With its vast size, sheer beauty, and unique geological formations, there’s really no way around it: The Grand Canyon is a must-see for every traveler. Outdoor enthusiasts flock here to take advantage of the hiking, rafting, and camping opportunities, while families come to learn about geology and wildlife. There’s no wrong way to visit, but there are ways that will help you beat the crowds and make sure you snap some unique pictures. Here are five tips to make your Grand Canyon experience different, whether it’s your first visit or your fiftieth.
Go in Winter
Summer is prime national park season across the United States and for good reason: The sun is shining, there's less chance of rain, and there are hotels and restaurants aplenty. But summer and spring also mean crowds, and the Grand Canyon is no different. Most of its 5 million yearly visitors come between May and October, when hotels closest to the rim are booked solid (often a full year in advance), camping permits are sold out, and just wandering the rim seems a little too similar to Disney World. But going in winter opens up a whole new side of the park. Yes, it’s colder and yes, it often snows even in the middle of the Arizona desert, but you’ll be able to wander freely without crowds and will have a much better chance of staying in historic lodges like El Tovar. Plus, you can still hike into the canyon on snowshoes, take part in various holiday celebrations, and capture the unforgettable image of snow falling in the canyon. Note that the North Rim is closed from October to mid-May.
Bike the Edge
News flash: The Grand Canyon is pretty big. Many visitors don’t actually make the trek into the canyon, but there’s nothing wrong with keeping your viewpoint high—just be sure to take advantage of it. Grab a bike and set off on the many trails lining the canyon. While you won’t make it around the entire thing (it’s nearly 221 miles), you will be able to see more than you would on foot and perhaps discover some hidden photo ops. Bike rentals are available at the South Rim at Bright Angel Bicycles, which offers guided tours (you can also bring your own bike). Be sure to stay on the marked trails and note that you can’t bring your bike into the canyon.
Head to the North Rim
Due to the ease of accessibility, most visitors head to the canyon's South Rim, where parking and shuttles are plentiful, as are hotels, restaurants, and other visitor facilities. The West Rim is also easy to get to, especially for visitors coming from the West, and is home to the Skywalk (which has brought in even more crowds since opening). But to those who don’t mind taking a little extra travel time, the North Rim offers gorgeous views (some say the best in the whole canyon) in a much less frenzied setting. The North Rim is nearly a thousand feet higher than the South, resulting in a more alpine climate. You won't find as much in terms of lodging or dining, but campers and hikers will feel right at home. A shuttle between the two rims leaves daily, and the trip takes nearly five hours. It's pricey and advance reservations are required, but it’s a great way to see a lot of the canyon at once.
Examine the Stars
If you don't stick around for a Grand Canyon sunset, you're going to miss out on glimpsing the stunning night sky, one of the most spectacular national park experiences. Whether you’re lucky enough to nab a room at one of the hotels within the park or have decided to camp at the bottom, the complete lack of distracting city lights makes for one of the brightest stargazing spots in the country. A yearly stargazing party happens every June, complete with constellation tours, astronomy programs, and telescopes.
Explore on a Mule
Hiking to the bottom of the canyon is no easy task, but luckily there are some guys willing to help you out. Donkeys were the original way many of the first Grand Canyon adventurers explored, and today several companies offer mule tours ranging from three hours to overnight stays. Expert guides point out interesting flora and fauna along the way and inform you about the canyon’s geological and human history. Note that these are very popular and often booked over a year in advance.