A Traveling Photographer's Guide to the Grand Canyon
One of the seven natural wonders of the world, the Grand Canyon covers 277 miles of the Colorado River in Arizona. This park is larger than the state of Rhode Island - over 1,900 square miles and a mile deep. The Grand Canyon became the 13th national park in the United States in 1919, and it is the number one most visited National Park in the U.S. I was able to visit this outstanding place in the month of May of 2023, and it is going to be a trip I will remember for the rest of my life.
What There Is to Do at Grand Canyon National Park
There’s two parts of the Grand Canyon: the North Rim and the South Rim. The more popular of the two is the South Rim, since it is open year round and has a lot more amenities compared to its northern sister. You can find many things to do in the South Rim: the historic village, museums, multiple trails, train rides, camping, star gazing, mule trail rides, and more. The South rim offers multiple trails of various skill levels, from easy to incredibly challenging. The easiest of the trails is the Rim Trail - Mather Point, which is a paved path stretching about 13 miles along the rim of the canyon. The most difficult of the trails is suggested for experienced desert hikers only, which is the Grandview Trail. There are other trails as well to hike, and some of these trails can be reached by shuttle buses operating every 15-30 minutes from dawn to dusk.
As for the North Rim, it’s closed during the winter season. But if you’re given the chance to visit, take a 3-4 hour drive from the South Rim to the North Rim. The North Rim overlooks the South Rim from a 1,000 foot higher elevation, an incredibly popular sight for photographers. You can find other trails and overlooks too, such as the Bright Angel Point, Point Imperial, North Kaibab Trail, and Cliff Spring Trail.
What We Did at the Grand Canyon
My fiancé and I had scheduled roughly 4-5 days to explore the Grand Canyon in the month of May. We planned to first see the North Rim for two days while staying in Page, Arizona, then would travel to Williams, Arizona to spend three days at the South Rim. The Friday we packed our things and started our drive to the North Rim, but we were greeted by a flashing orange sign on the side of the road saying the North
Rim was closed due to inclement winter weather. We were shocked to think there was winter still in the month of May, but us inexperienced Texans started driving towards the North Rim entrance and noticed the temperatures drop from 75 F to 40 F. Snow on the ground and slush on the roads, my fiancé and I instantly took back our thoughts. Though the entrance to the North Rim was closed, we truly enjoyed the drive up to the North Rim. It was an entirely different landscape compared to a desert, evergreen trees filled up the mountains.
Though we couldn’t visit the North Rim, we took advantage of the area and visited the Kaibab National Forest which is directly next to the Grand Canyon. We found some different trails to hike, including Snake Gulch. This hidden trail stretched 16 miles long, and just two miles in you can see petroglyphs from AD 600-1300s. We walked in that 2 miles, saw the petroglyphs, got our pictures, and headed back. (There’s no way we would hike the whole dang trail).
The petroglyphs were truly amazing to see, especially since we could imagine that the cave we visited used to be a home to people living in the area centuries ago.
Saturday was a day we filled with a quick trip to Utah, and Sunday we headed to Williams, Arizona to experience the South Rim. Williams is an hour south of the Grand Canyon South Entrance, but it’s such a charming small town part of Route 66 that I highly encourage staying there while visiting the famous national park.
That Sunday we visited the visitors center, the historic village, and the South Kaibab Trail. The following day we planned a more intense hike, traveling 2.5 miles into the Hermit Trail to visit the Santa Maria Springs and then head back up. Though that trail stretches much farther than 2.5 miles, we only stuck with that amount because of the intense elevation change. From the top of the trailhead to Santa Maria Springs, we experienced an elevation change of 1700 feet. It was an incredibly hike though, so if you’re the adventurous type, it’s definitely worth it!
Tuesday we spent time at Bearizona in Williams then went to the Grand Canyon in the evening. We drove Desert View Drive, visited Navajo Point at sunset, and went to have some sandwiches at the historic village while we waited for the stars to come out. Once we finished our typical hiking dinner, we went to part of the Rim Trail near the South Kaibab Trail to watch the starry skies. There’s hardly any light pollution at the Grand Canyon, so the stars shined bright over the red canyons. It was an incredible adventure for sure!
