Grand Canyon Smackdown: North Rim vs. South Rim

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The Grand Canyon is by far one of the most popular tourist destinations in the United States. Attracting upwards of 5 million visitors per year, this steep-walled canyon is one of the most well-known natural wonders in the world. People flock to its rims from all over the world to peer into its depths.

And for good reason. Because, even if you tend to shun “touristy” destinations, I'm willing to bet the Grand Canyon will blow you away.

It sure blew my socks off.

Grand Canyon Sunset
Sunset at Mather Point, South Rim

You can see this work of Mother Nature in photos and in movies. But, until you're actually standing on one of its rims and squinting down at the Colorado River a mile (yes, a mile!) below, you can't truly understand its magnitude.

The Grand Canyon does not just have one side or vantage point to awe you with, however. It actually has three distinct and different rims that you can visit: the South Rim (the most popular), the North Rim (the lesser touristed), and the West Rim (the newest to open to visitors).

Grand Canyon North Rim
North Rim

But which one is the best? Which one should you visit if you can only visit one?

I didn't have the chance to visit the West Rim, so I can't really include it in this Grand Canyon smackdown. But I did visit both the North and South rims in one day, so I can give you my take on those. They're the two rims people most often have to choose between anyway when visiting the Grand Canyon.

So, without further ado, let the Grand Canyon smackdown begin!

Accessibility

The Grand Canyon is not exactly the most accessible tourist attraction. It's in the middle of nowhere in northern Arizona, and only has a couple of main highways that lead to it. Even though the North and South rims are only about 17 miles apart as the raven flies, there's just one 220-mile driving route available to take you between the two sides that will take you roughly 5 hours to traverse.

Grand Canyon North Rim
There aren't any roads cutting across this…

The North Rim is only accessible via Route 67, which branches off of Route 89A in the town of Jacob Lake. Due to the road often being impassable during the winter months, the North Rim is only open from mid-May through mid-October. Which is probably why it is much less visited. It also isn't nearby any major cities/towns. The closest town of any size beyond Jacob Lake is Page, Arizona, a 2+ hour drive to the northeast.

The South Rim, in comparison, is open and generally accessible year-round via Route 64 from either the east or the south. It is 1,000 feet lower in elevation than the North Rim, so the roads here are usually not closed due to snow in the winter. Several Arizona towns are within 2 hours driving distance from the South Rim, including Williams, Flagstaff, and Sedona, and a variety of tours and/or shuttles depart from these towns for Grand Canyon National Park each day if you don't have a car of your own. In fact, it's suggested you don't drive here at the South Rim. Instead, it's recommended you park your car and use the park's free shuttle service to get between each viewpoint.

Smackdown winner: South Rim

Tally: North Rim — 0   South Rim — 1

Amenities

If you have your heart set on staying within Grand Canyon National Park during your canyon visit, good luck. Accommodations can be booked up to a year in advance in some cases, and they fill up quickly. You can stay outside of the park, though the bigger cities that would have multiple hotels/motels are usually at least an hour or two away.

Grand Canyon South Rim, Grandview Point

Because the North Rim is only open for half the year, and because it's further away from any major settlements, there isn't much here by way of amenities. There is only one accommodation option here that isn't a campground (there's one of those, too), and that's the Grand Canyon Lodge. The lodge is only open as long as the park is, and its bare-bones cabins book up months in advance. (Though, I will say that the lodge's remote location makes it pretty epic.)

The South Rim is home to Grand Canyon Village, which offers about 7 different lodging options, ranging in price from $81 to $426 per night. There are also some campgrounds in the area, as well as smaller towns 15-30 minutes away that also have accommodation on offer. The South Rim also has shuttles that will cart you around to the various viewpoints — including a few that are not accessible by private vehicle.

Smackdown winner: Draw. While the South Rim has more options, there is also more demand for them. The Grand Canyon Lodge at the North Rim is more rustic, and much less chaotic than Grand Canyon Village.

Tally: North Rim — 1   South Rim — 2

Viewpoints

The Grand Canyon isn't officially a Wonder of the World, but I think it should be. People come from all over the world just to look at it. In fact, the whole point of visiting is usually to just look at it and be in awe. The viewpoints, therefore, are important to consider.

Grand Canyon North Rim, Bright Angel Trail
Heading out to Bright Angel Point, North Rim

The North Rim only has a few main viewpoints, including a couple that are only accessible via long, windy dirt roads that can take up to half a day to traverse. However, the North Rim does boast the Grand Canyon's highest viewpoints, at over 8,000 feet. The most popular is Bright Angel Point, which is just a short walk from the Grand Canyon Lodge. From here, you can take in sweeping views of the canyon, and see all the way to the South Rim. Other popular viewpoints are Point Imperial (the highest point on the North Rim at 8,800 feet) and Cape Royal (popular for sunsets).

