60 miles N of Williams; 80 miles NE of Flagstaff; 230 miles N of Phoenix; 340 miles N of Tucson

A trip to the Grand Canyon is an unforgettable experience, whether you spend days hiking deep in the canyon, ride the roller-coaster rapids of the Colorado River, or merely stand on the rim peering down in amazement. A mile deep, 277 miles long, and up to 18 miles wide, the canyon is absolutely overwhelming in its grandeur, truly one of the great natural wonders of the world. Clarence Dutton, a 19th-century geologist who published one of the earliest studies of Grand Canyon geology and who named many of its features, held it in such reverence that he named land formations for the gods and sages of the ancient world: Solomon, Apollo, Venus, Thor, Zoroaster, Horus, Buddha, Vishnu, Krishna, Shiva, Confucius.

Something of this reverence infects nearly every first-time visitor. Nothing in the approach to the Grand Canyon prepares you for what awaits. You hardly notice the gradual elevation gain or the subtle change from windswept sagebrush scrubland to juniper woodlands to ponderosa pine forest. Suddenly, it’s there. No preliminaries, no warnings. Stark, quiet, a maze of cathedrals and castles sculpted by nature.

Layers of sandstone, limestone, shale, and schist give the canyon its colors, and from dawn to dusk, the interplay of shadows and light creates an ever-changing palette of hues and textures. In this landscape layer cake of stone, we can read 2 billion years of geologic history.

In the more recent past, the Grand Canyon has been home to several Native American cultures, including the Ancestral Puebloans (Anasazi), best known for their cliff dwellings in the Four Corners region. About 150 years after 13th-century Ancestral Puebloans and Coconino peoples abandoned the canyon, nomadic people from the west moved into the area. Today, the Hualapai and Havasupai tribes, descendants of the ancient Patayan people, still live in and near the Grand Canyon on the south side of the Colorado River.

In 1540, Spanish explorer Garcia Lopez de Cárdenas became the first European to set eyes on the Grand Canyon, but it would be another 329 years before the first expedition traveled through the entire canyon. John Wesley Powell, a one-armed Civil War veteran, was deemed crazy when he set off to navigate the Colorado River in wooden boats. His small band of men spent 98 days traveling 1,000 miles down the Green and Colorado rivers. So difficult was the endeavor that when some of the expedition’s boats were wrecked by powerful rapids, part of the group abandoned the journey and set out on foot, never to be seen again.

Miners, ranchers, loggers, and farmers followed, but they soon found that the Grand Canyon was worth more as a landmark than as land to be worked. The Grand Canyon has become one of the most-visited natural wonders on the planet. By raft, by mule, on foot, and in helicopters and small planes—approximately four million people each year come to gaze into this great chasm.

In the recent past, however, there were those who regarded the canyon as mere wasted space, suitable only for filling with water. Upstream of the Grand Canyon on the Colorado River stands Glen Canyon Dam, which forms Lake Powell; downstream lies Lake Mead, created by Hoover Dam. The Grand Canyon might have suffered the same fate, but luckily the forces for preservation prevailed. Today, the Grand Canyon is the last major undammed stretch of the Colorado River.

The Colorado—named by early Spanish explorers for the reddish-brown color of its muddy waters—once carried immense loads of silt, much of which now gets deposited on the bottom of Lake Powell. As a result, the water in the Grand Canyon is much clearer (and colder) than it once was. Today, only when rainstorms and snowmelt feed the side canyons of the Grand Canyon does the river still flow murky and red from heavy loads of eroding sandstone.

While the waters of the Colorado are usually clearer than before, the same cannot be said for the air in the canyon. Yes, you’ll find smog here, smog that has been blamed on both Las Vegas and Los Angeles to the west and a coal-fired power plant to the east, near Page. Scrubbers have been installed on the power plant’s smokestacks, but there isn’t much to be done about smog drifting from the west.

Far more visible and frustrating is the traffic congestion at the South Rim during the spring-to-fall busy season. Some five million people visit the park each year, and South Rim traffic in summer has become almost as bad as it is during rush hour in any major city. Finding a parking space can be the biggest challenge of a visit to Grand Canyon National Park. But don’t let these inconveniences dissuade you. Despite the crowds, the Grand Canyon more than lives up to its name. It’s simply one of the most memorable sights on planet Earth.