuttle) and Yavapai Point (you can walk or drive to this or take the orange route shuttle to this Point) are listed as the best for watching a sunset at the Information Center.
The sunset was quite late in early June when we visited, and we didn’t want to miss our dinner reservation. So we came back from Hopi Point which was part of our bike tour. But not all was lost since our lodge El Tovar – the first hotel to be built in 1905 – is right at the Canyon. It was nice to see the sunset from the comfort of the hotel porch.
But this sunset paled in comparison when I went out much later in the night to see the starry sky. It is difficult to describe the feelings that soared through me with the breathtaking grandeur Milky Way on display. I can only imagine what it would be like to drive to a point far away from the Grand Canyon Village / Lodges with no lights and just sit under the canopy of a star-studded black canvas.
The long day had exhausted us and we were ready to hit the bed for an early wake-up so a drive far away was out of the question.
Watching the dawn break over the South Rim
Many people do a day trip to Grand Canyon and if you have time constraints, it can’t be helped. But I would say watching the night give away to dawn and then the sunrise at the Grand Canyon South Rim was amongst my most cherished memories of the US west coast trip. Such places remind you that you cannot take for granted the miracle that the dawn brings every day.
So stay overnight and if you plan ahead (6-12 months in advance), you can get a spot in one of the national park lodges inside the Canyon. It is then easy to spend a night gazing at the stars or wake up before dawn to take in the sunrise or do both!
Yapavai, Hopi and Navajo / Desert points (you need a car to drive to Navajo and Desert View Points, no shuttle goes there) are the best viewpoints for watching sunrise at the Grand Canyon South Rim.
Since we had a car, we drove towards Desert View Point. Dawn was already breaking out and it seemed the trees on the side of the rim were lit up with a reddish/orange backdrop. We stopped at various points on this road to see the sky change from a fiery red to a paler orange and yellow. It was a cloudy morning and that added to the riot of colors in the sky.
Desert View Point is towards East Rim and seeing the Colorado river snake through the vast Canyon that morning was spectacular. There is a Watch Tower built at this point. Although this is a modern structure built of concrete and steel, there is a veneer of native stone applied by the architect to create the desired effect of a structure rising from the Canyon.
Stay and food recommendations inside the Grand Canyon national park
Like I mentioned before, if you plan well in advance, you can book a room in one of the many lodges inside the Grand Canyon national park. Maswik Lodge, Thunderbird Lodge, Kachina Lodge, Bright Angel Lodge and the El Tovar Hotel.
There is Tusayan village right outside the national park that provides accommodation and camping options across all budgets, most of the hotels/motels would be about a mile from the South Rim entrance.
We were lucky to get a room at El Tovar Hotel. This historic hotel is located on the rim of the Grand Canyon and as I mentioned before, this amazing location offers comfortable viewing of the sunset and the starry night.
The room is, however, not what you would expect for the dollars you are splurging on it. The air-conditioning seems to be as ancient as the hotel building and makes quite a rattle. With an extra bed put in the room for our 7-year old daughter, there wasn’t any space left to move around. The bathroom is clean and provides hot water but again, don’t expect any luxury. In our case, I think it was a case an over-expectation because the room is pricey. But the location, the food and the service all make the stay worthwhile.
Even if you are not staying at this hotel, I highly recommend a dinner here (you definitely need a table reservation for dinner). It is the best meal offered for miles around. The breakfast choices and the taste is spot on as well. Check this page for other dining options at Bright Angel Lodge, Maswik Lodge, and a few others inside the South Rim.
More resources for planning a visit to Grand Canyon:
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