Much of the Grand Canyon's charm comes from its remoteness, but that can also make it a pain to visit-this World Heritage Site isn't exactly on the way to anything. Most visitors start off either in Las Vegas or in Phoenix, and spend a good part of their first day making the drive-about four or five hours, depending on starting point and destination-to the canyon. The gateway cities both have their own charms. Vegas, of course, is Vegas, and a side trip to the canyon can make a nice break from the hectic Strip. But Phoenix has its own, more demure charms, and the drive north to the canyon-through mountain towns and the beautiful red-rock country-beats the slog from Vegas hands down.
Accommodations at Grand Canyon National Park are limited and tend to fill up fast. A company called Xanterra operates all six lodges in the Park-one on the North Rim and five in Grand Canyon Village-as well as an RV campground near the South Entrance. Call ahead (888-297-2757) or visit the website (www.grandcanyonlodges.comfor the South Rim, www.grandcanyonnorthrim.comfor the North Rim) well in advance of your trip. The Park Service also runs campgrounds at the South Entrance, the East Entrance, and the North Rim. Some sites can be reserved in advance by calling 800-365-2267 or visiting reservations.nps.gov. You can also try for last-minute reservations-Xanterra accepts cancellations with 48 hours' notice-or you can try one of the several hotels and motels in Tusayan, about 7 miles south of the South Entrance. They aren't much for charm, but you can find better prices and earlier check-in times.
Another good option is a visit to the Havasupai Indian Reservation, located at the bottom of the canyon. Call the Havasupai Tourist Enterprise (928-448-2141) for information on visits to Havasu Canyon, a spectacular hidden valley featuring four waterfalls and swimming holes. You can arrive by foot, horseback, or helicopter. The hike is about 8 miles one-way. There are a lodge and campgrounds as well.
You can get a good sense of the Grand Canyon in a day or two, if you plan carefully. But you can also spend weeks without getting bored. The Park Service's free daily educational talks and guided hikes provide a great introduction. (For a schedule, information about the park's free shuttle buses, and other services, pick up a copy of The Guide, a free newspaper put out by the Park Service and available throughout the park.) The simplest-and least expensive-way to really explore the canyon is on foot. You'll need a backcountry permit from the National Park Service to camp below the rim ($10, plus $5 per person, per night), and they're in limited supply. Permits go on sale four months before the start date and sell out quickly, so you'll have to plan well in advance. You can start planning here: www.nps.gov
If you prefer to spend a little more money and a little less effort, there are several options. The popular mule excursions down into the canyon are also run by Xanterra, and cost $136.35 for one person for a day trip, or $366.38 for an overnight stay at Phantom Ranch at the bottom. You can also sign up for whitewater rafting trips through the canyon on the Colorado River. Several commercial operators run trips ranging from three days to several weeks, and charge about $200 and up per day, per person. You can even book a helicopter or airplane tour out of Tusayan, starting at about $140 for a half hour.
To delve even deeper into the history, geology, and biology of the canyon, check out the multiday classes offered by the nonprofit Grand Canyon Field Institute. The classes are pricey-starting at several hundred dollars-but are arguably the best way to really get to know the canyon.