Updated in 2021! Our very best Grand Canyon travel tips await... If you want to see the Grand Canyon on the cheap, you're going to love this post.
Grand Canyon National Park is a beautiful and exciting destination. The natural beauty and the unique landscape make it a trip to remember. Unfortunately, it’s one of the busiest National Parks in the US, with mid-day line ups at the South Gate lasting several hours. It can also be incredibly expensive, with deluxe rooms at the historic El Tovar lodge running into hundreds of dollars a night. Tusayan village, located right outside the main gates, has a bit of reputation for overpriced hotels and restaurants – a real tourist trap. So how can the coffeecan financier make the most of this legendary destination?
First, consider NOT being in the Grand Canyon all the time. Flagstaff, Arizona, is a terrific university town often overlooked as an overnight base for park visitors because it is an hour away.
Flagstaff is a gateway to Sunset Crater Volcano, Walnut Canyon, and Wupatki National Monuments. All three offer tremendous examples of the unique geography and geology also found in Grand Canyon National Park. No crowds, passionate staff, easy access – a few hours at any monument gives you the kind of intimacy with nature and history that can be lost in the Grand Canyon crowds.
As an added bonus, Flagstaff boasts a wide range of accommodations and restaurants, terrific museums, and a real gem in the Lowell Observatory – the perfect late night activity for a family or solo traveler The observatory hums with excitement as both young and old check out the telescopes and science displays. While Flagstaff has many beautiful B&Bs, during our trip we opted to stay at a Day’s Inn in the center of town.
We booked nearly half a year in advance and used an internet promo-code. In the end, we paid $35 for a serviceable, clean, unexciting room which included a basic breakfast that we made the most of. (See our update at the end of this post for current prices.) By choosing to stay night in Flagstaff we saved about $100 in accommodation and food costs and we really enjoyed our visit.
Where to Start
After a restful night in Flagstaff, venture forth early in the morning for Grand Canyon National Park. Instead of automatically following the signs for the main gate of the South Rim, head instead towards the nearby east gate entrance. The distance is about the same, but the east gate offers three key advantages.
To begin, the drive itself is delightful, as you pass by beautiful National Forests and Little Gorge, an incredible natural feature in the landscape. Secondly, the gate itself will be quiet, with virtually no wait. Thirdly, beyond the east gate is the start of the famed Desert View Drive, offering the best views of the park.
At the start of the Desert View Drive is the Watchtower. There are often special ranger presentations at the Desert View Watchtower in the early morning, giving the value seeking traveler their best chance for some quiet, intimate interactions with the National Park and their staff- a great start to the day!
During my last visit, an inspiring female ranger gave a great tour about “alien” visitors to the park! Entering by the east gate saved us several hours of waiting elsewhere and allowed us to really maximize our time in the park, giving us the best bang for our buck.
Remember, you don't have to go the DIY route if that's not for you. An organized tour like those from MaxTour helps you avoid crowds and chaos and lets you get the best possible value. They offer a combined tour of Grand Canyon and Antelope Canyon, which is spectacularly beautiful and should be on everyone's travel bucket list.
Where to stay inside the Grand Canyon
The Grand Canyon “village” offers a wide range of accommodations; from historic cabins to more generic, 1970’s style residences. Given the popularity of the destination and the historic nature of the beautiful park lodges, accommodation costs can easily destroy a fragile budget.
One of the best values in the park is the Bright Angel Lodge – specifically its adjacent, motel-style rooms without the en-suite bathrooms. The rooms are just a few steps back from the considerably more expensive rim side cabins and are perfectly positioned for all your exploring needs. By not taking an en-suite room, you will save considerably and the adjacent shared bathrooms are sparkling clean, thoroughly up to date, and shared with only a few other guests.
You can chose from private bedrooms with no toilet and just a sink for about $80 or private bedrooms with ensuite powder room (but no shower or tub) for about $95. You won't see the $80 room on the main reservations page but it will appear as an option when you go to make an online booking/check availability. (2021 Update! We did a mock booking for a date several months down the road and found prices as low as $77 -REALLY - for rooms without ensuites. The price has actually gone down a smidge in since this post was written 9 years ago!)
