When planning a visit to the Grand Canyon South Rim, you should know that the waiting times at the Grand Canyon South Entrance Station can ruin your entire experience. On busy days, it’s not uncommon to wait in line for over 2 hours – just to be able to enter the National Park!
I always thought that this was only a problem if visiting Grand Canyon South Rim during the high season, or only during the busiest times of the day. However, this is no longer the case. Grand Canyon is one of the most-visited National Parks in the USA, and you can always expect it to be busy here.
How busy it gets, depends so much on the day when you visit. It can be quieter on a weekend in March than on a weekday during Christmas and New Year.
On our most recent visit to the Grand Canyon in winter, the queues at the south entrance station were stretching all the way to Tusayan General Store, over 1.7 miles away (2.9 km). Locals told us that a queue like this means that it will take you about 1.5-2 hours to get into the park. This was in the late afternoon, but it was the day after Christmas…
Luckily, there are a few rather simple ways to avoid the queues at Grand Canyon South Rim Entrance no matter when you visit.
Of course, the easiest way to avoid the crowds at the Grand Canyon is to travel in the low season. But Grand Canyon South Rim is a year-round destination and so the definition of the low season here is not as straightforward.
Furthermore, as a family traveling with kids during their school holidays, we are well aware that it’s not always possible to avoid peak visitation times. After all, we ourselves also visited the Grand Canyon between Christmas and New Year…
The good thing is that even in the peak season, you can still have an amazing trip and save yourself lots of frustration and wasted time by planning ahead.
In this article, you can find our top tips and experience-based recommendations on how to visit the South Rim of the Grand Canyon without a long wait. Check these out and plan your trip accordingly. That way, you can spend your time enjoying the amazing scenery rather than sitting in the car for hours just waiting to get in. Find out!
Grand Canyon South Entrance Station
First, here is some information about the Grand Canyon South Entrance Station, which is the main point of entry for the biggest majority of park visitors.
The most beautiful views of the Grand Canyon National Park can be found at the South Rim. It can only be reached via 2 entrances: (1) the South Entrance Station and (2) the western entrance on Desert View Road.
The South Entrance Station is located on SR64, about 2 miles north of Tusayan, AZ. This entry is closest to the Grand Canyon Village where you will find the nicest viewpoints, the visitor center, and other major facilities inside the park.
Good to know: Whether you are driving to the Grand Canyon from Williams, Flagstaff, Sedona, Phoenix, or Las Vegas, the closest entrance to the Grand Canyon National Park is at the southern gate.
As you can imagine, the majority of tourists visit from one of these bigger towns and cities in the area. So this explains the long queues.
To give you an idea, here are the shortest driving times and distances to Grand Canyon South Entrance from the nearest bigger towns:
- From Williams, AZ: 55 miles (89 km), 50 minutes.
- From Flagstaff, AZ: 75 miles (120 km), 1 hour 20 minutes.
- From Sedona, AZ: 100 miles (160 km), 2 hours.
- From Kingman, AZ: 170 miles (275 km), 2.5 hours.
- From Phoenix, AZ: 225 miles (360 km), 3.5 hours.
- From Las Vegas, NV: 275 miles (440 km), 4 hours 10 minutes.
No matter where you enter the Grand Canyon National Park, you have to pay a recreational fee (unless you visit on one of the 5 free-entrance days, which is not advisable as it’s even busier).
If you are arriving via the South Entrance Station, you can just get your permit on the spot. At the moment, you pay per vehicle and not per person, and they only accept credit cards. The entrance fee for a private vehicle is 35 USD. It’s valid for 7 days and includes both – North and South Rim.
TIP: If you are visiting more than two national parks over a period of 12 months, it’s best to simply get an America the Beautiful Pass, which costs just 80 USD.
You can buy all passes online in advance or at the park entrance. Since most people seem to get them at the entrance gate, this slows everything down even more…
Anyway, this brings us to our top tips for avoiding the queues – see below!
Here are some of the best ways to avoid the long wait at the Grand Canyon south entrance station:
1. Arrive Early
This is a simple and the most effective way to enter the Grand Canyon National Park via the South Entrance Station without a long wait. You simply have to arrive earlier than the rest! Not difficult, right?! 😉
And while you would think that most people would think of this, the truth is that the majority of visitors don’t even realize that entering the park can be a problem… So if you get an early start, you will easily beat the biggest crowds.
