Photograph by Christian Heeb, Redux
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A hiker stops at a scenic overlook at Grand Canyon National Park.

Photograph by Christian Heeb, Redux

Discover the Grand Canyon's less-trafficked trails

The best way to explore this geological wonder is on foot.

From red-rock temples to rushing rapids, hiking through the Grand Canyon is a lesson in millions of years of geological history. Soak in the most dramatic views while skipping the crowds on these trails. (See beautiful photos of all 59 U.S. national parks.)

Nankoweap Trail

Few wilderness trails anywhere elicit as much praise as the Nankoweap Trail. Those who have hiked the North Rim-to-river route speak of crowd-free camping in the heart of Marble Canyon. Then in the same breath, they recall the grueling elevation loss and gain, harrowing traverses, and challenging route-finding. Conclusion: This is an experts-only trail but an absolute must-do. From the West Nankoweap trailhead, the path drops 14 miles and 6,000 feet. (See extraordinary photos of national parks from space.)

Most hikers take two days for the descent, two for the climb back out, and one as a layover. As you dip below the North Rim, you'll first pass through aspen and ponderosa pine, then start switchbacking and corkscrewing down slopes of Supai sandstone and steeper faces of Redwall limestone. The going is tricky—look for cairns when the trail is less than obvious—but the views of buttes and red-rock temples are superb. Your camp is on a sandy beach near Nankoweap Rapids, overlooked by a set of 900-year-old Ancestral Puebloan granaries. On the return trip, overnight at Nankoweap Creek, and be sure to top up your water bottles for the last 10.6 dry miles back to the rim.

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The crowd-free Nankoweap Trail offers breathtaking views of the Colorado River slicing through the canyon.

How to go: Backcountry permits are necessary for overnight trips into the canyon ($10, plus eight dollars per person per night). Note that the North Rim is closed from the first heavy snows (around October, though no later than December 1) until reopening in mid-May.

Must-see: With a park permit visitors can camp right on Ruby Point, 30 miles (48 kilometers) from the crowds of the South Rim developed area. The sweeping overlook is stunning, especially at dawn when the morning sun first hits Sagittarius Ridge and Point Sublime.

Where to stay: Built by the Santa Fe Railway to lure travelers west, the El Tovar Hotel has been wowing visitors since 1905. Its Oregon pine facade, broad terraces, and swarthy hunting lodge decor are proof that some things never go out of style.

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Camp along East Horseshoe M​esa Trail before connecting to​ the Tonto Trail.

South Rim starts

For most visitors, hiking is the most straightforward way to see the park. The challenge, however, is to do it without the company of “most visitors.” One way is to tackle a 28-mile route starting from the South Rim's Grandview Point. Day one descends three miles to Horseshoe Mesa, a plateau rife with old copper-mining ruins. An early start will net you a campsite there or allow you to push on to Cottonwood Creek. (Check with backcountry rangers about water availability, and carry plenty with you.) A west turn at Cottonwood puts you on the East Tonto Trail, which traverses the Tonto Plateau, a microcosm of the immense Grand.

But don't be misled by that “plateau” business: The next three or four days entail skirting impassable side canyons, rounding sandstone buttes, and tracing the precipice of Granite Gorge, below which flows the Colorado. Along the way are a number of intermittent creeks and campsites. Finally, after Cremation Creek, pick up the South Kaibab Trail for the 4.4-mile, 3,000-foot trek back to the rim and a return to the great known. (See a thru-hike of the Grand Canyon, 800 miles of magic and misery.)

If you’re short on time, skip the heavily trafficked South Rim Entrance for one of the Grand's most colorful side canyons, Havasu (accessible via a combination of Old Route 66 and Route 18). The canyon's famed blue-green waterfalls are a ten-mile and 3,500-vertical-foot hike from the parking lot at Hualapai Hilltop. Camp within earshot of Havasu Falls and hoof back to your car at sunup.

Related: A brief history of Grand Canyon National Park Take a look at Grand Canyon National Park's first 100 years.

For those prepared to commit more than two weeks, the best way to see the Grand is, without question, the way Powell did—from the Colorado River. O.A.R.S. leads a full-canyon trip, with regular hiking stops along the way to sites like Vasey's Paradise and Red Wall Cavern. The point isn’t whitewater thrills (though there are 47 major sets). It’s to go slow and gape.

How to go: The park is open year-round, but North Rim is closed in winter. Backcountry permits are $10, plus eight dollars per person per night. Campsites are $18. Havasu Canyon: $35 entrance fee; campsites, $17 per person per night. Space fills quickly-book early. O.A.R.S. offers 18-day rafting trips April through October, or see the parks on a National Geographic Expedition.

Where to stay: For less than half the cost of fashionable (and usually full) places in the park, the cabin rooms at Maswik Lodge are one of the Grand’s best kept secrets. You’re only a quarter mile from the South Rim, and the hotel is served by the Grand Canyon Railway, a throwback that runs to the park from Williams, Arizona.

This article was originally published as part of the 2008 and 2009 "America's Ultimate Parks" editions of National Geographic Adventure magazine. It was updated on February 26, 2019, with new information.