Perched on the rim, Grand Canyon’s town site is a registered National Historic Landmark District, with 257 contributing structures. Buildings designed by architect Mary Colter, historic craftsman-style offices and residences, log cabins, and Santa Fe Railway structures are all linked by the Village Loop Road, but the best way to explore is on foot.
A self-guided walking tour map is available at the transportation desks in Bright Angel Lodge, El Tovar, and Maswik Lodge.
You can begin the walking tour anywhere, but for Grand Canyon’s early visitors, the launching point was the Grand Canyon Depot, completed in 1909. At the time, well-heeled Easterners arrived by Pullman car, having enjoyed elegant meals prepared by the Fred Harvey Company.
The depot echoes the log-cabin styling of El Tovar, the Santa Fe Railway’s flagship hotel. Details include custom copper and wrought iron hardware. Train service ceased in 1968, and two decades passed before trains once again whistled their way into and out of Grand Canyon Village.
Uphill from the train station, the elegant “log palace” of El Tovar looked down on the relatively uncivilized assortment of tents, shacks, and mud paths south of the tracks where livestock once wandered and open sewage ponds wafted. For visitors running the gauntlet of guides and motel operators hustling for business, the turreted roofline of El Tovar must have been a reassuring sight. The hotel was designed by Charles Whittlesey, an Illinois native who studied with Louis Sullivan (often credited as the father of modern architecture), before moving west to work for the Santa Fe.
When it opened in 1905, El Tovar was an eclectic mix of Victorian scale, European detailing, and rustic materials, from its rubble masonry foundation to its Queen Anne-style shingled turret. The first floor’s log slab siding was given corner notching to create an illusion of log construction.
Balustrades, indoors and out, were jigsawed in a Swiss chalet style. Murals in the Norwegian-styled dining room depicted Arizona’s native peoples. The Rendezvous Room was decorated with arts and crafts furniture and hunting trophies, including a mountain lion killed by Western novelist Zane Grey.
The original floor plan included a solarium, a ladies’ lounge, and a billiard room, with a kitchen garden, a poultry barn, and a dairy nearby. El Tovar set a standard, and its appeal to a growing number of visitors no doubt contributed to the establishment of Grand Canyon as a national monument in 1908. Tastefully updated and refurbished, El Tovar continues to offer the rim’s finest accommodations and dining.
Across the circular drive from El Tovar’s veranda stands Hopi House, architect Mary Colter’s first building at Grand Canyon. It opened shortly before El Tovar in 1905.
Inspired by the Hopi village of Old Oraibi, Colter designed a rectangular masonry building of three stories, terraced to provide rooftop plazas where resident families, hired by the Fred Harvey Company to demonstrate crafts, could work and play. Outdoor plazas connect to each other via stone steps and rough-hewn wooden ladders. Stacked pottery chimneys ornament the building’s corners, and heavy log vigas protrude from the masonry walls.
Colter wanted visitors who stepped through the low doorway to feel as if they were entering another time and space, an effect enhanced by low lighting, log-and-brush ceilings, and roughly plastered walls. Pottery, blankets, and baskets were artfully displayed throughout the salesrooms. Although the building and displays have been modernized, Native American art remains the focus at Hopi House.
Farther east along the rim, Verkamp’s Curios operated in a large bungalow-style building, once the home of the Verkamp family. John Verkamp sold curios and Indian crafts from a tent for the Babbit Brothers before starting his own business in 1905. In 2008 Verkamp’s ended its run as the longest family-owned business in the national park system. The Park Service acquired the 1906 building and reopened it as a visitors center with displays focusing on pioneer life in Grand Canyon Village.
West of El Tovar, on the other side of the midcentury Thunderbird and Kachina Lodges, is Bright Angel Lodge. Mary Colter designed the lodge buildings to reflect the village’s past as a pioneer settlement, with scattered structures in log cabin, clapboard, and Spanish Colonial themes. This approach allowed her to incorporate two existing buildings with long canyon histories: Buckey O’Neill’s log cabin and the Red Horse Station.
