While this guide was created with the photographer in mind, anyone visiting the Grand Canyon National Park, south rim, should find these suggestions helpful in finding the most spetcular views.
Quick Orientation Lesson....
For the purposes of my little writeup, I have divide the viewpoints into 3 seperate geographic groups.
West Rim/Hermit's Rest drive, except in winter, this road is only accessible via the shuttle bus (Red Route), walking or taking a bicycle.
Grand Canyon Village and Visitor Center, which is near the main park entrance, hotels, campgrounds, visitors center, and parking. With the exception of Yaki Point and Kaibab Trail, you will park your car and walk to your location.
East Rim/Desert View Drive, is toured using your own transportation. There is an additional park entrance at Desert View, which is the far eastern edge of the park.
When should I go?
While the Grand Canyon is spectacular any time of year, I chose the summer for my last two trips to the canyon. Being one of the most photographed destinations in the world, your photos will benefit from an "added" touch to make them stand out. The summer monsoon season provides the added advantage I am looking for. Almost daily, there are storm cloud formations and sometimes the possibility of capturing lighting strikes too. A spectacular sky may elevate an otherwise good photo into a great one. The play of light and shadow, as the clouds part for the sun also adds an added dimension. Snow, is another "added" touch that can make for great canyon photos. But, snow is a lot harder to predict far in advance. If I lived in Las Vegas instead of 2000 miles from the Canyon, I might be hopping in my car if a snowstorm was in the forecast.
Isn't Summer too Crowded?
I was here for 10 days in mid August, at the height of the tourist season. I swear there were more German tourists at the canyon than when I last visited Switzerland. Because I was getting up before dawn everyday and not leaving until after sunset, I chose to stay inside the National Park. If you stay outside the park in Tusayan, it can take an extra 15 minutes or more to get to where you are going. At least if you are coming at 5AM, the park entrance booths are either unmanned or there is very little traffic. At 10AM there may be quite a long line of cars waiting to get in.
Where I stayed
I fly into Las Vegas and rent a minivan. I then stop at the local Walmart and purchased an air mattress, light sleeping bag and a couple pillows. I just donate my lightly used supplies to a Habitat for Humanity store when I return to Las Vegas. In my luggage, I have packed pillow cases, a twin mattress pad, sheet, and a small inverter to run the mattress air pump. I reserve a campsite at the Mather Campground (in advance). With summer nightly temperatures averaging in the 50's, I am very comfortable at night. The campground is just a few minutes from the Visitors Center.
There are a number of places to eat, and a good sized grocery store in the park, and less than 2 minutes from the campground by car. The campground also has bathrooms, laundry and showers. There are a number of hotels in the park as well, and if I were with my wife, those would be good, though more expensive, alternatives. Phone service is mediocre, but there is free Wifi at a number of the"in park" hotels and restaurants. I stay inside the park the entire time I am there. This means I only go through the park entrance gate one time.
At sunrise, the only place, even in summer, that is moderately crowded is Mather Point, which is the viewpoint closest to the visitor center. Even here, with a little bit of patience, you can find yourself a good location.
I can always find a "spot" at any viewpoint. Sometimes I have to wait a couple minutes if I am being "picky". Usually there are just so many good places to photograph from that it is just a matter of walking a few feet further on to find a spot worth shooting from. Walk around a little, and you may find that the "best" spot for you is not where everybody else is standing. At many locations, the drop off is not straight down. It may be safe to talk down the cliff a little way and find a location that is more expansive than the viewing platform or trail. You will see others do this and I have never seen the park service ranger disuade anyone. Always proceed with great care and caution.
I particularly avoid anything that looks like loose sand or gravel when I am near the edge. On more than one occasion I have "gingerly" hiked over to a nearby, seemingly "precarious" precipice, only to find myself with"company" 5 minutes later ("Oh, look where that dude is, let's try that out....").
Each Viewpoint Group has its unique "crowd" considerations
To the west, along Hermit' Rest Drive, Powell, Mohave and especially Hopi Point are the busiest spots for sunset viewing in this group. They all have expansive viewing areas, so finding a great location to shoot from will not be an issue. Just make sure to leave yourself enough time to catch the shuttle bus to your destination. Lots of tourists head out there for sunsets, so there might not be room for you on the first shuttle that shows up. Fortunately the line up for the buses, at the transit station, is somewhat organized (like waiting in line at Disney).
The Grand Canyon Village/Visitor Center area, especially around Mather Point and the hotels, are the the busiest viewing locations at the Grand Canyon. There are hundreds of people, every evening, lined up along the rim to watch the sunset. If there is someplace you scouted out during the day, just arrive early and you are unlikely to have an issue. Once you are positioned, at least at the Grand Canyon, you don't have to worry about someone setting up in front of you.
The eastern viewpoints along Desert View Drive, with the exception of Desert View Point, have relatively small parking areas. In summer, during the middle of the day, these viewpoints can become congested with traffic, especially when someone is trying negotiate their 40 foot RV through the Grandview Point parking lot. But even in these situations, while it felt somewhat aggravating at the time, I honestly don't think I've waited even 10 minutes to get parked. Often, the delay, if any, was much shorter. At sunrise, you may have the viewpoint to yourself, with the only exception being another photographer. At sunset, there will often be a fair number of tourists, but not so many as to be a "problem".