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How to Make the Most of One Day at the Grand Canyon

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The American West is full of bucket list places: the Golden Gate Bridge. The Space Needle. Literally all of Alaska. But in all the places I’ve written about so far, there are few that compare to the Grand Canyon. People travel from around the world to see the Grand Canyon, and unlike the Great Wall of China (another bucket list spot), it truly can be seen from space! But despite its grandeur and the wonder it inspires, can you really enjoy it if you only have one day at the Grand Canyon?

While I obviously recommend spending more time at the Grand Canyon if you have it, that doesn’t mean you should skip the Grand Canyon if you only have one day (or even a half-day, as I’ve previously written about). Mr. V and I only had one day at the Grand Canyon during our honeymoon road trip in Summer 2020, and we managed to pack a lot in. So I know it can be done!

As you plan your short trip to the Grand Canyon – which will definitely inspire a return trip, just warning you now! – there are some logistics to know, as well as how to optimize your itinerary for spending one day at the Grand Canyon. By the end of this post, you’ll know the best way to see the Grand Canyon in 1 day, from sunrise to sunset.

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.

Planning Your Visit to Grand Canyon National Park

Grand Canyon - Rim Trail

Before jumping into my suggested itinerary for one day in Grand Canyon National Park, I want to go over some of the basics and logistics. I find answering these questions before you ask them helps you have an amazing Grand Canyon one-day trip without any hiccups.

The Four Sections of Grand Canyon National Park

There are four sections of Grand Canyon National Park:

  • The South Rim
  • The North Rim
  • Grand Canyon West
  • Grand Canyon East

Unfortunately, if you only have one day at the Grand Canyon, you won’t have time to visit all four of these sections, despite the fact that they each have amazing things to offer.

As you can probably imagine, the Grand Canyon is huge and it takes a while to get from one area of the park to another. For this reason plus the fact that most of the development along the Grand Canyon is on the South Rim, this post focuses on how to spend one day in the Grand Canyon’s South Rim.

Driving & Parking in Grand Canyon National Park

The Grand Canyon’s South Rim has one main road: Desert View Drive. This single road will essentially get you anywhere you need to go in the park.

As for parking, you can park at the Visitor Center Parking Complex or in the Grand Canyon Village. For the purposes of this Grand Canyon one-day itinerary, I recommend parking at the Grand Canyon Village, as that is closest to most of the suggested stops. It is important to note that both parking areas fill up early, especially during peak season, so try to get to the park before 9am at the latest!

Grand Canyon National Park Entrance Fees

Grand Canyon - Welcome Sign

As part of the National Park system, Grand Canyon National Park operates under the same rules as other parks. You’ll either need to pay an entrance fee or use a National Parks Pass to enter.

Here are your options:

  • The private vehicle entrance fee costs $35 per vehicle. This is good for 7 days and includes both the North and South Rim.
  • The individual permit costs $20 per person and allows you to walk into the park. This is good for 7 days and includes both the North and South Rim.
  • An annual America the Beautiful Pass is $80. This gets you into every national park and all fee-collecting federal lands.

Accommodation In & Near Grand Canyon National Park

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.

What to Do in Grand Canyon National Park (When You Only Have One Day!)

Now that we’ve gotten the logistics out of the way, let’s jump into how I suggest you spend one day in the Grand Canyon. As mentioned, you can’t visit all four parts of Grand Canyon National Park in a single day, so this focuses on seeing the Grand Canyon South Rim in one day.

Watch the Sunrise from Navajo Point

Half-Day at Grand Canyon - Sunrise at Navajo Point

If you only have one day at Grand Canyon National Park, you’ll want to wake up bright and early. Luckily, the early wake up time will be worth it, thanks to the breathtaking sunrise from Navajo Point.

Situated at the east end of Desert View Drive, Navajo Point is undoubtedly one of the best spots to see the sunrise while at Grand Canyon National Park. But remember to get there half an hour early, so you can see the beautiful colors that paint the sky before the sun makes an appearance.

