Think Grand Canyon National Park is all there is to the Grand Canyon? Think again! Today’s Grand Canyon Park is actually made up of five parks: a National Park (with two sides), and three Native American Tribal Parks. Which one should you visit? Depending on how much time you have, what you want to accomplish, and how far in advance you plan, you might be able to experience several of them on your Grand Canyon vacation.
Grand Canyon National Park South Rim
Grand Canyon National Park, particularly the South Rim, is the most visited part of the Grand Canyon Park area, and for good reason: with vast, expansive views (up to 18 miles wide in some areas), multi-hued rock formations and high desert forests, it is regarded by many as the “true” Grand Canyon. Grand Canyon South Rim is the most highly recommended for first-time visitors to the Grand Canyon Park due to its relatively easy access from major western cities, and abundance of family-friendly services and activities.
Grand Canyon National Park South Rim can be accessed by one of two entrances: the South entrance, and the East entrance. Both entrances are accessed via Highway 64 from Williams, Arizona and Cameron, Arizona respectively. The North-South and East-West branches of Highway 64 join perpendicularly just East of Grand Canyon South Rim’s main commerce area, “Grand Canyon Village.” There are many scenic overlooks of the Grand Canyon situated on Highway 64, especially the East-West section from Cameron. This section of Highway 64 is open to private vehicles year-round. There is also a spur road which extends eight miles West of Grand Canyon Village called the “Hermit’s Rest Road,” formerly known as the “West Rim Drive.” This scenic drive, which was recently refurbished, is closed to private vehicles during peak travel periods (generally from March through November), when it is served by a free shuttle service or Motorcoach tour.
Grand Canyon Village has six hotels: the El Tovar Hotel, Kachina Lodge, Thunderbird Lodge, Bright Angel Lodge, Maswik Lodge and Yavapai Lodge. All Grand Canyon hotels (except for Kachina and Thunderbird) have on-site restaurants, cocktail lounges (except Yavapai) and gift shops. There is also an RV park inside Grand Canyon Village called “Trailer Village.” All in-park hotels, restaurants, gift shops and the Trailer Village RV Park, are administered by the in-park concessionaire, Xanterra South Rim LLC. For reservations and more information on Grand Canyon hotels in-park, visit www.grandcanyonlodges.com or call 888-297-2757 toll free in the US or 303-297-2757 international toll. Other service establishments in Grand Canyon Village Market Plaza include a bank, post office, and general store.
The National Park Service operates several visitor information centers located in Grand Canyon Village as well. These include the Canyon View Information Plaza and Bookstore (which is only accessible by free shuttle bus, or by foot from Mather Point or Market Plaza), which dispenses general Grand Canyon information on both indoor and outdoor displays; the Yavapai Observation Station and Museum, which specializes in geological information on the canyon and also has a bookstore; the Kolb Studio, the former home of pioneering photographers Emmett and Emory Kolb, now a gift shop and site of the free “Arts for the Parks” exhibit; and lastly, the Verkamp’s Visitor Center. The Verkamp’s Visitor Center is the newest Grand Canyon National Park Service Visitor Center. Since 1905, it functioned as a gift shop, owned and operated by the Verkamp family. It was the last commercial establishment in the park to operate independent of the in-park concessionaire. When the family declined to renew its lease in 2007, they sold the building to the National Park Service, who converted it to a visitor information center. Verkamp’s Visitor Center has a bookstore and displays about the Grand Canyon park pioneer history. These visitor information facilities also serve as gathering places for many Grand Canyon National Park Service free ranger programs.
26 miles East of Grand Canyon Village is the Desert View area, which is a smaller visitor services complex consisting of a campground, convenience store, gift shop and café. Its centerpiece is the 70-foot-tall Desert View Watchtower, a 1930’s era re-creation of an ancient Native American structural form found throughout the Southwest. Designed by premiere woman architect Mary Jane Elizabeth Colter, the tower houses a gift shop on its lower floor. Inside the tower itself, those willing and able to make the 4-story climb to the top can view artifacts found in remote cliffside caves, and murals by prominent Native artist Fred Kabotie. The ultimate reward for one’s exercise: a fantastic view of the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, the Colorado River, the Echo Cliffs and on a clear day, one can sometimes see as far east as Navajo Mountain on the Arizona-Utah border. 4 miles West of Desert View is the Tusayan Ruins and Museum, where visitors can examine the foundations of an ancient Anasazi settlement and learn more about the area’s Native peoples at the nearby museum.
