Round 1: Bus tour to the West Rim
Imagine that you wake up at an ungodly hour before dawn so that you can get picked up by your tour bus and get on the road for several hours before arriving at this fabled world landmark for a once-in-a-lifetime view…then you arrive and you see this:
That’s right – almost zero visibility. The helicopter ride I was booked in for is cancelled. It looks like this is going to be it. It’s cold and it’s still a few hours until we head back on the bus, and there’s nothing to do but wait.
Then, in the last hour or two, the sun breaks through. And you see this:
Well, that was pretty much my first experience of the Grand Canyon West Rim. Despite the undeniable beauty that eventually revealed itself, the whole thing had felt muted because of the slow reveal rather than shock-and-awe from the start, plus I had heard that the South Rim was much more beautiful whereas the West Rim was more touristy, probably because of its greater proximity to Las Vegas, a popular destination from which to take a Grand Canyon tour. As such, I didn’t feel like I was done here – I resolved to return.
(By the way, this may sound strange, but the bus journey was possibly a better experience than the views. The bus driver, Thomas, was hilarious – he entertained us every step of the way by joking around, singing bits of what he was saying, and just generally enjoying doing his job with great panache. I love meeting these people who find such joy in what they do. Thomas, you’re the man.)
Round 2: Road trip with hostel friends to South Rim
What I didn’t realise was just how soon I would be back. A fellow Spaniard I’d met at the hostel, Martín, said he was also keen to go, so we talked about maybe renting a car. After asking around at the hostel, it turned out that there were five of us willing to go. More friends and lower costs – perfect! $45 each for the day including rental of a spacious new Chevvy Impala, petrol and entry to the Grand Canyon? Yes, please.
I didn’t tell them until after that this was the first time I had driven since passing my driving test last year. As the Spanish saying goes, “Ojos que no ven, corazón que no siente” (Translation: “What the eyes don’t see, the heart doesn’t feel.”). I was slightly apprehensive since I was also driving in a new country, but I like attacking my fears, so I took the first shift driving and ended up driving around 5 hours that day. Automatics and cruise control do make driving a lot easier, plus the drive was essentially just three straight freeways…I had to do little more than keep my eyes open and not crash.
They were right about the South Rim being more beautiful.
Also, as far as I could tell when I was there and from looking online, the West Rim has no hiking trails; you’re limited to getting shuttles to three spots and looking over the edge. It’s a nice view, but it feels a bit like a“look but don’t touch” experience. At the South Rim, however, it feels more hands-on – you can walk around the rim and hike down some or all of the way into the basin. We didn’t have a lot of time before sunset so we just hiked down some of South Kaibab trail, which has the best views for short hikes. It was icy at the top in winter, but it’s fine if you take care, and entirely worth it.
I’m really glad I came here again, and if I come back, I’d love to do more hiking, go to the Colorado River, and spend at least a night here. It’s truly awe-inspiring, and hopping out of a car or bus for a couple of hours feels like it does this place an injustice. This was made to be soaked in thoroughly. Grand Canyon, you’re a beauty.
Grand Canyon Tips
- The South Rim is more beautiful and less touristy than West Rim. It also has hiking trails. The North Rim is also meant to be spectacular, but closed for winter. For more info on the Grand Canyon National Park, check out the National Park Service website. Definitely check it in winter at least for weather warnings.
- You can rent a car, get a bus tour or even a helicopter from Las Vegas to the Grand Canyon. The road trip experience is fun, but you need to have a full car to make it reasonably-priced. I don’t recommend doing it by yourself from Las Vegas in one day – it’s at least 4 hours each way.
- One way of enjoying the Canyon more and breaking up the travelling time is to spend a night there; that way you can hike down to the basin when you arrive, and hike up the following day. A dorm room in Phantom Ranch (the only accommodation at the basin, and the cheapest in the Grand Canyon) is $45 per night.
- If you’re going to visit more than one national park, consider getting the America The Beautiful Annual Pass. For $80, it covers your entry for a year to any US National Park or Federal Recreation Land and covers entry for all your accompanying passengers (if in a vehicle) or up to three other adults (if not in a vehicle).