I enjoy Las Vegas for exactly 48 hours before I’m over it. There are only so many pool parties, buffets, and ritzy clubs I can stand in one weekend. But the great thing about Vegas is that you’re in great proximity to two of the United States’ greatest treasures: the Grand Canyon and the Hoover Dam.
You’ll see plenty of day tours available on sites like Viator that will take you to different parts of the Grand Canyon, some including the Hoover Dam, some not. And they start at around $150 per person. Even tours to only the Hoover Dam (which is 45 minutes by car from Vegas!) start at $80. For that kind of money, I’d be expecting a happy ending from some of Vegas’s finest working girls.
Is a day trip to the Grand Canyon from Las Vegas even worth it?
I know… going to the Grand Canyon from Las Vegas is like flying to New York only to drive 4.5 hours to DC. Why would you do that? Well for one, a vacation to the Grand Canyon can be really expensive, because there aren’t many major airports around. So you’d likely have to buy an expensive flight to the closest airport and rent a car for at least a few days. So unless you do end up taking an awful $230 tour bus to do this day trip, going on your own from Vegas is a fraction of what a real Grand Canyon vacation costs.
I’ll be honest. I don’t think doing it in a day does the Grand Canyon justice. But if you’re the kind of person that doesn’t care too much about doing every activity the national park has to offer, or you don’t even really like nature that much, then a day trip is certainly worthwhile. I did it because I couldn’t bring myself to spend over a grand to see the Grand Canyon, when I’ve spent half that on a flight to Japan. So for me, it was worthwhile. I got to see the South Rim of the Canyon and the Hoover Dam, which I would never otherwise go out of my way to see.
Planning a DIY road trip
Doing this successfully on your own does take a bit of planning and the time of year matters. The longer the day is, the more time you have to stop and enjoy yourself. So I would recommend saving it for the summer when there’s more sunlight to work with. Otherwise you’ll be fighting to beat sundown. And though the Grand Canyon is beautiful when the sun sets, after it does, there’s nothing going on there but darkness.
If you’re staying on the Vegas strip, you probably didn’t rent a car. So it helps to decide what day you want to do your road trip and book a car just for that day. The earlier you book it, the cheaper it will be. I would even suggest picking it up the night before, even if it doubles the cost. But it will save you time in the morning. Picking up a rental always ends up taking longer than you expect it to. Even if you’re paying for a 2-day rental, at $30-50 a day, you’re still paying only a quarter of the cost of one of those tours. And you don’t have to be stuck on a huge bus for 9 hours like cattle.
Choosing your stops
The Hoover Dam
If you’re heading to the Grand Canyon from Vegas, you definitely shouldn’t miss the Hoover Dam. It’s on the way on the Nevada-Arizona border. Honestly, when else are you going to see it? This can be as short or long a stop as you want it to be. You can just park and take a look around at the massive concrete dam. But if you want the full experience, you’ll have to dedicate a little bit more time.
There’s a one-hour guided tour of the Hoover Dam which takes you inside the dam’s passageways, inspection galleries, and powerplant. A shorter tour gives you guided access only to the powerplant. The tickets are first come first serve and can’t be bought online so you may have to wait around if you want to do the tours. It’s worth noting that they’re not always available. However, the visitor center and observation deck on the top floor are always open. This is where you’ll get the best view of the river and the dam.
Choosing a Grand Canyon rim
The West Rim
The Grand Canyon is massive and can be seen from a few different places. Coming from Vegas, the West Rim is the closest. It’s only 120 miles away, which ends up being less than 2:30 hours. The West Rim is actually not in the Grand Canyon National Park. It’s located on a Native American reservation and is home to the Skywalk, which is a circular glass bridge that allows you to walk out over the canyon.
The views will still be great, because even if it’s not part of the national park, it’s still the Grand Canyon. But the Hualapai tribe charge a pretty penny for those views. They sell packages at different price points starting at $50, which doesn’t even include the Skywalk. If you want to do that, it’s going to cost you $83. So you can stick that in your peace pipe, and drive to the south rim where you only pay $30 per car. And that’s for a 7-day pass, so you can even go back if you want to.
The South Rim
The South Rim has some of the best views because it’s closest to the Colorado River. This is where you’ll also find most of the activities because it’s the most touristy rim. You can enjoy hiking tours, rafting, or take a helicopter over the canyon. The downside to visiting the South Rim from Las Vegas is that it’s 287 miles away or 4:30 hours. And that’s a lot of driving for one day.
From the entrance, the first thing you’ll see at the South Rim is the Visitor Center and Mather Point, which has amazing views and a whole lot of people. If you want to enjoy the canyon from a less popular area, you can drive east toward Desert View or west toward Hermits Rest or Village. There are countless viewpoints along the rim where you’ll have ridiculous views of the canyon all around you. If you have time, the walk from the Visitor Center to Village is only 2 miles. You can check out the Geology Museum and other exhibits on the way, and even see some wildlife.
The North Rim
This is the hardest one to get to from Vegas though it’s technically closer than the South Rim, only 275 miles away. The problem with getting to this one is that you’ll have to drive northeast instead of southeast to get to it, which means the Hoover Dam won’t be on the way. The 4:30 drive will actually take you up into Utah. This rim is not as popular as the other two, and it is farther from the Colorado River. It’s also at a higher altitude so you can only drive there in the summer because of the snow. This rim is less developed in terms of tourism so you won’t find as many facilities, but it’s good if you want a more secluded experience in nature.
The thing about taking a day trip to the Grand Canyon, especially the South Rim, is that time is of the essence. If you don’t stick to some kind of schedule, you’ll end up seeing the canyon with whatever happens to be left of daylight. It’s important to be realistic about how long everything takes. This can give you an idea:
8:00 am Depart Las Vegas
9:00 am Arrive at the Hoover Dam (if you want to do any of the tours or go to the observation deck, you can’t get there any earlier because the visitor center opens at 9).
10:00 am Depart the Hoover Dam
12:00 pm Stop for a fast food lunch (at In-N-Out Burger, another one of America’s greatest treasures)
2:30 pm Arrive at Grand Canyon South Rim. The drive from the Hoover Dam to the South Rim takes 4 hours.
7 pm Depart the Grand Canyon
10:30 pm Arrive back in Las Vegas
Of course, if you go to the West Rim, this is a lot less grueling. But you can see how any traffic or long unnecessary stops will end up cutting your visit to the Grand Canyon to just a few hours. If I had to do it again, I would actually spend the night nearby, if only to split the drive. That way you can also go back to the South Rim in the morning to do anything you missed. It wouldn’t cost you anything additional, because the pass is good for the week.
Spending the night would also give you the opportunity to see two of the rims. You can see the West Rim in the afternoon on the day you drive there from Vegas. Then spend the following day doing the South Rim before heading back to Vegas. Obviously this would be more expensive, but if you had some luck at the casino the night before, treat yourself!
But if you want to keep it as a day trip, prepare for an exhausting day. You can reward yourself with a good brunch buffet on the Vegas strip the next morning.