The most famous Grand Canyon Park activities at the South Rim are without a doubt Grand Canyon mule rides. This scenic and historic journey to the bottom of the Grand Canyon has been enjoyed by families for over 100 years. Today, they are so popular that they require one year’s advance reservation. Other popular options for a Grand Canyon family vacation include rimside Motorcoach tours, Colorado River rafting (with or without rapids), helicopter and airplane tours, and Sunset jeep tours, and jeep tours to the bottom of the Grand Canyon.
Grand Canyon National Park South Rim is open year-round. It is 6,500-7,000’ above sea level. Grand Canyon weather is marked by four distinct seasons: summers are typically hot and dry, occasionally alleviated by afternoon thunderstorms from late July through early September; winters are cold and crisp, with snowstorms typically occurring from November through February. The best Grand Canyon weather is undoubtedly seen during spring and fall when temperatures are usually pleasant and the possibility of precipitation is lessened, but visitors should always monitor the weather about 2 weeks before their Grand Canyon vacation. At such high altitudes, weather can be unpredictable, and many longtime Grand Canyon residents have seen snow in June!
Grand Canyon South Rim’s peak visitation period is March through October. Late fall and winter are much quieter as a rule, but some winter holidays, such as Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s Day, Martin Luther King and President’s Day Holidays, will be busy. Those planning a Grand Canyon trip during peak travel times are strongly advised to start planning as far in advance as possible.
Grand Canyon National Park – North Rim
In the summertime, when Grand Canyon South Rim is baking in near 100° heat and its overlooks are packed elbow to elbow with sweaty people jostling for a photograph, other Grand Canyon visitors are quietly savoring the scent of a cool breeze wafting through tall Ponderosa pines, and listening to the call of a canyon wren. Where are those guys, in a parallel universe, you ask? Sort of – they’re experiencing what was once referred to as “the connoisseur’s Grand Canyon:” the North Rim.
Though a part of Grand Canyon National Park, the North Rim and the South Rim are two very different worlds. Sitting at 8,000’ above sea level (a full 1,000’ higher than the South Rim), Grand Canyon North Rim is cooler and greener than her Southern sister. Since it receives more than double the precipitation of the South Rim, the North Rim of the Grand Canyon supports plant and animal life that the drier South Rim cannot. In addition to Ponderosa pines, visitors to the North Rim can also walk amongst stands of aspen, birch and oak trees. Another North Rim “resident” frequently seen frolicking in the canopies of these trees is the Kaibab squirrel – he’s unique to the North Rim, and is easily recognizable with a shiny grey coat and distinctive tufted ears.
While Grand Canyon Park’s Southern and Western rims are within relatively easy access of cities such as Las Vegas and Los Angeles, the North Rim takes much longer to get to. The North Rim’s season is also quite short: this side of the Grand Canyon is only open from mid-May through mid-October, and that is often subject to the whims of the weather. Its 5-month season, combined with its relative remoteness and simpler, smaller-scale visitor services, contribute to it receiving only about one-tenth of the visitation that the South Rim receives.
Grand Canyon North Rim is world-renowned as a prime travel destination during autumn. In mid-September, its deciduous trees put on a brilliant display of fall colors. Radiant reds, yellows and oranges, juxtaposed with the deep forest green of the Ponderosa pines, and the multi-hued rock formations of the Grand Canyon itself make autumn at the North Rim an unforgettable sight, one that draws many visitors back to the area time and time again.
Grand Canyon North Rim can be accessed by one entrance, via Highway 67 from Jacob Lake, Arizona. Inside the park, there are three main Grand Canyon viewing areas: Point Imperial, which is reached by a windy, tree-lined road off the main highway; Cape Royal, the only point on the North Rim where one can see the Colorado River from (through Angel’s Window, a literal “hole in the wall” of the Grand Canyon); and Bright Angel Point, which is the site of the Grand Canyon Lodge complex.
The Grand Canyon Lodge is the only in-park accommodation at Grand Canyon North Rim. Built in 1928 under the auspices of the Union Pacific Railroad, the Grand Canyon Lodge was designed in the popular “Arts and Crafts” style of the day by Gilbert Stanley Underwood, who also designed Yosemite National Park’s Ahwahnee Hotel and the lodges at Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks. Sadly, the original lodge burned down in 1932, but was soon rebuilt according to a similar design, harmoniously blending the earthy with the opulent. Though decidedly rustic-looking on the outside, the interior of the lodge’s main building is almost castle-like in appearance, with high ceilings and metallic oversized fixtures reminiscent of a medieval meeting hall, and a crescent-shaped “sun room” with plush lounge chairs, a fireplace and oversized windows which allow guests to enjoy the setting sun in comfort. Those who prefer to experience their Grand Canyon sunset “al fresco” can choose from two flagstone porches with rocking chairs and tables for beverages. In addition to cabins and a few motel-style rooms, the Grand Canyon Lodge also has a dining room, cocktail lounge, deli, convenience store and gift shop. There is also a National Park Service Visitor Center and Bookstore at the North Rim.