The South Entrance is always open (I’m not sure at what time the ticket boots open, however, but if you have an annual NPs pass, it’s not an issue). So how early you can enter, will purely depend on where you are coming from and how early you get up. For that, we highly recommend that you stay in Tusayan hotels which are just 5 minutes drive from the Grand Canyon south entrance.
In the summer, I would strongly advise arriving at the park at around 7-8 am, but no later than 9 am. On busy weekends in the winter, try to get here by 9 am, and no later than 10 am. However, in winter the days are shorter (it gets dark at 5-6 pm), so if you want to make the most of your visit, it’s wiser to start your day earlier anyway.
Also, arriving early means that you can try to catch a sunrise at the Grand Canyon. Plus, you won’t have difficulties finding a parking spot at the visitor center, which is the busiest place to be at any time of the day. So you can visit everything here before the crowds arrive.
If you want to take a park shuttle to some other viewpoints or hike trailheads, you will be glad to know that shuttles start running very early in the morning. Shuttles inside the park start at 6 am.
Our recent experience at Christmas: We stayed at The Grand Hotel at the Grand Canyon (in Tusayan) and left just before 7 am each morning in order to see the sunrise at the Grand Canyon.
Even on sunny weekend days in the peak holiday season, there were no queues whatsoever and we were inside the park in no time. When we left the park at around 3 pm one day, we saw an immense line of cars all the way up to Tusayan.
Alternative: On the weekends during the warmer months when the days are longer and daylight isn’t an issue, it can be better to arrive at the Grand Canyon in the late afternoon rather than late in the morning (early morning always wins). Most crowds at the entrance gate should be gone by then and you can stay in the park later and see a sunset to make up for the lost time.
Or – in high season – you can also opt for a free and fast park shuttle from Tusayan to Grand Canyon Visitor Center (more about it further below).
2. Stay Inside the Park
There are quite a few hotels in Grand Canyon Village inside the park (such as Yavapai Lodge, El Tovar, Bright Angel Lodge, etc.). Staying here means that you only need to enter the park once and don’t have to worry about the queues after that. Unless you decide to leave in order to take a helicopter flight or watch an IMAX movie at the Visitor Center in Tusayan, etc.
Anyway, if you are visiting Grand Canyon National Park for a few days and don’t want to get up early, then staying at one of the accommodations inside the park really is the best way to avoid the queues at the south gate.
However, there are a few disadvantages too. First, hotels inside the park are quite a lot more expensive than the ones in Tusayan and incomparably more expensive than hotels in e.g. Williams or Flagstaff. And when comparing them, be sure to check if breakfast is included in the rate. It will come as no surprise that you get much more for your money when staying outside the park.
In addition, you have better facilities in hotels outside the national park (such as WIFI or swimming pools/hot tubs). And there are also many more restaurants to choose from outside the park, which means that the prices are lower too.
READ ALSO: Where to Stay at the Grand Canyon
3. Take the Grand Canyon Shuttle from Tusayan
If you are visiting the Grand Canyon between Memorial Day and Labor Day, you can also avoid the queues at the south entrance gate by taking a free shuttle bus from Tusayan.
The Tusayan Route (Purple) connects Tusayan town (with several stops at the main hotels) with the Grand Canyon Visitor Center. Buses run every 20 minutes between 8 am and +- 9.30 pm.
This works like park and rail and these shuttles bypass the queues at the park entrance. Plus, you don’t have to look for parking inside the park. Needless to say, this saves you a lot of time. You can find more information about this route here.
Important! Keep in mind that you still need to buy a permit to enter the National Park and you need to have it before you board the bus. For that, you can either get a Grand Canyon NP pass online or – if you don’t have it yet – simply get America the Beautiful Pass which is valid in all national parks for a year. You only need one pass per family/group traveling together in the same car (just like when entering the park by car).
4. Enter the Grand Canyon South Rim from the East
As already mentioned, there are two ways to enter the Grand Canyon South Rim. The eastern entrance on Desert View Road is incomparably quieter than the south entrance.
