There’s no wrong way to spend time at the Grand Canyon. It is, after all, one of the world’s most famous natural wonders and the pride of the Grand Canyon State. The problem is that most people don’t spend nearly enough time appreciating this 1.2 million-acre crown jewel. Park statistics show that the average visitor spends less than six hours at Grand Canyon National Park.
To Ed Keable, that’s hard to imagine. Back in 1994, Keable, a New York native, saw the Canyon for the first time. Until then, he had believed Mount Everest was the most beautiful place on Earth, but the Canyon changed his mind. “When I first walked out to the South Rim, I was overwhelmed not only by the beauty, but also by the sense of spirituality that the Canyon has,” he recalls. “I had the random notion then that it would be amazing to live and work at the Canyon.” Keable finally got his wish last year, when he was appointed superintendent of Grand Canyon National Park. After some three decades of commuting to government jobs in Washington, D.C., he now walks to his South Rim office every day. He moved to the park in May 2020 and says he still can’t get enough of the Canyon. “I don’t have a single favorite place — all of the park resonates with me,” he says. “I can be in the middle of a trail anywhere in the Canyon, and it is my favorite place.”
While a week at Grand Canyon National Park might only scratch the surface in terms of experiencing the natural wonder, a seven-day visit at least offers enough time to explore the crown jewel from many different vantage points. This itinerary takes you to less-visited corners of the park, both above and below the rim, where you can soak up the beauty at every location. By the end of the week, you’ll probably scoff at anyone who thinks they’ve sufficiently experienced the park in just six hours.
Start your week in the Canyon by going below the rim, with a two-night backpacking trip that circumnavigates Horseshoe Mesa. This 15-mile hike offers the luxury of camping next to flowing water each night, as well as unbeatable views from the trail. (For an alternative backpacking trip that’s a little easier, see below.)
From the South Rim’s Grandview Trailhead, descend about 2,500 feet in 3.5 miles on the Grandview Trail to reach the flat, red expanse of Horseshoe Mesa. Sprawl on the slick-rock for lunch and enjoy views of the Canyon’s Inner Gorge and distant North Rim buttes. Resume your hike with a descent of the Miners Spring Trail on the east side of the mesa for 1.9 miles, dropping 1,500 feet to Hance Creek. Pitch your tent along the creek. If you have energy left, follow the Tonto Trail east for a ramble onto the balcony known as the Tonto Plateau for spectacular sunset views.
From Hance Creek, hike a mostly flat 4.4 miles on the Tonto Trail to Cottonwood Creek. You’ll be walking along the northern base of Horseshoe Mesa and peering 2,000 feet down into the Canyon’s Inner Gorge. Pitch your tent along the shady creek. Take a nap next to the gurgling water, or set out on a day hike heading west on the Tonto Trail for more canyon views. The riparian oasis of Grapevine Creek is 5.5 miles away.
Hike 1.5 miles up the west side of Horseshoe Mesa and another 3.5 miles up the Grandview Trail to return to the trailhead. Once you’re back at Grand Canyon Village, watch the sunset over the South Rim and celebrate your successful backpacking trip with drinks on the veranda of the historic El Tovar Hotel.
For an easier alternative, hike 4.5 miles down the Bright Angel Trail to Indian Garden Campground (Day 1), day-hike 1.5 miles to Plateau Point (Day 2) and hike out on the Bright Angel Trail (Day 3).
Kick off the day with sunrise at Shoshone Point, one of the most secluded overlooks on the South Rim. Located off Desert View Drive just west of Mile Marker 246, a small dirt parking area and gate mark the unsigned Shoshone Point access area, from which a gentle 1.2-mile trail leads to the overlook.
Return to Grand Canyon Village and explore the park’s early 20th century history via a self-guided walking tour. A free brochure available at Verkamp’s Visitor Center will direct you on a path around the Grand Canyon Village Historic District as you learn about the origins of Hopi House, Kolb Studio and other buildings that are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Once you’ve completed the tour, walk east on the Trail of Time, a section of the Rim Trail between Verkamp’s and the Yavapai Geology Museum. This self-guided interpretive hike provides signs explaining how the Canyon was formed and includes samples of rock from each of the Canyon’s layers.
