Exploring the South Rim
Decisions, decisions: The South Rim offers a bounty of breath-stealing vistas, sites, trails, and tour options. When El Tovar opened in 1905, travelers would spend several weeks relaxing at the lodge and touring the rim. Today, most of us are lucky to have a few days, and it can be daunting to choose the activities and experiences that help us make the most of our visit.
The South Rim comes in many flavors—peaceful, frenetic, adventurous, laid-back, historic, scenic, pristine, populated. Whether you decide to zero in on a single trail or to sample as much of the South Rim as you can, it’s up to you research your options and pick your flavor. The better you plan, the more likely you’ll be to get the flavor you ordered.
South Rim Visitors Centers
Grand Canyon Visitors Center (8 a.m.-6 p.m. daily spring-fall, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily winter) is located across from Mather Point, about five miles north of the South Entrance. The visitors center complex with its adjoining plaza was designed as an all-in-one stop.
Facilities include parking, picnic pavilions, shuttle stops, pay phones, restrooms, and a large store, Books & More (8 a.m.-8 p.m. daily spring-fall, 8 a.m.-6 p.m. daily winter). Outdoor kiosks introduce canyon geology, hiking, and other topics and are open 24 hours a day, although the plaza’s lights go out at 9 p.m.
The plaza was originally designed to be the center of a light-rail system, but lack of support from Congress stalled the project, and the park has since added an enormous parking lot for vehicles.
From here, you can opt to leave your vehicle behind and get on one of the park’s free shuttle buses, or walk or bike the paved two-mile Greenway Trail that connects the visitors center to Grand Canyon Village.
The visitors center’s main building has exhibits on natural history and news about the latest weather forecast, road conditions, and trail closures. Rangers are on hand to answer questions, and they love it when you ask one that tests their trail savvy or natural history knowledge, instead of just “Where are the bathrooms?” or “What time does the canyon close?”
The adjoining theater, completed in spring 2011, seats 200 people for screenings of an orientation film. If you’re interested in a guided tour or need to make shuttle arrangements to the North Rim, you can find out more at the transportation desk.
Ranger programs are scheduled throughout the day, and they’re a good way to get to know the canyon in a short amount of time. Check the current schedule of programs in The Guide or posted inside the visitors center. You can also sign up the kiddos for the park’s Junior Ranger Program here.
You’ll find park information, copies of The Guide, and exhibits on the canyon’s natural and cultural history at many other locations along the South Rim. Each of these smaller visitors centers has a special interpretive theme or focus, and nearly all of them include retail areas with books and gifts:
The Yavapai Observation Station (8 a.m.-8 p.m. daily spring-fall, 8 a.m.-6 p.m. daily winter) combines displays about the canyon’s geology with afternoon ranger talks and the best indoor views of the canyon. A hands-on outdoor geology experience, Walk Through Time, follows the Rim Trail between the observation station and Verkamp’s.
Verkamp’s (8 a.m.-8 p.m. daily spring-fall, 8 a.m.-6 p.m. daily winter) hosts ranger talks on its shady veranda. Indoors you’ll find displays about the history of Grand Canyon Village and its pioneer residents.
Kolb Studio (8 a.m.-8 p.m. daily spring-fall, 8 a.m.-6 p.m. daily winter) has displays about the Kolb Brothers, the adventurous photographers who constructed this multilevel building as their home and studio. Their downstairs movie auditorium is now an art gallery with rotating exhibits.
Park Headquarters (8 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Mon.-Thurs.) houses the Grand Canyon’s research library and the Shrine of the Ages Auditorium, where ranger programs and special events are held daily.
The Backcountry Information Center (928/638-7875, 8 a.m.-noon and 1-5 p.m. daily), tucked behind Maswik Lodge, is the best resource for serious hikers and backpackers. You can learn more about trails and campsites, pick up a Backcountry Trip Planner, or apply for a backcountry permit.
Tusayan Museum (9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily) exhibits and interprets the prehistory and history of the region’s Native American cultures. The museum, located 22 miles east of the village on Desert View Drive, has a retail area specializing in titles on archaeology and anthropology. Ranger-guided walks of the ruins are held daily.
The GCA-operated Desert View Bookstore and Information Center (9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily, if staffing permits) has an especially fine selection of children’s books, games, and puzzles.
South Rim Entrance Stations
Grand Canyon’s South Rim has two entrances, both located along Highway 64. Most visitors arrive via the larger South Entrance, accessible from Flagstaff or Williams. It seems like every couple of years the park adds more lanes to reduce waiting lines; still, traffic often backs up during summer weekends and holidays.
But there are ways you can avoid idling in traffic on a sizzling summer afternoon. First, plan your arrival for the cooler, less busy morning or evening hours. Second, if you already have a Grand Canyon annual pass or an Interagency pass, you can skip the longest lines and use the special entry lane for prepaid fees. You can also use this faster lane if you prepay at the National Geographic Visitors Center (home of the Grand Canyon IMAX movie) in Tusayan, a mere two miles south of the entrance, or in the gateway city of Williams.
The East Entrance Station at Desert View is smaller than the South Entrance and receives far fewer visitors. About 30 miles east of Grand Canyon Village, the East Entrance Station is accessible via U.S. 89 and Highway 64. It adds a few miles to the drive from Flagstaff, but you can start off your visit to the canyon by exploring the East Rim overlooks on your way to Grand Canyon Village, arriving just about the time you can check into your room at the lodge.
When you enter, the ranger working the entry booth will hand you a copy of The Guide, the park’s official newspaper. The South Rim edition is updated each spring, summer, and winter, listing current ranger programs, special events, sunrise and sunset times, and other helpful information, including the all-important map of parking areas and shuttle stops.
© Kathleen Bryant from Moon Grand Canyon, 5th Edition