A Grand Canyon adventure: 10 ways to go big in America's largest canyon
From skydiving to a leisurely train ride, these ten outdoor experiences uniquely frame the Grand Canyon’s breathtaking natural wonders.
Ah, the Grand Canyon. That vast, 277-mile long, 18-mile wide crevasse slicing a mile deep into the rocky Arizona ground. Like Rome, this staggering spectacle wasn’t built in a day: It took the Colorado River and the forces of Mother Nature millions of years to etch away layer upon layer of limestone, sandstone and granite. With so much beauty, rarity and history to soak up, it’s no surprise that more than five million people flock annually to hike, bike and marvel at this natural wonder. From soaring over the dramatic landscape to skiing its picturesque trails, these 10 diverse expeditions let you soak in the Grand Canyon’s grandest adventures.
1. Heavenly views on the Bright Angel Trail
The park’s most popular hiking route is a gorgeous 18-mile round-trip trek snaking 4,380 feet down to the Colorado River. From a bird’s-eye view, it looks like a kindergartener took a crayon and scribbled all over the landscape, but this squiggly series of switchbacks is one of the safer options for getting to the canyon floor. One of two fully maintained trails from the south rim, the South Kaibab trail, has no water refill stations, is steeper and more exposed (but is rumored to have even better vistas) than its more accessible counterpart, Bright Angel, which offers more shade and four spots for water refills along the way. Highlights include stops at Garden Creek, a lush area rushing with waterfalls, and Plateau Point, which unveils stunning river views and jagged rock walls dropping to the canyon floor. A day trip not enough? Grab a permit and stay overnight at Bright Angel Campground or anywhere in the inner canyon, but strike early: these first-come, first-serve spots fill up quickly. Although Bright Angel features covered rest houses, emergency phones and park rangers, don’t go sauntering unprepared: Summer brings scorching temperatures, so consider a spring or fall hike. Serious adventure seekers can tackle the trail during winter months, but volatile weather conditions and subzero temperatures require another layer of caution and dedication.
2. Hit the the Colorado River
There are myriad ways to experience the Grand Canyon, be it by bike, atop a mule, on foot or via plane, but nothing gets you more immersed in the belly of this beautiful beast than hopping aboard a raft and floating its watery artery. Take your pick from a bounty of outfitters offering different experiences, whether it’s an hour-long leisure float or a challenging multi-day all-out battle against the rapids with hiking and camping along the way. Wanna go rogue? Rafting sans-guide requires an advance permit (available to the public through a weighted lottery), so plan ahead if you’re looking to rage on the rapids solo. Either way, venturing down the Colorado makes you privy to off-the-beaten-path gems like glorious waterfalls, secluded beaches, swimming holes with turquoise water and probably a few mountain goats scampering up the canyon’s towering rock walls. With the canyon's year-round controlled water releases, rafting conditions remain relatively consistent no matter the season.
3. Ride the Rim
Cramming into a shuttle with a bunch of sweaty tourists during the park's peak months isn’t for everyone. Those looking to cover lots of ground without awkwardly vying for a window seat can opt instead to zip around the canyon’s rim on two wheels. Swing by Bright Angel Bicycles (the park’s exclusive bike vendor) for a rental or guided tour, then hit up epic lookouts along the Hermit Road Greenway Trail. Wide, paved and mostly flat, this historic drive is closed to private vehicles nine months of the year, so the only thing you have to worry about is pulling over for gorgeous shots at vantage points along the way like Hopi and Pima points. Bright Angel also offers fat bike tours through snow-dusted ridges and plateaus in the winter—a total blast that lets you beat the heat and crowds.
4. Give a whirlybird a whirl
The Grand Canyon doesn’t need any help in the “epic” department, but throwing a helicopter into the mix can’t hurt. With permission to fly 1,000 feet lower than tour planes, these buzzing birds will get you thrillingly close to the canyon’s dramatic edges and jaw-dropping depths. Swoop over Dragon Corridor, Kaibab National Forest, the Colorado River and Tower of Ra, eyes peeled for elk, deer and other native wildlife. Book with Adventure Photos Tours, Sundance Helicopters or Papillion for a variety of options ranging from sunset flights to all-inclusive experiences complete with champagne and limousine service.
