Driving the Grand Canyon’s Scenic Byways

One of the most visited spots in the U.S., Grand Canyon National Park welcomes upwards of six million sightseers annually. For centuries, the imposing gorge has been captivating visitors from all walks of life, with Theodore Roosevelt calling its beauty ‘unparalleled throughout the rest of the world.’

Beyond its outward resplendence, the canyon is rich in both geological and archeological history. With walls more than a mile deep, the canyon’s forty layers of rock represent nearly two billion years of geological time. And while this rugged terrain looks otherworldly, even inhospitable, the canyon has actually been inhabited for thousands of years. The oldest Paleo-Indian artifacts found in the canyon date back 12,000 years, with indigenous communities continually occupying the area since that time. Today, there are eleven tribes that call the canyon home.

Despite its cultural significance and natural beauty, it took decades for the canyon to become incorporated into our National Park System. After Congress repeatedly defeated two other presidents’ proposals to secure its national park status, the Grand Canyon’s 1.2 million acres were finally granted legal protection as a national park by President Woodrow Wilson in 1919.

Today, many consider the Grand Canyon one of the world’s greatest natural wonders, and people flock from across the globe to get a glimpse of the striking landscape. In addition to its many trails and opportunities to get off the beaten path, three scenic drives allow visitors effortless access to the national park. If you’re considering a road trip to the canyon, we’ve put together some information about the scenic byways to get you started.

The Routes

While hiking is a great way to explore the canyon, the park also offers three scenic routes for road-trippers looking to explore by vehicle. Two follow the canyon’s South Rim, while the other skirts the North Rim. The South Rim is by far the most popular and accessible side of the canyon, and is also the only side open year-round. With thirty-two miles of road paralleling this side of the canyon, it’s the easiest way to experience one of America’s most iconic wonders. If you’re road-tripping through and only have a day to explore the national park, the South Rim is probably your best bet.

From Grand Canyon Village, two roads lead along the South Rim: Hermit Road follows the rim for seven miles to the west, while Desert View Drive (State Route 64) stretches for twenty-three miles to the east. Desert View Drive is open year-round to private vehicles, while Hermit Road is only accessible via shuttle for most of the year. Between the two routes, some two dozen official (named) and unofficial viewpoints pepper the South Rim.

Although less accessible than the South Rim, the canyon’s North Rim also offers a scenic byway that winds across the Kaibab Plateau. However, this route is seasonal – typically open from May 15th to October 15th – so you can only enjoy this route during the warmer half of the year. If you’re hoping to visit the North Rim, check the national park’s North Rim Information page before planning your trip.

Hermit Road

Hermit Road follows the west side of the Grand Canyon’s South Rim for just over seven miles. In addition to a couple of unnamed pull-offs, there are nine designated viewpoints along the route. From east to west, they are: Trailview Overlook, Maricopa Point, Powell Point, Hopi Point, Mohave Point, The Abyss, Monument Creek Vista, Pima Point, and Hermits Rest.

While the scenic route is open year-round, it’s only open to private vehicles during the winter months (December, January and February). From March 1st to November 30th, vehicular access is restricted to park shuttles only (red route). If you’re looking to get some fresh air, though, the road is open year-round to hikers, runners and cyclists.

We were fortunate to arrive in the area the last weekend of February, so we were able to drive Hermit Road on the last day it was open to private vehicles. We opted for an afternoon trip to catch a sunset and enjoy that warm, late-day light that bathes the canyon in an amber glow.

Each viewpoint is beautiful in its own right, but we found ourselves particularly taken with the views from Maricopa and Powell Points. The Sunday we drove out there, we saw maybe a dozen or so other cars along the drive. Even more unexpectedly, we ended up having Powell Point completely to ourselves as the sun began setting – something we never imagined when visiting one of the country’s most popular parks.

Pro tips:

  • The Rim Trail runs along Hermit Road from Bright Angel Lodge to Hermits Rest. The trail is a combination of paved and dirt sections, with a few sections where you do have to walk along the road’s narrow shoulder. If you’ve got the time, consider walking the trail out to Hermits Rest (7.2 miles) and taking a return shuttle back to Bright Angel Lodge. After first driving the route by car, we returned a few weeks later to walk the Rim Trail out to Powell Point to revisit our favorite viewpoints. There were very few people along the trail, with most opting for the shuttle transport.
  • If you’re traveling with your pup, the Rim Trail is dog-friendly (dogs are not allowed below the canyon rim). This is a great option to get out and enjoy the scenery with your furry friend. Just make sure to leash and pick up after your pet.
  • If you visit during winter and are able to take your car, save more time than you think you’ll need. It’s just over seven miles one way, but by the time you walk out to and enjoy the various viewpoints, it’ll likely take you several hours (it took us close to four).
  • More information on the Hermit Road Shuttle Bus Route (e.g. timetables, route information) can be found here.

Desert View Drive

This twenty-three mile (one-way) scenic drive stretches along the Grand Canyon’s South Rim from Grand Canyon Village east to Desert View Overlook. With seven viewpoints, four picnic areas, and a handful of scenic pull-offs, this route is sure to keep you busy for a good chunk of a day. Unlike Hermit Road, this route is open to private vehicles year-round.

Beginning from Grand Canyon Village and traveling east, the seven viewpoints directly off Desert View (East Rim) Drive are: Pipe Creek Vista, Duck on a Rock, Grandview Point, Moran Point, Lipan Point, Navajo Point and Desert View.

The first viewpoint, Pipe Creek Vista, is quite beautiful. That said, a shuttle stop and short section of Rim Trail (0.8 miles that leads to the South Kaibab Trail and Yaki Point Road) can make this spot fairly congested.

