One-day itinerary to get the most out of your Grand Canyon experience on a budget

Fall sunrise casts shadows across the Grand Canyon
Fall sunrise casts shadows across the Grand Canyon. Photo credit: Paul Fiarkoski

Q: I’m looking to take my grandkids to the Grand Canyon for the first time. Any money saving tips or tricks? It’s going to be a day trip.

This was an actual question someone posted on the Arizona Bucket List Adventure group page on Facebook that I manage.

I love when questions like this one inspire blog posts.

Here’s my short answer:

My favorite way to experience Grand Canyon is avoid the main south rim entrance by driving Highway 89 from Flagstaff through Cameron, then come in the east entrance. It’s much more scenic than the route through Williams. Make your first stop at Desert View lookout. Once finished there, proceed to South Rim. There are several more lookout points along the way.
At the South Rim, explore the Rim Trail and Yavapai Geology Museum. Want more Canyon? Jump on the free shuttle that goes to Hermit’s Rest. There are several places to get out look around.
I hope your road trip with the kiddos is one they’ll cherish forever.

Allow me to elaborate below.

Best way to get to Grand Canyon from Flagstaff

Why Flagstaff? Although many Arizona visitors and residents begin their journey to Grand Canyon from Phoenix or other cities in Arizona, most routes will take you through Flagstaff.

I’ve taken several routes to get to the Grand Canyon and this is my favorite:

  • From Flagstaff, take Highway 89 through the small Navajo community of Cameron
  • When you reach the roundabout near Speedy’s Truckstop, follow signs westward on State Route 64 for 32 miles
  • This will bring you into Grand Canyon National Park through the east entrance.
  • It’s much more scenic than the popular route through Williams to the South Rim of Grand Canyon.

Pro tip: Enter Grand Canyon National Park through East Entrance

Even though the route to Grand Canyon East Entrance is a longer distance from Phoenix or Flagstaff than going through Williams to South Rim, the shorter wait time to get through the east entrance usually makes up the time difference.

How much does it cost to visit the Grand Canyon?

Entrance to Grand Canyon National Park requires the purchase of a pass for your vehicle upon entry, unless you already have an annual Grand Canyon or America the Beautiful pass. Below is a breakdown of costs as of April 2023.

  • $35 per vehicle (non-commercial) with up to 15 passengers
  • $30 for motorcycle
  • $20 per person (age 15 and older) entering on foot or bicycle

Check the website for details on current fees and passes before you go.

Pro tip: Fee free entrance to Grand Canyon is available on these dates.

Between Flagstaff and Cameron

Look for the tall colorful, cones of earth that make up the region known as the Painted Desert.

Read more about the Painted Desert

First stop at the canyon: Desert View lookout

Desert View is a small settlement on the South Rim located 23 miles (37 km) east of Grand Canyon Village, and near the eastern edge of Grand Canyon.

This spot provides a great vantage point of the Colorado River as it winds its way through the canyon. Tap this Google map to Desert View for directions on your phone.

Arizona State Route 64, also known as Desert View Drive, is a scenic road that connects Desert View with Grand Canyon Village. Desert View Drive is open to all vehicles throughout the year, although weather and other unpredictable circumstances sometimes close it temporarily.

Desert View Watchtower provides spectacular views near the east entrance of Grand Canyon National Park. Admission is free.
Colorado River and Grand Canyon from watchtower at Desert View on South Rim
Grand Canyon observed from the watchtower at Desert View. Photo by Paul Fiarkoski

Money saving tip: Bring your own snacks and drinks and stay out of the gift shops.

Next stop (optional): Grandview Point

There are several more lookout points between Desert View and Grand Canyon Village at South Rim. Grandview Point is a little off the beaten path but definitely worth the extra drive for spectacular views of the canyon.

You should know: Cell phone coverage is unreliable in this part of Arizona. Your best bet is to visit the links and maps in this blog post ahead of time and screen shot or save them on your phone.

Destination: Grand Canyon Village

Grand Canyon Village is considered the heart of the Grand Canyon visitor experience. Here you’ll find ample places to park, learn, explore, walk and admire. Although breathtaking views of the canyon are the main attraction, you and your crew will no doubt be amazed by the plant and animal life you’ll observe in the vicinity.

People gathered to look at Grand Canyon from viewpoint
Mather Point View at Grand Canyon South Rim

Once at the South Rim, explore Rim Trail for endless views of the canyon from numerous vantage points and visit Yavapai Geology Museum or stroll along The Trail of Time for a free crash course in Grand Canyon history and ecology.

From the South Rim vicinity, you can also hike down into the canyon on either Bright Angel or South Kaibab Trail. Know your limits if you decide to do this, since hiking down can give a false sense of abilities. Hiking back up is much more difficult than down.

Remember this rule of thumb: Hiking down is optional, hiking up is mandatory.

Want more Canyon? Jump on the free shuttle (red route) that goes to Hermit’s Rest. There are several stops along the way where you can get out look around for a bit. If you bring bikes with you, you can ride this 18-mile round-trip route on two wheels. Bikes can also be rented in the village.

Check out my epic bike ride along the rim of Grand Canyon during the pandemic.

After your day at the canyon, you can return to your origin by backtracking the route described above or, if you want a quicker path back, ask your mapping app to take you back through Williams, Arizona to Interstate 40 and beyond.

Bonus: Check out the rest of my posts for more insider tips on getting more out of your Grand Canyon experience.

A day-trip to the Grand Canyon doesn’t require a lot of money. The cost of fuel and entrance to the park is unavoidable. But if you pack snacks and drinks for your crew, and avoid the gift shops, you can experience Arizona’s greatest natural wonder on a fairly low budget. Follow the itinerary and tips above to get the most out of your Grand Canyon experience.

Questions? Drop them in the comments or visit my Arizona Bucket List Adventures group on Facebook.


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