The Grand Canyon Lodge at the North Rim is only open from mid-May through mid-October. That and its rather small room inventory, means that the Grand Canyon Lodge is typically booked up to a year in advance. For more information and to make reservations at the Grand Canyon Lodge, contact its concessionaire, Forever Living Resorts toll free within the US at 877-386-4383 or 480-337-1320 outside the US. On the web, visit www.grandcanyonforever.com
Commercial activities are few and far between at the North Rim. The most popular pursuits are hiking and photography. Mule rides are also offered on this side of the Grand Canyon, though they only go as far as half-way down the North Kaibab Trail. Activities such as 4X4 slot canyon tours, rafting trips and scenic flights can be found in the communities of Kanab, Utah (1.5 hours away) and Page, Arizona (2.5 hours away).
Grand Canyon West – The “Other” Grand Canyon
Situated on the far western rim of the Grand Canyon, outside the borders of Grand Canyon National Park is Grand Canyon West. It is owned and operated by the Hualapai Indian Tribe of Northwestern Arizona and is the newest Grand Canyon Park. Because it is located at a narrower and shallower part of the Grand Canyon gorge, resulting in views that are less vast, this Grand Canyon Park is sometimes referred to as “Grand Canyon Lite,” but its potential to become a destination in its own right should not be taken lightly.
In development since the early 1990’s, Grand Canyon West can be reached by car from Las Vegas in about 3 hours’ time. At the present time (January 2009), the main access road into the compound is unpaved for about 15 miles. Paving of this road is scheduled to take place in the near future, but for now, visitors driving rental cars are strongly cautioned against taking vehicles down this road. There is a small Welcome Center in Meadview, Arizona, where “park and ride” shuttles can be picked up. Once inside the complex, those who drive in are required to park their vehicles. All visitors are then required to purchase tickets for rim-top bus transfers to the viewpoints, and/or tickets to other attractions and activities at the passenger terminal located near the entrance.
Other options for visiting Grand Canyon West – which presently are far more convenient than driving oneself there – are Las Vegas Grand Canyon tour packages, where visitors can choose to travel to Grand Canyon West by airplane or bus. Upon arrival at Grand Canyon West, you would then have the option to take part in helicopter flights to the bottom, which include a pontoon boat ride, or ground tours of the Tribal Park.
Grand Canyon West has two primary viewpoints: Eagle Point, which is named for the appearance of an eagle in flight on a rock face adjacent to the main viewing area. Eagle Point also has an Indian Village, which features replicas of traditional dwellings of several Southwestern Indian Tribes, and an amphitheatre, where tribal members in ceremonial regalia perform dances or other cultural programs. Eagle Point’s “crowning glory” is the innovative and controversial Grand Canyon Skywalk. The Grand Canyon Skywalk, which opened to the public in March of 2007, is a horseshoe-shaped walkway that protrudes 70’ past the edge of the Grand Canyon, with a floor made entirely of glass. An example of a cantilevered structure (meaning no struts or beams support it), those bearing the price of admission to the Skywalk (and lacking the fear of heights!) are treated to the freaky sensation of floating on air above the Grand Canyon, with nothing standing between themselves and the next solid object for about 700’. At Guano Point, named for a now-defunct mining operation, visitors can sit down to a barbecue meal, with every table having a stunning view of the Grand Canyon and Colorado River. Much of the equipment from the old mine is still in place, and visitors can take an easy walk around a small promontory to have a look at these relics of a bygone era.
Other facilities at Grand Canyon West include a small airstrip and passenger terminal, which houses an indoor café and gift shop. There is also a ranch with horses available for rimside trail rides, and a heliport. Because Grand Canyon West is still in the early stages of its development, the atmosphere here is still a bit “rough around the edges” and services here are very basic. Though some visitors find this a refreshing change from the decidedly commercialized atmosphere of the South Rim, some feel the opposite way, that the destination is not quite prepared for tourists. But what one sacrifices in “niceties,” one gets back in opportunities not readily available at Grand Canyon National Park, namely, the ability to get to the bottom of the canyon with relative ease, and the availability of Native American themed performances.