Grand Canyon South Rim, Desert View
Desert View, South Rim

The South Rim, on the other hand, has a ton of viewpoints, most of which are close together and easily reachable. Starting near the east entrance of Grand Canyon National Park, there's Desert View — the first viewpoint in the park. Here, you can climb an old watchtower for stunning views out over the canyon. Continuing on along toward the Grand Canyon Visitor Center and Grand Canyon Village, there are more than a dozen stunning viewpoints to stop at. Shuttles at the South Rim can take you to even more viewpoints that are not reachable by car. I watched a sunset at Mather Point, which was amazing.

Smackdown winner: South Rim, simply because there are more viewpoints.

Tally: North Rim — 1   South Rim — 3

The View

But here's the point you're probably most interested in — which rim has the best views? Well, it's all relative, of course. But here are my thoughts.

Grand Canyon North Rim
North Rim

Even though the North Rim has fewer viewpoints, the viewpoints it does have are absolutely amazing. The colors of this side of the canyon are rich and vibrant. I was amazed at the layers of red and white present in the steep canyon walls, speckled with the dark green of trees and shrubs. Bright Angel Trail leads you right along the edge of the canyon here, making it feel like you're actually IN the Grand Canyon. It was the North Rim that made me really realize just how huge and deep the Grand Canyon is.

Grand Canyon South Rim, Desert View
South Rim

The South Rim also has great views, of course, and each viewpoint offers up a slightly different angle. I was really impressed with Desert View, but less impressed by a few of the others. The colors weren't as vibrant on the South Rim, though that could have been because the viewpoints didn't make you feel like you were IN the canyon like Bright Angel Point on the North Rim. I saw a sunset on the South Rim, though, which made up for some of the other less-impressive views. Sunset at the Grand Canyon is nothing short of stunning.

Smackdown winner: Draw. The North Rim wins for color, but the South Rim wins for variety.

Tally: North Rim — 2   South Rim — 4

Number of Tourists

This item, to me, is the most important. Especially in the summer months, the Grand Canyon is such a popular destination. I hate having to jockey for position just to snap a photo, so the density of tourists is so important to mention here.

Grand Canyon North Rim
Relaxing at the quiet North Rim

The North Rim sees, by far, the least number of Grand Canyon tourists. Since it's more difficult to get to and less well-known, many visitors to the park simply skip the North Rim, heading straight for the South Rim instead. This means that the North Rim is blissfully empty, even during the busy summer season. I visited on a slightly overcast afternoon in August, and there were only maybe a dozen other people out on Bright Angel Trail. There was no need to worry about someone getting in your photos, and there was no rush to move away from the edge of the viewpoints so others could get a look.

The South Rim, by contrast, was much more crowded. Which is not surprising, since this rim sees 90% of the Grand Canyon's tourists each year. I visited this rim in the evening, though, so there wasn't the crush of tourists that I was fearing. But there still were plenty of people at each of the viewpoints. And, come sunset time, the viewing platforms at Mather Point filled up to the point where you had to pick a spot along the rail and stay there if you had any hope of getting good photos. While this didn't bother me too much, it was a far cry from the relaxing atmosphere at the North Rim.

Smackdown winner: North Rim

Tally: North Rim — 3   South Rim — 4

Prices

The price to enter Grand Canyon National Park is the same no matter where you enter ($25 per vehicle for a weeklong permit). However, some prices of popular activities differ from rim to rim.

Grand Canyon North Rim
North Rim

For example, half-day donkey rides at the North Rim run $75 per person. These mule trips do not go to the bottom of the canyon, but still take you beyond the rim. At the South Rim, a 3-hour mule trip will set you back almost $120 per person.

Because the South Rim is much more popular, prices for some activities (as well as lodging and food) may tend to be a bit higher.

Smackdown winner: North Rim, because less demand means lower prices.

Tally: North Rim — 4   South Rim — 4

 

*Note: I didn't include things like “hiking” or “activities” in the smackdown, because many of the cross-canyon hikes, rafting trips, helicopter/flightseeing tours, and donkey rides can be begun on either side of the canyon. The activities are generally not rim-specific, though the South Rim does have more tour operators based there.

Final Tally: It's a tie!

Okay, so, going by these broad categories, the South Rim actually came close to winning. But, you know what? I actually liked the North Rim a lot better, simply because it was so much less crowded and more natural.

