As moats go, the Grand Canyon is pretty formidable. The mile-deep chasm’s north and south rims are ten miles apart, as the condor flies. But by road, they’re 220 miles apart. Which side you choose depends on what you’re after: The more desertlike South Rim has more services, while the wilder, higher-elevation North Rim is where the Grand Canyon meets the mountains.
The South Rim’s Grand Canyon Village boasts the finest collection of landmark buildings of any national park, notably Charles Whittlesey’s Norwegian villa- and Swiss chalet-inspired El Tovar Hotel, with its woodsy lobby of peeled Oregon logs. Mary Colter, the most famous parkitect of all, designed buildings in the village that range from the pueblo-style Hopi House to the log Bright Angel Lodge, where her “geology fireplace” features stone from each layer of the canyon, in sequential order.
Two of Colter’s best creations are beyond the village. Ride the Hermit Road shuttle to Hermit’s Rest, the boulder-and-timber structure she envisioned as the ramshackle hovel of a canyon recluse, albeit with a grand fireplace. Colter studied the cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde National Park and the circular towers at remote Hovenweep National Monument in the Four Corners for her kiva-like Watchtower at Desert View. A 24-mile drive east of El Tovar, it’s a must-see for the Native American
murals adorning the interior walls.
While the North Rim lacks the South’s range and number of buildings, public areas in Gilbert Underwood’s rustic 1927-28 Grand Canyon Lodge offer far better views than its South Rim counterparts. The lodge’s dining room has huge windows, as does its Sun Room, so settle into a leather chair or sofa and watch the canyon change with the light.
Beat the Crowds
If you want to dodge the throngs, go north. Just 10 percent of the park’s 5 million or so visitors come here each year. The North Rim’s remote setting cuts down on tour buses, and there’s also the matter of its 8,000-foot elevation. Heavy snows mean the facilities are only open from May to mid-October.
But if you’ve never been to either side, start at the South Rim, which for many people is the Grand Canyon. To reduce automobile traffic, the park operates a shuttle service March 1 through November 30, so queuing up is a fact of life. However, you can find a measure of solitude by hiking away from the core of Grand Canyon Village and at such less-publicized overlooks as Shoshone Point.
With less vegetation, the South Rim offers more plentiful panoramas than the North Rim, especially because the temples and shrines, as many major formations here are known, rise at a distance from the overlooks. From the North Rim’s Cape Royal, features such as Wotan’s Throne sit much closer, giving the vista a surprising intimacy.
The North Rim’s hiking is more diverse and shadier, owing to ponderosa pines and stands of aspen. You’ll spend plenty of time among the trees on the Uncle Jim and Ken Patrick trails before reaching overlooks inaccessible by car. Starting from the lodge, the Transept Trail has views over a side canyon, as does the Widforss Trail, a short drive away. The mostly paved 13-mile Rim Trail is the South Rim’s main route; for an epic yet doable day hike, shuttle to Hermit’s Rest and walk the eight miles to the village. Then again, any self-respecting ranger will tell you to go below the rims, even just a mile or two, for a sense of the canyon’s scale and to see the sequence of rock strata. So save energy for the return climbs along the Bright Angel and South Kaibab trails, or the North Kaibab Trail (the prettiest of the three) from the North Rim.