Visiting the Grand Canyon is one of those iconic experiences that we often take for granted. If you’ve always wanted to go, here are some tips for making it fun – and less expensive.
There are two primary entrances to Grand Canyon National Park. The South Rim – the one that most people use – is open year-round. The North Rim is more remote and less crowded, but closed in the winter. It’s also a higher elevation, at 8,000 feet. It is generally open May 15-Oct. 15.
Want to go for free? On these days in 2015, Grand Canyon National Park (and others) will waive its $25 vehicle entrance fee: April 18-19, Aug. 25, Sept. 26 and Nov. 11.
Plan your trip and book early. The most affordable lodgings can sell out months in advance. If you want to go last minute, sometimes you can find a cancellation, so don’t despair. But if you can plan in advance, do it. A year ahead isn’t ridiculous. Also note that many hotels these days use “dynamic pricing”: the fewer rooms available, the more they charge. So there’s no benefit to you to wait, depending of course on whether there are cancellation fees. Call and ask.
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Bring anything you might need. Food, water, beverages, snacks, sunscreen, sunglasses, hats, bandanas, walking sticks. Everything sold inside the park is expensive.
In summer, visit the North Rim: It’s cheaper, cooler and less crowded. My online search turned up a Western Cabin at the Grand Canyon Lodge on the North Rim that sleeps three for $132 per night and a motel room for $124 on July 11 – the same date rooms at the South Rim’s Maswick Lodge were $196. The Grand Canyon Lodge is a National Historic Landmark. Details: www.grandcanyonforever.com.
Go camping. The park has numerous campgrounds with prices ranging from $18 to $25 per night. Reservations are highly recommended, if not essential. Details: www.recreation.gov.
Go hiking. There are easy canyon rim trails for strolling. If you intend to hike down, check at the visitor center to get advice: It’s strenuous, and you need a hat, proper boots, lots of water and experience desert hiking. Avoid summer, when the interior can reach 120 degrees.
Explore historic Grand Canyon Village for free. It includes Hopi House, Bright Angel Lodge, Lookout Studio, Santa Fe Railway Station, El Tovar, Buckey O'Neill’s Cabin and Red Horse Cabin.
Got kids along? Stop at a visitor center to get your free Junior Ranger booklet. After the kids complete it, they’ll earn a junior ranger badge and know much more about the canyon.
River raft trips through the Grand Canyon are justifiably famous – but are expensive and take at least a few days. For a shorter, more affordable taste, try a smooth-water raft trip with Colorado River Discovery, which floats half- and full-day trips on the Colorado River from Glen Canyon Dam to Lees Ferry. Details: visit www.raftthecanyon.com.
Cheaper mule rides. The legendary mule rides to the bottom of the Grand Canyon aren’t cheap: A three-hour ride that merely meanders along the South Rim costs $125.27. And the overnight trip that goes down to Phantom Ranch on the canyon floor costs $548.84. Head over to the North Rim instead, where one-hour mule rides along the rim start at $40. A half-day trip that goes to scenic points inside the canyon, but not all the way down to the river, costs $80.
Ride the Grand Canyon Railway. You don’t need to buy a package that includes their pricey hotel. Just buy a ticket for the day trip, and stay in more economical lodging in Williams. Round-trip day tickets cost $65 and up, and include a bus tour of the canyon rim. Details: www.thetrain.com.
Grand Canyon National Park info: www.nps.gov/grca.