It should be noted that lodging at Grand Canyon West is practically non-existent. There is a small guest ranch located a few miles from the entrance, but no hotels or motels. The nearest traditional guest accommodations to Grand Canyon West is Kingman, Arizona (1.5 hours away) or Laughlin, Nevada (2 hours away).
Grand Canyon West is open year-round. Grand Canyon West is also 4,000’ above sea level, and more typical of a true desert environment. Its climate is usually, dry, dusty and windy, and during the summer months, scorching hot. Temperatures are more bearable during spring, fall and winter. Grand Canyon West is best visited by people in good health (due to the nearest medical services being in Las Vegas). It should be avoided by families traveling with very young children, extreme seniors or anyone who might be adversely affected by hot, dry climates. It is a good choice for travelers who have been to the South or North Rim before, are traveling to Las Vegas and are pressed for time to make a day tour to the Grand Canyon, or who happen to be traveling during the colder seasons of the year when the South or North Rim might prove uncomfortable.
Havasupai – the Grand Canyon’s “Garden of Eden”
*At press time (January 2009) this area is closed to visitors due to damage caused by a massive flood that occurred in August of 2008. The tribe expects the area to reopen in Spring 2009, when repairs to the trails and other infrastructure is completed. Please continue to visit the tribe’s official website for updates.*
Blue green waters flow over sculpted travertine pools, nourishing emerald colored forests of cottonwood and oak trees. As you walk beneath the cool canopy and refresh yourself in the creek, you are on the verge of being overwhelmed by all this beauty. And suddenly, you are – at the sight of a spectacular 100’ waterfall, rimmed by lush ferns, cascading down to an inviting travertine pool. The water beckons you to jump in, so you do – and are refreshed by the sensation of fresh, clear, unpolluted water that’s not too warm, yet not too cold. It almost doesn’t seem real, like you were in a movie world, or perhaps a dream. A scene such as this couldn’t possibly take place in the middle of the desert, but yet, it does.
Situated on the Western side of the Grand Canyon, between the National Park and Hualapai Indian Tribal lands is a place virtually hidden from the world, deep within a secluded nook at the bottom of the Grand Canyon: the land of the Havasupai Indians. The Havasu people (or Havasu ‘baaja in their language) have occupied this land for thousands of years, long before Grand Canyon National Park came to be. Thought to be among the first people to arrive on the North American continent, the Havasupai began to capitalize on tourism in the 1970’s, centered around their reservation land’s prize assets, which are unarguably the Grand Canyon’s most beautiful features: three waterfalls, two of which are over 100’ tall. Fed by Havasu Creek, the waters of these falls are an other-worldly blue-green color, which varies in intensity from slate gray to robin’s egg blue depending on the mineral content present at any given time.
The falls are an unforgettable site to be certain. Unfortunately, it is not easy to get to this most remote Grand Canyon Park. It is not possible to drive here by car. In fact, there are no cars in Supai Village, the main commerce area of the Havasupai Reservation. Residents here get around on foot, motorcycle, or horseback. Access to the reservation is only possible by foot, horseback, or helicopter. Visitors who choose to hike or ride to Havasupai may drive their vehicles as far as the Hualapai Hilltop, site of the trailhead to Supai, about one-hour’s drive from the small town of Peach Springs. The trail to Supai is approximately 12 miles in length. Though not as difficult as other inner canyon trails such as the Bright Angel and South Kaibab, it is also traveled by pack animals, who have right of way on it. The final 6 miles are through a dry, sandy creek bed (which poses its own challenges on the hike back out).
It is also possible to helicopter to Supai in one of two ways: from Hualapai Hilltop, AirWest Helicopters offers transport to Supai on a first-come first served basis. Flights begin running at approximately 10 AM and conclude at 1:00 PM, so this option is not realistic for day visitors, but is feasible for those staying overnight. The approximate cost of this service is $90/person each way. Another option is Papillon Helicopters’ Havasupai Heli-Hike, which departs from Grand Canyon South Rim and gives visitors approximately 6 hours’ time to explore the falls on their own. The cost of this particular trip is approximately $500 per person, which may seem expensive at first glance, but when compared to the costs and logistics of planning and executing an overnight trip, it is definitely the most hassle-free way to get to the Supai to experience the falls.
