South Mountain Park offers spaces for a lifetime of exploration and adventure but still cannot compare with a nearby attraction, Grand Canyon National Park.
I frequently poll classes I teach at GateWay Community College and groups I work with to determine how many have been to the Grand Canyon.
The poll results are consistent: less than half of Arizona residents have ever visited. This is one of the seven natural wonders of the world, one relatively easy and inexpensive to visit from the East Valley, making the result quite surprising.
People travel across the world and spend tens of thousands of dollars to visit the Grand Canyon, we can get there with a few days and couple hundred dollars and many still never go.
It may seem complicated and daunting but is a relatively easy and inexpensive place to visit.
Every season at the Grand Canyon is different.
Winter brings smaller crowds and scenic snowy landscapes, advantages a bit offset by colder nights and regular snowstorms. Here are the basic details along with the cost:
Transportation. The 230-mile drive is approximately 3.5 hours from Phoenix. After arriving, there is an excellent shuttle system to get you most places in the park for free.
The park’s shuttle system will take you to most popular destinations along the rim. Some of the shuttle routes provide lengthy, unobstructed views of the Canyon. I’ve spent numerous pleasurable afternoons taking in the view from a shuttle with kids exhausted by a day of hiking.
Lodging. There is a hotel in the park with rooms from $100/night at Bright Angel or Maswik Lodges. The hotel in nearby Tusayan has options available for $100 a night for less.
Additional expenses. Entrance fee is currently $35/car for seven days. Cooler of food for weekend: $50. Photos, memories: Free. This adds up to $200-350 total for a weekend of experiences and memories like no other.
For an even better deal, get an annual pass. For $80, this covers all national parks, national forests, monuments, recreation areas and others for a full year. It’s about the cost of a movie and candy for a family of four, but this gets you a full year of exploration and adventure.
Fourth graders can get a free annual pass through an Every Kid in a Park program, and there are free annual passes for members of the military, the disabled, and national park volunteers. People 62 and older can get a lifetime pass for the same $80 rate.
Other times of year. With nighttime temperatures at the South Rim in the winter regularly dropping into the 20s and teens, camping is reserved for only the hardiest of souls.
This is a great option for the other seasons, however, and a great way to save some money.
Mather Campground at the South Rim has over 300 sites at $18 per night.
These sites should be reserved in advance during busier times of the year as it does fill up, you should not plan on arriving and expecting a site to be available during the spring or summer months. Phoenix and Flagstaff-area REI stores rent tents at a reasonable rate of $25 for three days.
While it often seems all 6 million annual visitors arrive simultaneously and happen to be there during your visit, it is relatively easy to escape the crowds as most visitors spend a short amount of time at the canyon and never leave the visitor centers and lookout points.
By walking even 10 minutes from the major viewpoints, you will be able to achieve relative solitude. And the panoramic landscapes created by this natural wonder are available the entire length, not confined to the Instagram-official photo spots.
The winter, in particular, brings smaller crowds and even more picturesque landscapes. Do exercise proper caution of winter storms and ice accumulation, which affects the roads and trails on a regular basis.
The Grand Canyon National Park website provides regular updates on conditions: nps.gov/grca/planyourvisit/weather-condition.htm.