Have a picnic lunch along the Rim Trail, then head to Mather Point to rent bikes at Bright Angel Bicycles (bikegrandcanyon.com). Spend the rest of the afternoon cruising the Greenway Trail, which is west of Grand Canyon Village and parallels Hermit Road. Load your bikes onto the park shuttle bus and get dropped off at Hermits Rest. Then leisurely bike east on the rim path, stopping at overlooks along the way. Try to time your tour so you arrive at Hopi Point, 5 miles from Hermits Rest, just before sunset. Hopi Point juts farther into the Canyon than any other viewpoint in the South Rim developed area, making it the perfect spot to watch the sunset. Then, catch the shuttle with your bikes and return to Grand Canyon Village.
An immersive Grand Canyon experience is not complete without a visit to the North Rim, which is fully open between mid-May and mid-October. The drive from the South Rim takes four hours but is worth the effort. From Grand Canyon Village, head east on Desert View Drive (State Route 64), then north on U.S. Route 89 and west on U.S. Route 89A. Before you cut south on State Route 67 at Jacob Lake, be sure to visit the store at Jacob Lake Inn for fresh-baked cookies and a milkshake. Camping options on the North Rim include the park’s North Rim Campground, near Grand Canyon Lodge, as well as the Kaibab National Forest’s DeMotte Campground and primitive camping along the Canyon rim, at overlooks such as Fence Point and Fire Point. Once you get settled at your campsite, head to the Grand Canyon Lodge deck, perched on the lip of the North Rim. Lean back in an Adirondack chair and toast a spectacular sunset.
Unlike the park’s South Rim, where main roads and overlooks are sometimes as crowded as a mall parking lot on Christmas Eve, the North Rim offers solitude and private moments with the Canyon. Nowhere is this intimacy more palpable than on the 23-mile drive to Cape Royal. From the visitors center, head north on SR 67, then east on Cape Royal Road as it winds along through Fuller Canyon, where you’ll see the effects of the 2016 Fuller Fire. When you reach a “Y” intersection, bear right toward Cape Royal rather than left toward Point Imperial, which you’ll visit later. In about 2.5 miles, you’ll reach Greenland Lake, an ephemeral pond and wildlife oasis, on the right. It’s an excellent place to stretch your legs with a short walk around the lake to see a ranching cabin from the 1890s.
As you continue, stop at Vista Encantada for a view of Nankoweap Creek, then at Roosevelt Point for a sweeping panorama of the Colorado River and Little Colorado River confluence. As the road bends south, you’ll drive across the Walhalla Plateau. At Mile 22, stop at Walhalla Overlook to get a view of the Canyon’s ancient human history. Not only can you see (with binoculars) the archaeological sites along the Colorado River’s Unkar Delta far below, but just across the road is a short path leading to the 1,000-year-old Walhalla Glades Pueblo.
A mile later, you’ll reach road’s end and your ultimate destination. Cape Royal is the North Rim’s southernmost overlook and an unmatched vantage point for iconic Canyon landmarks such as Vishnu Temple and Wotans Throne. Pull out your picnic lunch and soak it in. And don’t miss a half-mile path from the parking lot that leads to the top of Angels Window, a natural arch.
After a long day of driving and gawking, there’s one more mind-bending view waiting for you near Grand Canyon Lodge: the night sky. Grand Canyon National Park is certified as an International Dark Sky Park, and the isolated North Rim is among the darkest places in the park. Grab headlamps and walk the half-mile path out to Bright Angel Point. Be careful not to get too close to the edge as you say hello to the universe.
Spend your last day at the Canyon greeting the sunrise at Point Imperial. From the visitors center, it’s a 10-mile drive to the Canyon’s highest-elevation overlook, which sits at 8,803 feet and offers 100-mile views stretching north to the Vermilion Cliffs and Marble Canyon. Top off your week with a day hike on the Widforss Trail, which begins 2.5 miles north of Grand Canyon Lodge and leads to Widforss Point. The level 5-mile (one way) path follows the top of the Kaibab Plateau through aspen groves, and at trail’s end, your eyes can feast on Brahma and Zoroaster temples. On a clear day, you can see beyond the South Rim all the way to the San Francisco Peaks, 100 miles away.
“Everywhere in Grand Canyon amazes me,” Superintendent Keable says. And now you know exactly what he means.