Access to the falls is by a moderately strenuous, very sandy foot trail that leads from Supai Village and follows Havasu Creek for approximately 3 miles. The three major waterfalls of this Grand Canyon Park are Navajo Falls, Havasu Falls and Mooney Falls. Mooney Falls is the furthest away and the most difficult to reach. Access to the swim beach of Mooney Falls is via a 200-foot, sometimes treacherous climb down a series of chains and ladders. The easiest of the falls to reach and enjoy is Havasu Falls. Located approximately 2 miles from the Village, Havasu Falls consists of a large travertine pool and swim beach. Drinking water is available at the campground approximately ½-mile from the waterfall (but water must be brought with you on the trail). Other waterfalls, such as Navajo and Beaver are more secluded, but are worth seeing as well, but Havasu Falls definitely is the easiest of the group at which to relax, swim and people-watch.
Overnight accommodations consist of a small lodge in Supai Village and a campground near Havasu Falls. There is also a small café, general store and post office in Supai Village. Due to the size (or lack thereof) of the lodge and campgrounds, reservations for these are often filled one year in advance. Reservations for these, as well as for horseback escort from the Hilltop to the Village, can be made at the official website of the Havasupai Tribe, https://www.havasupai-nsn.gov/
Grand Canyon “East?” – a Grand Canyon Park in Waiting
As you have probably gathered by the information you have read thus far, the Grand Canyon is not the “sole” property of the National Park Service. A number of Native American Tribes own a portion of the Grand Canyon, and in recent years, have begun their own efforts to capitalize on it. For example, Grand Canyon West, near Las Vegas, is the Grand Canyon Park Park belonging to the Hualapai Indian Tribe. This leads some visitors to ask, “Is there a Grand Canyon East?” Not by name – yet.
The far eastern portion of the Grand Canyon belongs to another Native American tribe, the second largest in the country: the Navajo. The Navajo Indian people, or the Diné as they call themselves, actually have a rather long-standing history of development of their part of the Grand Canyon. Visitors who exit the National Park via Highway 64 on the Eastern border automatically pass through the Navajo Indian Reservation. Soon, you come upon a scenic overlook of stark yet dramatic beauty: the Little Colorado River arm. A tributary of the Colorado River, the Little Colorado River has carved a gorge of its own that, like the many canyons within the Grand Canyon, is a world of beauty and contrast unto itself. During the summer months, its mineral content transforms its waters into a brilliant ribbon of robin’s egg blue; during other times of the year, it displays an almost blood-red color. The place where it joins with the Colorado River, known as a “confluence,” is regarded as a sacred place to many Native Americans, particularly the Hopi, who believe it to be the earthly site of the “Sipapu,” the place where mankind emerged from the underworld.
Further east of this overlook is a small town of Cameron, Arizona. In 1911, a modest suspension bridge was constructed across the Little Colorado River Gorge at a lonely outpost on the Navajo Indian Reservation called Cameron. In 1915, local traders Hubert and C.D. Richardson opened the Cameron Trading Post, and Cameron soon established itself as integral commerce center for the Native American people who lived nearby. Back in the early days of the Trading Post, visitors were limited to Navajo and Hopi Indians who came to barter their hand-made goods for food staples. Today, the Cameron Trading Post is enjoyed by visitors from all around the world as a Grand Canyon gateway.
A visit to Cameron is more than just a routine stop on a Grand Canyon tour. It is a cultural experience; an opportunity to learn about Navajo culture first-hand through their art. Still a vital part of the local economy, the Cameron Trading Post sells hand-crafted jewelry of silver and turquoise, colorful rugs painstakingly crafted on wooden looms handed down through generations, as well as pottery, baskets and paintings from many tribes throughout the Southwest. In the gallery, you’ll find one of Northern Arizona’s most comprehensive collections of Native made crafts. In addition to its retail store, the Cameron Trading Post also has a hotel, RV Park, convenience store, gas station, and a restaurant that has earned a cult-like following among people from all over the area, who gladly drive hundreds of miles to enjoy the house specialty, the Navajo Taco.
Cameron is ideally situated as a “base camp” from which to explore all the scenic treasures that Northern Arizona and Southern Utah have to offer. It is one hour from Grand Canyon’s South Rim, one hour from Flagstaff, Arizona, 90 minutes from Lake Powell, 2 hours from Sedona, and 3 hours from Monument Valley (another Navajo Indian Tribal Park), the Petrified Forest, and Zion National Park. If a “Grand Canyon East” park does come to be, it is logical that Cameron would emerge as the center of it. As to whether further development of other areas of the Grand Canyon owned by the Navajo will take place, that remains to be seen. But a visit to Navajo Indian Tribal Lands is a worthwhile, educational and natural complement to a Grand Canyon Park vacation.