5. Take the plunge
Now that you’ve seen the canyon from a flying machine, the next step (obviously) is to hurl yourself out of one and enjoy 360-degree views while plummeting back to earth at 100 mph. Sound like your cup of tea? Jack your aerial touring up a few notches with a skydiving experience from Paragon Skydive, the area's only tandem jump operator (conveniently based out of Grand Canyon National Park Airport’s main terminal). You won’t actually drop into the canyon itself, since it’s illegal—and dangerous—but the vistas will be heavenly as you freefall near enough to it to appreciate its depth from 13,500-15,000 feet. If you’ve been needing to beef up your arsenal of icebreakers, “I've skydived over one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World” sounds like a pretty solid contender.
6. Blaze a snowy trail
Not into activities that take place in the air (or the sunburns and sweat that come with Arizona summers)? Seasoned cross-country skiers can get their powder fix in an uncongested snowscape. When the park’s main roads close in the dead of winter, that’s your green light to break out the long underwear for a true backcountry adventure: Chart a course for the North Rim campgrounds and yurts, destinations that are only accessible by hiking, cross-country skiing or snowshoeing the inner canyon trails. The North Rim reaches higher elevations, so expect snowpack there to be more consistent—averages reach 50 to 100 inches each year with temperatures fluctuating from the lower 40s to subzeros. Backpacking permits are required for camping from November through May, and several North Rim lodges, like Kaibab Lodge, are open for business year-round. Along with empty trails and fewer selfie sticks threatening to cross-check you in the jugular, colder months display the canyon in a whole new way, its red ridges tinted with a dusting of winter white.
7. They don’t make 'em like this anymore
Some freefall, some ski, and some chug—on a train, that is. Combining western nostalgia with classic hospitality on a jaw-dropping trip through the canyon, a voyage on the Grand Canyon Railway needs to be on your bucket list. From Williams, Arizona, a turn-of-the-century locomotive slithers through pine forests and prairies before dropping guests at the Grand Canyon’s South Rim. Consisting of a unique collection of beautifully restored passenger cars—each with their own quirky, old-timey personality—the fleet gives passengers a taste of the 1800s, when the route was used for transporting ore. A vintage Pullman Car leads the train, followed by 41 passenger cars, six diesel engines and two steam engines (one of which is powered by vegetable oil). Historical western characters join riders each way, divulging secrets and tales from the canyon’s past.
8. Greet the morning at Hopi Point
Perched on the Grand Canyon’s South Rim is Hopi Point, a can’t-miss vantage point during the golden hours of sunrise and sunset, when the transitioning light paints the canyon’s faces with saturated oranges and pinks. Access this perfect precipice by following Hermit Road, a scenic South Rim route on the west end of Grand Canyon Village. Private vehicles are only allowed from December through February, but who wants to sit in a car when you can walk or bike and smell the roses? Arrive early to dodge the crowds and secure an unobstructed view of the canyon as the sun sets its colorful walls on fire.
9. Set up camp at Havasu Falls
Nestled in a remote canyon offshoot near the Havasupai Indian Reservation capital, Supai (the only place in the U.S. where mail is still carried by mules), this mystical oasis is a diamond in the Grand Canyon’s rocky rough. Getting here isn’t easy and neither is getting a permit, but would you expect anything less when the destination is this magical? After a hot, 10-mile hike on foot or by mule, the shocking beauty of a milky topaz pool contrasts with the surrounding red-orange cliffs, stunning visitors into silence; all eyes are transfixed on the falls as they plummet roughly 100 feet. So crystal blue it resembles glacier water, Havasu Creek’s signature turquoise hue is actually the result of naturally occurring calcium carbonate and magnesium. If you’re already excitedly plotting a trip to this paradisiacal gorge, independent hiking or camping requires reservations and permits that must be obtained months in advance through the Havasupai Tribe. Not a planner? There are a number of outfitters who'll handle the paperwork for you.
10. Go rim-to-rim via the North Kaibab Trail
Weaving from the canyon’s North to South rim, the infamously steep, 21-mile North Kaibab trail is the canyon’s least visited and most challenging route, rising 1,000 feet higher at the trailhead than its southern counterpart. While rigorous, this series of massive switchbacks unveils spectacular photo ops scattered between patches of aspen, ferns and wildflowers, including a natural rock archway at Supai Tunnel and waterfalls at Roaring Springs. As you’re scampering down the canyon’s red-orange ridges, keep in mind: it’s twice as strenuous on the way back up. If you’re not camping overnight at Cottonwood or Bright Angel campgrounds, map the turnaround point prior to embarking to allow adequate time for the ascent.
So there you have it: Time to fill up the Nalgene, put on your favorite hiking boots and discover why this massive crack in the Earth takes the cake as the nation’s most prized, most astonishing landmark. When there’s more than one million acres of protected land to play on, adventure comes in many forms. The hard part is choosing which one to do first.