Many famous sites around the world are hyped up so much that when you finally visit they fail to live up the expectations that you have set. The Grand Canyon is not one of them. Our Grand Canyon day trip was undoubtedly the highlight of our Arizona road trip itinerary.
When planning our route, we initially thought that we’d be able to spend an hour or two at the Canyon, snap a couple of photos and be on our way. Instead, we were absolutely mesmerised by the beauty of this natural wonder and ended up spending close to 8 hours on our Grand Canyon day trip walking and driving around looking at different and unique viewpoints.
If you love hiking and the outdoors, visitors should definitely not plan to see all of the Grand Canyon in one day. However, if you’re short on time and only have one day available on your Grand Canyon itinerary then it’s definitely worth spending a few hours driving here to see this incredible site.
A Grand Canyon day trip is feasible from Flagstaff, Williams, Sedona or even Phoenix at a stretch, particularly in the warmer months when the days are longer. Here’s everything you need to know about visiting this natural wonder and seeing the highlights of the Grand Canyon in one day!
Best time of year for a Grand Canyon day trip
No matter what part of the year you find yourself in the American Southwest, the climate shouldn’t put you off from spending one day at the Grand Canyon.
We visited in December and despite the freezing temperatures found this to be a fantastic time to visit as crowds are significantly lower than other seasons and you can find sections of the Grand Canyon that makes it feel as if you have it all to yourself. You will have a similar experience if visiting throughout the winter season of December to February.
Arguably, the best time of year to visit the Grand Canyon are the shoulder seasons of April-May and late September to early November where temperatures are mild, crowds aren’t as busy as the summer months and there are more activities and sections of the canyon open compared to the winter months. For example, the less-visited North Rim is only open from May to October.
It’s worth avoiding the summer months of July to August as the Grand Canyon gets packed once summer holidays have started.
Getting to the Grand Canyon
To make the most of your one day in the Grand Canyon, it’s imperative to get an early start irrespective of where you’re starting your Grand Canyon day trip from. However, you might be able to afford yourself a couple of hours of extra sleep if you’ve selected a base as close as possible to the Grand Canyon.
Grand Canyon Day Trip from Flagstaff or Williams
The most popular place to spend the night if visiting the Grand Canyon as a day trip is Flagstaff or Williams. Williams is a short one hour drive to the Grand Canyon along the AZ-64, while you will need to allocate an additional half hour if taking a Grand Canyon day trip from Flagstaff.
If staying in Williams, you also have the option of taking the train to the Grand Canyon. The tourist train has several different classes of carriages to choose from and provides a luxurious way for travellers to enter the park. The disadvantage of the train is that for part of the year there is only one departure each day. Even in peak season, there are only two departures meaning you only have a limited amount of time to enjoy the Grand Canyon in all of its glory.
If you don’t want to drive to the Grand Canyon, then there is the option of taking an organised group trip from Flagstaff. Both this small-group tour and this group tour (which also departs from Sedona) includes transport, lunch and a professional guide that shows you some of the highlights of the South Rim.
Grand Canyon Day Trip from Sedona
A Grand Canyon Day trip from Sedona is a popular option as Sedona is a great base for exploring Arizona as there are a number of great hikes and shopping to enjoy. Driving from Sedona to the Grand Canyon will take approximately 2.5 hours each way meaning that you shouldn’t spend too long lying in bed in the morning!
If heading back down south after visiting the Grand Canyon, you can potentially save some time by spending the night in Williams or Flagstaff to cut down on driving time.
If you prefer a guided tour, then there are a number of options from Sedona. This small luxury tour in a minivan available on GetYourGuide or this small-group tour available on Viator are some of the highest-rated options.
Grand Canyon Day Trip from Phoenix or Scottsdale
A Grand Canyon day trip from Phoenix will see you driving 4 hours one way and 8 hours return trip so this option certainly isn’t for everybody!
While I generally recommend travellers don’t take this option, I understand that for some people seeing the Grand Canyon is a lifelong dream and they might not have the luxury of a more leisurely Arizona itinerary. In such situations, it might be worth considering booking guided transport so you can relax on the way up to the Grand Canyon and ensure you are able to enjoy your Grand Canyon day trip to the fullest!
What to see in the Grand Canyon in One Day
It should come as no surprise that the Grand Canyon is absolutely enormous which means it’s simply not possible to see everything that is on offer in just one day. I, therefore, recommend visitors only spending one day at the Grand Canyon stick to certain sections of the South Rim only, particularly if visiting as a day trip from Sedona or Phoenix.
Morning: Walk along the Rim Trail
When arriving at the Grand Canyon you will be directed to the Visitor Centre where the majority of visitor parking is located. From here, it’s only a couple of minutes walk to Mather Point, which will be your first glimpse of the majestic canyon! Unfortunately, it will likely also be the most crowded part of your visit!
Many tour buses and visitors who only want to do a quick photo stop of the Grand Canyon will park at Mather Point before driving off. Luckily, you don’t need to walk far to feel as if you have the whole Canyon to yourself!
I recommend visitors start their Grand Canyon day trip by walking along the Rim Trail from the Visitor Center to the Grand Canyon Village. The Rim Trail is 2.1 miles/3.4 kilometres long and as the name suggests, follows the South Rim of the Grand Canyon! The trail is flat, well paved and accessible to people of all ages making this walk quite a leisurely stroll rather than a difficult hike. The only thing to be aware of is that parts of the trail can get icy in winter so make sure you wear appropriate hiking shoes.
