Every USA bucket list and Southwest road trip itinerary includes spending at least one day in Grand Canyon National Park.
While the intrepid hikers and outdoor enthusiasts may require longer, those of you short on time can actually see the entirety of the South Rim (the most popular section of the park) in just a day trip to Grand Canyon NP.
This will not allow a visit to the canyon floor of course, but it will provide more than enough time to appreciate the grandeur of one of the world’s natural wonders!
In this guide, you will find a perfect day trip itinerary that ensures you see all of the highlights of the Grand Canyon National Park South Rim Drive. This includes the best locations for sunset, sunrise, picnics, and more.
Most do not realize that despite being just a large chasm away, driving to the North Rim requires an additional 4 hour journey! Accordingly, there is no way to include both in such a short amount of time, though the Grand Canyon North Rim is stunning!
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GRAND CANYON NATIONAL PARK PHOTOGRAPHY GUIDE
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🧐 Quick Facts About Grand Canyon National Park
- Location: Arizona, USA
- Established: February 26, 1919
- Size: 1.217 million acres (4,926 km²)
- Annual Visitors: 2.9 million (2020) (down from an average of 6.1 million in the four preceding years)
- Visitor Centers: Grand Canyon Visitor Center South Rim (currently closed due to COVID), Verkamp’s Visitor Center, Backcountry Information, North Rim Visitor Center (open mid-May – mid-October) Center
- Entrance Fee: $35 per vehicle; $30 per motorcycle; $20 per individual; $80 Interagency Annual Pass
*Prices accurate as of September, 2023
🚘 One Day Grand Canyon Itinerary
This one day itinerary goes from sunrise to sunset, with each stop presented in sequential order.
You will want to begin your one day in Grand Canyon early. Beyond enjoying the most magical light and time of day, there are several other perks inherent to getting out of bed and on the road in time for sunrise:
- The Grand Canyon NP entrance gate can get very backed up later on in the day.
- There is usually a fair amount of haze in the canyon itself which is not as noticeable at sunrise as later on in the day.
- With so much ground to cover in one day, starting in the morning maximizes your time.
- The temperatures are most moderate and the light is best in the morning.
Assuming you are not camping within the park, the closest place to stay near the park is in the small tourist town of Tusayan just before you arrive at the gates.
Don’t worry, there is 24-hour access in and out of the park. It is a 15-mile (25 minute) drive from Tusayan to Grandview Point, so plan accordingly!
🌅 Begin: Sunrise at Grandview Point
Most of the viewpoints you will discover in the South Rim section of Grand Canyon national park provide better views of the western horizon than to the east. Grandview Point is a notable exception, making it the best place to begin your day and watch the sunrise.
There is no hike necessary, but there is a trail from the parking area which photographers will want to quickly scout to find their favorite composition. Otherwise, just park and wait for the sun to put on its show.
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☕️ Breakfast at Desert View Watchtower
From Grandview Point, you will want to drive to the end of the Desert View Road. For now, skip the stops and viewpoints in between as they will be much easier to access driving back.
You will reach the Desert View Watchtower in 20-25 minutes (13.7 miles from Grandview Point).
Take a moment to stroll around and enjoy the vista while the light is still good, then fuel up for a long day of exploring the rest of the park.
Those of you who prefer to bring your own food can sit down and enjoy breakfast from the Desert View Picnic Area. If you have not brought it with you, there is a Market & Deli available here to buy food and coffee.
There is also a gas station and restrooms if needed.
🏞 CRUISE THE “Desert View Drive”
It is just mid-morning and you have already enjoyed a spectacular Grand Canyon sunrise as well as breakfast with an unbeatable view! What a start!
When you are ready, begin driving back toward the Grand Canyon Village via the Desert View Drive stopping at the many viewpoints along the way.
You should have time to stop and experience all of them, but I consider the best stops on the drive to be Moran Point (see photo above) and Navajo Point (below). That said, there are plenty of unnamed viewpoints that are beautiful as well.
For those of you interested in the history of the Grand Canyon, the Tusayan Museum and Ruins are also along this section of the scenic drive. You will want to check opening days and hours if this is an important stop for your itinerary.
If photography is the main objective of your Grand Canyon day trip, you should consider visiting these viewpoints on the way to the Watchtower. Though I don’t recommend this for most, getting to each of these places as early in the morning as possible will improve the light and shadow play you are able to capture in your photos.
