Visiting the Grand Canyon is one of those iconic experiences that we Americans often take for granted. I regularly meet people who’ve never been, even though they grew up in the West. 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.
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Want to go for free? A few days out of the year, Grand Canyon National Park (and others) waive the $25 vehicle entrance fee. Two of those are coming soon: April 18 and 19. Other free dates in 2015 are Aug. 25, Sept. 26 and Nov. 11.
Plan your trip and book early. The most affordable lodgings can sell out months in advance. However, if you want to go last-minute, sometimes you can find a cancellation, so don’t despair.
In terms of advance planning, a year ahead isn’t ridiculous. Also note that many hotels these days use “dynamic pricing,” which means that the fewer rooms they have available, the more they charge. So there’s little benefit to waiting, depending, of course, on whether there are cancellation fees. Call and ask.
Bring everything you think you might need. Food, water, beverages, snacks, sunscreen, sunglasses, hats, bandannas, 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 (except during winter holidays) and will definitely beat the summer crowds.
Recently, a special winter offer in February priced a stay at the Maswik Lodge North for $122 per night, and Maswik Lodge South for $89. By comparison, summer rates for those same rooms at Maswik North were significantly higher — $196 — and I couldn’t even find availabilities for the south lodge. (Important: Even if you search for reservations on the Internet and can’t find anything, always call the hotel directly. Sometimes it has an availability that doesn’t appear online.)
Visit the North Rim in the summer. It’s cheaper, cooler and less crowded. My online search turned up a Western Cabin at the Grand Canyon Lodge on the North Rim that sleeps three for $132 per night and a motel room for $124 on July 11 — the same date that rooms at the South Rim’s Maswick Lodge were $196. The Grand Canyon Lodge is a National Historic Landmark.
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 severe weakness for old, funky historic properties, and this one qualifies in spades.
The location is magnificent. It is situated 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 there’s a shared bath. An Internet rate published in the not-so-distant past for a July 11 stay priced a room at just $77 per night — a real steal — although it required a walk down the hall to the john. Rooms with bath were offered for $100.
The park has numerous campgrounds with prices ranging from $18 to $25 per night. Reservations are highly recommended, but not essential. Call 877-444-6777 or visit www.recreation.gov to learn more.
Hike, bike and more
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 is strenuous, and you need a hat, proper boots, lots of water and experience in 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, too. This is a great place for biking. You can rent bikes, but why spend the money if you’re able to bring your own.
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 of rafting, 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 Lee’s Ferry. Call 888-522-6644 or visit http://raftthecanyon.com to learn more.
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. The price may shock you, though. A three-hour ride that merely meanders along the South Rim will cost $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 in town — the larger one with an indoor pool. Some of the smaller motels in town looked cute as well, and you could walk everywhere.
You don’t need to buy a package that includes the Grand Canyon Railway’s pricey hotel, which is outside of town. Just buy a ticket for the day trip and stay in more economical lodgings in Williams. Round-trip day tickets cost $65 and up, and include a bus tour of the canyon rim.
If you go
There are numerous entry points to the Grand Canyon. Here are some 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. www.thecanyon.com/grand-canyon-national-park.
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 67, via Jacob Lake in northern Arizona, not far from the Utah border. www.thecanyon.com/grand-canyon-national-park.
National Park Service official website: www.nps.gov/grca/index.htm.
Lodging at the South Rim inside Grand Canyon National Park: Call 888-29-PARKS (888-297-2757) or visit www.grandcanyonlodges.com.
Lodging at the North Rim inside Grand Canyon National Park: http://grandcanyonforever.com.
Camping in Grand Canyon National Park: Call 877-444-6777 or visit www.recreation.gov. Reservations are highly recommended.
Maps of the Grand Canyon: www.nps.gov/grca/planyourvisit/maps.htm.
Grand Canyon Railway: www.thetrain.com.