Depending on where you are traveling from, this can be a good option. So keep this in mind when preparing your road trip itinerary. For example, if you are starting in Las Vegas and are visiting places like Zion National Park, Bryce Canyon, Antelope Canyon, or Monument Valley on this same trip, it might be wiser to do it clockwise. That way, you enter the Grand Canyon from the east.
Even if you are coming from Flagstaff or Sedona, it can be quicker to take a longer detour and arrive at the Grand Canyon via Desert View Road. It adds about 30-40 minutes to your drive, but if you can avoid a 2-hour queue, it’s still worth it.
Furthermore, you can start with the viewpoints on that side of the park, which you will likely want to see otherwise anyway. So – depending on what you are planning to see – it’s not even a detour at all.
Good to know: Desert View Road can sometimes be closed due to snowstorms in winter. They usually clear it as soon as possible, but it’s not uncommon for it to remain closed for a few days in a row. This can happen quite often during the winter months.
5. Visit Grand Canyon by Train
Driving by car is not the only way to visit the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. You can also opt for a very different experience and arrive here in style on the historic Grand Canyon Railway.
It’s not only a nice journey in itself, but it’s also a very relaxed way to get to the Grand Canyon South Rim. You don’t have to worry about the queues or parking, and even the entrance fees are included in your ticket.
The train departs from Williams, AZ, and arrives at the Bright Angel Lodge in Grand Canyon Village.
Once you are inside the park, you can walk and/or take the free park shuttle to the nicest viewpoints. You won’t be able to get everywhere by shuttle, but you can visit all the main viewpoints and enjoy the most spectacular views.
Good to know: Be sure to book train tickets in advance because the number of trips every day is limited. The trains leave from Williams in the morning and come back in the evening, so you have enough time to explore the South Rim. This journey is possible daily, the whole year round except on Christmas Day.
TIP: If you opt for 1st-class tickets, you have more space and grand picture windows, plus snacks and beverages are included.
READ ALSO: What to See in Grand Canyon in 1 Day
6. See the Grand Canyon from the Air
If you are short on time and want to enjoy some of the best views of the Grand Canyon, you can also opt for a scenic flight by helicopter or small airplane.
Scenic flights depart from Tusayan Airport, which is located just outside the national park, so you don’t have to worry about the queues at the entrance gate.
Weather permitting, tours are normally available daily during the entire year. This is one of the most popular helicopter tours from Tusayan. And this is a similar tour by plane.
And of course, it’s not the same as visiting the viewpoints of the South Rim. But seeing the Grand Canyon from the air is an amazing experience. And if you don’t have much time, it’s a much better use of your time than standing in line for a few hours…
Good to know: If you are staying in Las Vegas, you can also see the Grand Canyon by taking a helicopter tour. Since the South Rim is over 4 hours drive from Vegas, helicopter tours are by far the quickest way to see the Grand Canyon if you want to do it in just a day.
READ ALSO: Best Day Trips from Las Vegas
So, these are our top tips for avoiding the infamous queues at the Grand Canyon South Rim entrance gate. I hope that this guide helps you make the most out of your visit!
Have a great trip!
More travel inspiration for the Southwestern USA:
- Bucket list trip: Grand Canyon, Antelope Canyon & Horseshoe Bend 2-day Itinerary
- Arizona: Top Places to Visit in Arizona & Monument Valley Scenic Drive
- Las Vegas: Tips for Visiting Las Vegas & Best Things to Do in Las Vegas
- Sedona, AZ: Best Things to Do in Sedona & Sedona Day Trip
- Zion, UT: Best Hikes in Zion National Park & Zion to Bryce Canyon & Where to Stay in Zion
- Moab, UT: Moab, Arches, and Canyonlands National Park & Where to Stay in Moab
- Arches NP, UT: Best Things to Do in Arches National Park
- Death Valley NP: Best Things to Do in Death Valley
- Canyonlands NP, UT: Best Things to Do in Canyonlands National Park
- San Diego, CA: San Diego Itinerary Suggestions
- Los Angeles, CA: LA 3-Day Itinerary & Tips for Universal Studios Hollywood
- Gold Butte, NV: Travel Guide to Gold Butte National Monument
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