There is nothing quite like your first visit to the Grand Canyon – the sweeping panoramic views, the majestic nature, and the variety of hiking trails. It’s a photographers dream location!
After arriving into the Phoenix Airport I quickly grabbed my backpack and reunited with some friends in Arizona. We began the 4 hour drive to the Grand Canyon from Phoenix and arrived around nightfall, giving us plenty of time to plan our three days of touring.
Here are my tips for the top 3 places to visit in Northern Arizona!
Horseshoe Bend is located about an hour north of the Grand Canyon in a sleepy town called Page, Arizona, close to the border of Utah. Before planning the trip I knew very little about the famous sights near the Canyon so I consulted a lot of travel bloggers to help plan my trip (We Are Travel Girls has an in depth post on the Lower Antelope Canyon Tour and Alex in Wanderland has a post on the Grand Canyon). Ultimately we decided to wake up early to see Horseshoe Bend before the influx of tourists come to take photos.
Horseshoe Bend features a 270 degree curved view of the Colorado River. The river flows from the right side of your view, completely around the bend, and exits to the left. The orange rocks are Navajo Sandstone, aka sand from the Jurassic age. Contrary to it’s name, sandstone is actually extremely thick (up to 2000 feet) and is quite safe to walk around. The danger lies where the exposed rocks lay on the tops and sides, so signs warn visitors to be careful on the ledges of the canyon.
The absolutely stunning views are so majestic they almost seem fake, and seeing the view in person is the best way to take in the full beauty of Horseshoe Bend. By the time we left the canyon there were tons of tourists with cameras and the best photo spots were overrun with people. I’d recommend going early, bringing a camera and tripod, and enjoy watching the sun rise and illuminate the majestic sandstone colors.
There is not much hiking available near Horseshoe Bend so you have plenty of time to see both the bend and Antelope Canyon in one morning.
After seeing Horseshoe Bend we quickly checked out of our hotel and drove 15 minutes north of Page, Arizona to the Lower Antelope Canyon Tour (there’s also the Upper Antelope Canyon Tour). The canyon is located on Navajo land and is therefore only accessible through guided tours.
The upper and lower canyon boast very different views but we decided to see the lower canyon based on recommendations from previous visitors. There are only two tour companies that run 1 hour tours of the canyon. You can take a guided tour for $20 (plus an $8 entrance fee to the reservation) or splurge on the $50 photography tour. The 1 hour tour gave us plenty of opportunity to take photos of the canyon and hear about it’s history. The main difference is that the photography tour starts in the opposite direction, giving viewers more unobstructed views of the canyon. In the wintertime there are not many tourists, but the guides can do upwards of 15 tours a day for large groups during the warmer months and a photography tour would be highly recommended for anyone looking to take professional photos.
I could not speak more highly about the Lower Antelope Canyon Tour. Our guide taught us so much about the history of the Native Americans on the land, how the canyon formed, and when it grew in infamy (Microsoft Office background ring a bell?). For only $20 it was a real bargain and a once in a lifetime opportunity to see the beautiful beams of light and deep colors present throughout the canyon. Make sure to time your visit for when the sun high in the sky.
After spending the morning at Horseshoe Bend and Antelope Canyon take the two hour drive down to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. The drive is stunning in itself and leaves you with many opportunities to pull to the side of the road for additional photos. But the real beauty comes when you enter the gates of the canyon and stop at one of the viewpoints. There is nothing more majestic or surreal than your first time looking out at the Grand Canyon, and it is an indescribable experience. Budget time to see as many sunrises and sunsets in the canyon as possible. After driving down into the Canyon we arrived in time for a short hike on the Bright Angel Trail and a view of the sunset from the Bright Angel Lodge.
In the summer months most visitors backpack down into the canyon and spend the night close to the Colorado River. Because there was snow and ice on the trails and freezing temperatures we decided to walk the trail as a day hike and sleep in the comforts of a warm hotel bed. Either way the most popular trail is the South Kaibab Trail and can easily be a 3, 6, or 12 mile hike depending on your fitness level and interest in hiking. There are numerous viewpoints along the way for a quick photo or a lunch break, so plan to spend at least a few hours hiking through the canyon. Return in time to watch the sunset on the top of the canyon and marvel in your physical ability to hike thousands of feet down into a canyon and then back up!
If you are a hiking fanatic it’s worth considering the strenuous rim-to-rim hike from the north to south rim (or vice versa). The trip can be done in 1 day but can easily last you 3 days if you are enjoying the beauty of the canyon and not eager to return up the trail. You can either camp at the bottom of the canyon or make a reservation at the famous Phantom Ranch. If you plan to backpack and spend the night in the canyon you will need a specific permit to do so, so plan your trip in advance!
Both Yaki point and Hopi point offer stunning sunrise and sunset views, but can be quite crowded with tourists. Go early to stake out a good spot, or hike around the main point to find the best view. The National Park Service created a sunrise and sunset flyer to help you plan your viewings.
THE WAVE, ARIZONA
If you have extra time to sightsee near the Grand Canyon, I’d recommend looking into a photography tour of the Wave Coyote Buttes, Arizona. Photographers and hikers alike recommended both sites to our group, but more extensive planning is necessary to see both. For instance, all visitors to The Wave must have a permit and that permit must be acquired the day before going to the actual site. That means you will need to budget two days to actually see the site.
Wherever you go in Arizona you’ll see a scaling view of gorgeous purple mountains, blue skies, and thousand upon thousands of cacti. Revel in the majestic beauty of the canyons and spend as much time as possible getting in touch with nature — you will not regret it!
Do you have tips for seeing the Grand Canyon? Share them with our readers in the comments below! Read next > 9 Tips for Visiting Lower Antelope Canyon