🍽 Lunch at Grand Canyon Village
Whether or not you need to stop for lunch already will greatly depend on how much time you have needed to cover the drive. from Desert View Watchtower back to the Grand Canyon Village. This is a 25-mile distance that would take about 45 minutes without stops.
Know that there is no reason to rush back early unless you plan on spending a lot of time at lunch, or need a nap / extended break. You will have plenty of time to enjoy the other half of the South Rim at a leisurely pace, particularly if you are not looking to do much hiking.
The Grand Canyon Village is an absolute maze where you can find a market & deli, cafes, restaurants, and even taverns!
There are simply too many options to list (search Google for “Grand Canyon Village food” for a full list with reviews). If none of these options sound right, the town of Tusayan is only 15 minutes (6.5 miles) away and has a bevy of options as well, including most chains you would expect to find in popular tourist areas.
There are some trails and overlooks accessible from the village as well, but I consider these to be the worst in the park. Mather Point is the most visited, but the view is not as impressive as those you have seen, the light will be horrible this time of day, and the crowds make it difficult to enjoy. That said, there is no harm in having a look for yourself if you feel inclined.
Take your time, reset the senses, and continue on for the second half of your Grand Canyon day trip when ready!
FIND MORE GRAND CANYON INSPIRATION: Best Photography Locations in the Grand Canyon
🚍 After Lunch: Catch the Shuttle Bus to Hermit’s Rest
You have driven enough for one day in Grand Canyon! Leave your car parked in the village and catch the free shuttle out to Hermit’s Rest.
There are some important things to note about visiting Hermit’s Rest and the west section of the South Rim!
The first thing you need to know is that this road is closed for visitor traffic. Those who have physical disabilities can get a gate code from the visitor center, but the only other way to view this section of the park is by foot, bicycle, or shuttle bus.
Regarding said shuttle bus, it is free to ride. However, note that it is only operational from March 1 through November 30, closing for the winter months.
The easiest place to catch the shuttle bus is from Mather Point, but there are other options as well. Just ask for directions to the red line!
Much like we did on the Desert View Drive, I recommend staying on the bus all the way to the last stop at Hermit’s Rest and visiting the viewpoints on the way back instead of on the way there.
🏃♀️ Walk Along the Rim Trail from Hermit’s Rest
The road from the village to Hermit’s Rest is only 8 miles and can be walked entirely via the Rim Trail. Now, I don’t suggest you walk all 8 miles, but if time is plentiful and the weather is pleasant, you may want to consider at least stretching your legs a bit at this point.
Visit the Hermit’s Rest tourist shop, take in the views, then either catch the shuttle bus back stopping at the viewpoints this time, or go for a stroll on the Rim Trail! If nothing else, consider the short 1-mile walk from Hermit’s Rest to Pima Point, where you can hop back on the shuttle if you like.
This Grand Canyon day trip itinerary ends by watching sunset at one of my favorite viewpoints in the entire national park. If you still have a few hours and the energy to spare, consider walking another 1.8 miles from Pima Point to Monument Creek Vista. From here, you can once again catch the shuttle bus.
🌄 End: Sunset at Hopi Point
We end our fun-filled one day in Grand Canyon with sunset at Hopi Point. While nearly every viewpoint along the South Rim provides clear westerly views for sunset, this one is the best of all!
In addition to having a spectacular foreground where the Colorado River leads your eyes straight to where the sun is setting, you will also have beautiful scenery to the North and East. The reason this is important is that the late light is actually best facing North, where the canyon layers will be accentuated by the contrast from the angular light.
In addition, you never know which clouds will light up most dramatically so having a variety of directions to look can make a big difference.
There are bathrooms and trash cans at Hopi Point should you need them. Don’t worry about missing the last shuttle bus home either – they run up to an hour after sunset!
If you arrive at Hopi Point early, take a quick walk along the Rim Trail to Powell Point. You can actually see Powell Point from where you are, but you may as well journey the 0.3 miles to have a look while you wait.
When the sun has set and the colors have faded, catch a shuttle bus back to the village to retrieve your car and put a bow on a successful day trip to the Grand Canyon.
EXPLORE MORE: THE NORTH RIM
Complete Guide to Grand Canyon North Rim
🚎 Organized Tours for Grand Canyon Day trips
This blog was designed to help you plan your own one day itinerary for Grand Canyon. However, if you don’t fancy having to plan your own trip or fuss over the practicalities, then you have the option to take an organized tour.