Other Bright Angel accommodations can go for nearly $450 (the rim side cabins) and the most basic rooms (with no view) at El Tovar are about $200. Given how clean the shared bathrooms were and how we were just a one minute walk from the rim, I count the 'secret' cheap rooms at Bright Angel as one of my best travel deals, ever.
What to do in the Grand Canyon
A mule ride to the canyon floor was WAY out of our budget! But we still found plenty of amazing travel experiences. At night. there are a wide variety of free ranger- led presentations in the evening – and indeed all throughout the day as well – and you will never lack for entertainment after dark. During my visit, the ranger gave an outdoor presentation on ancient Canyon art. Getting around after dark wasn’t a concern, as the park offers a series of free shuttles which allow you to ride around with ease.
During the heat of the day, when Grand Canyon National Park is at its busiest in the early afternoon, I like to escape the crowds hop the free park shuttle and head into the adjacent town of Tusayan. While Tusayan is a bit of a tourist trap town, it’s also home to the IMAX Theatre. Watching Grand Canyon – Hidden Secrets is an amazing experience and gives you a bird’s eye view of park. While a bit pricey at $13.50 a ticket, it makes for an affordable alternative to a personal helicopter ride while providing you with the same great views – all while enjoying air conditioning. (2021 Update: Prices have not changed. Yay! You can save 20% by booking online or 10% in person by showing your AAA card.) Try to resist the temptations of the nearby gift shops and overpriced concessions in order to protect your budget.
Where to Eat
You can also avoid crowds and costs when you eat. While visiting the Grand Canyon, it pays to be the early bird when it comes to meals. In addition to avoiding the lines, you can expect to often get a table with a view, and attentive service that doesn't feel rushed. My choice for dinner is the Arizona Room, (now officially called the Arizona Steakhouse) which opens for dinner at 4:30pm. The wait staff is professional and friendly and the meals come with a unlimited cornbread and your choice of salad or southwest corn chowder included in the price. When we visited, we were one of the very first to arrive, and we had a table right in front of the windows, which gave a partial view of the Canyon. Costs range from $22-38 per entree, compared to at least 20% more at El Tovar.
The historic El Tovar hotel dining room offers beautiful meals but requires advance reservations, with no guarantee of a table with a view. Try arriving early for breakfast if your heart is set on one of their famous window tables. Better yet, have a light breakfast at the Bright Angel Lodge’s pub, which converts to a coffee house in the morning. Their lattes, hot chocolate and cinnamon buns are all about $1 less than El Tovar. A couple can easily save a few bucks and enjoy a perfect view simply by walking 100 feet to the rim path.
Some Final Thoughts...
A visit to the Grand Canyon requires some careful pre-planning, as popular accommodations can book up 13 months in advance. Those planning to hike to the bottom require cautious preparation and hikes should not be undertaken lightly. No one should hike down alone and the canyon poses many dangers. Ranger-led hikes are a safe, enriching alternative. In addition to sun hats, sunblock, water bottles and sturdy shoes, the savvy traveler will bring along a warm layer for the evening, when it can be quite cool, even in the summer.
With a few insiders tip, anyone can enjoy a relaxed visit to this jewel of a park. Far from being overwhelming, Grand Canyon National Park can be great a visit, even during peak season. A stimulating gateway town with a terrific observatory for evening fun, secure and affordable accommodations in the best part of the park, free and safe transportation, incredible opportunities for education and outdoor appreciation with the ranger staff, and amazing night-time presentations make Grand Canyon a dream destination.
UPDATE! March 2021: It's been MANY years since we published this post, one of our first and one of our favourites. We have updated it slightly to ensure prices are more accurate. We tried to once again replicate our booking steps that led to our $35 a night deal in Flagstaff and we're happy to report some success. With some diligent searching you can find basic 2 star hotels and motels in Flagstaff for $65 a night. With an advance booking rate (and armed with a coupon code that we found after about 20 minutes of searching) we were able to 'fake' book a night for around $50. Lesson learned: be patient, be prepared to search, and book well in advance. Sure, it's not $35 but it's still really good.
As always, I welcome and encourage your comments. Have you ever been to a famous landmark like the Grand Canyon?
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