Just like a magnet’s opposite poles, Grand Canyon National Park attracts a lot of crowds with two very different sides. With no bridges within park boundaries, and a 221-mile round trip drive around the park, planning and weighing the Grand Canyon’s North Rim vs South Rim drastically changes both your itinerary and expectations for the trip. In fact, the two sides provide a totally different experience with different climates, viewpoints, campgrounds, and crowds. How can you choose just one?
Grand Canyon North Rim vs South Rim: What to Know and How to Choose
The best way to start planning your Grand Canyon trip is to make a list of your major priorities. For most, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime visit, so knowing exactly what you’re looking for is a must. If you happen to be one of the lucky few who might visit the park more than once, your list of ‘must-dos’ might look a little different. Either way, because the park is remote and the weather conditions often extreme, it is important to go in with a plan.
As you travel through this mind-blowing national landmark, after deciding on the North Rim vs South Rim, remember that the public lands you use are beloved by all, and are an essential part of a thriving but delicate ecosystem. To help protect this environment, be sure to always follow Leave No Trace principles, and read the National Park Service’s recommendations on how to ‘travel green.’
North Rim vs South Rim: Campgrounds
The only campground on national park land at the North Rim is the aptly-named North Rim Campground. This spot holds 78 RV/tent sites and 12 tent-only sites, and doesn’t look like what most people would assume a Grand Canyon campground to look like: towering ponderosa pines, lots of shade and the not-so-occasional elk wandering through. There are coin operated showers and laundry at the entrance of the park. There is a dump station, but no hook-ups for RVs. Reservations are strongly recommended. Trails leave from the campground to the visitor center and beautiful North Rim views along the Transept Trail.
Those in possession of a backcountry permit can access Cottonwood Campground from the North Kaibab Trail. Camping here is limited to two nights during the summer season, and four nights during the off-season. Pit toilets are available year-round and potable water during from May 15- October 15.
Mather Campground on the eastern side of the park is one of the most competitive camping opportunities in the summer when reservations are snagged months in advance. The campground is open year-round, and becomes first-come first-serve in the winter. There are no RV hook-ups, total length limited to 30 feet. Check out privately-owned Trailer Village nearby for more RV amenities.
Desert View Campground on the the western edge in an undeveloped area and is always first-come, first-serve, filling by noon almost every day of the year. There are no RV hook-ups there. Below the rim, for those interested in backpacking-style camping, Indian Garden Campground and Bright Angel Campground are both accessible from the South Rim, by challenging hiking trails which take you out of the heavily trafficked ‘corridor.’ A backcountry permit is required to access these campgrounds. There are also multiple other privately run campgrounds close to the park.
North Rim vs South Rim: Crowds
Only 10% of visitors to Grand Canyon National Park visit the North Rim. This is, obviously, because of the much longer drive from heavily populated areas. The people who visit the North Rim are often interested in doing more than simple drive-by photos. Most plan to leave the ‘corridor’ of the canyon below the rim in some way, and come prepared. During the summer months, the viewpoints along the North Rim can still be quite busy, and taking the shuttle bus is a good idea, but often, the number of visitors is more limited to those who plan to stay overnight either in the campground or in the backcountry.
On average, the South Rim sees almost 5 million visitors a year. This obviously can cause some congestion and parking problems. If possible, plan your trip in the off-season, or visit on a week day in the morning or late in the evening. The South Rim provides a shuttle bus system to help alleviate this over-crowding with vehicles, and it is a great option to keep your hands free for snapping photos, and it is good for the environment. Keep in mind that the South Rim is a major stopping point for many international tour groups.
North Rim vs South Rim: Climate/Seasonality
The North Rim’s elevation averages about 8,000 feet above sea level. This means that heavy snow in the winter requires the closing of all access roads from October 15 until May 15. In the summer, expect high country weather variability on any given day. The nights are cold, often down to freezing until mid-June.
The days can begin sunny, but see a strong afternoon rain or thunderstorm wash through suddenly. This constant change adds to the beauty of the view, of course, watching clouds roll through, but it also requires hikers and visitors to be prepared with appropriate layering and rain gear for any day-long excursion.
The South Rim of the Grand Canyon averages 7,000 foot in elevation. Most nights are cool, and there is snow in the winter, but summer temperatures can easily reach 120 during the day. Because of the ease of accessibility from major urban areas, visitors are sometimes unprepared for this extreme swing in temperature. Desert travel practices are necessary for even short hikes. Carry a minimum of two liters of water per person, travel early or late in the day, never at noon, with reliable footwear, sunscreen and a hat.
North Rim vs South Rim: Accessibility
The North Rim of the park is closed for winter from October 15 until May 15. During this time, the backcountry remains available for skiers and determined hikers. Backcountry travelers may even use the North Rim Campground in the winter, although it is about a 45 mile journey from the closest parking spot at Jacob Lake.
To reach the viewpoints, the North Rim is a 220 miles drive from the South Rim, or 21 miles hike North and South Kaibab Trail. When it is open, the road is paved, and there are multiple ADA accessible viewpoints along it. Most people who go to the North Rim intend to hike or bike, or do something besides drive along, as the paved roads are less extensive than those on the south side. There is a tremendous amount of backcountry to be explored, and the backcountry permits for the North Rim are very difficult to get.
Open all year, but conditions can be challenging in the winter, and roads may be closed temporarily. The major road which runs along the South Rim is Desert View Drive which runs for 25 miles from the East to the West entrances. Because of the altitude and the intense summer heat, visitors with health conditions should take that risk into their considerations when planning a visit. Even though most major viewpoints are paved and ADA accessible, the environment can take a much higher physical toll than some expect, and emergency services are often far away. Also make sure that whatever vehicle you drive is in good working order and always enter the park with a full tank of gas.
North Rim vs South Rim: Viewpoints
The North Rim of the Grand Canyon actually contains a much larger percentage of the park’s actual acreage. but it is largely considered backcountry. Cape Royal and Cape Imperial are the most famous drive-to viewpoints with staggering views of the South Rim features. There are other viewpoints available via challenging 4×4 public roads.Take a cue from the adventurous visitors and trek down into the canyon a little deeper to see it from a very different perspective. Cottonwood Campground is 6.8 miles from the rim of the canyon and offers places to cool off in Bright Angel Creek and soak in the views-less-seen.
Along Desert View Drive there are, surprise, hundreds of beautiful views of the desert. Some of the most stunning viewpoints include Mather Point (which is often the most crowded). Yavapai Point offers views which include the famous Havasupai Canyon. During peak summer months, the viewpoint at Yaki Point is accessible by shuttle bus only, and so is another great reason to take the shuttle. Desert View Watchtower, on the far eastern side of the park, is a unique and iconic image with a replica of a prehistoric native people’s structure built in the 1930s to punctuate the already mind-blowing vistas.
Bright Angel Trail deserves its own mention here as well, with constant views down its steep, packed dirt switchbacks. If you intend to hike it, remember to bring a gallon of water/person and travel in the cool hours. It is easy to hike down, and much, much harder to turn around and come back up.