Learn what information centers are available to help you streamline your Grand Canyon experience.
A visitor center is just that: a center for visitors of any particular site to gather, learn and plan. Most National and State Parks as well as historic sites have them in some shape or form, but not all are created equal. Whether you’re visiting a center to plan your visit in detail or you just need a little information to get you started, you’re most likely looking for more than an overwhelming wall of brochures and a bathroom (as helpful and necessary as both may be).
Fortunately for visitors of the Grand Canyon, there is no shortage of information centers to choose from. But knowing the difference between and navigating them can be confusing. We’ll fill you in on the where and why of your options.
Which is Which?
If you do an internet search for Grand Canyon Visitor Center, you’ll likely be directed to the National Park Website, which, of course, shares helpful information about the center that is located in the park at the South Rim (more on this center to follow). But another search result will take you to www.explorethecanyon.com, the website for a Grand Canyon Visitor Center located in Tusayan before you even get to the park. So, what’s the difference?
Grand Canyon Visitor Center
Located at 450 State Route 64 Grand Canyon, AZ, before you arrive at the entrance gate to the South Rim of Grand Canyon National Park, this visitor center is not run by the National Park Service. But it is your one-stop shop for information, planning, food, souvenirs, park passes, tour booking and more. Want to catch a shuttle bus or find out about parking, lodging, dining, weather closures, or tours you can take before you get into the busy park? This is a great place to start.
Inside the center you’ll find plenty of pamphlets and informed staff to answer questions about everything from booking tours to directions to your desired Grand Canyon destinations. But you can also pre-purchase your park entrance pass, saving you from having to pay at the gate. Especially during peak seasons such as summer, spring break and holiday weekends, the line to get into the park can be long and time consuming. While you’ll still have to wait in the line to enter the park, you’ll save yourself and others time by being prepared with a pass already in your vehicle.
The knowledgeable staff at Grand Canyon Visitor Center can fill you in on available canyon sightseeing tours via airplane, helicopter, raft, bus, and Pink Jeep, and some tours will leave directly from the center.
IMAX Grand Canyon: Rivers of Time
Interactive exhibits at the center will teach you about the history of the canyon to prepare you for what you’ll be seeing at the park. But arguably the greatest feature at this location is the IMAX theater. Through aerial and time-lapse photography and the help of CGI, you’ll hear the story of one of the world’s greatest natural wonders through the formation and geology, early civilizations and explorers, stunning landscapes and Native peoples that share a rich history with the canyon.
The IMAX theater also offers showings of popular movies with their Hollywood Movies at Night series. If you’re hanging around Tusayan after a canyon adventure and want to catch an evening show, check out their website for what’s playing.
The Explorer’s Café onsite is a great place to stop for a bite before or after heading to the canyon. There's something for everyone including Pizza Hut pizza, fresh sandwiches, soups, salads, box lunches, beverages, ice cream and more along with a dining area that can seat large groups.
Now that we know what’s available before you get to the canyon, let’s head into the park at the South Rim for some other helpful options.
The Grand Canyon Visitor Center (National Park Service)
On the east side of the Historic Grand Canyon Village you’ll find The Grand Canyon Visitor Center, the one that pops up first on your Google search. This center is actually part of Visitor Center Plaza near Mather Point, one of the most iconic and popular canyon overlooks. Whether you want to see the canyon before exploring the details or after, the plaza is set up perfectly for both.
A great feature at this visitor center is the informative exhibits and resources both in- and outside of the center; regardless of fluctuating hours of operation based on season, you’ll always have access to a wealth of information. When the center is open, visitors can connect with knowledgeable staff to discuss adventuring options, park logistics, and canyon particulars. When it’s closed, much of the same information is provided through interactive exhibits outside.
Renewable Energy for the Win
As you explore this area, you’ll find it hard to miss the collection of photovoltaic cells (solar panels) throughout. As part of the park’s commitment to sustainability and renewable resources, these panels offset a significant portion of the power used in the visitor center itself thanks to all of that Arizona sunshine.
In the theater you’ll have a chance every half hour to watch a 20-minute orientation film called Grand Canyon: A Journey of Wonder. It’s a great introduction to the canyon’s history and past and present efforts to conserve and protect the landscape and its inhabitants.
The Visitor Center is a great place to find out what’s happening around the village during your visit. Ranger programs offer talks and activities at various locations throughout the park, so check the latest schedule for events and program details. Whether it’s a Critter Chat, a Fossil Walk or a Geology Talk, there’s a little something for all interests provided by passionate and knowledgeable park rangers.
