The Grand Canyon comes with a lot of baggage. For a century at least, the 277-mile gash through Earth's skin in northwestern Arizona has been unrivaled as the must-see monument of natural America. Nearly 5 million people a year visit, and therein lies the problem. They're packed six deep along the guardrails of overlooks. But dodging crowds in the backcountry can mean missing classic views. Can the casual day visitor experience the grandeur without feeling like a passenger on the Tokyo subway?
Fortunately, yes. Most visitors head straight to Grand Canyon Village, just inside the South Entrance, and slowly spread out along the rim through the day. Flip that itinerary, and you're on your way to seeing what everyone else does, without having to see everyone else in the process.
The little-used East Entrance is in the middle of nowhere, a 230-mile drive from Phoenix or 300 miles from Las Vegas. But it's only 30 miles from the dusty town of Cameron, Ariz., where the comfortable Trading Post and Motel makes an excellent starting point. Stock up on gas, water, and buffalo jerky the night before, and get ready for a predawn departure.
The canyon can be spectacular any time of day, but it's worth making the effort to time your first view to sunrise, about 5:15 a.m. in June or 6 a.m. by late August. Drive to Lipan Point, a few miles past the East Entrance (it will be unattended--you'll have to pay the $20 entrance fee later in the day) and prepare to be dazzled. The sun rises slowly, revealing each horizon of the layer-cake geology in turn. Gaze back to the east, and you'll see the 1932 stone Watchtower in silhouette against the rising sun; scan across the 180-degree view to the west and new colors and features will emerge every few minutes as the complex rock forms are thrown into ever sharper relief. Solitude factor: high.
A dozen miles farther along Desert View Drive--about halfway to the village--you come to Grandview Point and a look at the view that first made the canyon famous. This was the South Rim's first tourist hub, home to a rustic lodging as early as 1893. Grandview Trail was closed for upkeep on a recent morning, but the point was nearly deserted--East Entrance tourists tend to gather at the Watchtower for sunrise, and those coming from Grand Canyon Village won't be here for hours. Solitude factor: moderate.
Go down. It's still early, but traffic is picking up and the crowds are swelling with tour bus arrivals. It's time to dip a little deeper into the abyss. "Especially at mid-day, the canyon can look pretty static when you're glued to the rim," says Mike Buchheit, 41, director of the Grand Canyon Field Institute. "But below the rim, the view changes with every switchback. You don't have to descend far to get a taste." Your best bet is the South Kaibab Trail--the only hiking route built along a ridgeline, providing unforgettable 360-degree views (and occasional bouts of vertigo). The trailhead is accessible only by park bus, so you'll have to drive into the village to catch the free shuttle. Gawk at crowds snapping cellphone photos from the most crowded overlooks as you pass.