Grand Canyon North Rim
Pretty, no?

For me, the sheer number of viewpoints at the South Rim (and the number of people at them) was overwhelming. I felt so rushed. I felt like all the other tourists, simply jumping out of my car to take some photos, and then dashing on to the next spot. In order to truly “see” everything at the South Rim, you'd need more than a day. At the North Rim, however, you can easily visit all the viewpoints in a day, and spend some time relaxing and just enjoying the view. And, to me, that sounds much more appealing.

However, if I have to give you advice, it would be to take the time to visit BOTH rims. Take a couple of days. Take your time. And then make up your own mind as to which rim is truly “better.”

READ NEXT: A Perfect 10-Day Itinerary for the American Southwest

Have you been to the Grand Canyon? If so, tell me which rim(s) you visited. If not, tell me which rim(s) you would most like to visit.

 

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Grand Canyon North Rim vs South Rim

 

"It's a dangerous business, going out your door. You step onto the road, and, if you don't keep your feet, there's no telling where you might get swept off to." - JRR Tolkien

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79 Comments on “Grand Canyon Smackdown: North Rim vs. South Rim

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  1. awesome pictures, especially if it was semi-bad weather! I’ve always wanted to visit the Grand Canyon but I’ve also always been terrified of accidentally Thelma-and-Louiseing it over the side of a cliff. But then again, I could get used to watching sunsets from those deck chairs.

      It was a little overcast at the North Rim, but a bit clearer for sunset on the South Rim. Regardless, though, it was amazing! I would definitely suggest a visit, even if you have a fear of heights. Just don’t get too close to the edge! 😉

    It’s just not possible to overstate how cool the Grand Canyon is…My vote is to return often.

      I fully support that vote! I fully intend to go back someday.

    Great smackdown! We visited the Grand Canyon last year but decided to spend a full day at the South Rim rather than rushing through both. We noticed that the further away you get from the main view point near the car park, the less people you’ll see. Most of the tourists just seem to snap a picture at the rim and then head off to their next destination. Which is a shame because you can hike along the rim for hours, or to the bottom, and see so many different angles of the Canyon. Next time we’ll plan in a couple of days and do both rims 🙂

      I agree — most of those 5 million tourists just hop out of their car, snap the obligatory photo, and then head on to wherever is “next.” Which, I guess I should complain about, because at least they’re traveling and seeing things! But the Grand Canyon deserves more than just half an hour and a handful of photos.

      I regret not allowing 2 days for the Grand Canyon. Next time, next time…

    We’ve only been to the South Rim. Looks like we should check out the North Rim. Beautiful photos!!!

      Most definitely check out the North Rim if you ever get the chance! It might be a bit more out of the way, but I promise you it’s worth it!

    This is truly amazing, one of my best destination list. I could stay forever watching those beautiful views.

    Agreed-one of the most amazing places I have ever visited. We visited the south rim and it was totally worth every minute sitting and waiting to cross the Hoover Dam from Vegas. Next time, I want to go down to the bottom!

      There really aren’t any adequate words to describe it. This is one place where the overused word “awesome” really does apply.

      And I would have loved to ride a donkey down to the bottom! Maybe next time. Because next time I plan to budget a lot more time!

    I’ve never been but now I really want to! Beautiful pictures!

      Thanks, Claire! I hope you make it there someday. It’s well worth seeing it in person!

    I am going to have to agree with you on your choice! I get the natural, desert vibe from the North Rim. Nonetheless, the South Rim has it’s own rustic charm.

      Definitely agreed. I don’t think I’d ever suggest only going to one of the rims, because both are so different. But, if I had to choose, I think the North Rim would be my favorite!

    That’s some really amazing photos. Been wanting to go for over two decades, but never got around to going to that part of the US. It really looks like a one of a kind place…

      It certainly is a “one of a kind place”! I highly recommend a visit if you ever are in that part of the U.S. In fact, the whole Southwest region of American is amazing. Well worth a trip!

    I have never been there. It surely looks very pretty. Mother nature at its very best, I would prefer the North Rim as its quiet and thats what I prefer.

      If you like peace and quiet, the North Rim would definitely be the place for you!

    I spent a day exploring the south rim back in 2009. Seems I may need to make a return trip so I can fully appreciate the north rim as well…

      Definitely! It doesn’t have as many viewpoints or hiking options as the South Rim, but it is absolutely still worth a visit. As far as being “blown away” by the Grand Canyon, the North Rim truly did it for me.

    I like that it is a tie, though one cool thing that could make the north rim a winner is the ability to camp in the national forest on the edge of the rim.