Bright Angel Lodge, which opened in 1935 during the Great Depression, was meant to appeal to travelers on modest budgets. The main lodge has two large fireplaces designed by Colter. The inglenook fireplace in the lobby, with the Fred Harvey Company’s trademark thunderbird above, warms hikers on cold winter days. The geologic fireplace, located in what is now the History Room, replicates canyon strata.
Park naturalist Edwin McKee worked with Colter to find samples from rock layers in the canyon. The canyon’s basement rocks are represented by the Vishnu schist at the base of the fireplace. Around its opening are the layers of the Grand Canyon Supergroup. Above that are narrow bands of the canyon’s Paleozoic layers. The fireplace chimney is Kaibab limestone, the layer that forms the canyon’s rim.
The history room focuses on the Fred Harvey Company and the Harvey Girls, the efficient white-aproned waitresses who worked in lunchrooms, train stations, and hotels on the Santa Fe lines.
Buckey O’Neill, an enterprising and handsome young man, helped shape Arizona Territory’s frontier communities, working as a newspaper editor, probate judge, supervisor of schools, and county sheriff. An investor in the Anita Mine, south of the village, O’Neill was garnering support for a rail line to Grand Canyon when the Spanish-American War began. He was the first to volunteer for the regiment later known as Teddy Roosevelt’s Roughriders and was killed in Cuba in 1898. Buckey O’Neill’s log cabin, built in the 1890s, still stands on the rim and is used today as suite accommodations.
Red Horse Station, also built in the 1890s, once served as a station on the stagecoach line south of the village. It is the oldest building at Grand Canyon. In 1902, Ralph Cameron moved the station to the village, added a second story and veranda, and operated it as the Cameron Hotel. The building later served as the South Rim’s post office. Mary Colter saved it from demolition, and Red Horse Station was restored to its original single-story log structure as one of the lodge’s guest cabins.
Another Colter building, Lookout Studio, perches on the rim west of Buckey O’Neill’s cabin. Completed in 1914, partly to compete with the Kolb brothers’ successful photography business, the studio displayed photographs of the canyon and featured a telescope for viewing the canyon from its balconies. Low-roofed and with terraces constructed of the rim’s Kaibab limestone, Lookout Studio blends almost seamlessly into the landscape. The building functions as a gift shop today, and it still provides a sheltered perch—for humans and condors—from which to view mule riders and hikers descending Bright Angel Trail.
Multistoried Kolb Studio clings precipitously to the edge of the canyon. The wood-frame building was shaped and reshaped over 23 years as Ellsworth and Emery Kolb made room for a growing business selling souvenir photos and screening the movie they made of their 1911-1912 run down the Colorado River. From one window they took pictures of tourists on mules, and from another sold the photos and tickets for the movie, shown in the studio’s auditorium. Today, Kolb Studio houses a gift shop and gallery space. Peek into the projection room to see the equipment the Kolbs used in the early 1900s.
Those who enjoy historic architecture or want to extend their pleasant walk through the village can continue on the south half of Loop Drive. The impressive Powerhouse near the railroad tracks was built in Swiss chalet style in 1926. Some of the Maswik Lodge cabins on the south side of the tracks date to the village’s first motor lodge, circa 1927, later replaced by Maswik Lodge. Past the lodge, the road enters the village’s residential area.
Past the community building (1935), the mule and horse barns (circa 1907) are wood clapboard with massive rooftops broken by cupolas and small dormers. The road loops near the garage, built to maintain the Fred Harvey Company’s fleet of touring cars, and the craftsman-style park operations building, constructed in 1929.
At the base of the hill where El Tovar stands, another craftsman-style structure (circa 1921) served originally as the administration building, then the supervisor’s residence, and now as offices for Xanterra Parks & Resorts. Although their functions have shifted with the times, many of Grand Canyon’s historic buildings still stand.