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Grand Canyon National Park, AZ

Best Attractions in Grand Canyon National ParkIn a national park with dozens of attractions and fun things to do, you may have trouble deciding where to spend your time. Here are the highlights for this destination, as chosen by AAA editors. GEMs are “Great Experiences for Members.”

Things to Do on Grand Canyon National Park's South Rim

Most attractions and facilities are located at the Grand Canyon National Park - South Rim , including the Grand Canyon Village, Yaki Point and Rim Trail . (For more information, see Recreation.) You'll find brochures, maps, books and helpful park rangers at the South Rim's trio of visitor centers. At Mather Point is the state-of-the-art Grand Canyon Visitor Center . The historic Verkamp's Visitor Center is in Grand Canyon Village. The small Desert View Visitor Center is at the east end of the South Rim, fronting the Desert View Watchtower parking lot. All three have nicely done exhibits about the canyon.

Outside the park in the gateway town of Tusayan, the Grand Canyon Visitor Center in Tusayan isn't an official NPS facility, but the staff is knowledgeable, the historic exhibits are high quality and you can buy park admission passes here. The big draw is the on-site IMAX Theater . Its 34-minute “Grand Canyon IMAX Movie” dazzles the eye with dizzying aerial footage, impressive river rafting shots and the requisite time-lapse-photographed clouds rushing over the canyon, all while imparting a quick history lesson.

Clinging to the South Rim in Grand Canyon Village, the wooden two-and-a-half-story Kolb Studio is just as remarkable as the paintings displayed in its excellent art gallery. There's a gift shop and a cozy canyon-view porch here as well, but the main attraction is the building itself. Constructed before the canyon's national park designation, it once served as a home and photography studio to the first men to film a Colorado River expedition; there's a small display of antique camera gear just off the gift shop.

If you're in the market for more mind-blowing views and are interested in how the canyon was formed, head for the Yavapai Geology Museum . Perched on the rim between Mather Point and Grand Canyon Village, the museum is in a squat pueblo-style structure built of limestone and pine in 1928. You'll find excellent exhibits (3-D models and wonderful photographs) and a top-notch bookstore inside.

When you imagine Ancestral Puebloan ruins, in your mind's eye you may picture the impressive cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado. As long as that's not what you're expecting, you won't be disappointed by the Tusayan Ruin and Museum . Here, the low, unreconstructed pueblo walls don't soar any higher than your waist. But make no mistake, this is an important ancestral Puebloan site that dates back some 800 years. At the entrance you'll find a small but interesting museum, plus a bookstore.

Weathered stones and salvaged logs make up the Desert View Watchtower , built around a steel frame in 1932 to evoke prehistoric towers. From the highest viewpoint on the South Rim (7,438 feet), take in gorgeous vistas of the canyon, the surrounding piñon and juniper woodlands and the Painted Desert beyond. A snake altar greets visitors on the first floor, while murals and replica pictographs appear throughout the four-story edifice.

With virtually no shade, the 7-mile South Kaibab Trail is a steep, taxing journey lasting about 4 to 6 hours one-way. However, the well-maintained path descends more than 4,780 feet, offering excellent views of the canyon's sedimentary rock layers, including Kaibab limestone, Coconino sandstone and Hermit shale. Vault toilets are located at 1.5 miles and 4.5 miles along the trail. There is no water along the way. Do not attempt to hike to the Colorado River and back in one day.

Grand Canyon Railway once supplied all water to the Grand Canyon, also transporting tourists lured by President Theodore Roosevelt's adulation of this natural wonder. You can still ride the rails 65 miles to the rim aboard restored steam engines (on special occasions) and vintage diesel trains, with gun-slinging lawmen and masked desperadoes resurrecting the Wild West. Sure, the jaded among us will declare the mock train robbery a bit hokey. But for rail fans and families looking for things to do with kids, the ride from Williams to the rim is a must, earning it the AAA GEM attraction designation.

Passing through cottonwood trees and such landforms as Tonto Platform, Bright Angel Trail starts just west of Bright Angel Lodge & Cabins, descending 3,080 feet to Plateau Point and 4,440 feet to the Colorado River. If Grand Canyon hotels and lodges are too rich for your blood, pitch a tent at either the Havasupai Gardens or Bright Angel campground. Backcountry permits are necessary to camp at either campground. Keep an eye peeled for wildlife on the steep, well-defined trail that's been traversed by both the Havasupai and 19th-century prospectors. (For more information, see Recreation.)

The 9-mile trail also leads to one of architect Mary Elizabeth Jane Colter's many regional works, Phantom Ranch . Separate dormitories for men and women, rustic cabins and a canteen are reached only by foot, mule or raft. Completed in 1922, the ranch remains highly popular, with several months advance reservations necessary.

