- Insider's Guide
A Park Ranger's Guide to Grand Canyon
The road to the Grand Canyon from the south crosses a gently rising plateau that gives no hint at what is about to unfold. You wonder if you have made a wrong turn. All at once an immense gorge a mile deep and up to 18 miles wide opens up.
Jill Staurowsky has worked as an interpretive ranger in the South Rim District at Grand Canyon National Park for several years. “After experiencing Grand Canyon twice as a visitor growing up, [it’s an incredible honor] to serve as a front-line interpreter,” she says. “Working at the park has allowed me to engage with unique natural and cultural resources that are without parallel in the world.”
Here’s a look at the Arizona wonderland through Jill’s unique lens.
Grand Canyon Is My Park
Fall is the best time to visit my park because the temperatures are ideal for hiking into the canyon and walking the rim, both excellent ways to experience the canyon’s diverse natural environments and unparalleled vistas.
My park’s biggest attraction is the canyon itself, the most incredible example of erosional processes in the United States, but a visit isn’t complete without seeing the depths of the inner canyon, even if briefly on a short hike along South Kaibab Trail, North Kaibab Trail, or Bright Angel Trail.
If I could offer one practical tip for optimizing your visit, it would be to visit the park website well in advance of your arrival in order to consider the various ways to experience the Grand Canyon—hiking, shuttle-bus tours, walking the rim, driving tours—and decide on a plan of attack that best fits your needs and interests, or those of your group.
My favorite “park secret” is hiking to Ooh Aah Point along the South Kaibab Trail in time to see the sun set.
Watch out for squirrels—the most dangerous animals in the park!—and be sure to bring reusable water bottles, sunscreen, and a hat when you come for a visit, especially in the summer months.
Walk the Rim Trail if you want to see wildlife. If you’re really lucky, you’ll spot lizards, scrub jays, or maybe even a California condor, the largest land bird in North America and one of the most endangered birds of prey in the world.
For the best view of the Colorado River, hop the Red Route Shuttle Bus to Pima Point or head for Lipan Point along Desert View Drive. These lookouts offer panoramic views of the canyon’s stunning layers of reds, pinks, tans, and even purples and blues as the sun begins its descent.
The Rim Trail—especially along Hermit Road—is the best trail in the park if you’re looking to take in a wide range of views of the canyon. Desert View Drive, which follows the canyon rim for 25 miles and offers several pull-off opportunities, is the park’s most scenic drive.
If you’re up for a physical challenge, trek the South Kaibab Trail to Cedar Ridge. Hikers who tackle this three-mile round-trip trail will experience a 1,120-foot elevation change on the way to Cedar Ridge. Daunting, yes. But remember: What goes down, must come up! Hiking into the canyon is the best way to appreciate its unbelievable scale and depth and a truly humbling experience. Plus, the spectacular views that you’ll be rewarded with after reaching your mark will make the effort worthwhile.
To experience the park’s cultural side, take a trip to the Tusayan Museum, located three miles west of Desert View Drive. This site interprets what remains of the ancestral Puebloan people who called Grand Canyon “home” 800 years ago and offers insight into the region’s rich human history, which dates back nearly 13,000 years. Another bonus? Admission is free.
Any lodge located along the rim in the historic village district is the best place to stay while you’re visiting and the El Tovar Hotel—famous for its southwest ambience and meals—is the best place to eat.
If you only have one day to spend in the park, make sure to hit Mather Point, the historic village, and Hermit Road. Mather Point offers an excellent first glimpse of the canyon, while the historic village farther west demonstrates some of the early Euro-American development of the region. Hermit Road offers fantastic views, and is accessible by shuttle bus or on foot.
If you’re interested in a guided tour, I recommend one of the many Interpretive Ranger programs, offered daily year-round. Join rangers to learn about the park’s geologic, natural, and human story. You might even discover the fossilized remains of animals that predate dinosaurs by a long shot.
The most peaceful place in the park has to be Plateau Point at sunset. While the hike required to get there is certainly not a day trip, it offers those hardy hikers who dare to spend the night a surreal experience in the inner canyon, standing 1,000 feet above the Colorado River.
The trail crew is an “unsung hero” of my park because they work tirelessly in extreme weather conditions to ensure that the trails are excellently maintained, allowing safe passage for hikers and mules alike.
Watching a California condor soar over an exposed landscape representing one-third of Earth’s geologic history could only happen in my park.
If you have kids (or are a kid at heart), you won’t want to miss the Junior Ranger program. Pick up a booklet that encourages kids and adults to have a deeper experience in the park by looking for signs of wildlife, consider the people who have visited the park before them, and reflect on the canyon’s secrets and meanings across time.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
Just outside park boundaries, you can visit Sunset Crater National Monument, Wupatki National Monument, and Walnut Canyon National Monument.
If my park had a mascot it would be the endangered California condor. Found only in a few places in North America, these majestic animals faced extinction just 30 years ago. They survive today partly by making their home in the steep, protected cliffs of the Grand Canyon.
The biggest threat to this park’s future is overdevelopment amid the rising threat of water deficits throughout the American Southwest.
In 140 characters or less, the world should heart my park because the colorful layers of Earth’s history, five ecological life zones, and incredible human history combine to create an experience that surpasses any expectations.
Before you visit (or when you arrive), make sure to check out these great resources (books, films, websites, apps, etc.):
- The official Grand Canyon National Park website
- Scott Thybony’s Official Guide to Hiking the Grand Canyon
- Michael Anderson’s Along the Rim: A Guide to the Grand Canyon’s South Rim From Hermit’s Rest to Desert View
- Wayne Ranney’s Carving Grand Canyon: Evidence, Theories, and Mystery