Every year, five million people flock to the Grand Canyon, one of the natural wonders of the world. The average visitor spends two to five hours hiking, basking in the awe-inspiring scenery: the skyrockets snaking along Saddle Mountain’s Trail Head, the fiery maple leaves drifting near Imperial Point and the thin blanket of snow tossed over the South Rim. Photographers have aimed to immortalize its history and aged beauty since the dawn of the first camera. However, the Grand Canyon is 277 miles long and 18 miles wide, and it’s unpredictable weather presents many challenges for photographers. So, we’ve assembled the ultimate Grand Canyon Guide, featuring tips for getting around, shooting locations and desert gear recommendations that will help you snap shareable photos of the second most visited National Park.
Part I: Getting Around
The National Park Service offers free entrance several times per year, including the National Park Service’s 100th Birthday (August 25-28) and Veteran’s Day (November 11). Any other time of the year, visitors must purchase either an individual permit ($15) or a vehicle permit ($30). Most locations in the Grand Canyon are accessible by private vehicle. However, these viewpoints can be reached by a free shuttle bus. Shuttles run every 15-30 minutes, and there is a pickup area every mile along the Rim Trail. The buses have four different routes: Grand Canyon Village, Kabib Rim, Hermit Road, and the Tusayan Gateway Community Route.
The majority of locations can also be reached on foot. If you’re hiking, the National Park Service recommends carrying a lightweight flashlight (with a change of batteries and an extra bulb), a digital compass, a signal mirror, a first aid kit and purification tablets. You’ll need to take a ten-minute break every hour. To meet your energy and electrolyte needs, you’ll also need to drink at least one liter of water or sport’s drink per hour while eating twice as much as you normally would. Visitors under 200 pounds and taller than 4-and-a-half feet can rent a mule for an hour or half-day. Mule trips are offered in the South Rim year-round, but they’re only offered in the North Rim from May 15 to October 15. Colorado River Discovery also offers multi-day, full-day and half-day rafting and helicopter trips, perfect for taking bird’s eye shots of the canyon.
Part II: Location Guide
South Rim Viewpoints:
Two miles southeast of Yaki Point, Shoshone Point – a one-mile trek on an unpaved dirt road from mile marker 245 – is occasionally reserved for weddings, memorial services and birthday bashes. The site, which isn’t marked on the road or maps, doesn’t have electricity, water or phone service, but does boast picnic tables, grills, covered pavilions, trash cans and Porta Potties.
Yaki Point, accessible only in the summer by shuttle bus, is located three miles east of the Grand Canyon Village. It features Zoroaster Temple, which is a 2,000 foot “king” peak often scaled by professional rock climbers, as well as Wotan’s Throne and parts of the South Kaibab, Tonto and Bright Angel Trail.
This scenic route runs seven miles west of the Grand Canyon Village and is closed to cars from March to November. It includes major viewpoints such the Abyss, an almost vertical view of the Grand Canyon and Hermit’s Rest, designed in 1914 by famous Southwestern architect Mary Colter.
Desert View Watchtower
The 70 foot Desert View Watch Tower is a 20-mile drive from the Grand Canyon Village. This 80-year-old building is the last last brain-child of park architect Mary Colter and was inspired by Pueblo architecture. The inside contains murals by Native American Hopi painter, Fred Kabotie.
Yavapai Point is located near the park’s south entrance, and is a panoramic viewpoint closest to the Colorado River. It’s also the location of the Yavapai Geology Museum that displays intricately crafted artwork, three-dimensional models and educational panels about the Grand Canyon’s formation.
North Rim Viewpoints:
Horseshoe Bend, a three-quarter mile hike over uneven and rocky terrain, is one of the most photographed areas on the Colorado River. Located near Lake Powell in Paige, Arizona, off of Route 89, its outlook is 1,000 feet above the “grand” river.
Point Imperial (8,803 ft.) is the highest of the North Rim’s outlooks. Its central peak, Saddle Mountain, separates the Painted Desert from the jutting, uneven cliffs and bottomless canyons – made of rare layers of red and black Precambrian rock – to its south.
Cape Royal is located 53 miles from Jacob Lake. As the North Rim’s southernmost gorge, it occupies 270 degrees of the horizon from Marble Canyon to the Palisades of the Desert, making it ideal for capturing pictures of the sunrise and sunset.
Toroweap, a 3,000 ft. overlook, can only be reached with a high-clearance vehicle. This ancestral home of the Southern Paiute is only open from sunrise to sunset. Volcanic cinder cones–small, hillside volcanoes–and lava flows offer once-in-a-lifetime photo opportunities.
The 100 ft. Havasu Waterfalls are located on Havasupai tribal lands. The turquoise waters draw in 20,000 visitors per year, and are the result of having been stored underground in limestone caverns for more than 30 millennia. Getting to this “paradise” can be a major challenge, though. You’ll have to reserve a Havasupai camping spot, but camping permits are usually sold out by the first month or two of the year. If you’re lucky, you’ll be able to rent one of the 24 usually booked, basic rooms at the Havasupai Lodge. Either way, the foot-slog from Hualapai Hilltop to Havasu Waterfalls is roughly 10 miles, which is not considered do-able as a daytime hike.
Part III: Photographer’s Desert Survival Kit
This lightweight kit includes a camera strap, tethered lock, battery, charger and a 64GB SD card. The Sony Alpha a7RII, the bundle’s camera body, also sports a 42 Megapixel sensor that results in breathtaking details and crisp colors. It’s 6-35mm f/4 wide photo lens will help you capture the vastness of the Grand Canyon, while it’s 200 mm telephoto lens will help you capture inner details, from twisting rocks to fast, flying condors. Moreover, the lens is adapted to low-light making them useful on the Grand Canyon’s Haze Days.
If you’re hiking or biking in the Grand Canyon, your goal should be to travel as light as possible. The heaviest items in your pack should be food and water. So, drag along this lightweight, 6-pound tripod and you’ll be set to use your telephoto lens to take pictures at sunset and sunrise, or snap panoramics.
The Grand Canyon’s fine red clay dust can collect inside of your camera’s lens and cake onto your imaging sensor, leaving hideous blotches on your travel photos. Rule of thumb: clean the lens of your camera whenever it looks dirty. As for the imaging sensor, most digital cameras have an internal sensor cleaning feature in their menus that ultrasonically shakes away dust particles.
Sometimes the Grand Canyon’s walls cast long shadows, so you’ll want to use this NDF–which reduces the intensity of all wavelengths–if the sky is drastically brighter than the terrain.
A headlamp leaves your hands free, so it’s useful if you have to trot back to your campsite after sunset or plan on shooting star trails (nighttime photography).
6. Esddi Waterproof Canvas DSLR Camera Bag ($39.99 on Amazon):
Store all of your desert photography gear in this lightweight, waterproof 2-pound camera bag. This copper, retro-style tote can be slung over your shoulder or wrapped around your whole body.