Find your favorite way to explore the Grand Canyon—from birding and biking to hiking, horseback riding and more.
The Grand Canyon's South Rim is outdoor-adventure central. Most people are aware of the astounding views, but this natural wonder offers high-intensity hands-on thrills and a world-renowned menu of outdoor options.
Open year-round, the South Rim can be explored a myriad of ways—here are just a few.
Behind the lens
Sunrise at Mather Point is a sight not to be missed.
Photographers, Instagrammers, or both, take note: Make sure your camera or phone has plenty of battery life or a fully-charged back-up. You'll find your finger has a life of its own, and you'll end the day with dozens or more fabulous images of the canyon's natural beauty.
The first stop on your photo excursion will likely be the iconic Mather Point—a Kaibab limestone peninsula located a literal stones' throw from the South Rim Visitor Center. If you arrive before mid-morning or after mid-afternoon, the sun will be low enough to cast broadening shadows over the rugged cliffs and spires of the canyon, providing a particularly impressive 3-D effect across your entire field of view.
Be sure to bring your wide-angle lens and a tripod so you can capture the star-lit night sky over the canyon.
Birding at the canyon is difficult to exaggerate. In 2014 the Grand Canyon was designated as a Globally Important Bird Area by the National Audubon Society. Global sites hold the highest priority for conservation actions, and the Grand Canyon has played an important role protecting 48 different bird species, such as the endangered California condor, Mexican spotted owl, peregrine falcon, and pinyon jays. With more than 379 species of birds recorded at the Grand Canyon, you are sure to spot a favorite.
Hikers on the South Kaibab Trail head toward Phantom Ranch / Credit: Sirena Dufault
Those who like to meet the outdoors on their own two feet will find a hiker's field of dreams here. A word of caution: There are no "easy" trails in or out of the Grand Canyon, so they're best enjoyed by those with some experience. Visitors with mobility limitations can get close to the canyon's edge via the 13-mile paved Rim Trail.
Legacy Trails—maintained by the Park Service—include the Bright Angel (up to 12 miles round trip), South Kaibab (6 miles round trip) and the very steep Grandview Trail (up to 6.5 miles round trip).
In all, 358 miles of trails have been established in the park; 126 of which are maintained. The non-maintained trails can be a bit challenging to follow for an inexperienced hiker. Please be sure to check with a visitor center for detailed maps and conditions before heading out for any hike. Overnight trail adventures require permits.
Those looking for guided tours should check out the free daily list of ranger programs offered by the National Park Service, with topics covering geology, wildlife, and dark skies. Another great resource is the Grand Canyon Conservancy Field Institute, which offers several classes and trips throughout the fall, including an inner canyon yoga retreat and nature sketching workshops.
Ride in style
Adventurers wishing to cover more ground in less time can do so with their own bike or a rental from Bright Angel Bicycles and Café at Mather Point. With approximately 20 miles of Greenway trails to bike, including a paved six-mile section reaching all the way to Tusayan, and a nearly equal inventory of roadside miles, the canyon cyclist is afforded a trip through nature unavailable to the motorized visitor.
If you're interested in the details of your canyon views, you'll appreciate the in-depth information you will receive on guided Jeep tours through the canyon. The highly visible Pink Jeep Tours begin their excursions from the IMAX Theater and come equipped with convertible tops to fend off those rare instances of inclement weather. Trips of 2-3 hours in length leave frequently and stay on paved trails.
Off-road tours are the specialty of Grand Canyon Jeep Tours and Safaris, and their rugged-looking vehicles reflect that focus. Tours here are from 1.5-4.5 hours long and include the Rim Trail, American Indian petroglyphs, sunset drives, an 80-foot fire lookout tower and a wildlife photo "expedition."
If your vision of transport in the rugged reaches of the Grand Canyon tend more toward four legs than two wheels, mule rides are available through the park concessionaire, Xanterra. The regular mule ride starts from the rim of the Grand Canyon, down Bright Angel Trail and across the river to Phantom Ranch at the bottom of the canyon. The ride usually includes dinner, overnight lodging, and breakfast at the ranch. This popular journey requires advance reservations—up to 15 months in some cases. Shorter mule rides are offered throughout most of the year, and they travel through the forest near the canyon's rim.
Horseback rides are available through the forest to the south of the canyon, with Apache Stables offering guided campfire and horse-drawn wagon rides. Kids are welcome. You provide your own food for the cookout; Apache Stables will bring the fire.
The canyon from above
For those who like their excitement in the upper decibel range, the ultimate in outdoor awe is now offered locally: a tandem skydive from 15,000 feet above Tusayan, with views of the Grand Canyon itself. The adventure is offered by Paragon Skydive, an experienced skydiving company with more than 20,000 jumps under its collective belt.
There are calm-water one-day adventures and one-to-three-week whitewater rafting opportunities, which grant a whole new perspective from the bottom of the canyon few ever see. Tours run from the spring through November and typically start out from Lee's Ferry near Page, about 144 miles northeast of the South Rim. Experienced rafters can request a permit to embark on private, self-guided river trips lasting from 2 on up to 25 days.
Want more information to make your next outdoor adventure grand? Visit grandcanyoncvb.org.
About the Author
Dina Mishev lives and writes in Jackson, Wyoming, and wherever she parks her camper van in Arizona. Her work about travel, adventure, fitness and lifestyle topics appears in AFAR, Sunset, Entrepreneur, AAA Via and The Washington Post, among other publications. You can find her blog at www.dinamishev.com.