Circle the Grand Canyon with this road trip guide

This year the Grand Canyon is celebrating 100 years since it was designated a national park, and as we approach my preferred time of year to visit the roughly 6-million-year-old canyon, I’m sharing my guide to visiting the northern Arizona wonder.

If you’ve never visited, or if you’ve only visited the South Rim, consider a road trip to circumnavigate the 277-mile-long canyon. The North Rim is harder to reach and only open seasonally, so it sees just 500,000 of the overall 6 million annual visitors to Grand Canyon National Park.

The canyon first came under federal protection as a national monument in 1908, thanks to preservation efforts by then President Teddy Roosevelt, and was established as Grand Canyon National Park on Feb. 26, 1919. According to the park, that first year brought 44,000 visitors.

Today’s summer crowds can be overwhelming to see what has become known around the world as America’s landscape, so I often suggest planning far in advance and packing patience or scheduling your trip for the fall, if possible.

Traveling as a child-free couple allows us to take advantage of visiting in September once school has restarted and thinned out the crowds. We’d talked about for years driving from Wichita to the Grand Canyon and never seemed to be able to carve out enough time to make it happen or by the time we realized we could go, we felt it was too late to make arrangements.

While it’s true that you’ll have more options for lodging and activities the further out you plan a trip to the second most-visited national park (Great Smoky Mountains National Park sees more than 11 million visitors), I planned a trip on just a couple months’ notice one September and found availability at in-park lodging and dining, albeit with some persistent phone calling to the reservation center.

We opted to give ourselves more time around the Grand Canyon by taking a nonstop flight from Wichita to Las Vegas, then renting a car and starting the road trip there. Here’s a look at our 10-day trip. It can be shortened or extended depending on how many side trips you take or the depth of your exploring inside the park. As you’ll see, it is easy to find as many worthy destinations around the Grand Canyon as inside the park.

Las Vegas to Utah

Don’t think that this is a throw-away part of the trip. Vegas visitors mesmerized by the bright lights of the strip often don’t realize how close they are to amazing hiking and scenic drives, including the Valley of Fire State Park. About an hour north east of Vegas, this park is a worthy stop for its 40,000 acres of dramatic, bright red sandstone formations among gray and tan limestone.

We stayed our first night in Kanab, Utah, a small town 200 miles from Las Vegas and close to the Arizona border. We didn’t schedule time to explore Zion National Park (we’d done so on a previous trip), but going this route takes you on a stunning drive through part of the park, past some of Zion’s landmarks.

We chose Kanab because it was a great base to explore northern Arizona but mostly because it is home to one of our favorite places in the world: Best Friends Animal Society, the nation’s largest no-kill sanctuary for companion animals. You can volunteer for as short as half a day, or you can just visit the sanctuary that is in a beautiful canyon. They also offer free tours daily, though check online or call ahead to reserve a spot.

With Kanab as our base, we spent two days volunteering, exploring nearby Coral Pink Sand Dunes and driving down to Glen Canyon National Recreation Area near Page, Ariz., where we saw Lake Powell, Horseshoe Bend and took a half-day calm water raft trip on the Colorado River.

North Rim

From Kanab, we drove 40 miles south to Jacob Lake Inn where we met up Matt Rich, part of the third generation running this family business that started in 1923 with lodging and now also includes a restaurant and store. I had arranged in advance for Matt, an accomplished photographer, to take us on a photo tour to a remote area that would have been hard for us to find and with roads impossible to navigate in our rental car.

While many visitors clamor to get the advance permits necessary to visit The Wave or Coyote Buttes South, I didn’t feel like I was settling with a trip to White Pocket. It was otherworldly, an isolated patch of multicolored sandstone domes and ridges inside the Vermillion Cliffs National Monument.

We had dinner at Jacob Lake Inn, then drove about 45 miles to stay the night at North Rim Lodge inside the Grand Canyon National Park. It was a tiny, no-frills motel room but we shared a parking lot with the visitor center and the 1937 Grand Canyon Lodge. The next morning, we walked over to the historic lodge, went inside and got our first look at the grandness of the canyon through three massive windows.

