Grand Canyon: North Rim or South Rim?

Having been to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon before we decided to spend a few days at the North Rim this trip. Especially since we are traveling in June which we knew would be packed full in both places. For those considering a trip there and wondering which to visit if you don’t have time for both here are our thoughts… 

Grand Canyon North Rim looking at Transept CanyonGrand Canyon North Rim looking at Transept Canyon

First, the geography. Don’t let their proximity (10 miles as the Raven flies) fool you. It is a 200 mile drive (or 2-day 20+ mile hike) from the South Rim Visitors Center to the North Rim Visitors Center. Both are on the rim, although the South rim has a road running along much of its length while the North rim can only be reached by paved road at a few places.

Second, the scale. The South rim operation is at least ten time larger than the North rim in terms of the number of people and variety of hotels, eateries and services of all kinds. Its proximity to the railroad, to the town of Williams, to the Interstate and to the population centers of Arizona and Nevada make it the obvious choice for most tourists and almost all tour buses. In short, it is packed most of the year although Winter and early Spring can be awesome depending on how you and your vehicle handle the snow.

The North rim is about 1000 feet higher and gets quite a bit more snow so it is only accessible in the late Spring, Summer, and early Fall. There are a total of 200 rooms (about 1/3 motel rooms and 2/3 cabins that sleep from 2 to 6 people) on the rim, all fairly rustic. There is also a large campground and lodges in the nearby Kaibab Forest and town of Jacob Lake. But the total number of people around the North rim on any given day is still a fraction of those across the way—partially because it is really too remote to make a quick “day trip” visit in a tour bus while the South rim is ideal for that.

So the North rim has a lot going for it in the Summer months when the South is packed. But the South rim has one really big advantage—lots of variety. Because of the long accessible rim (much of it by car all the way east to Desert View, the rest by shuttle bus West to Hermit’s Rest) there are endless easily accessible shooting locations. And with dawn being just after 5 am in the Summer early risers will still get some privacy and solitude for shooting sunrise. But sunset vistas are packed with tourists and it can be hard to even find a place to set up a tripod or try to peacefully watch the sun go down.

The North rim has plenty of hiking to keep you busy, but if you want to limit your walks in length or are carrying a lot of photo gear there are many less options. There is the Lodge area itself along with nearby Bright Angel Point, and then a 23-mile road out to Cape Royal which has several stunning vantage points where you can see all the way back across the roads you drove on to get there and to the Hopi Nation mesas far to the East. We were able to see one mountain 133 miles away even on a day with some haze. If you visit the North rim, we also recommend the Transept Canyon trail (photo of Transept Canyon above, taken from the trail) as a great morning. The first 2.5 miles double as a relatively easy nature trail—remember though that you’re at 8000 feet so all hiking is tiresome the first day or two.  

The food is better at the Lodge on the South Rim. The North Rim Lodge has a very impressive description of all the wonderful care they take in their food but frankly dinners were at best mediocre and way over-priced. Our solution was to only eat breakfast at the Lodge—which was excellent, buy bread and coldcuts for sandwiches at the General Store for hiking, and eat the really good pizza from the Deli for dinner—which we carried over to the Terrace at the lodge so we could enjoy the same evening views as the diners in the restaurant but it was even better because we were outside.

In short, both the North and South rims are amazing, as there really aren’t any words to describe the size of the Grand Canyon and the scope of the views across it. And both have plenty of hiking trails to keep you busy for a few days. So your choice can depend on whether the extra work to get to the North rim and living with limited services is worth the smaller crowds. The North rim is also cooler so if you don’t like heat, that’s an additional consideration. Either way, relax as best you can with all the folks around and enjoy!