I’ve put together a list of some of the top-rated Grand Canyon day trips which you’ll find detailed below:
- Grand Canyon Helicopter Landing Tour – 4.5 hour tour from Las Vegas. Soar over the Grand Canyon and take in the natural marvel from above, allowing you to appreciate its grandeur, before landing on the canyon floor to appreciate it up-close.
- Grand Canyon Helicopter Tour – 45 minutes from Grand Canyon Village. Experience amazing bird’s eye views of the national park as you depart from the South Rim and climb up over the North Rim.
- Grand Canyon South Rim – 15 hour tour from Las Vegas. This full day trip from Las Vegas first stops at Grand Canyon Caverns. From here it continues onto the national park where you’ll have 3 hours to explore the South Rim.
- Grand Canyon West Bus Tour with Optional Skywalk – 11-12 hour tour from Las Vegas. Explore the West Rim of the Grand Canyon, as well as enjoying a scenic drive through Joshua Tree Forest and visiting Hualapai Ranch.
- Grand Canyon Classic Sightseeing Tour – 10 hour tour from Flagstaff. Take in views from both the East and South Rims of GCNP in this full day tour.
- The Grand Canyon Classic Tour – 10 hour tour from Sedona. Visit both the East and West Rim from Sedona. Marvel at the spectacular views of the Colorado River Gorge and the buttes of the South Rim.
- Grand Canyon Day Tour – 13 hour tour from from Phoenix, Scottsdale & Tempe. Cruise along the historic Route 66 to reach the Grand Canyon. Spend 3 hours exploring the South Rim.
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🗺 Grand Canyon South Rim Map
To help you plan your one day in Grand Canyon, I’ve put together a Google map of all the places mentioned within this blog post. Click here or on the image above to open the map in a new tab.
You can also find NPS maps of the Grand Canyon here.
🚗 Getting to Grand Canyon South Rim
The Grand Canyon is located within the state of Arizona. To reach the Grand Canyon South Rim, you can take the I-40 from the east or west, US-89 from the north, and 1-17 / US-64 from the south.
Below are drive times and distances from some of the most common starting locations:
- Williams – 59 miles (1 hour)
- Flagstaff – 79 miles (1 hour 30 minutes)
- Sedona – 114 miles (2 hours)
- Phoenix – 228 miles (3 hours 30 minutes)
- Las Vegas – 279 miles (4 hours 30 minutes)
If you’re planning to fly to Grand Canyon, the most common option is to fly to Las Vegas McCarran airport. Although it is still 277 miles (4 hours 20 minutes) from Grand Canyon South Rim, it has the most options for flights, as well as rental cars and tour packages available. Flagstaff Pulliam and Phoenix Sky Harbor are closer airports but offer less flight options.
There are also options for travel by bus and train. Check the NPS website for all your available travel options.
Lastly, you can reach the South Rim by one of these Grand Canyon tours from Las Vegas, Flagstaff, Sedona, Phoenix or other nearby locations.
☀️ When to Visit Grand Canyon
The Grand Canyon South Rim is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year and there’s no right or wrong time to visit.
Summer months, as well as spring break and the holidays, are considered peak season. During these times the park is very crowded, hotels are often fully booked, and parking can be difficult.
The shoulder seasons of spring and fall can provide the best time to visit the Grand Canyon. With the exception of spring break, the number of visitors is far less, making for a much more enjoyable visit. Additionally, the weather is much milder and more comfortable for hiking. In spring you may also catch the wildflowers in bloom and in autumn the fall colors.
Winter is the quietest time to visit Grand Canyon, but also the coldest with the possibility of snow. However, this means hotels are easiest to book and you may get to admire the canyon with a magical snow dusting.
⛺️ Where to Stay in Grand Canyon National Park
While this itinerary is designed to help you see the best of the Grand Canyon in a day trip, there’s still plenty more to see! Therefore, you may wish to spend a night (or longer!) before/after your day in GCNP.
To maximize your time at the park, it’s worth considering staying within the National Park. However, the downside to this is that reservations are required in advance.
Camping in Grand Canyon South Rim
There are three developed campgrounds within the South Rim of Grand Canyon National Park:
- Mather Campground (open year-round; reservations required during peak season Mar 1 – Nov 30)
- Desert View Campground (open mid-April through mid-Oct; reservations required)
- Trailer Village (open year-round; provides the only in-park RV hookups; reservations recommended a year in advance during peak season May – Oct)
Lodging in Grand Canyon South Rim
There are various options for lodging within Grand Canyon South Rim.
All of the lodges in Grand Canyon Village are open year round but reservations well in advance are recommended, particularly during spring break, summer months, and fall weekends. Most are also within walking distance of the canyon rim.
