The reality of visiting the Grand Canyon is that no amount of time is ever going to be “enough” to see it all – rangers spend their whole career working at the Grand Canyon and don’t “see it all!” If you’re short on time and only have a half-day at the Grand Canyon, you can still make the most of it.
I’ve been to the Grand Canyon twice: once when I was 10 or 11-years old, and Mr. V and I visited again on our honeymoon road trip through the Southwest. On this second trip, we only had one day at the Grand Canyon – one afternoon/evening, and the following morning.
Similar to our experience, I’ve broken this post up into two half-days at the Grand Canyon: morning and afternoon. These are the two half-day options you have when visiting the Grand Canyon; you can choose which one applies to you based on your schedule. Both ‘itineraries’ are on the south rim of the Grand Canyon; the north rim is harder to reach and offers less if you only have a half-day.
(I also assume you stay near the South/Main Entrance to the Grand Canyon as we did; there are other park entrances but these offer fewer options for accommodation. (More on Where to Stay at the end of this post!))
Even with only a half-day, you can still get a sample of what the Grand Canyon has to offer. Just don’t be surprised if you come home and want to plan another trip right away. (We immediately applied for a multi-day Phantom Ranch lottery spot for 2021, after our trip in 2020!)
Okay, ready? Here’s how to make the most of your short time when you only have a half-day at the Grand Canyon!
In this post, I promote travel to a national park that is the traditional lands of the Hopitutskwa, Havasu Baaja (Havasupai), Pueblos, and Hualapai peoples. With respect, I make a formal land acknowledgment, extending my appreciation and respect to the past and present people of these lands. To learn more about the peoples who call these lands home, I invite you to explore Native Land.
Half-Day at the Grand Canyon: If You Only Have a Morning
If you arrive in the area after dark and spend the night before in the Grand Canyon area, you can plan an epic morning at the Grand Canyon. This works even if you only have a half-day and need to leave by noon. Here’s what to do with a morning half-day at the Grand Canyon.
Be sure you stop at whichever Park Entrance you come in through to grab a Park Brochure and Pocket Map. It’ll help you make sure you don’t miss any of these stops!
1. Watch Sunrise at Navajo Point
Navajo Point is located near the east end of Desert View Drive, which connects Desert View and Grand Canyon Village. It’s one of the best places to watch the sun rise above the desert, even according to the National Park Service! (I saw it on one of their guide signs while visiting.)
To try and catch the sunrise, I recommend arriving 15-30 minutes before the sun is set to rise. You can check the official sunrise time on Time & Date, then plan accordingly. It’s also important to arrive early to make sure you’ll get parking. This is one of the most popular spots to watch the sun rise at the Grand Canyon, and the small parking area can fill quickly!
(If you find it’s full on the day you try and do this, Lipan Point (below) is another good spot.)
2. Visit Desert View Visitor Center & Watchtower
Once the sun rises, it’s time to start sight seeing along the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. Head a little further along Desert View Drive to the Desert View Visitor Center and Watchtower.
The Desert View Watchtower is a 70-foot tall structure was built in 1932. It contains murals by Hopi artist Fred Kabotie. Inside you can learn more about the indigenous Hopi peoples who used to live in and around the Grand Canyon.
3. Stop by Lipan Point
After exploring the Desert View Watchtower and Visitor Center, it’s time to start making your way back along Desert View Drive toward Grand Canyon Village. This is a 22-mile drive, and I recommend making several stops along the way.
First up is Lipan Point, another epic vista. This is a popular sunrise and sunset spot, but during the day you can get a real sense of the massive scale of the Grand Canyon – and the fascinating geology that formed the region.
4. Explore Tusayan Museum & Ruin
As a child visiting the Grand Canyon, the ruins at Tusayan are vivid in my memory. I was fascinated by Southwestern Native American culture and this is one of the best-preserved areas near the Grand Canyon.
The Tusayan ruin dates back 800 years and is an excellent example of Puebloan culture. It’s considered to be among the most important archaeological sites in Arizona – which says something considering how many there are!
The Tusayan museum is a small interpretive center where you can learn more about the area and ask the rangers questions. (Unfortunately, with just a half-day at the Grand Canyon, you don’t have time for any ranger talks or guided walks!)
5. Take in the View from Grandview Point
A few more miles along Desert View Drive brings you to Grandview Point. (There are other stops on the way, including Moran Point and Buggeln Picnic Area, but there’s no time for them!) As the name suggest, Grandview is one of the views worth making a stop for.
