The North Rim: Grand Canyon Day Trip From St. George, Utah
It’s always felt un-American, somehow, that I’d never been to the Grand Canyon. NEVER. So when I knew I’d be spending a week in southern Utah, I made a day trip to the Grand Canyon my first priority.
I quickly realized it would need to be the *North Rim* Grand Canyon, specifically, after looking at the driving distances involved. And so I went about figuring out how to get from St. George to the Grand Canyon, and what we could realistically do once we got there.
The Grand Canyon is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the Natural Wonders of the World. The North Rim is quite remote…there’s no nearby airport and it’s much further from Las Vegas or any Arizona cities than the South Rim is (and a good 3 hours from St. George, Utah, where we were staying).
But because it’s not as convenient and takes more work to get there, the North Rim only gets about 10% of the visitors that the South Rim does, which means you get to enjoy those iconic views with a lot less crowding.
Call it a quieter, slightly less touristy-feeling Grand Canyon experience.
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On the one hand there’s probably a little less to *do* at the North Rim, but it does have beautiful scenic drives and a few hiking trails. And it has some of the best sweeping views of the Grand Canyon, because it’s at a slightly higher elevation than the South Rim (though due to its higher elevation it’s only open mid-May to mid-October).
I’ve provided a detailed list of tips for planning your trip at the end of this post, including some COVID-specific tips. At the ranger stand where you pay to enter, they’ll give you a map of the entire North Rim Grand Canyon area, including the scenic drive we took.
Other inspiration for your trip to the St. George area
The drive in and out of the park was beautiful in its own right. There were beautiful aspen trees with the fall leaves changing, blue skies, constantly changing topography, and even a couple herd of bison!
Our first stop was the Grand Canyon North Rim Visitors Center. The Visitor Center includes lodging, a couple restaurants with great views, bathrooms, and souvenir shops. Normally it would be a great place to ask the rangers for recommendations for hikes, timing, etc.
However, when we visited (October 2020, during COVID) a lot was shut down so the rangers weren’t available, most of the restaurants were closed, and there were only port-a-potties. Still a good first stop though. We grabbed a hot dog and a delicious local porter, then walked over to the Bright Angel Trail.
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Bright Angel Trail
While you’re at the Visitor Center, head back toward the cabins and beyond until you hit the Bright Angel Trail. It’s an easy half-mile walk round trip, though definitely steep in places. It may take you like five times the time you’d think though, because you’re stopping every 10 seconds to take photos.
First, let’s start with this VIEW!!!
Yep, that’s me…pretty amazing, right?? The second pic is me trying to scramble up there and not fall.
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Sitting at an elevation of 8,000 feet, the North Rim views are especially good because you’re up higher looking down on the canyon. It’s easier to see the ripples and folds of the rock, the different layers and colors. The vastness is unbelievable!
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There aren’t railings or anything, and I kept making Casey nervous with how close to the edge I’d get for pics. The whole time we were walking along the “spine” of the Bright Angel Trail, Casey kept going “man, I’m glad I don’t have my boys here!” It would definitely be nerve-wracking if you had little kids and you’d need to keep a tight grip on them!
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North Rim Scenic Drive
Next we left the Visitor Center area and turned onto the scenic drive toward Point Imperial and Cape Royal. While it’s not a *long* drive, it does take quite a long time as you have to go slow…plus all the stops for photos will slow you down.
This drive really lets you appreciate the quiet and remote beauty that can be found at the North Rim. We were fortunate to be visiting in the early autumn as the leaves of the aspens were changing…it was unexpected and the sun on the golden leaves really made the whole drive almost sparkle!
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There are several different pull-outs and scenic viewpoints to see along the route, which is a there-and-back. If you did the entire drive you should plan a half day, assuming you’ll be making stops, going on short hikes, and taking photos.
Cape Royal is the furthest point out, 23 miles from the Visitor Center (figure at least 45 minutes). Point Imperial is approximately 11 miles or 20 minutes from the visitor center and Cape Royal is 23 miles or 45 minutes.
One tip: I’m told the Cape Final Trail is awesome and easy (4 miles roundtrip, but easy)…we didn’t have time to get there, but you definitely should try it!
This was our first stop along the road, and is technically a detour…you’ll need to hang a left off the Cape Royal Road and go 2.7 miles to reach Point Imperial. It’s 100% worth it, though!
It’s the highest point along the North Rim (over 8,800 feet) and looks out on the Painted Desert and eastern end of the canyon.
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The canyon really opens up here so you can see FOREVER over the Painted Desert! I love the random needles and wedges that just sit out there all on their own.
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Make your way back to the main Cape Royal Road and then head out toward Cape Royal. Vista Encantada is the first main stop along the way, but is several miles down (about halfway to Cape Royal).
Honestly I can’t remember if I have any pics from here, but we did stop briefly. It was less memorable than the other stops for some reason.
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We did stop longer at Roosevelt Point, though. We knew there was a short little hike, about .2 miles. But we couldn’t see it at first and found a pretend little trail on the right-hand side of the parking lot. While it *wasn’t* the right trail, it did take us to this amazing sweeping view.
It’s seriously an itty-bitty little dirt trail that’s like…20 feet? It’s a bit precarious but we weren’t the only people who accidentally ended up there.
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But THEN we found the actual trail, over on the left side of the parking lot (and with this helpful sign which we completely missed initially).
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This was the actual dirt path (Roosevelt Trail) that took us about a tenth of a mile each way and led us to these wide-open vistas.
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At this point we realized we needed to head back toward St. George, as it was late in the day, sunset was early, and we had a LONG drive.
It was hard to concentrate on the driving with absolutely beautiful skies in front of me. I did try to keep my eyes peeled though, and sure enough we had deer run right in front of us a couple times as we were leaving the park.
The sunset that developed over the course of about an hour was stunning and the pics below don’t remotely do it justice.
It was a long drive from St. George to the Grand Canyon North Rim and back, but a doable and rewarding day trip. Here are some of my specific tips for planning your trip, and what to do while you’re there!
Tips for planning your North Rim adventure:
- From St. George (Utah) it took us a solid 3 hours each way to the North Rim (I’d heard from 2.5 to 4 hours and we were flooring it).
- One of the most important things to note: The drive from St. George to the North Rim Grand Canyon has a TON of wildlife (deer, bison, etc.)—particularly when you’re around the Grand Canyon area. This can make the drive very dangerous, particularly around dusk and after dark. I recommend trying to avoid driving at these times. We were being super vigilant and still barely avoided many animals running in front of us.
- While it’s pretty remote (and often out of cell range), there are towns spaced out every 30 minutes or so, for gas and food. We also stopped briefly at the Kaibab Plateau Visitor Center for restrooms. There’s a cute-looking place just a bit before you enter Grand Canyon National Park with gas, espresso, food, etc.
- When we visited (early October 2020, during COVID), the Visitor Center closed, and they were offering only a few limited food options. Additionally, there were only port-a-potties vs. actual restrooms open.
- Due to its higher elevation, the North Rim is only open mid-May to mid-October
- Here is a link to a map of the North Rim, including the scenic drive we took
- We didn’t have time ourselves, but if you have extra time in the area, consider a stop at Vermillion Cliffs; it’s a bit out of the way but supposed to be cool
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