The hotels available in Grand Canyon Village are:
Accommodation near Grand Canyon South Rim
Located 7 miles (11km) from the South Rim, the closest place to stay outside of the park is Tusayan. While still close to the the park boundaries, the hotels in nearby Tusayan tend to offer better value for money as you’re not paying the premium for staying within the park. Additionally, during peak season (March 1 – September 30) a free shuttle bus is offered every 20 minutes between Tusayan and the South Rim Visitor Center.
Some of the top rated hotels in Tusayan include:
Click here can find current availability and prices on accommodation in Tusayan.
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🧳 Packing for the Grand Canyon South Rim
While your individual packing list will vary, there are a few essentials that you will want to consider taking with you on a day trip to the Grand Canyon South Rim.
America the Beautiful Annual Pass
The annual national park pass costs $80 and provides access to all 63 national parks in the US. Additionally, it grants admission to over 2000 federal recreation sites!
Discounted passes are offered to some groups, including seniors, military personnel, and 4th graders. Check the NPS website for up-to-date information and to purchase your pass.
You are undoubtedly going to want to capture photos from your road trip, so don’t forget your camera! We use the Sony a7riii and have loved it ever since the first photo we took with it. However, for beginners, you may wish to consider an entry level DSLR. This will allow you to start learning manual settings and decide whether photography is something you enjoy enough to invest in.
Particularly during the summer months, sun protection is essential. Bring a sunhat, sunglasses, and sunscreen as a minimum. We use Stream 2 Sea sunscreen as it’s eco-friendly and most of their bottles are made from sugarcane resin rather than plastic.
Even if you don’t plan on doing any hiking, you’ll likely get in plenty of steps visiting the different viewpoints. You’ll therefore want to ensure you pack some comfortable shoes. I love my Brooks sneakers and hiked in them pretty much everywhere!
For those that plan on more long-distance hikes, closed-toe, sturdy hiking shoes are better than hiking sandals. This will help to reduce risk of injury to your feet in the desert environment.
Being a desert climate, the temperature can fluctuate a great deal between day and night.
With this in mind, you’ll want to pack layers of clothing. A wind and waterproof jacket is also likely to come in handy. I love my Columbia jacket as it’s comprised of two layers. This allows me to just wear the outer waterproof/windproof shell, inner insulated layer or combination of both, depending on the weather.
Reusable Water Bottle
We don’t travel anywhere without a reusable water bottle. Remaining hydrated is even more important in the desert. Bring your own bottle to prevent wasting single-use plastic bottles!
It’s likely you’ll be using your phone to navigate, take photos, and more! Bring a power pack with you to keep your phone charged on the go.
You’ll want a backpack that’s comfortable and sturdy to carry around during the day. I use the GoGroove camera backpack as it also provides easy side access to my camera while out and about.
Mini First Aid Kit
When out hiking, we always have a mini first aid kit in our bag just in case. You never know when it may come in handy (particularly as I’m clumsy)!
🏜 More Guides to Grand Canyon & the Southwest
The two of us work very hard to create these free travel guides to help you plan your dream vacation. If you think we’ve done a good job and would like to say thanks, please consider clicking the donate button below 🙂
If you are visiting GCNP as part of a greater road trip, you may be interested in some of these other related guides. They cover nearby gems, other national parks, and more.
- Grand Canyon Photography Guide (North and South Rim)
- Ultimate Guide to Grand Canyon North Rim
- Things to do in Page, Arizona
- 50 Incredible Canyons in the US
- Joshua Tree Day Trip Itinerary
- Joshua Tree National Park Photography Guide
- Los Angeles Bucket List and Best Things to Do
- Saguaro National Park Guide
- 50 Incredible Slot Canyons in Utah
💬 Final Thoughts on One Day in Grand Canyon National Park
You are going to be exhausted from a full day in Grand Canyon, but hopefully the photos have convinced you of the merits of this day trip itinerary. Regardless of what else you experience on your road trip through the southwest, I promise you will never forget watching the sun rise and set over one of the seven natural wonders of the world!
If you found this travel guide helpful and/or inspiring, we have many more National Park guides as well as others specifically for the GCNP Landscape photographers will be particularly interested in our guide to Grand Canyon Photography, and those of you venturing onward to the North Rim will want to read our comprehensive guide to the North Rim.
Most importantly, we hope you have a safe and successful visit and welcome any feedback you have that could help improve our guide or just flatter our egos! 🙂