Grand Canyon National Park is a gorgeous and incomparable gorge that is 18 miles wide, one mile deep, and up to 277 miles long along the river. Layered bands of red rock reveal millions of years of geological history. From the highest peak in Arizona down to the horseshoe-shaped canyon of Walnut Canyon, the area is rich in natural beauty. This tour starts and ends from Flagstaff, Arizona, a town that itself defines the desert stereotype of the state.
How long? About 250 miles or four hours, without stops. I would make this a weekend trip and space out your stops to fully appreciate the beauty of the area. A weekend adventure will also give you time to head down to explore the Red Rocks.
Time of Year? The Grand Canyon is accessible year-round, but unlike southern Arizona, it can get very cold in the Winter months. The recommended time frame is from March through November. The South Rim is open year-round, but the weather can get tricky.
Map not working on your phone? Try this one.
Grand Canyon Itinerary
Start from Flagstaff, Arizona
Driving northwest on US-180, wind up the San Francisco Peaks to the highest point in Arizona, Humphrey’s Peak. These directions take you to the trails parking lot so that you can take in the view. More experienced hikers can take a 9-mile round-trip trail up to the top of the 12,633-foot peak.
Side trip: As you begin heading north on US-180 again, stop and visit nearby Sunset Crater National Monument, Sunset Crater, Arizona 86004. There is normally a small per-car fee for this monument, but some days are free so check their website.
As you travel further on US-180, the landscape changes to sagebrush and drier land. Near Red Butte Mountain, the route will enter the Kaibab National Forest woodland full of ponderosa pine and Gambel oak. The Ten-X Campground is an excellent place to stop and take a closer look at the forest. You can walk the nature trail into the forest that is nestled on the Colorado Plateau.
Mather Point (Grand Canyon) / Visitor’s Center
As you near the Grand Canyon Visitor’s Center, Mather Point overlook takes in many of the South Rim’s most famous features. These include the sharp-tipped Isis Template, Bright Angel Canyon, and Wotan’s Throne. You used to be able to drive to Mather’s Point but now you go directly to the Visitor’s Center and walk there. A new accessible viewing platform and amphitheater for informal programs have been developed over the past three years. One word of caution: during colder, rainy days, be sure to bring a jacket. The winds at the top near the visitor’s station are fierce!
Interested in hiking? Bright Angel Trail begins at the visitor’s center and makes a nine-mile round trip to the Indian Gardens (okay, halfway down but it was my version of hiking). The hike goes down into the canyon at Plateau Point and offers dramatic views of the Inner Canyon.
Interested in the geological history involving the Colorado River and rocks that date to nearly 2 billion years old? Yavapai Museum is a great place to learn about the formation of the Grand Canyon. The museum’s windows also offer a great viewpoint of the canyon. From here, you can also take the easy South Rim Nature trail.
West Rim Drive, also known as Hermit Road, is an eight-mile road that is west of the South Rim and visitor’s center. During the summer months, the road is closed to private vehicles, but you can easily take a regular shuttle bus. Maricopa Point has some of the best views of the canyon, so it is well worth the brief shuttle ride.
Following back past the visitor’s center, next go down Desert View Drive to view the east rim of the Grand Canyon. Desert View Drive follows the rim for 25 miles out to the Desert View Watchtower and the East Entrance. You can access all the six canyon viewpoints with your car, so you do not need to park and take a shuttle. Yaki Point is also on the east side and is considered one of the most stunning viewpoints. However, you must take the free Kaibab Rim Route (Orange) Shuttle Bus from the Grand Canyon Visitor Center.
A favorite outlook, Grandview Point has views of the Grand Canyon and the Colorado River from east to west. From here you can view Horseshoe Mesa, Angels Gate, and Vishnu Temple formations. This overlook also offers stunning views of the canyon walls with the horizontal bands of color offering clues to the age and composition of the rocks. If you are an experienced hiker and like steep trails, you can take the Grandview Trail from here.
The next recommended stop is Moran Point, which you can view all three of the main rock groups that make up the Canyon from this viewpoint. The slanted rock layers and jagged outline of the formation known as the Sinking Ship can be seen from this viewpoint that looks west.
Tusayan Ruin, Grand Canyon National Park, Grand Canyon Village, AZ 86023
The restored Tusayan ruin is a small ancestral Puebloan village. It stands as a testament to the ancestors of the Hopi Indians who farmed and hunted along the Grand Canyon some 800 years ago. Restrooms and picnic areas are also located here.
Lipan Point, Arizona 86023
As the second-to-last stop on the Desert View Drive, Lipan Point comes with excellent views of the North Rim and the Colorado River. Nearby Navajo Point offers a preview of the Desert View Watchtower.
The 70-foot-tall Watchtower was built in the 1930s and is perched on the very edge of the canyon rim. The stone tower, based on towers constructed by the Anasazis hundreds of years ago, rises over seven stories tall. From the watchtower, you can view the North Rim, the Colorado River, and views to the east of the Painted Desert.
As you continue heading south and east back to Flagstaff, you descend to a broad plain that is mostly desert with sagebrush and Mormon tea plants. You can find two overlooks jus north of the highway to view the Little Colorado River Gorge, a small 1,200-foot chasm compared to the Grand Canyon. The Little Colorado River Navajo Tribal Park is close to the canyon and is a spot to take beautiful pictures and buy authentic Navajo jewelry.
Wupatki National Monument is dotted with red-rock outcroppings of sandstone and limestone pueblos that belonged to Native Americans that lived about 800 years ago. Some of the pueblos are large, such as one that has over 100 rooms. The trail behind the visitor’s center is currently under reconstruction, so hiking may be limited. If you’re going there this summer, you might not want to risk heat stroke anyway.
As you follow the scenic loop around the desert, a symmetrical black cone of rock, ash, and cinders rises 1,000 feet above the ponderosa pines and lava fields around the base. The rim of the volcano is a fiery shade of red and yellow. Follow a variety of trails to the crater or around the area. Bring plenty of water, especially in the summer.
As you finish the loop back towards Flagstaff, the drive turns into Walnut Canyon. Along the trails of this horseshoe-shaped gorge, the Sinagua Indians built pueblos under the limestone cliffs. They abandoned the canyon around 1250 but the sturdy pueblos are still standing. The canyon rim itself is 6,690 and reaches down 350 ft lower to the floor.
From here, drive back into Flagstaff, Arizona, and you’ve finished the loop.
My favorite time of year to see the Grand Canyon? The fall. View photos of the Grand Canyon in October.
Have some extra time? I recommend heading on down to tour the Red Rocks of Arizona.