Camping the Grand Canyon on a Budget

My husband and I just came home from an amazing 4 night/5 day camping trip to the Grand Canyon in Arizona. The trip was really an anniversary celebration to mark 5 years together.

Grand Canyon

Camping is one of our favorite ways to vacation while on a budget. There are TONS of campground options at state and national parks or state forests, any of which make great vacation destinations.

Compared to a motel or hotel, camping is only a fraction of the cost. On average, inexpensive campgrounds will run you about $10-$25 per night, which usually costs less than even a cheap motel.

The best sites for the frugal camper are in state and county parks. These usually have park ranger provided security; each campsite typically has amenities like a fire-pit, grill and picnic table, as well as outdoor bathrooms and showers. Most of the time, you’ll find drinking water available, as well as a place to wash dishes, trash dispensers, and other amenities.

Depending on the campsite, most public parks have awesome hiking trails, and sometimes fishing, boating or swimming.

Visiting the Grand Canyon:

My husband and I have both been dying to visit northern Arizona – the Grand Canyon, Flagstaff, Prescott and Sedona – since we moved to Nevada last year.

From our house in Nevada, it’s now only between 3-4 hours driving distance to each of these locations.

It gets relatively cold up north in AZ during the winter, so we wanted to wait till the summer so we could enjoy hiking and exploring in warmer temps.

Temperatures at the Southern Rim in early August are around 75 – 80 degrees, so it’s the perfect weather for a visit.

Since August 7th was our 5 year anniversary, we used this as the perfect excuse for a camping trip getaway.

Of course, since we’re on a budget, our goal was to make the trip as inexpensive as possible.

We own all of our own camping gear and we were also gifted an annual pass last Christmas to all the national parks.

Because of this, our anniversary camping trip ending up being dirt cheap! Aside from spending on the campsite itself, gas, charcoal, food, and ice, we spent hardly anything else out of pocket.

Some facts about the Grand Canyon:

The Grand Canyon is a mega mammoth gorge which stretches 277 “river miles” from east to west, and showcases the most amazing multi-colored geology. The canyon, which was created by the Colorado Rive over a 6 million year period, is as deep as 6000 feet in some parts.

Grand canyon and colorado river

The park was given Federal Protection in 1893 as a Forest Reserve, but was elevated to national park status in 1919.

About 5 million people visit every year, although much of the  park’s 1904 square miles are kept as wilderness. No matter where your vantage point, you’ll be blown away by incredible views. Visitors can admire nearly 2 billion years of the Earth’s history exposed in multi-layered rock. 

The South Rim is open year-round, but the North Rim closes for the most part from mid-October to mid-May on account of the deep snow on that side of the canyon.

The South Rim is almost 6,800 feet above sea level. The North Rim, at 8300 feet, is far cooler and receives almost 150 inches of snow per season.

Although it’s only 15 miles distance between the North and South Rim aerially, driving this distance would require covering almost 220 miles across winding roads.

When driving around the rims, just be aware that the roads are not conducive to fast travel. The roads are windy and narrow and, in the summer especially, are often packed with tourists.

If you’re looking for an extra scenic route, I highly recommend driving along the Desert View Drive (Arizona 64), which curves along the South Rim for almost 25 miles.

The views are spectacular!

Our Trip:

It took us 3.5 hours to get near the South Rim from our house. We stayed on the East side at the Desert View campground for the first 3 nights, which is a first come first serve site with only 50 spots. Even though we got there early, we barely managed to snag one of the last sites.

Most of our hikes were done early in the morning or late afternoon, so we could avoid the sun. We hiked the Bright Angel Trail, some of the South Kebab Trail, and part of the Hermit trail.

On Monday, we left the canyon and headed toward Sedona, where we made a pit stop for one night. We spent the night camping at the Manzanita Campground at Oak Creek Canyon.

The fee was slightly more expensive in Sedona at $18 per night, but was well worth it for the swimming, cliff jumping, hiking and fishing spots. Our camp site was located close to Slide Rock State Park.

Sedona was absolutely STUNNING and I’m already dying to go back.

Tips for Camping at the Grand Canyon on a Budget:

#1 – Transportation:

My husband and I are in ultra saving mode, so we’re only interested right now in camping places within driving distance from our house.

We definitely keep costs down by staying local. For this trip, our total round trip gas cost about $40 to/from the Grand Canyon and through Sedona.

Make sure to stock up on gasoline before arrival, because gas prices are at a premium close to the canyon. In addition to the high cost, gas stations are few and far between.

#2 – Camp Ground:

In the summer, paid campsites in the Grand Canyon and/or Sedona range from between 10 – 35 per night, per site. Our campsite at the Grand Canyon was only 12 dollars per night, but ended up being more expensive in Sedona.

There are also plenty of free forest camping spots to be found close. A quick Google search will turn up multiple options, like this list: Grand Canyon Free Camp Sites.

Although there are plenty of hostels and hotels in this area, generally camping is your best bet cost wise for an overnight stay.

If you have to stay in a hotel, try to find one outside of National Park property. Just be aware that demand is so high both on and off the Park that it’s not unheard of to have to book 6 months in advance at some places!

#3 – Park Entry Fees:

General Admission to the Grand Canyon National Park is $30 per vehicle for seven days including the North and South Rim. Our cost was ZERO since we were given a National Park annual pass over Christmas. Can’t beat free ;o)

#4 – Camping Equipment:

My husband and I both own our own camping equipment. If you are a newbie camper, you can usually get the basic gear for around 250 or less if you buy at Walmart, or even cheaper if you buy used items online. (We bought ours second hand on Craigslist for under 100 about 4 years ago).