Admire the View from Grand Viewpoint

Grand Canyon - Grandview Point

Since you still might be in the process of waking up, the second stop during your one day in Grand Canyon National Park is an easy one. You simply get to admire the stunning scenery from Grand Viewpoint. From this spot, you can catch gorgeous views of the Grand Canyon.

Hike Along the Rim Trail

One day at the Grand Canyon - South Rim View

Next up, you’ll start the adrenaline-pumping activities of the day by hiking part of the Rim Trail. After all, you’ll want to begin your hike bright and early before the sun gets too hot.

There are a few different hikes that you can do along the Rim Trail. The entire trail is 13 miles, but you certainly don’t have to do all of it. (As a matter of fact, I don’t recommend tackling it all.) Instead, you’ll want to pick a section of the hike that works best for you. Mather Point, the Trail of Time, and Yavapai Point are a few of the most popular sections of the Rim Trail.

And if you decide that the hike you’ve planned to do requires more effort and energy than you anticipated, you can simply hop on one of the shuttles that stops every mile or so.

Check Out the Views from Mather Point

Grand Canyon - Mather Point

While you’ll find yourself back on a different part of the Rim Trail later in the day, your first stop is Mather Point. It’s actually quite a stretch to call this a “hike,” because, if you start at Mather Point Road, you’ll only have to walk about 0.1 miles to reach this scenic overlook.

With that tiny bit of effort, you’ll get a huge reward! You’ll be able to gaze at one of the most famous views of the Grand Canyon.

Stop by the Main Visitor Center

Half-Day at Grand Canyon - Visitor Center - NPS Photo by Michael Quinn
NPS Photo by Michael Quinn

While I usually don’t recommend stopping by visitor centers at national parks, I do recommend visiting the main visitor center at the Grand Canyon. While there, you can learn all about the Grand Canyon’s geology. Find out how it was formed, what the canyon is made out of, and even if there are any current changes to the canyon’s geological structure.

Have Lunch at the Grand Canyon Village

You’ll have to backtrack a little bit to reach the Grand Canyon Village, but it’ll be worth it. After all, you’ll need your energy after your action-packed morning.

There are a few different restaurants within the Grand Canyon Village. A few crowd favorites include El Tovar Dining Room, Maswik Pizza Pub, and Yavapai Tavern.

Walk the Trail of Time

Grand Canyon - Rim Trail

The Trail of Time is one of the coolest parts of the Rim Trail. Since it connects Verkamp’s Visitor Center in the Grand Canyon Village to the Yavapai Geology Museum, you won’t even have to go out of your way to enjoy this amazing hike. This 1.7-mile hike includes a variety of geological exhibits for you to explore along the way. There are 13 informational panels and rock samples from many of the major layers of the Grand Canyon.

But the Trail of Time got its name from the representative timeline decorating the path. Every few feet along this trail, there’s a brass marker. Each of these brass markers represents one million years of the Grand Canyon’s formation!

Pop into the Yavapai Geology Museum

Half-Day at Grand Canyon - Yavapai Geology Museum -NPS photo by William Joye

But the geology education of the Trail of Time is just a warm up for the Yavapai Geology Museum. While there, you can learn everything you’d like to know about the formation of the Grand Canyon, both from the displays and from the educated park rangers.

It’s also a great place to purchase a souvenir to remember your amazing one day in Grand Canyon National Park.

Catch the Sunset from Yavapai Point

Southwest Road Trip - Grand Canyon Sunset

Situated just outside of the Yavapai Geology Museum, you’ll find the breathtaking Yavapai Point. And this lovely scenic viewpoint only becomes more gorgeous at sunset!

Since Yavapai Point is one of the most popular sunset viewing spots in Grand Canyon National Park, it’s important to get there at least 30 minutes early to snag a prime viewing spot.

Go Stargazing

If you have the time and energy, there’s no better way to end your one day at 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.

And just like that, you’ve planned a full day at the Grand Canyon from sunrise until sunset – and after! Do you have questions about making the most of one day at the Grand Canyon? Let me know in the comments!

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