      With something like the Grand Canyon, I don’t think you can possibly say one part of it is “better” than another. The whole thing is amazing! And which side a person likes best is really most likely going to be based on preference! Though that’s a good point about Kaibab National Forest on the North Rim!

    Fantastic smackdown! Very useful. We’re planning to go to the Grand Canyon in 2013 (yes, we’re planning that far ahead!) so I really enjoyed all your comparisons and things to consider. But — I can’t decide which rim to visit. I guess we’ll have to do both.

      I fully support budgeting time for both sides! I don’t think you’ll regret it.

      And planning this far ahead is actually a really good idea when it comes to the Grand Canyon, especially if you’re planning to stay in the national park! I’m glad you found this post useful!

    The Grand Canyon is so incredible! I’ll take any side!

      I agree!! I’m glad I got to see both sides, but I would have taken any glimpse of the Grand Canyon. It is one wonder that was very aptly named.

    Visited the South Rim during winter and it was awesome. Quite a few tourist buses even though there was snow there. Wish we had tried out the North Rim now. Cheers

      I feel like the Grand Canyon in winter would be amazing! If there was snow on the ground, you probably wouldn’t have been able to make it to the North Rim anyway, though. The road to it usually closes in the winter, and they shut that part of the park down usually by November. I guess you’ll just need to go back someday!

    Some of the best pics I have seen of the Grand Canyon. So have they had much rain there before you visited in August as the greens are so brilliant and some shrubbery flowering?

      Thanks so much, Jim. I think it would be difficult to take truly bad photos here, though… Of course, photos don’t even begin to do it justice! I have no idea about the rain, though… But it was sprinkling at the North Rim the day we were there, so it didn’t seem like the area was in a drought or anything.

    I haven’t been to the Grand Canyon yet but it sounds like I’ll need to take the time to visit both sides!

    Like the smackdowns you’ve been doing. I’m glad the final outcome was a tie because there can’t be a winner in this category. there are pros & cons to both, but both are amazing and breathtaking and both are must sees as far as we’re concerned. If I had to chose one it would be the North, but that’s only because we’ve been to both sides more than once and even hiked to the bottom from both the North & South Rim. You’ve missed the third option which almost nobody goes to, it’s amazing as well – Toroweap Point http://trans-americas.com/gallery/Airstream/35_Toroweap/35_Toroweap.html

      I’m glad you like my smackdowns! And I’m glad you agree with the final result being a tie!

      And thanks for sharing the tip about Toroweap Point! It looks beautiful.

    Really great post and some breathtaking photos…especially the first one showing the sunset at Mather Point. Sadly, I have not yet visited, but one day, one day! 🙂

      Thank you, Kerri! That photo of sunset at Mather Point is one of my favorites from the whole roadtrip, I think. The colors were just phenomenal.

      And yes, you definitely should visit one day! You won’t regret it!

    We took a scenic flight over the Grand Canyon which departed from Vegas. It was actually an affordable way of getting a different taste of the canyon in a short period of time. Not exactly an ‘involved’ experience, but pretty cool all the same. If you can afford it, go the helicopter route.

      I imagine that would be amazing! Getting a view of the canyon from above I’m sure would be worth the price you paid.

    The place is amazingly beautiful.. Grand Canyon is really a breath taking place. Someday I will also explore that place =)

      It certainly is breath taking! I hope you do get to explore it someday.

    i agree, the grand canyon is really mesmerizing. i haven’t been there and i could only see it from movies.

      I can assure you it’s even more amazing in person!

    Never have gone to the North Rim but must make it a to do on my next trip west – I would love to see the Grand Canyon in the snow but driving winding roads in snow is not my thing

      The North Rim should DEFINITELY be on your to-do list next time you’re out West! And, actually, you can’t see the North Rim in snow anyway, since the one road leading to it is usually closed this time of year.

    I can’t wait to start planning my escape to the Grand Canyon it looks beautiful!

    So there are mule rides available on South Rim? Are they really worth it? I mean, spending 100+ dollars.. ?
    And what about other activities? Have you done any, such as Helicopter ride, plane, river raft, etc. etc.. ?
    Please give some advice on that.. We are planning on visiting North Rim from Phoenix.. So, not sure.. I am very confused!
    And btw, this was a great post/blog about Grand Canyon! Good job Amanda!

      There are mule rides available on both rims, but they are cheaper on the North Rim.

      My sister and I did not do any activities because we were on a budget and were just visiting for the scenery. If we had done anything, I would have been most interested in a plane/helicopter ride over the canyon. I’m sure the views from above would be amazing!

