Postcards just don't do justice to this classic American panorama -- this majestic 277-mile-long canyon of the Colorado River, an enormous primeval gash in the earth's crust. Gaze down into its depth from the rim and you'll see striated bands of multi-colored rock, a living history of geologic periods unfolding at your feet. Descend into it and you'll pass through no less than four distinct climate zones, as if you began your day in Mexico and ended it in Alaska.
The Grand Canyon attracts a staggering number of tourists every year, many of whom simply view the panorama from the North or South Rim viewpoints and then drive on. While it's awesome indeed to gaze around from the rim, something about that monumental chasm makes me long to climb down in. There are any number of hiking trails, from 7 to 9 miles long; if taking on the river is more your style, check the park website for a list of approved commercial outfitters that run 3- to 18-day rafting trips, from placid floats to heart-stopping whitewater thrill rides.
Perhaps the most memorable way to explore the Grand Canyon is to pick your way down the steep, narrow trails on the back of an ornery mule. The best options for kids depart from the North Rim and are offered by Canyon Trail Rides (tel. 435/679-8665; www.canyonrides.com). These rides range from 1-hour scenic rides along the rim to half-day trips (either a longer rim route or one that heads 2,300 ft. down the North Kaibab Trail). The real classics, though, are 1- or 2-night packages that go to the bottom of the canyon and include sleeping arrangements and simple meals at Phantom Ranch, the only lodging available below the rim of the Grand Canyon. These Phantom Ranch trips fill up soon after reservations are accepted, 13 months in advance (call tel. 888/297-2757 or visit www.grandcanyonlodges.com). For possible openings the next day, call the Bright Angel Transportation Desk at tel. 928/638-2631, ext. 6015. Riders must be at least 4 feet 7 inches tall and under 200 pounds; pregnant women are not allowed.
A fair number of visitors also buzz overhead in sightseeing planes and helicopters. Grand Canyon Airlines (tel. 866/235-9422 or 928/638-2359; www.grandcanyonairlines.com) is the granddaddy of scenic air tours out here. Papillon Grand Canyon (tel. 888/635-7272 or 928/638-2419; www.papillon.com) operates planes and helicopters, both from the rim of the canyon and from Las Vegas. The truly heart-stopping moment is when you're looking down at the treetops of the Kaibab National Forest, and then you cross the North Rim of the canyon and -- whoosh! -- the ground drops away suddenly beneath you, an effect more spectacular in person than any IMAX film could ever convey.
Nearest Airport: Grand Canyon National Park, Tusayan. Flagstaff Pulliam, 85 miles. Phoenix Sky Harbor International, 228 miles.
Where to Stay: $$$ El Tovar Hotel, South Rim (tel. 888/297-2757 or 928/638-2631; www.grandcanyonlodges.com). $$ Grand Canyon Lodge, North Rim (tel. 877/386-4383 or 928/638-2611; www.grandcanyonforever.com).