As you walk along the Rim Trail, you will completely forget about all the tour buses you saw at Mather Point as it will feel as if you have the Canyon all to yourself, particularly in the less visited winter months. Be prepared for the walk to take longer than you expect as there are plenty of fantastic photo opportunities!
Along the Rim Trail, there are also a number of exhibits where you can learn more about the geological makeup of the Grand Canyon. The Trail of Time is an exhibit along the Rim Trail which allows visitors to understand how the rock formations have changed over millions of years. Visitors can also stop at the Geology Museum which is about a third of the way along the trail if they want to warm up or cool down and learn more about the landscapes of the area that you’re visiting.
By the time you make your way to the Village, chances are you would have developed a bit of an appetite! Luckily, there are a number of spots to grab lunch here! A great place for a sit-down lunch is at the Harvey House Cafe at the Bright Angel Lodge which is a casual restaurant that serves a range of sandwiches, wraps and burgers. The staff here are super friendly and the portions are massive so it’s a great place to fuel up after a hike. Expect to pay about $10-15 per person here.
If you’re travelling to the Grand Canyon on a budget, then I recommend packing lunch or stopping at the General Store in the Market Plaza to pick up some groceries.
Afternoon: Pick a bus loop to explore
One of the great things that makes it possible to see a lot of the Grand Canyon in a day is the fantastic infrastructure that exists at the park. When arriving at the Grand Canyon you will be given a detailed map that contains all the viewpoints and details of several bus loops that operate within the park which is included in the entrance fee.
As you only have one day in the Grand Canyon then I recommend sticking to one section of the park only and seeing as much of that loop as possible. One option is to explore the red bus loop that goes from the Village to Hermit’s Rest with nine fantastic viewpoints along the way. Our favourites along the loop were Maricopa Point and Mohave Point while the final stop at Hermit’s Rest has a snack bar, gift shop and toilets. Keep an eye out for elks along the red bus loop!
The red bus loop only operates during the months of March to November but if you’re visiting during the winter months then you can self drive this section or even hike the 11km to Hermit’s Rest if you’re feeling particularly active! If you’ve walked the Rim Trail in the morning then you can take the blue loop back to the Visitor Center and pick up your car at the end of the day or if the road is open to Hermit’s Rest.
Another option for your one day in the Grand Canyon is to explore the Orange Loop that departs from the Visitor Center or the Geology Museum along the Rim Trail and goes to Yaki Point. Visitors also have the option of driving along Desert View Drive, east from the Visitor Center, and stopping along several other viewpoints to the well known Desert View Watchtower. If you choose to drive you will not be able to access Yaki Point as that road isn’t open to private vehicles.
Exploring either the Red Loop or Desert View Drive as the sun begins to set is one of the highlights of a Grand Canyon day trip as the rocks completely change colour and it gives you a unique landscape that you wouldn’t have seen throughout the day.
How much will a Grand Canyon Day Trip Cost?
The main expense when visiting the Grand Canyon in one day is park entry which costs $20 for individuals or $35 for vehicles. The quality of the facilities and the ease of getting around the park more than make up for the amount you need to spend to enter!
If you pack your own lunch and aren’t tempted into buying any souvenirs then you can limit your expenses for the day to only your park entry and the fuel required to drive up to the Grand Canyon. For lunch at a sit-down restaurant, expect to add around $10-15 per person at a casual restaurant.
Grand Canyon in 2 days or more
If you have 2 days to spend on your Grand Canyon itinerary then I suggest spending a two to three hours exploring whichever bus loop you didn’t get a chance to see on your first day. You can either do this first thing in the morning when crowds are low or as its get closer to sunset so you can enjoy the changing colours of the rocks!
Another great activity if you only have two days at the Grand Canyon is to hike partly down the South Rim. The two trails that go down into the Canyon are the Bright Angel Trail which is located next to the Village or the South Kaibab Trail which is located east of the Visitor Center. The park explicitly says that it is not recommended to attempt to hike all the way to the bottom and back in one day however you can do a portion of the trail in one day.
If you’re spending 3 days in the Grand Canyon, then you can arrange to camp one night at the bottom and then hike back up the next day. Alternatively, you could take a day trip to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon which is a lot less visited compared to the popular South Rim.
If your budget allows (ours didn’t!) then I’m sure an airplane tour of the Grand Canyon would be an amazing way to see this incredible site and give you a unique perspective which wouldn’t be possible if only hiking around.
Where to stay at the Grand Canyon
If you want to base yourself close to the Grand Canyon but want to keep costs down then it’s best to stay in Williams or Flagstaff where accommodation is significantly cheaper than staying within the park. Some of the best places to stay near the Grand Canyon are:
Super 8 by Wyndham Williams East/Grand Canyon Area – a clean and basic budget hotel located in Williams with breakfast included in the nightly rate. Click here to see their latest prices
Hotel Aspen Flagstaff/ Grand Canyon InnSuites – a hotel located in Flagstaff which has a wide range of rooms available, around the clock check-in and a good breakfast included in the room rate. Click here to see their latest prices
Airbnb – there are a number of private rooms available on Airbnb close to the Grand Canyon, particularly in Flagstaff due to its significant student population. If you are new to Airbnb, you can click here to get up to $40 off your first stay.
Not quite what you’re looking for? Click here to find other hotels near the Grand Canyon!
Visiting the Grand Canyon is undoubtedly one of the things you must do when visiting South West. Whether you only have time for a Grand Canyon day trip or are able to spend a couple of days exploring, it definitely worthwhile to make the effort to come here!
Are you planning on spending a day at the Grand Canyon? Or have you recently visited? Let us know in the comments below!