Grand Canyon North Rim vs. South Rim

Grand Canyon is in the northwest corner of Arizona, close to the borders of Utah and Nevada. The Colorado River, which flows through the canyon, drains water from seven states, but the feature we know as Grand Canyon is entirely in Arizona. Most of the Grand Canyon lies within Grand Canyon National Park and is managed by the National Park Service.

What are the South and North Rims?

Map showing North, South, and West Rims of the Grand Canyon

A 277 mile long (446 km) canyon separates the park into South and North rims. The Grand Canyon of the Colorado River is a mile-deep, (1.6 km) and creates a barrier that bisects the park. Even though the average distance across the canyon is only 10 miles/ 16 km, be aware that it is a five-hour drive of 215 miles/ 346 km between the park’s South Rim Village and the North Rim Village.

Scenery, climate and vegetation are noticeably different between North and South rims because of differences in elevation. It is almost like having two parks in one and it takes time, planning and effort to be able to visit both sides of the canyon in one trip.

The mile-deep Colorado River creates a barrier that splits the park into north and south Rims. In the illustration above, the North Rim is shown above the river and the South Rim is shown below the river.

How Do I Get to the South Rim?

Sunrise at Mather Point on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon

Sunrise at Mather Point on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon

Why visit the South Rim instead of the North Rim? The South Rim of the Grand Canyon is open all year and sits on the “Arizona” side of the canyon. The South Rim receives 90 percent of the park’s visitation and justifiably so. It has a host of historic and contemporary lodges and hotels, camping areas, restaurants, miles of paved and dirt paths and museums that make going to the South Rim an unforgettable time. It also is located relatively close to some amazing towns and sights, making the road trip to the Grand Canyon just as interesting as the park itself.

Rock Out in Williams

The South Rim is located 60 miles north of Williams, Ariz., via route 64 from Interstate 40. Williams is one of the towns that thrived along Rte. 66 when it still existed. Today, it is a bustling historic tourist town that manages to keep the Rte. 66 culture alive and well. Stroll down its historic main street to check out old neon signs, funky restaurants and coffee shops and the Grand Canyon Brewery. You’ll hear music from the ages playing in and outside of businesses on nearly every street corner.

See Pluto in Flagstaff

The university town of Flagstaff sits just 80 miles southeast of the South Rim. Home of the University of Northern Arizona, Flagstaff has a wonderful laid-back vibe with a thriving historic downtown. Perched slightly above the downtown sits the Lowell Observatory where on Feb. 18, 1930, Pluto was discovered with what is now called the Pluto Discovery Telescope. You can see this telescope as well as the Clark Telescope when you visit. In the 1960s, a team of scientists and artists used the Clark Telescope to create detailed maps of the moon to prepare NASA for America’s manned voyages to the moon. Apollo astronauts studied these maps and some even used the Clark Telescope for part of their training to go to the moon.The observatory, which is on the aptly named West Mars Hill Road, offers daytime historic tours and evening viewing hours.

See Sedona

Farther south down from Flagstaff and down the gorgeous Oak Creek Canyon sits Sedona, a stunning red-rock paradise with miles and miles of extremely accessible hiking and biking trails. With a small downtown area nestled at the mouth of Oak Creek Canyon and West Sedona, a larger business district with a Whole Foods, Sedona is home to about 10,000 residents who play hard during the day and roll up the red carpet around 9 p.m. Sedona is all about daytime activities, so if you are looking for a raging nightlife, you will want to spend more time in Flagstaff about an hour to the north or Phoenix two hours south.

Feel the Vortex Vibe

Don’t leave Sedona without visiting at least one of the town’s famed vortexes where some claim there’s a calming energy that pervades. Two recommended vortex hikes are Cathedral Rock and Airport Mesa. Cathedral Rock is a fantastic hike just about a 10-15-minute drive from Sedona’s downtown. It involves some light scrambling, but it is an extremely popular route with families, adults without kids and young people. Airport Mesa is an outstanding place to watch the sunset. Park at the top of the hill where the airport sits and hike down to Airport Mesa for about 20 minutes or park in front of the mesa at the bottom of the hill, if there is an available parking spot. Get there early as this is a really popular spot.

Trains, Planes and Automobiles

Commercial airlines serve Phoenix, Flagstaff and Las Vegas. There is limited air service into Grand Canyon Airport (just south of the park) from Las Vegas and elsewhere.

Greyhound provides bus service to Flagstaff. Shuttle service between Phoenix and Flagstaff, and between Flagstaff and Grand Canyon Village is offered by Open Road Tours (800-766-7117) and Flagstaff Express Shuttle services (800-563-1980), call for prices and schedules.

Amtrak provides rail service to Flagstaff with connecting bus service to the canyon. Grand Canyon Railway offers train service from Williams. This historic train enables you to experience the Wild West as the train that gets held up every day by robbers, who are really actors, but is saved by the sheriff. For additional information call: 1-800-THE-TRAIN.

How Do I Get to the North Rim?

The patio at the Grand Canyon Lodge overlooking the North Rim. Photo by Whit Richardson

The patio at the Grand Canyon Lodge overlooking the North Rim. Photo by Whit Richardson

The North Rim of the park is more remote than the South Rim and is only open from mid-May through mid-October. The North Rim receives 10 percent of the park’s visitation, but its views are just as outstanding as those to the south.

If you plan on visiting the North Rim, you’ll find yourself relatively close to Zion National Park, Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument and Bryce Canyon National Park, so put these unique parks on your road-trip itinerary as each offers entirely different experiences.

Because it is less developed than the South Rim, the North Rim only has one lodge, The Grand Canyon Lodge, where visitors can spend the night. Advanced reservations are highly recommended here and at the North Rim’s only campground, The North Rim Campground, as both fill up way in advance.

Getting to the North Rim

The North Rim is located on the “Utah” side of the Grand Canyon and the entrance station is 30 miles south of Jacob Lake, Ariz., on Highway 67. The actual rim of the Grand Canyon with visitor services is an additional 14 miles south.  Jacob Lake, Ariz., is located in northern Arizona on Highway 89A, not far from the Utah border. There is no airport or rail service to the North Rim, so the only way to get to the North Rim is by road.

There is no public transportation to the North Rim of Grand Canyon National Park other than the Trans Canyon Shuttle (928-638-2820) which runs between the North and South rims of the park once each day, in each direction. Travel time is about 4.5 hours each way.

Commercial airlines serve Phoenix, Salt Lake City and Las Vegas. There is limited air service into the St George, Utah, Airport from Salt Lake City. St. George is 156 miles/ 251 km to the west of the North Rim.