We were visited by a few friendly squirrels as we ate the breakfast we’d packed on the lodge’s patio. From the lodge, it’s a half-mile roundtrip on a paved path to Bright Angel Point, where you get striking views into Roaring Springs and Bright Angel canyons.

We spent the morning on a longer hike, then had lunch at Point Imperial, the highest point on the North Rim at 8,803 feet. It overlooks the Painted Desert, Marble Canyon and the eastern end of Grand Canyon. Point Imperial is easy to access via the park’s scenic drive. A third viewpoint on the North Rim that many consider a must-see is Cape Royal. It can be accessed via the scenic drive as well, though this portion of the road was closed during our visit.

Lodging and restaurants at the North Rim are open May 15 to Oct. 15; the roads close for the winter because of snow.

South Rim

Just 10 air miles separate the North Rim and the South Rim, however in our rental car it was 220 road miles and took a bit more than four hours. We reached the South Rim just in time to zip into the easternmost entrance station, Desert View, and stop at one of the first viewpoints as the sun was setting.

We stayed two nights at Yavapai Lodge, a basic hotel room that was an upgrade from our stay at the North Rim Lodge. While you could find cheaper rates and nicer rooms outside the park, staying inside the park gave us more time to see the park. We could walk or take the shuttles to explore without spending time trying to park a car. We had the same access to restaurants and a few stores. Best of all, with no commute we saw two sunsets and two sunrises from the rim.

With just one and half days of daylight in this spot, we didn’t hike into the canyon. Instead, we covered the 13-mile paved Rim Trail, much of it by foot but in some areas we skipped areas by taking shuttles. Along with interpretive displays and viewpoints of the inner canyon, following this trail takes you to the park’s historic buildings, from Kolb Studio to Hopi House to El Tovar Hotel.

Built in 1905, El Tovar is revered for its design and position right on the rim. That can make it tough to get a room or dinner reservation. Overnight guests can make dinner reservations 90 days in advance, visitors can do so 30 days out. It’s also worth checking in during your visit to see if any dinner spots have opened, or opt for lunch when it’s less crowded but still has the same views.

Because we’d been in a hurry to get to a spot for sunset viewing when we came into the park, on our way out we stopped at Desert View Watchtower, with murals inside painted by Hopi artists and a rewarding view of the Colorado River and the North Rim.

Return to Las Vegas

The North Rim and the South Rim are the two visitor areas that are part of Grand Canyon National Park. In 2007, Grand Canyon West opened as an attraction on the Hualapai Indian Reservation on the canyon’s west rim, about 250 miles from the South Rim and 130 miles from Las Vegas. This would be the perfect way to complete the Grand Canyon circle if the visitor services there appeal to you.

We did not visit this area because the road to it was under construction during our visit and one of us doesn’t like edges. Yes, we just spent three nights on the rim of the Grand Canyon, but there were many ways to enjoy the views while not being too close to the edge (selfie-takers, are you reading?).

Grand Canyon West is centered on the Skywalk experience, a 10-foot wide, U-shaped glass-bottom bridge that juts out 70 feet into the canyon. Since our visit, they’ve also added other options that aren’t so edgy.

Instead of the West Rim, we visited Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument, southeast of the canyon, then had lunch in Flagstaff before driving through Oak Creek Canyon – known as the little cousin to the Grand Canyon – on our way to spending the night in Sedona. We hiked much of the next day in Sedona, then drove about 250 miles to return to Las Vegas. We flew home to Wichita the next afternoon.

If you go:

Consult www.nps.gov/grca for alerts on any road closures that could impact your trip to Grand Canyon National Park.

Grand Canyon Conservancy, the nonprofit partner of Grand Canyon National Park, is a good resource for activities and events inside the park; www.grandcanyon.org.

The annual America the Beautiful - National Parks & Federal Recreational Lands pass saved us money on this trip because we visited several national parks and monuments that had fees. If you don’t already have an annual pass, wait to purchase it when you go through the gate of your first stop. It’ll be good for a year from your purchase date. Also, check store.usgs.gov/pass for details on who qualifies for a free pass (U.S. military and fourth graders, for example).