The allure of the Grand Canyon is intoxicating. Peering out into this mile-deep canyon, it's hard not to be awed by its grandeur and elegance. A casual walk along the Rim Trail at the South Rim richly rewards with sweeping views of dramatic red cliffs, compelling visitors to stop every few steps to snap a photo and take it all in.

The siren's call of the Grand Canyon leads many to Arizona to experience this remarkable natural wonder first-hand. Yet few do more than amble along the rim. There are many more ways to get to know one of the most famous natural landmarks in the United States.

A helicopter takes off from the rim of the Grand Canyon
Seeing the Grand Canyon from above puts its size into perspective © Erin Gifford / Lonely Planet

See the Grand Canyon from a Helicopter 

While many visitors to the Grand Canyon will only see the South Rim, an exploration of the world's most well-known canyon from the air on a helicopter tour allows visitors to embrace the scenery from a variety of angles. Take off from the regional airport in Grand Canyon Village near the South Rim for an exhilarating exploration of the North Rim from the sky.

From high above, savor breathtaking views of the Kaibab National Forest and mighty Colorado River on the way to the equally majestic North Rim. For those eager to see the Grand Canyon while in Las Vegas for a long weekend, that's possible too. A number of tour operators service Las Vegas, even landing on the rim floor for a light picnic lunch.

From Las Vegas, the closest section of the Grand Canyon is the West Rim. A high-flying narrated helicopter adventure with Papillon Grand Canyon Helicopter Tours includes dramatic bird's eye views of the Hoover Dam and Lake Mead before descending 4000ft to land on the canyon floor. On the West Rim, you can also walk along the horseshoe-shaped glass Skywalk that reaches out 70 feet over the rim of the Grand Canyon.

A young man in an embroidered shirt and black cowboy hat strums a guitar and sings in a train car
While enjoying the amazing scenery, you'll also enjoy live music on the train © Erin Gifford / Lonely Planet

Ride Along the Grand Canyon Railway 

Park your car in Williams, Arizona — 50 miles from the South Rim entrance — to embark on a scenic train ride on the historic Grand Canyon Railway. Along the way, you'll welcome a range of landscapes, from scrubby wide-open prairies to ponderosa pine forests, until the ruggedly stunning Grand Canyon comes into view as you approach the train depot inside the park. 

The journey to the Grand Canyon takes just over two hours along a historic track once used to carry ore from the Anita mines. There is no wi-fi on the train, and cell service is spotty at best, but you'll be happily entertained on-board by the musical stylings of Nick Tycoon.

Wearing an elaborately embroidered shirt, super-sized belt buckle and a black cowboy hat, Tycoon strums his guitar, urging passengers to sing along to his favorite country-western tunes. Beyond sing-alongs, guests are treated to cowboys, sheriffs and shoot-outs, even a mock train robbery on the return ride to Williams after a few hours spent at the Grand Canyon.

A group of people in hiking gear march up the slope of the Grand Canyon
A rim-to-rim hike in the Grand Canyon is a bucket list trip for many © Erin Gifford / Lonely Planet

Hike Across the Grand Canyon 

A rim-to-rim hike of the Grand Canyon isn't for everyone. It's strenuous. You've got to be in good shape. You've also got to be organized, but the work you put in is well-worth the euphoria you'll experience when you walk the floor of the Grand Canyon. 

The hike is 24 miles one-way, from North Rim to South Rim. The most popular route takes hikers into the Grand Canyon by way of the North Kaibab Trail, then back up to the rim along the Bright Angel Trail. It's a 4,300-foot climb out of the canyon, but for many, it's the journey of a lifetime. 

You'll want to overnight inside the Grand Canyon, maybe even stay two or three nights ahead of the return hike to the rim. Book a stay at Phantom Ranch, but you'll need to do so months in advance, like 13 months ahead of your hike when reservations open up. 

Another option is to camp out at Bright Angel Campground, but you'll need to get a permit to do so. Permits come available the first of each month, four months prior to the month you plan to embark on your rim-to-rim hike. 

Some people take the stress out of booking a hike so far in advance by arranging a trip with an outfitter, like REI Adventures, which offers a five-day rim-to-rim hiking package. They set up the stays. You just need to show up. Still, you'll need to be on top of your game. Even six months out, several departure dates are completely sold out. 

Raft floats down river through Grand Canyon
While its a lottery whether or not you'll be able to take this amazing trip, seeing the Grand Canyon from the river is awe inspiring © Jim Mollouk / Getty Images

Go Whitewater Rafting Through the Grand Canyon 

Rafting the Grand Canyon from end to end requires paddling along 240 miles of the Colorado River in-season which runs from April to October. It also requires two weeks to raft the full length from Lees Ferry to Lake Mead with an outfitter like Outdoors Unlimited

For those with fewer than two weeks of vacation days to spare, it's possible to book Upper Canyon (5-7 days) or Lower Canyon (8-9 days) rafting trips. These offer plenty of gnarly rapids and dramatic gorges all along the Colorado River. These trips are so popular that the National Park Service has limited river rafting to one trip per person per calendar year.

In nearby Page, Arizona (2.5 hours by car), it's possible to get a taste of rafting along the Colorado River by way of a half-day float trip across Glen Canyon. It's the Glen Canyon Dam that controls water flow into the Grand Canyon. For many, this gentle float trip is a good starter rafting adventure, particularly for Grand Canyon-bound families.

Get more travel inspiration, tips and exclusive offers sent straight to your inbox with our weekly newsletter.

Explore related stories

Campervan

Camping

'We visited 48 US states in a camper van' - here's our 10 top states

Jul 7, 2022 • 8 min read