Grand Canyon Itinerary: How to Spend One Day at the South Rim
One day at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon might not seem like enough, especially considering the park in northern Arizona spans more than 1 million acres, and the canyon is 277 miles long. But, you can manage to squeeze in a lot if you’re short on time.
Even a day trip to the natural wonder is better than nothing at all, and 24 hours is enough time to hike into the canyon, have a picnic with a view, walk along the rim, and catch a memorable sunrise or sunset (or both if you’re ambitious).
Whether you only have a weekend to explore or are passing through on an Arizona road trip, this itinerary will help you pack in a lot of action in a short amount of time. It starts at sunrise, but if you’re arriving later in the day, just pick up the activities from that point on and squeeze in as much as possible in the time you have, even if it’s fewer than 24 hours
Read on for a day full of Grand Canyon National Park activities from dawn until dusk and beyond, and scroll to the bottom for tips for visiting the South Rim.
Sunrise at the Grand Canyon
Wake up while it’s still dark out to watch the sunrise at the Grand Canyon, which happens as early as 5:10 a.m. in June (check the times here). While you may be tempted to snooze the alarm clock and skip the cold morning air, sunrises are a lot less crowded than sunsets here, so you’ll have a better chance at finding a quiet spot to watch the pink-hued sky
Park your car at the Grand Canyon Visitor Center to walk out to Mather Point, which has a great view east since it sticks out into the canyon. You’ll have plenty of company at this popular lookout, but you can walk along the Rim Trail until you find your own spot.
Consider leaving your car at the visitor center at this point and taking the free shuttle buses around the park for the rest of the day since the lots here typically fill up by mid-morning during summer and holiday weeks.
If you plan to hike into the Grand Canyon this morning, you can grab a quick breakfast and coffee from the cafe in the visitor center complex, located at the bike rental shop. This will allow you to get on the trails early to avoid the midday heat, especially important in summer.
Hike into the Grand Canyon
A few different paths are available for hikes into the canyon from the South Rim, including the Bright Angel Trail and South Kaibab Trail. These two paths run all the way down to the river, but you’ll only want to attempt a couple of miles on a day hike since it’s thousands of feet down and can take twice as long to come back up.
For a two or three hour excursion, hike to Cedar Ridge on the South Kaibab or to the 1.5-mile resthouse on Bright Angel. Both are 3 miles roundtrip with an elevation change of more than 1,100 feet.
Remember to bring lots of water and snacks while hiking and protect yourself from the sun, especially on the South Kaibab Trail, which has very little shade. Basic toilet facilities are available at the stopping points mentioned above.
(If you don't have a hotel nearby and want to clean up after this hike, there are showers by the Mather Campground.)
If a hike into the canyon sounds too strenuous or time-consuming, try one of these outdoor activities instead.
The Rim Trail runs for 12.8 miles one way along the edge of the canyon between Hermits Rest and the South Kaibab Trailhead. Parts of the trail are accessible, and shuttle buses run the entire length, so you can customize a hiking distance to suit your abilities and check out a few of the different viewpoints along the way.
Bike rentals and tours are available from Bright Angel Bicycles at the visitor center. There are greenway trails throughout the park, but Hermit Road is ideal for canyon views and you'll only have to share the road with buses for most of the year (March to November). The 2.8-mile section between Hermits Rest and Monument Creek Vista is away from the road and multi-use for bikers and hikers. Buses have racks for a couple of bikes, so you can catch a ride to and from the trail, or you can book shuttle transportation and tours with the rental company.
You’ll need to refuel after burning all those calories out on the trails. The general store at Market Plaza in the park has everything needed to craft the perfect picnic to enjoy at one of the scenic points next on the agenda.
Take a scenic drive
After a busy and physical morning, you’ll be ready to take it easy and stay out of the sun for a bit. Use the hottest time of day for a scenic drive at the Grand Canyon to check out more of the South Rim viewpoints and pop into some of the park’s museums.
The 22-mile-stretch of Desert View Drive between the visitor center and the eastern park entrance has a handful of quieter vistas and picnic spots beyond where the bus runs, perfect for exploring by car. Along this route is the Tusayan Ruin, the site of Ancestral Puebloan remains and a free museum with ancient artifacts. The final stop before the exit is the 1931 Desert View Watchtower, where you can climb up to an observation deck to see the Colorado River running through the canyon.
