Grand Canyon Civil War: North vs. South

Imperial Point, Grand Canyon National Park, North Rim, Landscape, Canyon

Imperial Point, Grand Canyon National Park, North Rim

We heard a lot about the North Rim of the Grand Canyon before arriving. Mostly we heard that it was better than the more popular South Rim. Remote, authentic, undeveloped, peaceful were all adjectives used as platitudes in describing the north. And they’re mostly true.

The North Rim is nearly a two hour drive from the nearest town, Fredonia, Arizona. Half of that drive is on a road only open several months per year. The nearest airport is 275 miles away by car in Flagstaff, AZ. It is not easy to get to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, which is why fewer people do. And yet the one reason we heard repeatedly mentioned to favor the North, smaller crowds, didn’t exactly pan out.

While it’s true that the North Rim is less trafficked than the South, it didn’t really feel that way. Call it the downside of undeveloped. Small parking lots were mostly full even in the early morning of late off-season. In many spots trails are only wide enough for one or two people to pass. Bottlenecks abound giving everything a more crowded and congested feeling.

We also found less to do here: fewer trails, fewer overlooks, fewer options. We covered the scenic drive, all the overlooks, and a good selection of rim trails in a single afternoon. At the South Rim you can spend an entire day just exploring the main overlooks. Of course both North and South offer almost unlimited hiking for the intrepid, including the 21 mile Rim to Rim trail that connects both Grand Canyon areas, albeit separated by a one mile vertical climb out of the canyon. Difficult hikes are easy to find at both rims, but the South has a far greater number of moderate trails.

Grand Canyon National Park, South Rim, Landscape

Vista from a South Rim overlook

For scenery, both are spectacular and we’d be hard pressed to judge one superior. The North Rim is almost 2,000 feet higher than the South and is blanketed by more vegetation, but I can’t say I noticed the difference.

So why go to the North Rim? If you view remoteness as a compelling virtue in and of itself, you might think the added effort in getting there worthwhile. For most of the rest of us, the big reason to go is the fact that the North isn’t always less convenient. If you’re traveling through southern Utah, perhaps after visiting Zion National Park, then the North Rim is probably the easiest way to see the Canyon. Otherwise, we’d opt for the larger and more convenient South Rim. More people may go there, but they do so for good reason.

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19 Comments on “Grand Canyon Civil War: North vs. South”

  1. Laura Hilger January 7, 2013 at 7:35 am #

    This is on my to do list and I’m thankful I read this advice. Great shots!


  2. travelingmarla January 7, 2013 at 9:31 am #

    Great post.

    My husband and I are hands-down North Rim lovers. The *best* way (if you really have the time) is to do the full southern Utah loop and add in the GC’s north rim. We like to start at Moab, enjoying Arches, Canyonlands NP (multiple entrances along the route), Dead Horse Point (a state park but such a beautiful story and view), Escalante , Bryce, Zion and of course the North Rim.

    In the past, North Rim was much better crowd-wise, but then all the big-mouths (I know we were some of those) started telling everyone how much better the north was and now more people go there than there are resources to accommodate (as you discovered).

    We also Included the Grand Canyon Caverns in our trip. You take an elevator about 200 feet underground. Pretty cool as long as you aren’t claustrophobic or spelunkaphobic (okay I made that work up).


    • travelingmarla January 7, 2013 at 9:31 am #

      *word* not *work*


    • Brian January 7, 2013 at 11:07 am #

      That certainly is a great itinerary (we’ve done it although not all at once) if you have the time. And then do you fly out of Vegas or really do a loop, maybe circling back around through Capitol Reef?


      • travelingmarla January 8, 2013 at 11:55 am #

        I’m not a plane girl. It’s a car or train for me. And I know, that’s yet another luxury of time. Each of our Utah trips have been part of a car trip. Sometimes we take a couple weeks unpaid leave as we are moving from one assignment to another. Other times we do it as its own vacation. That loop in southern Utah is one of our favorite places to return to. So much fun to share the adventures through the eyes of other writers as well.
        Thanks as always for your posts.