Things to Do Outside the Park Boundaries

You've no doubt seen photos of an intensely blue-green waterfall located somewhere in the Grand Canyon. That “somewhere” is Havasu Canyon , which is not in the national park, but rather on the Havasupai Indian Reservation. Reaching this attraction is no cake walk. From the village of Supai (a 4-hour drive from Grand Canyon Village), it's a steep 8-mile journey down to the canyon and falls. The trail can be covered on foot or horseback. Or, if you've got the cash, aching feet and saddle sores can be avoided entirely by taking a helicopter ride down, and out.

Also outside the park's boundaries, at the far west end of the canyon near Kingman , is the Grand Canyon Skywalk . In 2007, staunch environmentalists howled in protest when the Hualapai Indian tribe built this horseshoe-shaped, glass-floored “sky bridge” on their reservation land. Extending 70 feet from the canyon rim, the Skywalk is suspended 4,000 feet above the Colorado River. The view's a thrill. And this is unquestionably a unique engineering feat. But check out any online travel sites, and you'll read plenty of gripes.

So what's the story? First, it's a long drive to the Skywalk, and 16.4 miles of the trip are on a dirt road (almost always suitable for passenger cars). Figure on at least 4.5 hours if traveling from the Grand Canyon National Park - South Rim , and budget for a solid 3-hour drive from Las Vegas. Second, it's expensive. To stroll on the Skywalk, you must first buy admission to Grand Canyon West, the Hualapai tribe's recreation area. The fee includes bus transportation to a faux Indian village, a mock cowboy town, the impressive Guano Point overlook and the Skywalk (an extra charge). Finally, no cameras are permitted on the Skywalk; you will be searched.

Things to Do on Grand Canyon National Park's North Rim

Less developed than its southern counterpart, the Grand Canyon National Park - North Rim is on average 1,000 feet higher than the south, making temperatures about 5 to 10 degrees cooler. Winter snow closes the entrance road, but cross-country skiers can still access its secluded pine forests and dramatic plateau perches (for more information, see Recreation). Soaring 8,803 feet into cloud-streaked skies, the park's highest viewpoint, Point Imperial, presents vast views of the canyon, the Painted Desert and the Navajo Nation Reservation upland. If you're here to hike and find other adventurous things to do, the North Kaibab Trail descends into the canyon and will no doubt keep your camera shutter clicking.

With portions of its 1.5 million acres bordering both the North and South rims, Kaibab National Forest is part of the largest contiguous ponderosa pine forest in the United States. Black bear, Abert squirrels and porcupines meander through Engelmann and blue spruce woodlands. Birdwatchers benefit from the forest's natural landscapes, with nuthatches, bluebirds and Steller's jays commonplace.

Reaching the North Rim's remote Tuweep Area (also known as Toroweap) involves a long drive (4 to 6 hours round trip from Fredonia) down a desolate dirt road. Most of the track can be tackled in a required high-clearance two-wheel-drive vehicle, but the last several miles before the canyon rim require four-wheel-drive. Awaiting you at the rim is the famous Toroweap Overlook. Peering carefully over the edge (no guardrails here), you'll see a dramatic, 3,000-foot vertical drop to the Colorado River below. In this narrower section of the canyon, it's only 1 mile from rim to rim, and the view is a knockout. Note: Do not attempt to visit Toroweap on a lark. Be prepared with a suitable vehicle, set aside the better part of a day and talk to a park ranger first about road conditions. If you plan to camp, be aware that a permit is required in advance.

In 2000, President Bill Clinton designated more than 1 million primitive acres north of Grand Canyon National Park as Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument . Spanning four ecological regions, the monument contains Dellenbaugh and Hurricane faults; Whitmore Canyon and Shivwits Plateau; and exposed purple, pink and white shale at Hells Hole. Kaibab squirrels, desert tortoises and wild turkeys roam the volcanically shaped land that humans have inhabited for more than 11,000 years. Note: There are no paved roads or services within the monument.

In the mid-1960s, the Colorado River was dammed at the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area , flooding Glen Canyon to create Lake Powell. Nowadays, houseboats cruise, speedboats roar and Jet Skis buzz where canyon wrens once flew. The area also is the main starting point for Grand Canyon raft trips down the Colorado River, one of the fun things to do with friends in the area. At the Navajo Bridge Interpretive Center, visitors 467 feet above the waterway cross an 834-foot-long pedestrian bridge for views of North Rim's Marble Canyon . (For more information, see Recreation.)

See all the AAA recommended attractions and things to see for this destination.

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Grand Canyon National Park, AZ

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