Teddy Roosevelt was right. He said "Leave it alone, so that every American can see it as it is now." That was back in 1919, when the Grand Canyon became a national park. Well, there are many more people now, and the facilities have changed accordingly. But the canyon remains, gorgeous and mysterious. And here are the vital statistics: it's 277 river miles long, up to 18 miles wide and a mile deep. The reason the Grand Canyon is so valuable as well as beautiful lies in the fact that it's one of the most complete records of geological history anywhere in the world. Formations at the bottom are at least one billion, 800 million years old, and five of the seven life zones on earth are present in the park. And, of course, it's a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The park is almost uniquely accessible, meaning you can visit the South Rim 24/7 on 365 days of the year, and the lodging, restaurants and camping facilities are available year round. You will need reservations during the busy summer season, and some facilities close during the winter.
The best way to get around is to use the free shuttle bus system, operating in the Grand Canyon Village area. Park you car and use the shuttle, some of whose buses run on natural gas. They run every 15 to 30 minutes, no tickets needed, and there are three different routes. Be sure to stop at the visitor center at Canyon View Information Plaza, reached only on the shuttle. Another visitor center on the South Rim is at Yavapai Observation Station. The Kolb Studio is a third, and a fourth is at the North Rim. Two more: the Desert View Center and one at the Tusayan Museum (see Highlights, below).
If you want to go around from the South Rim (where you should visit first, if possible), to the North Rim, you could spread your wings and fly the ten mile distance, or hike the total of 21 miles down and up, but if you are not Superman or a really good trekker, you can take your car the 215 miles in about five hours. At the North Rim, visitor services and facilities are only open from mid-May to mid-October, as are lodging and camping. You'll see fewer people, for sure: Only about 10% of park visitors come here.
Traditional targets should start with the Yavapai Observation Station, one mile east of Market Plaza. If you drive, take the Desert View Drive or East Rim Drive, following the canyon rim east for 26 miles to the Desert View Watchtower (1932), at the east entrance to the park. Three miles west of that is the Tusayan Ruin & Museum, depicting Pueblo life some 800 years ago. Most of all, just stop, stay silent, and stare at this awesome spectacle. A fairly small river did this, but it took some time.
Things to Do
Besides sightseeing, you can participate in any number of hiking opportunities, on your own or guided. The official website lists dozens of opportunities and several routes. Note that your cell phone probably will not work in the canyon, though some testers report sat phones work except in the narrowest portions of the canyon itself.
Then there are the mules, a fascinating experience, best experienced on a two-day trip from the South Rim to the bottom of the canyon and return. Plan ahead, as there's always a long waiting list. There's also a one-day trip with park concessionaire Xanterra, tel. 888/297-2757. Grand Canyon Trail Rides offer trips from one hour to full-day from the North Rim, tel. 435/679-8665. Xanterra, by the way, is an official concessionaire in the park and operates lodging, restaurants and many other facilities.
River trips are a marvelous way to experience the canyon in all its majesty and frightening power. They range from one to 25 days, and are both commercial and noncommercial. The commercial are for one to 18 days, and are highly recommended for amateurs at whitewater adventures. Noncommercial means you, if you know how to paddle and have a lot of common sense. You need a permit and those for 2- to 5-day trips are distributed on a first come, first-served basis. For noncommercial permits of 12 to 25 days, usually for self-guided raft trips, you try to get a permit through a weighted lottery. See www.nps.gov/grca for details.
Bicycling is a nifty way to see the park, but you have to bring your own (no rentals), and you can't just ride on any trail with them, as keeping to roads and the new Greenway Trail is required.
Outside the park are several fascinating destinations, including the Havasupai Reservation and Waterfalls, the Hualapai Reservation and Skywalk, the Kaibaba National Forest and the Little Colorado River Navajo Tribal Park.
If you want to walk on air (that is, on a glass floor cantilevered out over the canyon), you have to drive 250 miles west of the South Rim to the Skywalk, owned by the small (2,300 members) Hualapai Tribe, based in Peach Springs on Route 66. The Skywalk itself perches 4,000 feet above the floor of the canyon at its far western end, called Grand Canyon West The Skywalk projects in the form of a horseshoe about 70 feet out over the rim, with what looks like an anchoring of another 250 feet or more in the rocky cliff. They claim it could support 71 million pounds, which they say is the weight of 71 fully loaded Boeing 747 airplanes. To experience it now, you have to buy a package that includes visits to the rest of the reservation, lunch, some Native American performances and so forth. Since they opened in March, 2007, they have had more than 200,000 visitors, their website states. It's probably a good idea to reserve on their website, to avoid waiting too long at the entrance to the reservation itself. Cost $81.20, including taxes, fuel surcharge; children 4-11 at $61.16. More details at Hualapai Lodge, Peach Spring, tel. 888/255-9550, www.grandcanyonskywalk.com. Read also "How to Skywalk Above the Grand Canyon" on Frommers.com.
Rangers share their knowledge in interpretive programs on geology, human history, natural history, and more. These go on around the year, with details at the park website (see below). There are also a series of Ranger Minutes, short videos you can see at the visitor centers.
The fee is $25 per private vehicle (and its passengers). On foot, by bicycle, motorcycle or non-commercial group, it's $12 per person. Both fees are for seven days and include both the North and South Rims. Camping fees are additional, and reservations are essential.
Grand Canyon National Park had 4,001,974 visitors in 2002, and "close to five million" now, making it the second most visited national park in the country.
- The official site of the Grand Canyon National Park is www.nps.gov/grca.
- The site of the Grand Canyon National Park Foundation and its Friends group is www.gcnpf.org.
- Xanterra, an official park concessionaire, has its website at www.xanterra.com.
- Two good commercial sites are www.grand.canyon.national-park.com and www.thecanyon.com.
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