Grandview Point is a short drive from the main road, which means you’re driving out onto a point of land that offers sweeping views of the Grand Canyon. It’s not quite 270-degree views – but it’s close!
This is a great spot for photos, especially if you want some that show the dramatic levels and contours of the Grand Canyon.
6. Visit the (Primary) Visitor Center
Continue on Desert View Drive to the main Visitor Center, near the South Entrance to the Grand Canyon National Park. This is the place to learn more about how the canyon was formed over millions of years and other aspects of the park. There’s also a great gift shop and restrooms in the area, if you need those amenities.
You can now leave your car parked at the Visitor Center and walk out toward the rim of the Grand Canyon for the rest of this itinerary.
Note: if you choose to walk all the way to Yavapai Geologic Museum, I strongly recommend bringing water and using hats/sunscreen to protect yourself from the sun.
7. Gaze Out from Mather Point
Mather Point is a short walk from the Visitor Center, just five minutes from the main building and parking area. The trail is wide and well-paved, making it a great option for people of all accessibility and mobility levels.
Mather Point is one of the most famous views of the Grand Canyon; it was named for Stephen Mather, who was critical in establishing Grand Canyon National Park and served as the first director of the National Park Service. The views will show you why that’s a fitting tribute for a man who helped protect the area for you, me, and future generations!
8. Hike Along the Rim Trail (Time Permitting)
From Mather Point, you can explore along the Rim Trail, time permitting. The trail runs 2.2 miles to the east to South Kaibab Trailhead and 10.4 miles to the west to Hermit’s Rest. Along the way you’ll follow the contours of the land and enjoy the Grand Canyon in all its glory.
I recommend walking west along the Rim Trail from Mather Point to Yavapai Point; it’s just 0.7 miles to the next/final stop on this list. (This means you’ll walk ~1.5 miles in total if you left your car at the Visitor Center! You can also drive to Yavapai Point if it’s too hot or you don’t want to walk.)
9. Visit Yavapai Geology Museum
Yavapai Geology Museum is the final stop I recommend if you only have a morning half-day at the Grand Canyon. Here, geology nerds (which I also was, as a child visitor) can dive deep into the science behind the formation of the Grand Canyon, and speak with park rangers.
The museum also features panoramic windows (above) so there are plenty of great views for those less interested in the displays and educational aspects of the museum. This is your last chance for souvenirs – there’s a bookshop and gift shop in the museum too!
10. Lunch at Grand Canyon Village
For lunch before your departure, you have two options: make the two-mile walk from Yavapai Point to Grand Canyon Village for lunch, or walk back to the Visitor Center and drive to the Village. I recommend the latter, as the heat of the day will really be coming on by midday – but parking can be tricky in the Village, so you may need to circle a few times to find a spot.
There are a number of restaurants in Grand Canyon Village, including to-go options if your schedule is tight. (You could also grab lunch on the way out of town, as you pass through Tusayan if you exit through the South Entrance.)
After this, it’s time to make your way back to your vehicle (wherever it’s parked!) to end your morning at the Grand Canyon. It’s too short a time, but if you double-check your map, you’ll see: this itinerary packs in quite a lot!
Half-Day at the Grand Canyon: If You Only Have an Afternoon
Okay, we’ve covered what you can do if you have a half-day at the Grand Canyon and it’s the morning hours – but what are your options if you only have an afternoon/evening? It turns out – they’re pretty similar! Here’s how I recommend spending an afternoon half-day at the Grand Canyon (and extending it into the evening depending on your appetite and sunset timing!).
1. Visit Desert View Visitor Center & Watchtower
Now it’s entirely possible you might be entering Grand Canyon National Park from a different entrance if you’re arriving in the afternoon. If, for example, you’re on a Southwest road trip that brought you through the Navajo Nation, you might enter GCNP through the East Entrance, which is on the border with Navajo land. (The Desert View Watchtower and Visitor Center are right near the East Entrance.)
Otherwise, you’ll enter through the South Entrance and need to drive the 22-miles of Desert View Drive to reach the Desert View Watchtower. As a reminder, inside you’ll find information about the Native Americans who lived in the area and Hopi murals. (Read more about Desert View Watchtower above.)
2. Explore Tusayan Museum & Ruin
Making your way toward Grand Canyon Village along Desert View Drive, the next stop to make on an afternoon in the Grand Canyon is at Tusayan Museum and Ruin; it’ll be hot in the afternoon, so be sure to bring water with you as you get out to explore the Puebloan village. (Read more about Tusayan Museum & Ruin above.)