    […] may need to book things ahead of time. For example, if you want to camp or take a mule ride at the Grand Canyon’s South Rim, you’ll have to make bookings months in advance. Similarly, if you’re traveling in the winter, […]

    […] think it should be mandatory for every American to visit the Grand Canyon at least once in their lives, just so they can truly appreciate how awesome the Southwest (and our […]

    Ok so my husband, and I have been to the Grand Canyon, about 20 years ago, south rim when it wasn’t really crowded to drive along. We are planning to go cross country with our kids this summer and wanted to make that a stop (just picked up an RV). My sister did this years ago and went straight out 80 and stopped on the North Rim and said it was amazing.
    We are leaving PA and heading to Ok to see my dad first and then working our way up to the Dakotas. I was thinking that would be good to see the North Rim since we haven’t seen it yet and we don’t have a lot of time to fight the crowds and it would be easier to get a camp site. Do you think my kids would really miss out if we didn’t do the south Rim? Or is it a more feasible route to just do the South Rim? I’m trying to look at maps and can’t really tell yet.
    Thanks

      I think it just depends on your route. My sister and I drove to the North Rim from Page, Arizona, which is north of the Grand Canyon, so it made sense to visit the North Rim first. Then we drove around to the South Rim. The South Rim is closer to major highways (hence why more people visit it), but I don’t think your kids would be missing out at all if you only visited the North Rim. It’s still really impressive, and yeah, much less crowded.

    […] huge and diverse and very, very beautiful. From New York City to the Florida Everglades to the Grand Canyon to San Francisco, this country has SO much to offer. And so much to […]

    The first time I saw the North rim of the Grand Canyon I was floored, it was so beautiful! You knew it existed because you see enough of it on TV, movies and newspapers but you don’t really believe, if you know what I mean! I parked my car and ran over to the first viewing area and just couldn’t believe the beauty of this park!! Everyone must put this on their bucket list,it is a “can’t miss” trip. I have not seen the South rim yet but plan on it very soon. Another don’t miss is Bryce Canyon NP in Utah. Unbelievable!!!!

      Yes, the Grand Canyon really is spectacular, no matter where you see it!

    […] skywalk 4,000 feet above the Grand Canyon. I would definitely do this part next time we visit. This blog post by A Dangerous Business has a great comparison of the South and North Rims. Each section of the park has many hikes of […]

    This was SO helpful!! I really appreciate you taking the time to write this out. You’ve won me over on the North Rim!! 🙂

      I don’t think you’ll be disappointed!

    Beautiful pictures, Amanda! Great post, with a lot of practical information…
    I would like to add few details from my experiences in Grand Canyon… One, don’t get scared by the fact that all the accommodations are booked far in advance. There are often many cancellations, and if you check last minute, you will find something… Two, to truly experience the canyon, you want to get inside. Even if you are not a hiker, just go in for a short distance… And if you are a hiker, and you are fit, plan a day hike to Colorado River and back, from South Rim. A warning here though, it is a brutal hike for most people. Especially, the hike up… Three, there is a lodge and few cabins at the bottom – Phantom Ranch. And again, even though the place is booked solid months in advance, you can often find room there last minute due to cancellations… Four, if you want to hike to the river, South Rim is a better option. The trail from North Rim to the river (North Kaibab Trail) is 16 miles long. On the other hand, the Bright Angel Trail from South Rim is only about 9 miles…
    Five, if you cannot hike to the bottom, but still would want to spend a night in the canyon, the mules would be worth considering…
    To finish, I will just say, stop thinking about it and just go there, you won’t regret it, and most likely, it will be a trip that will leave you with lifetime lasting impressions…

    Thanks for pointing out that the North Rim is much less crowded and more natural. My husband and I are planning a family trip to the grand canyon. We’re still in the early stages, so much that I didn’t even realize there were two different rims we could visit! I like your recommendation of visiting both, but the North Rim might be a more relaxing place to start since I have a large family. Thanks for pointing out some of the differences between the rims!

      They’re both great, but if you’re wrangling a large family, the North Rim might indeed be more relaxed!

    My thought is that hit the south rim for sure, but if you have the time to get to the north rim, it’s so much cooler (temperature-wise) and so much less commercial and crowded that it is absolutely worth it! Mostly though, if you visit, spend at least an hour walking down one of the trails, because it is like another world!

    From an Arizonan 🙂

      Yes, I think that would be my recommendation, too! I prefer the North Rim because it’s quieter – but of course it’s not visit-able for much of the year since the road to it closes in the winter!

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