There are also free shuttle buses routes along much of the South Rim that allow you to hop on and off near some of the lookouts. The Hermits Rest Route (red) runs from March through November to the west of Grand Canyon Village, with stops right by a number of scenic spots, while the year-round Kaibab/Rim Route (orange) operates on the eastern end all the way to the Yaki Point overlook and visits the Yavapai Point and Geology Museum. The Village Route (blue) is the best way to get around to all the hotels, restaurants and amenities in the park, but you can walk from some of those stops to the canyon edge, too. Buses run about every 10 to 15 minutes.
Stroll the Trail of Time
If you haven’t taken time to walk along the rim yet, the late afternoon is a great time to do so. The Trail of Time section is easy to tackle, spanning about 1.5 miles with geology exhibits to pause at. Start at Yavapai Point and walk toward the Verkamp’s Visitor Center. Just past Verkamp is a handful of lodges and places to grab dinner before sunset.
A number of eateries around the park serve dinner, including restaurants at the Yavapai Lodge, Bright Angel Lodge, Maswik Lodge and El Tovar Hotel, which has a dining room on the rim. The town of Tusayan is about 7 miles south for more options, and the purple shuttle line runs there from the visitor center. You’ll have to eat early in order to get to a sunset viewpoint in time to watch the colorful show, or late if you prefer to wait.
Watch the sunset at the Grand Canyon
The National Park Service recommends several points along Desert View Drive and Hermit Road for incredible sunset views. Be sure to arrive at least an hour early to stake out a spot and watch the sky and canyon changing colors. Be mindful that the shuttle is busy leading up to sundown, so it might take a little longer to catch a ride.
If you plan to leave the park after twilight, the views from Lipan, Navajo and Desert View on the east end may be your best bet, as you’ll be able to park there and leave right after, without having to wait for the shuttle. Plus, the east-west vistas are incredible and the area might be less congested. If you opt for this route, adjust your itinerary to combine this with the scenic drive from earlier so you don’t have backtrack.
Hopi Point along Hermit Road on the west end is one of the most popular sunset spots. You’ll have to take the red line here, as cars cannot drive this road during the busy season (March-November). If Hopi is too busy, walk west a mile to Mohave Point, where you’ll catch a glimpse of the river. Along the trail between the two, you’ll likely find a peaceful place to sit, but the views at Hopi and Mohave are best for seeing all the sunset colors. Toward the end of the red line, Pima Point juts out into the canyon and is a little less crowded.
Attend a nighttime ranger program
If you want to really stretch your day out, you can join one of the ranger-led events that take place in the evening. The agenda varies but includes things like night hikes, star gazing and presentations about nature and conservation.
Tips for visiting the Grand Canyon
1. The Grand Canyon South Rim has three distinct sections. The Village, Market Plaza and Visitor Center are the hubbub of activity in the middle, where you’ll find hotels, restaurants and other amenities like a grocery store, post office, bank and gift shops. The western section stretches from the village for seven miles toward Hermits Rest (a restroom and snack facility) and is full of scenic viewpoints. To the east, the 22-mile-long Desert View Drive has a handful of pullouts and viewpoints on the way to Desert View, where you’ll find a watchtower, campground, gas station, market and coffee shop.
2. Grand Canyon National Park uses the Mountain Standard Time zone (MST) and does NOT spring forward for daylight savings time. This means that in summer, sunrise is really early in the morning. Look up sunrise and sunset times ahead, and plan to be to a viewpoint at least an hour before the show.
3. Grand Canyon admission is $30 for a car and is good for 7 days. If you plan to visit other national parks in the area that also charge admission (like Bryce Canyon or Zion), you might want to invest in the America the Beautiful pass, which gives you access to national parks and recreation sites for one year for $80.
4. More than 6 million people visited the Grand Canyon last year, and summer at the South Rim is easily the most popular. Be prepared for full parking lots, busy shuttles and crowded viewing platforms around the densest areas. Leaving your car at the main visitor center and riding the free shuttle buses is the easiest way to avoid having to look for parking spots as you check out different viewpoints, but be advised that the parking lot often fills my mid-morning. Consider a vacation in spring or fall for mild weather and fewer people.
5. The closest place for overnight lodging near the Grand Canyon South Rim is in the park at one of the hotels or campgrounds. Outside the park, the town of Tusayan is just a couple of miles south, and a free shuttle is available to take you back and forth. Continuing south, other options include Valle, about 30 miles from the entrance, and Williams, 55 miles away and connected by the Grand Canyon Railway. Exiting east, hotels are scattered with a handful about 60 miles away in Tuba City, and more options in Flagstaff, 80 miles southeast, and Page, 110 miles northeast.