Beating the Crowds at the Grand Canyon

the Grand Canyon
The Grand Canyon

It’s hard to commune with one of nature’s great spectacles when you’ve just spent two hours looking for a parking space and are now being asked to step out of the range of someone’s video camera.

During the Grand Canyon’s busiest tourist season, not even a descent into the canyon itself guarantees a getaway. If you do intend to visit between May and November — “high” season gets longer every year — you’ll need to make your plans at least six months in advance.

Once you arrive, you’ll find it may be in your best interests to simply avoid the South Rim this time of year. Even when the park’s new visitor transportation system is completed, all but eliminating automobile traffic, there will still be lots of people around.

Here are three alternatives to experiencing the canyon when everyone else is:

Take the Road Less Travelled

Avoiding the masses depends on your approach to the Canyon. Most tourists come to the south entrance of the Grand Canyon via highways 64 and 180 from Flagstaff. It’s a pleasant enough route, but if you take Highway 89 instead, you’ll have the option of stopping off at Sunset Crater and Wupatki national monuments on your way. From these points, you’ll be treated to a view of the Painted Desert to the east, and also pass through a corner of the Navajo reservation. Along the road are native artisans selling jewelry, pottery, and rugs.

You can stop to stretch your legs in Cameron (about 50 miles north), and have a brain-awakening bowl of spicy green chili at the Cameron Trading Post before continuing on. Get on Highway 64 west for the 35-mile drive to Desert View, where the road turns into East Rim Drive, also known as Desert View Drive, about 5 miles beyond the less crowded east entrance of the park. If you continue west on the East Rim Drive, you’ll reach the visitor’s center at South Rim in 20 miles.

Skip the South Rim Altogether

At Cameron, instead of turning west toward the east entrance of the park, keep heading north on Highway 89. The North Rim of the Grand Canyon is 10 miles from the South Rim as the crow flies, but by car the journey from Flagstaff to the North Rim will log more than 200 miles on your odometer and consume five hours of your vacation. Is it worth the effort? Absolutely.

Highway 89 to the North Rim closes to visitors after the first big winter snow, usually in December, and doesn’t reopen until spring. But if you’re visiting between May and November, plan to stay overnight at the Grand Canyon Lodge and try to arrive at Cape Royal (23 miles southeast of the hotel, and a meandering three-hour drive from Cameron) for the most spectacular sunset anywhere, regardless of the weather. On the Kaibab Plateau, at an elevation of 7,876 ft, Cape Royal is densely forested, the most mountainous area in the park. The air is crystalline even in high summer.

Let the Conductor Do the Driving

If you’re pressed for time, or simply don’t want the hassle of taking a car into the park, make the sleepy town of Williams your base for exploring. A turn-of-the-century steam locomotive or vintage diesel train (depending on the season) departs every morning from the Williams Depot at 9:30 AM sharp for a 2?-hour jaunt to Grand Canyon Village on the South Rim. The train departs the village at 3:15 PM so you can do the round-trip in one day, but it’s nice to spend a night in the park and return the following afternoon.

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