3. Take in the View from Grandview Point
Morning or afternoon, Grandview Point is a must-see! Mr. V and I stopped here on our afternoon visit and the sun was blazing overhead – but it gave great shadows to the canyons and cliffs as we looked out over the billion-years’-work of the Colorado River carving the Arizona Desert. (Read more about Grandview Point above.)
4. Visit the (Primary) Visitor Center
Escape the heat of the afternoon by visiting the Visitor Center near the South Entrance of Grand Canyon National Park – trust me, it’ll be a welcome respite! Inside you’ll learn all about the Grand Canyon you’ve been enjoying so far – and can refill your water bottles before setting out to explore more of the South Rim. (Read more about the Visitor Center above.)
5. Gaze Out from Mather Point
Under a scorching Arizona summer sun – it was 92°! – , Mr. V and I made the short walk from the visitor center to Mather Point; you can handle the heat to do the same! If you’re lucky, most people won’t stand around long due to the sun and heat, and you can get some epic photos from various points in the area without others in them. (Read more about Mather Point above.)
6. Hike Along the Rim Trail
Unlike in the morning, I strongly recommend taking the time to walk along the Rim Trail during your afternoon half-day itinerary. The trail is a mix of sun and shade thanks to well-planted trees, and will take you the 0.7 miles from Mather Point to the Yavapai Geology Museum – where you’ll be able to cool off indoors again!
7. Visit the Yavapai Geology Museum
Escape the increasing heat (because remember, the heat usually peaks in the late afternoon between 3-4pm) at the Yavapai Geology Museum. You’ll be able to enjoy the view of the Canyon without having to endure the heat, thanks to the Museum’s panoramic windows. (Read more about the Yavapai Geology Museum above.)
As the afternoon wears on, you can explore the Rim Trail further, following it past the Yavapai Geology Museum toward the Grand Canyon Village. Heading west from Yavapai Point, you’ll be on the “Trail of Time,” which overlays on the Rim Trail. This 2.83-mile trail simulates geological time, and you can walk a distance that gives you a sense of just how long it took the Grand Canyon to form.
8. Dinner in Grand Canyon Village (Optional)
You don’t need to walk the entire Trail of Time to your next stop: there are a number of restaurants in Grand Canyon Village worth stopping off at for a bite to eat – depending on the timing of sunset!
9. Watch Sunset at Yavapai Point
Whether you walk the Trail of Time or have dinner in the Village, or just stay at Yavapai Geology Museum until the sun starts to set and the air cools, make your way out to Yavapai Point about 30 minutes before sunset if you want to get a good spot to see it. (Use Time & Date to confirm what time sunset will be when you’re visiting.)
As one of the most popular sunset spots that’s recommended by the National Park Service too, a lot of people will set up at Yavapai Point for sunset. Arriving early is key to making sure you can enjoy the view and not have people in your photos!
10. Go Stargazing (Time Permitting)
If you have the time and energy, there’s no better way to end an afternoon half-day in the Grand Canyon than by stargazing. Grand Canyon National Park is a certified Dark Sky Park (as is neighboring Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument) so you know it’s going to have great dark skies overhead.
During the summer months, the National Park Service offers ranger-led stargazing programs, or you can head to one of the points already mentioned and watch the stars overhead. If you happen to be visiting in June, most years the Grand Canyon is home to one of the world’s most popular star parties! Learn more here.
Where to Stay near the Grand Canyon
Accommodation can be tricky to come by at the Grand Canyon, especially if you’re visiting during the Summer peak season. Here are some tips on where to stay.
- In the National Park: There are a few choices within Grand Canyon National Park, which make life easier but typically cost a bit more and sell out more quickly. Consider booking at Bright Angel Lodge and Cabins, a bit more rustic but can fit most budgets (if you can snag a room!), or El Tovar Lodge, the classic luxury lodge of old National Park days.
- In/Near Tusayan: Tusayan is 2 miles south of the South Entrance Station, and there are a number of hotels to choose from. The Grand Hotel (from $165/night) has old-park charm, whereas the Best Western Squire Inn (from $169/night) has something for everyone in the family.
- Other Options: Vacation rental options are limited, but I did find this Bungalow in Tusayan that could work for some budgets (from $236/night) and this modern cabin with a historic flare is more budget-friendly (and the host offers several similar cabins; from $175/night). On our trip, Mr. V and I stayed at Under Canvas Grand Canyon (which is also in Valle, about 30 minutes south of the park entrance), which was a nice experience except for the drive.
With that, you’re all set! Have any questions about spending a half-day at the Grand Canyon? Let me know in the comments!