Visiting the Grand Canyon is one of those iconic experiences that we Americans often take for granted. I regularly meet West Coast people who’ve never been. Meanwhile, tourists from all over the world detour thousands of miles just to see the magnificent canyon carved by the Colorado River.
So what’s stopping you?
If you’ve always wanted to go but lack of familiarity held you back, here are some tips for making it not only fun, but cheap as well:
There are two primary entrances to Grand Canyon National Park. The South Rim — the one that most people use — is open year-round. The North Rim is more remote and less crowded, but closed in the winter. It’s also a higher elevation, at 8,000 feet. It is generally open May 15-Oct. 15.
▪ Want to go for free? On the following days in 2015, Grand Canyon National Park (and others) will waive its $25 vehicle entrance fee: April 18, April 19, Aug. 25, Sept. 26, Nov. 11.
▪ Plan your trip and book early. The most affordable lodgings can sell out months in advance. If you want to go last minute, sometimes you can find a cancellation. But if you can plan in advance, do it. A year ahead isn’t ridiculous. Also note that many hotels these days use “dynamic pricing,” meaning that the fewer rooms they have available, the more they charge. So there’s no benefit to you to wait, depending of course on whether there are cancellation fees. Call and ask.
▪ Bring anything you might need. Food, water, beverages, snacks, sunscreen, sunglasses, hats, bandanas, walking sticks. Everything sold inside the park is expensive.
▪ Go to the South Rim in the winter, instead of summer. Yes, it’s cold there and sometimes snowy. But you can save money and will definitely beat the summer crowds.
▪ Visit the North Rim in the summer. It’s cheaper, cooler and less crowded.
▪ Need to be on the South Rim? Stay at the Bright Angel Lodge, a National Historic Landmark built in 1936. I confess I have a weakness for old, funky historic properties, and this one qualifies in spades. The location is magnificent. You are right on the canyon rim. And the lodge itself is really cute. So why is it cheaper? Because it’s old, has no air conditioning or television, and in some rooms you have to share a bath. I found an Internet rate for July 11 for only $77 per night — a real steal — but you have to walk down the hall to the john. Rooms with bath were offered for $100.
▪ Go camping. The park has numerous campgrounds with prices ranging from $18 to $25 per night. Reservations are highly recommended, if not essential. Call 877-444-6777 or visit www.recreation.gov to learn more.
▪ Go hiking. There are easy canyon rim trails for strolling. If you do intend to hike down, check at the visitor center to get advice, as hiking the Grand Canyon is not for the faint of heart. It’s strenuous, and you need a hat, proper boots, lots of water and experience desert hiking. Avoid summer, when the interior can reach 120 degrees.
▪ Explore the historic Grand Canyon Village for free. Much of this village was designed by architect Mary E. J. Colter. It includes Hopi House, Bright Angel Lodge, Lookout Studio, Santa Fe Railway Station, El Tovar, Buckey O’Neill’s Cabin and Red Horse Cabin.
▪ Bring your bike. This is a great place for biking.
▪ Got kids along? Stop at a visitor center to get your free Junior Ranger booklet. After the kids complete it, they’ll earn a junior ranger badge and know much more about the canyon.
▪ River raft trips through the Grand Canyon are justifiably famous. My brother’s a big fan and keeps pestering me to join him. But they’re also expensive and take at least a few days. If you want a shorter, less expensive taste, try a smooth-water raft trip with Colorado River Discovery, which floats half- and full-day trips on the Colorado River from Glen Canyon Dam to Lees Ferry. Call 888-522-6644 or visit www.raftthecanyon.com to learn more.
▪ Cheaper mule rides. You may have heard of the legendary mule rides to the bottom of the Grand Canyon, which look harrowing to me, but are reportedly very safe. Even my 80-year-old great-uncle did it, though he was in shape from farming all his life. The price may shock you, though. A three-hour ride that merely meanders along the South Rim will cost you $125.27. Not a small chunk of change. And the overnight trip that goes down to Phantom Ranch on the canyon floor will set you back $548.84. Can’t afford that? Head over to the North Rim instead, where one-hour mule rides along the rim start at $40. A half-day trip that goes to scenic points inside the canyon but not all the way down to the river costs $80.
▪ Don’t care about staying inside the park? Then I recommend the quaint Western town of Williams, Ariz., which is about 30 miles south of the South Rim. We stayed there and enjoyed it. Lodging prices are cheaper, and it’s a real town, so you have a choice of restaurants and shops. We stayed at one of the two Motel 6 lodgings.
▪ Ride the Grand Canyon Railway. You don’t need to buy a package that includes their pricey hotel, which is outside of town. Just buy a ticket for the day trip, and stay in more economical lodging in Williams. Round-trip day tickets cost $65 and up, and include a bus tour of the canyon rim.
FIND OUT MORE
There are numerous entry points to the Grand Canyon. Here are suggestions:
South Rim: Take I-40 east through Kingman, Ariz., and then head north before you get to Flagstaff. There are lesser known entrances into the canyon through Indian reservations that are unique but more pricey or difficult to reach.
North Rim: You can take I-15 through Las Vegas to St. George, Utah, then veer off onto state roads into Arizona. It’s off Arizona Highway 67, via Jacob Lake, Ariz., in Northern Arizona, not far from the Utah border.
National Park Service official website: nps.gov/grca
Lodging at the South Rim inside Grand Canyon National Park: Call 888-29-PARKS (888-297-2757) or visit grandcanyonlodges.com
Lodging at the North Rim inside Grand Canyon National Park: grandcanyonforever.com
Camping in Grand Canyon National Park: Call 877-444-6777 or visit recreation.gov. Reservations highly recommended.
Maps of the Grand Canyon: nps.gov/grca/planyourvisit/maps.htm
Grand Canyon Railway: thetrain.com