Grand Canyon National Park: The South Rim vs. The North Rim
There are very few places in the world that can be said to be a ‘must do’ for everyone regardless of their interest in the outdoors, but the Grand Canyon is one of them. Many people hold lifelong memories of looking deep into the vast abyss, watching sandstone, slowly eroded over eons by one single river, light up brilliant shades of red, orange and yellow, bouncing and shifting the light as the sun lowers for one of the world’s finest sunsets.
Nearly all of these people will make these memories while visiting the South Rim, many without even considering the possibility of seeing this world wonder from its other side. This is mostly due to it’s proximity to Las Vegas and larger host of facilities, however, the North Rim remains incredibly under-appreciated, offering a unique experience that many visitors may have enjoyed even more than the South. In this post, we compare both rims of the Grand Canyon based on six categories so that you can consider what each has to offer and decide which side of the abyss you’ll visit.
The South Rim is open all year and is very easy to get to from large cities such as Las Vegas, Phoenix and Flagstaff.
The North Rim is only open half the year between May 15th and October 15th (weather permitting) and it is in a very isolated location.
Here are some driving times from major nearby cities:
Phoenix: 4.5 hours to the South Rim, 7 hours to the North Rim
Las Vegas: 4.5 hours to the South Rim, 4.5 hours to the North Rim
Salt Lake City: 7 hours to the North Rim
Note: the drive between the South Rim and North Rim is 200 miles (317 km) and about 5 - 6 hours.
Yes, they have two very different climates!
The South Rim is a very hot, desert environment that can be unbearable in the heat of the summer and provides little opportunity for shade. If you are planning to hike into the canyon, you would be better off going outside of July and August when it is hottest there. We visited the South Rim at the beginning of May and we had to begin our hike at 7 am to avoid the mid-day heat.
Due to its elevation, the North Rim has a much more moderate climate. Less desert-like, it has an abundance of vegetation and dense forests, which adds to the beauty and provides plenty of shade for hikers and picnickers.
The South Rim has a paved rim trail with several viewpoints that are easily accessible from the rim drive and would be better suited for those with limited mobility. Due to its popularity, a large section of the South Rim is closed to vehicle traffic between March 1st and November 30th and is instead serviced by frequent ‘hop on, hop off’ buses that you can take to visit the popular viewpoints.
Nearly all tour groups and expeditions are concentrated at the South Rim so there is a wider array of activities including mule and horseback riding, helicopter flights, guided hikes and historic tours. You can even ride into the South Rim on the historic Grand Canyon Railway. There are restaurants, galleries, museums, gift shops and an immensely popular ice cream shop. You can either take the bus along the rim or make a day’s hike out of it, most of which is fairly level. For those interested in advanced level hiking, the Bright Angel and South Kaibab trails are arguably the two most iconic hikes in the park. Keep in mind your safety when hiking into the canyon as temperatures are significantly higher and dehydration is a very real possibility. Take excessive amounts of water, wear sun protection and always tell someone of your plans. Even though it may not look that far, it is not possible to hike to the bottom and back up to the rim in one day. Every year, NPS staff rescue over 300 people.
Generally, the trails at the North Rim are less accessible to beginner level hikers and those with mobility issues. There are no tours to the North Rim (with the exception of rim-to-rim hiking groups and mule rides) and only three scenic overlooks that can be accessed via the half-day long rim drive. There are scenic hiking trails along the rim as well as the popular North Kaibab trail into the canyon. While the top of this trail is cooler than those on the South Rim due to the elevation and trees, the trail below the rim is just as exposed as the South Rim.
The South Rim is more developed and with a wide array of services available. These include 12 hotels, restaurants, historic lodges, post office, bank, 2 campgrounds, laundry, showers and a small supermarket. In addition, the South Rim has two beautiful, state of the art visitor centers.
The North Rim is much smaller and has fewer services. These include three hotels, a small selection of restaurants, a campground with laundry and showers, and a small visitor center and gift shop.
5. The Views:
The South Rim gives visitors classic Grand Canyon views with sightlines all the way down to the Colorado River and is the best location to take in its sheer size and magnitude. There are also several points along the canyon from which you can find a fantastic vantage point. Sunset and sunrise is the busiest time at spots like Hopi, Yavapai, Yaki, Mather and Lipan points. Our favourites were Yaki and Lipan for sunrise (due to smaller crowds), and Hopi and Mohave for sunsets. Be prepared that there is no way to escape crowds at sunset. Keep in mind that sunset at the Grand Canyon is more than just the sun dropping below the horizon, it’s the illumination of the ancient sandstone that is dramatized by dark shadows deep within. Go 1.5 – 2 hours before sunset and get a front row seat because you are about to witness the most spectacular light show you’ve ever known.
The North Rim sits approximately 3,000 ft (1,000 m) higher in elevation than the South Rim, and thus receives nearly twice as much precipitation (winter snow) each year. As the snow melts it erodes the canyon wall faster than the drier South Rim resulting in the North Rim having been cut back nearly twice as far from the Colorado River so you are unable to see it. However, this erosion has left behind unique canyon formations that are closer to you than on the south side giving you great subjects for photographs. Though there are fewer viewpoints on the North Rim, they are just as breathtaking. Our absolute favourite was from the outdoor patio of the Grand Canyon Lodge. There may be no better patio on earth than this one. Situated on the edge (literally) of the Grand Canyon, you can watch the sun light up the canyon shades of purple, orange and gold while enjoying a pint of beer after a hard day’s exploring.
The most important thing to know about the South Rim is that it is the most visited US National Park site at an estimated 5 million visitors each year. For this reason, it is impossible to visit the Grand Canyon and not have the crowds impact your visit. Campsites must be planned in advance, parking is difficult to find and solitude can feel impossible to find in the spring and summer. Unfortunately, this detracts from the natural beauty and the serenity that should accompany one of the world’s most incredible geologic wonders.
Due to its limited accessibility, the North Rim gets 10% of the visitors that the South Rim gets. Its atmosphere is very quiet and relaxed, and admiring the views of the Grand Canyon in solitude truly adds to the experience. While some may see the absence of tour groups or buses as a downside of the North Rim, those looking for a laid-back atmosphere will cherish it.
The decision should be based on which factors are most important to you.
If you are looking for solitude and intermediate to advanced hiking trails, the North Rim will be worth the longer drive and sacrificing some of the conveniences available at the South Rim. The North Rim is best for photographs (closer subjects) and it boasts what might be the best patio in the world.
If you're looking to plan a family vacation, the South Rim has modern conveniences, nearly all of the available tours, museums and a state of the art visitors center. It also boasts two of the best trails into the canyon (Bright Angel, South Kaibab) along with accessible trails for those with mobility issues.