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Grand Canyon National Park, AZ

One Day in Grand Canyon National ParkAAA editors suggest these activities for a great short vacation experience in Grand Canyon National Park - South Rim .

Morning If you're staying outside the park, in the South Rim gateway town of Tusayan (or perhaps farther south in Williams ) during peak summer season (mid-June through August), you'll want to get an early start, especially if you don't have prepaid park admission. After about 9 a.m. you may face long waits to pay admission at the park's vehicle entrance stations. The express lane for prepaid admission moves fairly quickly, so if you don't hold an annual National Parks pass, consider buying a Grand Canyon park entrance pass the night before at one of the businesses in Tusayan.

Note: From June to mid-September you could use the free Tusayan Route shuttle (park entrance pass is required) that runs between Tusayan and Grand Canyon Visitor Center, but to get the most out of a day, you'll need your own wheels.

Start at Grand Canyon Village with breakfast in the upscale El Tovar Hotel Dining Room . Exposed log rafters, stone fireplaces, Native American wall murals and white linen-draped tables set a classic western national park lodge scene. Dig into a chicken breakfast burrito or perhaps a quesadilla stuffed with eggs and shredded beef and gaze out at the view. Outside, the rising sun begins to illuminate the canyon's rust, salmon and tan-colored layers of rock.

After breakfast, explore the village and meditate on one fine canyon view after another. Built in 1904 and clinging to the South Rim near Bright Angel Lodge & Cabins, the wooden two-and-a-half-story Kolb Studio houses an art gallery and a small gift shop. You'll find the biggest selection of souvenirs on the east side of the village in the stone-and-adobe Hopi House (built in 1905), where the merch ranges from those must-have fridge magnets to thousand-dollar handwoven Navajo rugs.

Walk to the west end of the village to the Hermits Rest Transfer plaza. Along Hermit Road, which is open only to the free park shuttle buses March through November, are nine canyon overlooks; two of them (Powell and Hopi points) are not to be missed. Private vehicles can drive the road from December through February. If the plaza is jam-packed with people waiting for the next bus (which it often is), and you're up for a short hike (.7 miles) with nice views, walk west on the Rim Trail to the first shuttle stop (Trailview Overlook), where there's usually no wait. Ride the bus to Powell Point, named for legendary Colorado River explorer Maj. John Wesley Powell. A big bronze plaque and climbable granite monument honor the good major, but the star attraction is the view—an immense panorama that's topped only by the vista from the ridge next door, Hopi Point.

Afternoon Back at Grand Canyon Village, grab a light lunch at the Bright Angel Fountain snack bar to refuel for the rest of the day. Drive east to the Grand Canyon Visitor Center (the main visitor center) and walk the short paved trail to Mather Point, another sensational canyon overlook. From there take Desert View Drive east as it winds some 26 miles through a mixed pine and juniper forest to the Desert View Watchtower , a 70-foot-high, rim-top observation tower built of stone and mortar and meant to evoke the prehistoric ruins of the Southwest. Designed by architect Mary Colter and completed in 1932, the tower has interior spiral staircases that lead to the top; the walls are decorated with colorful, faux pictographs. There's even a replica Hopi snake altar on the ground floor. A self-serious Southwest archeologist would likely sniff at such touristy kitsch. But for the rest of us it's a must.

Drive back to Grand Canyon Village. By late afternoon the day should be cooling down and the softer light is always better for photography. It's time for a little hiking, because it'd be a shame to visit the mother of all holes-in-the-ground without actually venturing down into it. If you're short on time, tackle a portion of the park's most popular hike—the Bright Angel Trail . A half-mile walk down will give you a nice taste of Grand Canyon scenery.

Evening By the time sunset rolls around you'll surely be famished. In Grand Canyon Village, Arizona Steakhouse dishes up good hearty grub at fairly reasonable prices. No need to dress fancy. And when it comes to dining with a canyon view, the window seats here are actually better than the prime tables at the El Tovar. If you're ready to call it a day and would rather eat near your hotel in Tusayan, the Canyon Star Steakhouse at The Grand Hotel at the Grand Canyon is a good bet for burgers, sandwiches and steaks.

Assuming you're still in the park and not about to fall face-first into a pillow, grab a seat at the McKee Amphitheater (behind the Shrine of the Ages) and settle in for a park ranger-narrated Evening Program under the stars; the evening's theme (wildlife, history, Native American legends) is posted on bulletin boards throughout the park. The canyon will be veiled in darkness, but you won't soon forget everything you saw by the light of one grand day. Programs are held at the shrine in inclement weather.

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Grand Canyon National Park, AZ

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