In addition to a tent and sleeping bag(s), we always bring a sleeping pad for under the sleeping bag, and extra pillows & blankets.

Many campsites have grills available, but we also bring a propane camp stove. These can run between $35 – 80, although on Craigslist we got ours barely used for only $10. Propane cylinders are a few bucks and typically last a week.

We also bring an ice-packed cooler, stuffed with food/drinks. Our cooler cost $5 on Craigslist, although you can spend a lot more if you get something fancy.

#5 – Food and Drinks:

We made sure to stock up on food in advance, mainly just loading up on stuff we already had in our pantry. Stopping at a gas station or grocery store close to the canyon would have easily meant spending double.

We brought several gallons of bottled water with us, along with canned and non-disposable packaged food that we could easily reheat at our campsite.

Of course, we also packed our cooler with a bottle of champagne, some $4 Trader Joes wine, and a few bottles of beer ;o)

Because we planned in advance, we spent nothing extra on food or drink while away.

If you have to buy food at the canyon, the village of Tusayan, near the South Rim, has multiple fast food and grocery store options. Just be aware you’ll be paying a premium compared to bringing your own supplies.

#6 – Other:

We also bring pots and pans, cups, dishes, silverware, flashlights, and batteries.

My husband also packs a tarp to put under the tent, to protect against water in case it rains.

For lighting, we have a battery lamp which we bought at Walmart for $4 using a coupon.

The great news is that once you buy your gear, each subsequent camping trip is even cheaper.

We had so much fun, we’re already planning our next trip. It’s great to have a relaxing, fun getaway that doesn’t break the bank!

In total, we spent under $100 for a 5 day getaway, and had a truly unforgettable anniversary :o)

Where do you like to go camping? What are your tips for camping on a budget?

8 thoughts on “Camping the Grand Canyon on a Budget

  1. Looks like we were there at the same time. It was my first time seeing GC and Sedona in person. I definitely want to go back to the GC when there is a light dusting of snow. And Sedona so I can hike some of those trails early morning. But it was AMAZING seeing the vastness of both places. I also went to Montezuma’s castle. and would like to check out Cottonwood and Jerome next time.

    Did you know there are pictographs on the Bright Angel trail? My friend’s friend (whom we stayed with and lives close to the GC) used to be a park ranger in the 70s. If you walk about 1/4-1/2 mile down the trail and look up, you will see pictographs left by the Indians.

    And if you are looking for free forest camping in the area, check out the A-1 Mountain road (exit 190). go west off the exit, make an immediate left as you cross the bridge onto dirt road (easy for any car), and there are miles and miles of free camping for up to 14 days (then you just move your campsite). It’ beautiful back in there.

    1. Wow, so cool we were there at the same time!

      Isn’t it absolutely gorgeous? It was also my first time visiting. I’m not sure what I expected, but pics really didn’t do the landscape justice. You have to see it all in person to appreciate how incredible it is.

      We also want to check out Montezuma’s castle and Jerome soon, maybe for an extended day trip.

      The Bright Angel Trail was my favorite! We chose to do that one first thing in the morning on Day 2, while the sun was still rising. I wish we had more time on that one, because we were in a rush on Day 2 to get to our second hiking spot.

      And great comment about the free forest camping! We saw a ton of people taking advantage of that. I’ve done the free camping a lot in the past. I always end up feeling like it’s worth paying a few dollars for an actual campsite because of all the amenities you get. But absolutely a great way to cut down on camping costs even further!

  2. Very cool! You guys did this the right way by camping and hiking there. Before I had a clue, I did just the drive through visit. Also love Sedona – and Flagstaff is neat. Are you guys settled in at Phoenix I’m guessing?

    1. Even a drive through is stunning, but you’re right – it’s amazing to spend several days exploring the area!

      We’re already planning a Flagstaff trip, before it gets too cold. Antelope Canyon is also high on my list, and I’m dying to do a Havasu Falls trip one day.

      I wish we lived in Phoenix – I love it there! We moved to Nevada last year to be closer to family, so we’re close to Vegas.

  3. Great read–I LOVE the Grand Canyon. Next week we’re hiking down the South Kaibab to the bottom. We’ll stay two nights at Phantom Ranch (our 4th year in a row). And hike out the Bright Angel trail. I can’t get enough of it. 🙂

    1. That’s incredible!!! I would love to hike to the bottom of the Grand Canyon one day. That’s awesome you guys are going back 4 years in a row. It’s so addictive, we can’t get enough either :o)

  4. Great write up! My wife and I have done most of the south side trails and backpacked to many of the sites in the bottom of the GC. It was always a wonderful time and experience. All of the sites in the GC require permits, which can be a nightmare.

    We always stayed outside the park at the free (at large) camping the night before if we needed a super early start.

    Many of the trails can be hiked down to the river and back up the same day, but water is only available on the Bright Angel and Phantom Ranch and I think at a location on North Kaibab. The mileage is significant and the elevation is too.

    I hope many of your readers get a chance to enjoy the GC.

    1. Great point on the permits – you have to plan in advance for that!

      I’ve done the free camping before (just not at the Grand Canyon). How was it?

      We’re actually planning to go back next month for another camping trip – can’t get enough :o)

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