FLAGSTAFF – Parking near the Grand Canyon’s South Rim is set to undergo a transformation that officials say will make it easier for tourists to spot the visitor center and will improve safety.
Nearly 4 million people visit the canyon’s South Rim each year, and finding parking can be difficult. Many motorists are forced to park alongside the road in busy areas, setting up conflicts between pedestrians and vehicles.
Construction beginning this month will add 600 new spaces in three parking lots within a few hundred yards of the rim, a separate parking area for 40 commercial tour buses and a shuttle bus staging area.
“That will correct that situation, and make it much safer and improve the visitor experience greatly,” said Maureen Oltrogge, a spokeswoman for the Grand Canyon National Park.
The Park Service released the visitor transportation plan for the Grand Canyon in February 2008 to address long waits to enter the park, traffic congestion, poor traffic flow and access to the visitor center that opened in 2000.
The first phase of the project near Mather Point, a popular lookout spot, is expected to be complete by November and cost $5.3 million.
When finished, the entrance road will loop around the Canyon View Information Plaza to the south and west, providing access to the new parking lots and visitor center about 300 yards from Mather Point.
Project manager Vicky Stinson said Mather Point is the first area to catch a glimpse of the canyon for people who are coming to the South Rim. But, she said, “if you’ve missed that, you’ve missed the visitor center, too.”
The visitor center provides opportunities for tourists to interact with interpretive rangers, see exhibits, seasonal messages and know what the weather has in store for the day, Oltrogge said.
“It’s a good place to stop and plan your visit and know what’s out there in terms of park activities and programs,” Oltrogge said.
A second phase of construction will remove about 115 parking spaces at Mather Point, and add an amphitheater at the rim and interpretive exhibits. Stinson said park officials have the option to add another 300 parking spaces at the visitor center in the future.
A guide that park officials hand out at the entrance to the South Rim alerts the public to possible traffic delays and detours during construction.
Park officials have added a northbound entrance lane, kiosks, and an independent pass lane for the park’s shuttle buses and emergency and government vehicles at the entrance to the South Rim to ease traffic congestion.
Visitors also have the option again this year to park their vehicles in nearby Tusayan and take a shuttle to the South Rim. The program is expected to start next month and run through mid-September.