In addition to the Visitor Center, within the Visitor Center Plaza you’ll also find the Grand Canyon Conservancy Visitor Center Park Store, home to a variety of souvenirs and a wealth of reading material on the canyon. Nearby is Bright Angel Bicycles and Café where you can rent a bicycle and pick up a snack or grab-and-go lunch. Finally, the Grand Canyon Visitor Center Shuttle Bus Terminal will connect you with free shuttle bus rides to various park locations.
Verkamp’s Visitor Center
Heading over to the west side of the Historic Grand Canyon Village, near the El Tovar and other lodges, you’ll find Verkamp’s Visitor Center, which is the closest option if you’re arriving by train on the Grand Canyon Railway.
John Verkamp was one of the first entrepreneurs to do business with canyon visitors: he pitched his curio tent and attempted selling souvenirs at the canyon in 1898. But business was disappointing due to the long, dusty stagecoach journey it took to get to the rim, so within that same year, he sold his inventory and left. Once the railroad made its way to the canyon in 1901, vastly improving comfort and efficiency in the journey, sightseers came in droves to the must-see attraction. Verkamp returned in 1905 to build and open Verkamp’s Curios in 1906, selling souvenirs and Native American jewelry, pottery and textiles with such success that he brought his family to stay.
The Verkamp family prided themselves on service and authenticity. They purchased from Native American artisans and carefully trained all store employees on the history and symbolism behind these goods in order to accurately inform customers. The family also played a key role in developing the Grand Canyon School.
The shop closed in 2008 when the Verkamp family chose not to renew their contract with the National Park Service. Fortunately NPS purchased the building and turned it into a visitor center and store known today as the Verkamp’s Visitor Center. Here you will find:
exhibits on Grand Canyon history and community
a museum shop
an information desk and staff to answer questions
Backcountry Information Center
While not a visitor center per se, we include this on our list because it's your best bet in the Grand Canyon Village for all trail-related info. Visit this center for hiking and trail conditions as well as information on day and overnight hiking permits.
Other Information Centers
Lookout Studio Visitor Center
A variety of other locations throughout Grand Canyon National Park are also sometimes considered “visitor centers” because of their knowledgeable staff and their access to park resources, history and information. Hopi House, Kolb Studio, the Yavapai Geology Museum, and the Lookout Studio Visitor Center are just a few examples. At each you’ll find answers to questions about the canyon and experience the canyon’s history through a variety of unique perspectives.
Visiting the North, East or West Rims of the canyon? They’ve got you covered with visitor centers in those locations as well. Check out the North Rim Visitor Center, Desert View Watchtower Visitor Center, and Grand Canyon West at Eagle Point (not run by the NPS) for more information on their offerings.
As with all park amenities and attractions, be sure to check websites and/or call ahead before visiting as different seasons warrant closures and changes in hours of operation.
National Parks Passport Stamps
Many a bucket list includes visiting all of our country’s National Parks, and one way to keep track of these visits is with the Passport to Your National Parks or a similar booklet. The passports allow you to get an official stamp at each NPS location you visit—much like a real passport but without the hassle of customs or the inevitably awkward 2x2 photo.
If you have one of these passports, you won’t want to miss getting your Grand Canyon stamp, and there are some 15 variations available throughout the park (including the North Rim, Lee’s Ferry, etc.). Your stamp will include the date, Grand Canyon National Park, and usually the location, e.g. Verkamp’s Visitor Center, El Tovar, Visitor Center Plaza, etc.
These stamps are available at visitor centers and locations throughout the park, so don’t hesitate to ask if one’s available. DO NOT, however, expect to get stamped at the Grand Canyon Visitor Center in Tusayan. Remember, they are not run by the National Park Service. So while you can definitely stock up on info and plenty of Grand Canyon souvenirs in Tusayan, head into the park to get your official stamp.
When we’re informed we’re much more open to a nuanced experience. While seeing the canyon and only the canyon no doubt proves to be an unforgettable event, seeing it through an educated lens deeply enhances the impression left on our minds and hearts as we develop a stronger connection to and understanding of the importance of such a magnificent natural wonder. Take advantage of any and every Grand Canyon Visitor Center in conjunction with your canyon viewing and adventuring to allow for this well-rounded experience. You won’t be disappointed.
If you happen to be planning a stay here with us at Backland Glamping Resort, know that we, too, can help you plan your Grand Canyon experience. We partner with Grand Canyon adventures to offer several private tours of the canyon. As part of the tour you’ll still have a chance to visit a number of the sites mentioned above with your own private guide. Check out our website for booking and lodging information.