Grand Canyon North Rim vs. South Rim vs. Grand Canyon West

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. The two areas managed by the National Park Service are the North Rim and the South Rim. Grand Canyon West is managed by the Hualapai Indian tribe and is located 241 miles west of the South Rim, which is about a 4.5-hour drive.

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.

Grand Canyon West is located farther west of both rims. The closest major city to Grand Canyon West is Las Vegas, Nev., which 125 miles away versus Las Vegas being 277 miles away from the South Rim. At Grand Canyon West, your National Park Service pass is not valid because the area is owned and run by the Hualapai Indians, not the park service. When you enter Grand Canyon West, the entrance fee for an adult, which includes a meal and an opportunity to walk on the glass-bottomed Skywalk, costs $82.37. This is per adult, not per car, and is a higher fee than the $30/per car park entrance fee for the South and North rims, so be aware of this in advance. Too many travelers make the mistake of assuming Grand Canyon West is a National Park Service property and get frustrated when they discover they will be paying more than double the park service entrance fee at Grand Canyon West.

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

You can reach the South Rim of the Grand Canyon through two entrances, with accessed by Hwy. 64. The closest town to the South Entrance is Tusayan, and the closest to the East/Desert View Entrance is Cameron, Ariz. The South Entrance brings you to the heart of the South Rim’s lodging and visitor centers and restaurants quicker. The East Entrance has a more remote feel.

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.

Why visit the South Rim instead of the North Rim?

The South Rim of the Grand Canyon is open all year and 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. Architect Mary Colter helped design the interiors or exteriors of places like Hopi House and Bright Angel Lodge, and you will notice how she used natural and cultural materials native to the region to create unique spaces. At the time, during the early part of the 20th century, this was considered visionary. Others at the time were still imitating the architecture of Europe.

The South Rim has a lot to do as it is home to engaging museums and visitor centers that have taken time to tell stories of the Grand Canyon in imaginative ways. You also can rent bikes from Bright Angel Bicycles and ride along the trails lining the rim. There’s even a road closed to traffic called Hermit Road. With the exception of park vehicles or shuttles, you’ll have this stretch of road extending west all to yourself.

Otherwise, explore the canyon via mule. The stables are located right near the the train station.  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.

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 the closest side of the Grand Canyon to Utah 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.

How Do I Get to Grand Canyon West?

The Grand Canyon Skywalk, a glass bottom bridge. Photo courtesy Haulapai Tribe.

The Grand Canyon Skywalk, a glass bottom bridge. Photo courtesy Haulapai Tribe.

Many people reach Grand Canyon West from Las Vegas, which lies 125 miles away. It’s about a three-hour drive, taking 93 south out of Las Vegas and taking a left on Hwy. 25  and then right on Hwy. 261. You can also access it from Kingman, Ariz., by taking Hwy. 20 to Hwy. 25 before taking a right on Hwy. 261. It’s about a two-hour drive.

Unlike the North and South rims where hiking along or into the canyon is a main attraction, the Skywalk is the main attraction at Grand Canyon West, in addition to Native American dance performances. Opened in 2007, the Skywalk is a glass bridge that is 10 feet wide and stretches 70 feet over the Grand Canyon in a horseshoe shape. You’ll feel like you are floating above the canyon as you walk on it. Some, with a fear of heights, grab the railing and hang on to it as they walk across. You cannot bring your own camera on the Skywalk but can purchase professional quality photos after your walk.

Don’t miss the Hualapai history exhibit on the walls inside the Skywalk building. It gives you a true sense of the Hualapai people, their traditions and connection to this special spot. There’s a restaurant on site, Sa’ Nyu Wa, which sits on the second floor of the building where you access the Skywalk. It features dishes that fuse Hualapai traditional dishes with Asian and Southwestern fare. There also are snack shops, and the Skywalk Cafe on the property. The Native American Village features a sweat lodge and traditional Native American structures, which you can see on a self-guided tour.

If you want to raft,  you also can go on the only one-day Colorado River rafting trip in the Grand Canyon with the Hualapai River Runners,. It’s a fantastic way to experience the Grand Canyon 4,000 feet below the rim, nestled in the canyons and surrounded by the mighty Colorado River. The trip leaves from Peach Springs, which is a good hour-plus-drive from Grand Canyon West. Spend the night in the Hualapai Lodge in Peach Springs located along Historic Route 66. In the morning, board a bus with other river rafters to drive down to the river. If you are lucky, you’ll spot wild donkeys and bighorn sheep along the way. After 12 miles of rapids, the Colorado River gets smooth and you’ll motor down the river to a lunch spot and then the take out. You can either opt for a 10-minute helicopter ride up to Grand Canyon West to experience the Skywalk or float a little farther to where you will take out and board a bus to return to Peach Springs, Ariz.