The Must-Sees of Grand Canyon National Park
What are the must-sees to experience at the Grand Canyon, and how long should you spend your time there? I believe you can easily spend 4-5 days there, 1-2 days at the North Rim and the remaining time at South Rim. Of course, depending on when you go, the North Rim may have a chance of being closed. The best time to go to visit the north side of the Colorado River is during late spring, summer, and early fall. You can visit Imperial Point which is a popular overlook of the Grand Canyon, learn more about the park at the North Visitor Center, walk different trails, and even visit Kaibab National Forest if you want to include that on your itinerary.
As for the South Rim, you could experience 2-3 days there. Definitely more if you intend to hike deep into the canyon, maybe even reach the Colorado River. There’s the historic village filled with shops, lodging, restaurants, museums, and historic buildings. There’s the South Rim Visitor Center to learn more about the canyon along with planning your explorations, and of course all the trails. The South Kaibab Trail offers mule trail rides, along with your typical hiking. A popular hiking trail is the Bright Angel Trail, but other great trails include the Rim Trail, Hermit Trail, and Grandview Trail. Some of these trails can take you near or down to the Colorado River, but you may need a backpacking permit. Ask more about the permit by visiting the Visitors Center. There’s also the Desert View Watchtower on the east side of the park, and other viewpoints such as Mohave Point, Navajo Point, Hopi Point, Lipan Point, and many more.
If you only have a day to visit the Grand Canyon, I highly recommend visiting the South Rim. You could walk the Rim Trail along the canyon, visit the historic village, check out the Desert View Watchtower, and maybe an overlooking point or two. Thankfully, there are so many scenic spots to view the marvel of the Grand Canyon that almost any spot is an overlooking spot!
If you plan to be outside (which duh, it’s an outdoor park), bring sunscreen. If you’re fair-skinned like me, your future self will definitely thank you later. And be sure to bring water, ESPECIALLY if you plan to hike. Some trails do offer water, but those are from springs and you’ll need to bring a water purifier. The last thing you want to do is suffer from heat exhaustion or a heat stroke.
Another precaution to take is understanding if you walk down, you have to walk back up. This is different than many of the other parks I’ve visited, where if you’re hiking you typically start uphill first, then the second half of the trip is a semi-easy downhill. However, that’s not the case for the Grand Canyon. You’ll feel like you have a great amount of energy while going downhill, but you need to remember you have to hike back up eventually. A good rule of thumb is it’ll take twice as long to hike back up as it does going down, so keep that in mind during your hiking travels.
A Traveling Photographer's Guide to the Grand Canyon - Shot List
If you’re purposefully visiting the Grand Canyon to get outstanding photographer shots, I got you covered. That was a big reason for me to visit this amazing wonder. There were many spots that turned out great for scenic shots, such as the overlook points like Navajo Point, Lipan Point, and Mohave Point. Walking along the Rim Trail overlooks the canyon majority of the time, showing a 180 degree view of red cliffs and rocks.
The Desert View Watchtower on the east of the park turned out to be an amazing spot for photos, however we had bad timing because it started raining 10 minutes into our arrival. Then again, the photos turned out pretty amazing by capturing the rain, so maybe it was great timing!
If you know how to do night photography, this is A MUST. Only 30 minutes after the sun sets, you can start seeing some stars in the sky. The park rangers suggested that if you want to get starry night photos, wait at least an hour and a half after sunset or do it at least an hour and a half before sunrise. We followed that advice, and sure glad we did. We went to a location that we had walked passed two days prior that I thought would be an amazing spot for night pictures. It was so dark we had to pull out a flashlight, since the paths aren’t lit up by any light posts. I took photos at a cliff off of the Rim Trail, west of the South Kaibab Trailhead. We were VERY careful while walking near the edge. Please, please, please take precautions as well when you do your night photography.
Everything went well while taking the night photos. If there was one thing I could have changed, I would have brought a weight to hold down my tripod. It ended up being a pretty windy evening, so if you have a weight to bring I highly suggest it. Other than that, have a wonderful, awe-inspiring time taking those photos!
If you’re given the chance to visit the Grand Canyon, put it on your calendar. Put it on your bucket list, since there’s nothing else like it that you can find in the world. This has been the traveling photographer's guide to the Grand Canyon: explore and enjoy a reserve that became a national park in 1919!