About a mile and a half east of Pipe Creek Vista is the Shoshone Point Trailhead – an unmarked lot on the canyon side of the road. If you’re interested in a short walk to break up the drive, Shoshone Point can be reached via a two mile out-and-back trip. Here, a flat, dirt trail leads out to the viewpoint as well as a covered picnic area with restrooms. We made two separate trips out to Shoshone Point, and had the place virtually to ourselves on both occasions. With gorgeous views out to Vishnu Temple, this was a favorite spot for us.

Along with Shoshone Point, our other top two spots along Desert View Drive were Lipan and Navajo Points. The former offers a striking peek at the Colorado River. It was even more magical with the light dusting of snow that was holding tight to the rim’s edge.

Sitting at an elevation of 7,461 feet, Navajo Point is the highest spot on the South Rim. It offers an exceptionally nice view looking east, where you can make out the Desert View Watchtower perched at the canyon’s edge.

The South Rim’s easternmost viewpoint, Desert View, offers visitors a glimpse of a historic watchtower and arguably the best view of the Colorado River of any South Rim vista. The seventy-foot-tall watchtower was constructed in 1932 and modeled after traditional Puebloan architecture. Aside from the area around Bright Angel Lodge, Desert View was by far the busiest spot we visited on the South Rim. Consequently, it was also our least favorite. Unlike the other overlooks, this viewpoint is actually a small settlement, complete with sprawling parking lot, RV parking, a trading post, small market, gas station and campground. To be honest, it had the disappointing feel of an amusement park after finding a number of our own quiet corners of the park. For us, the more built-up amenities and concrete jungle kind of marred such a pretty spot.

Pro tips:

  • Yaki Point is the only viewpoint along Desert View that can’t be reached via private vehicle. To get to Yaki Point, you either need to walk or take the Kaibab Rim (orange route) shuttle. If you’re walking, the most direct route is to park at Pipe Creek Vista, then walk along Hwy 64 (East Rim Drive) and take Yaki Point Rd directly to the viewpoint – 1.5 miles one-way. Alternatively, you could walk part of the Rim Trail to the South Kaibab Trailhead, then hit up Yaki Point. You’ll get more views this way, but it’ll be about 1.8 miles total.
  • While there are the same number of viewpoints as there are along Hermit Road, this route (one-way) is about three times longer. Consequently, we thought it felt less scenic. There are long stretches of road with no canyon view, so it can feel more like a thruway at times rather than a strictly scenic route. Additionally, unlike Hermit Road, there is also no walking trail along this side of the rim. If you are hoping to explore the rim at least partially on foot, this might be a less desirable option.
  • When we drove this route, we started by hiking out to Shoshone Point for an early lunch, then drove straight out to Desert View. We then stopped at the various viewpoints as we worked our way west back toward Grand Canyon Village. It doesn’t make much of a difference, but we liked having all lookouts to our right so we could more easily pull off the side of the road as we wanted.
  • The tower portion of the Desert View Watchtower was closed when we visited, and will remain closed until further notice per the national park. While we never would have endured the crowds to go to the top even if it was open, it’s worth checking out the status on the park’s webpage beforehand if it’s something you were hoping to visit.

North Rim

The less frequented section of the Grand Canyon, the North Rim offers a different perspective of the nation park. Sitting at an elevation of about 1,000 feet higher than the South Rim, the North Rim has a much cooler climate that sees significantly more annual snow. The higher elevation forests here are also distinct from the South Rim. Rather than strictly ponderosa pine, the forests here are mixed conifer with more deciduous foliage. The forests of the Kaibab Plateau are also home wildlife that’s unique from the South Rim, including bison and Kaibab squirrels.

If you plan to visit the North Rim, keep in mind it is four hours (and over two hundred miles) one-way from the South Rim to North Rim Visitor Centers. Additionally, while dogs are allowed on walking trails above the rim along the canyon’s South Rim, dogs are not allowed on any North Rim trails.

While we understand the no-dog policy here, this ultimately squelched our plans visit to this part of the park. With four hours of driving each way from our house in Williams, we really didn’t want to leave Sanchez home while we checked out a couple of short rim trails.

Although we didn’t end up making it up to the Kaibab Plateau, here’s some quick info in case you do decide to make the trek up:

From the North Rim Visitor Center, the North Rim’s scenic byway leads to a few short walking trails that access two of the rim’s most prominent viewpoints – Point Imperial and Cape Royal. The former is the highest point on the North Rim, at an elevation of 8,803 feet, and offers a view of Mt. Hayden. The latter overlooks the rock formation known as Wotan’s Throne.

From the intersection of Highway 89A at Jacob Lake, it’s 44 miles (just over an hour driving) to the North Rim Visitor Center along Route 67. From the visitor center, it is then another 11 miles (35 minutes driving) to reach Point Imperial. Cape Royal is another 23 miles (50 minutes driving) beyond that.

Consequently, if you are planning a round-trip drive from Jacob Lake to the Visitor Center (Bright Angel Point), Point Imperial, and Cape Royal, the total driving time alone will be between four and five hours not including stops.

Final thoughts

While we much prefer hiking, we couldn’t go to the canyon and not fully explore the rim’s scenic offerings. In addition to some lovely views, it was really nice that we were allowed to bring Sanchez on all trails above the South Rim. There are enough short trails here that it felt like she could actually do some meaningful exploring.

If we had to pick a favorite South Rim drive, it would easily be Hermit Road. It felt more peaceful and scenic, and the Rim Trail was a nice option for getting out a bit more. And while we were a little disappointed we didn’t make it up to the North Rim, it just wasn’t high enough on our priority list with the pup. Someday, perhaps we’ll make it back.

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