  3. mairedubhtx January 7, 2013 at 9:41 am #

    Thanks for the review.


  4. Martyn Thompson January 7, 2013 at 11:28 am #

    Great post.


  5. Jane Lurie January 7, 2013 at 11:52 am #

    Beautiful shots. We stopped by the South Rim this summer after visiting Monument Valley- relatively close. I never tire of the vast beauty of the parks. I shot seven of them this summer! Thanks for sharing your thoughts and photos.


  6. Jane Fritz January 7, 2013 at 3:00 pm #

    Great shots for sure. We went to the North Rim as part of a circle that included Zion, Bryce, and then Marble Canyon and Lee’s Ferry to start our rafting trip through the GC. After that we spent some time at Lake Powell, yet another fascinating place in the SW, a part of the world that never runs out of treasures. I agree that for a one-timer, or maybe even a first-timer, the South Rim is a quicker bang for the buck, but the North Rim has its own special character, not to mention the spectacular California condors who were entertaining everyone in the lodge dining room when we were there. Thanks for all your sharing.


  7. Gunta January 7, 2013 at 6:10 pm #

    You make me so grateful that I got to explore all the SW parks back in a day before they became so popular. My first trip to the North Rim was in the fall of 1978. I pretty nearly had the place to myself. The same was true for the other parks in the Four Corners region. Recent trips have been more disappointing when sharing these places with the crowds. I wonder if Kodachrome has also become more crowded. So far I haven’t noticed it showing up as much on blogs or elsewhere.


    • Brian January 7, 2013 at 6:18 pm #

      I expect so, but these travelers drove right by Kodachrome – too tired at the time to stop as it wasn’t something we planned on.


  8. Cheryl Sm January 7, 2013 at 7:10 pm #

    We visited the South rim this fall and it was great. Very glad I got to go.


  9. Journey Photographic January 7, 2013 at 7:41 pm #

    Thanks for sharing your perspective – I’d always wondered about the North/South question!


  10. backthewaywecame January 8, 2013 at 4:29 am #

    Thank you for following my blog up until now – just to let you know I won’t have access to the internet for a while. Will be starting a full time job soon which will limit opportunity to write posts. Will let you know when I’m up and running again.


    • nomad January 8, 2013 at 12:22 pm #

      Hi Brian,

      Terrific Travelogue; been following it for years as it is also my dream to do extended travel.

      Are you back in your hometown of Hoboken, NJ since August? Seems many adventurers last for two to three years; and often return to their hometowns. You were smart to rent your condo.

      I’m trying to decide whether to sell the stix & brix and full-time RV; or keep a residence and just do extended trips. Maybe you could do a future post on the day-to-day realities (good & bad) of being a full-time traveler versus the “practical” advantages of a stationary life.

      I know you’re a very smart guy so your insights based on actual experience would be valued.

      By the way; nothing wrong with “been there done that” and then off to a new adventure, business venture, life phase etc. I like the “life is a river” metaphor.



  11. amoralegria January 13, 2013 at 12:16 am #

    I love the Grand Canyon! I have only hiked from the South Rim, but on a four day hike in high school, we crossed over the river and followed a trail for about 8 miles into pristine territory. We bathed in a cool, very clean and refreshing stream. We buried any trash (which we kept to a minimum). Of course that was a long time ago, and as you said, there are “big mouths” – word gets out. Last time I visited was only for one day in 2005, with friends. Even so, the views were as breathtaking as ever.


  12. Mike January 16, 2013 at 10:28 am #

    Reblogged this on This Got My Attention and commented:
    Great shot! Like nowhere else in the world.


  13. Arizona girl January 24, 2013 at 3:56 am #

    All this talk of the wonderful southwestern parks makes me happy as I remember my own trips and sad to think how far away I am from it all. Time to get back to AZ and the Southwest, at least for a visit!


  14. Lance February 24, 2013 at 10:25 pm #

    Great post! I’ve been to both, and I think I favor the South Rim…in the off season. You have fewer people (like the North), but the best of all the activities (trails, etc.).


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