If you'd rather leave the driving to someone else and enjoy more of the scenery, opt for a bus or van tour of one or more sections of the park. Xanterra South Rim (tel. 888/297-2757, 303/297-2757, or, for same-day reservations, 928/638-2631; www.grandcanyonlodges.com) offers several tours within the park. These can be booked by calling or stopping at one of the transportation desks, which are at Bright Angel, Maswik, and Yavapai lodges. Prices range from around $20 for a 1 1/2-hour sunrise or sunset tour to around $57 for a combination of Desert View tour with any of the company's other three tours -- Hermit's Rest, sunrise, and sunset.
Trail Rides by Mule & Horse
Mule rides into the canyon have been popular since the beginning of the 20th century, when the Bright Angel Trail was a toll road. After having a look at the steep drop-offs and narrow path of the Bright Angel Trail, you might decide this isn't exactly the place to trust your life to a mule. Never fear: Wranglers will be quick to reassure you they haven't lost a rider yet. There are mule rides along the rim and down to Phantom Ranch at the bottom of the canyon. The 3-hour rides meander through the forest and eventually arrive at the Abyss, a spectacular viewpoint along Hermit Road. Those who want to spend a night down in the canyon can choose an overnight trip to Phantom Ranch, where cabins and dormitories are available at the only lodge actually in the canyon. From November to March, a 2-night trip to Phantom Ranch is offered; other times of year, you'll ride down one day and back up the next. Mule trips range in price from $119 for the 3-hour ride to $482 for an overnight ride to $674 for the 2-night ride. Couples get discounts on overnight rides.
Riders must weigh less than 200 pounds fully dressed; stand at least 4 feet, 7 inches tall; and speak and understand English fluently. Pregnant women are not allowed on mule trips.
Because these trail rides are very popular (especially in summer), they often book up 6 months or more in advance (reservations are taken up to 13 months in advance). For more information or to make a reservation, contact Xanterra Parks & Resorts (tel. 888/297-2757 or 303/297-2757; www.grandcanyonlodges.com). If, at the last minute (5 days or fewer from the day you want to ride), you decide you want to go on a mule trip, contact Xanterra South Rim at its Arizona phone number (tel. 928/638-2631) for the remote possibility that there may be space available. If you arrive at the canyon without a reservation and decide that you'd like to go on a mule ride, stop by the Bright Angel Transportation Desk to get your name put on the next day's waiting list.
If you'd rather spend less time in the saddle and don't mind not seeing the canyon from the back of your horse or mule, head out of the park to Apache Stables (tel. 928/638-2891; www.apachestables.com), which is located a mile north of Tusayan on Moqui Drive. A 1-hour ride costs $49 and a 2-hour ride is $89. There are also wagon rides ($26) and campfire rides ($59; be sure to bring something to cook over the fire). The stables are closed in winter.
The Grand Canyon Railway
In the early 20th century, most visitors to the Grand Canyon arrived by train, and it's still possible to travel to the canyon along the steel rails. The Grand Canyon Railway (tel. 800/843-8724 or 303/843-8724; www.thetrain.com), which runs from Williams to Grand Canyon Village, uses both diesel engines and, occasionally, early-20th-century steam engines that now run on waste vegetable oil. Trains depart from the Williams Depot, which is housed in the historic 1908 Fray Marcos Hotel and also contains a railroad museum, gift shop, and cafe. (Grand Canyon Railway also operates the adjacent Grand Canyon Railway Hotel.) At Grand Canyon Village, the trains use the 1910 log railway terminal in front of El Tovar Hotel.
Passengers have the choice of four classes of service: coach, first class, observation dome (upstairs in the dome car), and luxury parlor class. Actors posing as cowboys provide entertainment, including musical performances, aboard the train. The round-trip takes 8 hours, including a 3 1/4- to 3 3/4-hour layover at the canyon. Fares range from $70 to $190 for adults, and $40 to $110 for children 2 to 12 (these rates do not include taxes or the park entry fee).
Not only is this a fun trip that provides great scenery and a trip back in time, but taking the train also allows you to avoid the traffic congestion and parking problems in Grand Canyon Village. When booking your train trip, you can also book a bus tour in the park, which will help you see more than you would on foot. The railway offers room/train packages as well.
In November, December, and January, the railway's Polar Express provides service to the North Pole and a visit from Santa.
A Bird's-Eye View
Despite controversies over noise and safety (there have been a few crashes over the years), airplane and helicopter flights over the Grand Canyon remain one of the most popular ways to see this natural wonder. Personally, I would rather enjoy the canyon on foot or from a saddle. However, the volume of flights over the canyon each day would indicate that quite a few people don't share my opinion. If you want to join the crowds buzzing above the canyon, you'll find several companies operating out of Grand Canyon Airport in Tusayan. Air tours last anywhere from 30 minutes to about 2 hours.
Companies offering tours by small plane include Air Grand Canyon (tel. 800/247-4726 or 928/638-2686; www.airgrandcanyon.com) and Grand Canyon Airlines (tel. 866/235-9422 or 928/638-2359; www.grandcanyonairlines.com). This latter company has been offering air tours since 1927 and is the oldest scenic airline at the canyon. Fifty-minute flights cost $114 to $126 for adults and $94 to $106 for children.
Helicopter tours are available from Maverick Helicopters (tel. 888/261-4414 or 928/638-2622; www.airstar.com), Grand Canyon Helicopters (tel. 800/541-4537 or 928/638-2764; www.grandcanyonhelicoptersaz.com), and Papillon Grand Canyon Helicopters (tel. 888/635-7272 or 928/638-2419; www.papillon.com). Rates range from $139 to $185 for a 25- to 30-minute flight and from $189 to $235 for a 45- to 55-minute flight. Children sometimes receive a discount (usually around $20).
Numerous interpretive programs are scheduled throughout the year at various South Rim locations. Walks led by rangers explore different aspects of the canyon; rangers give geology talks, offer lectures on the cultural and natural resources of the canyon, lead nature hikes, organize trips to fossil beds, and hold stargazing gatherings. At Tusayan Ruin, guided tours are offered. Many programs are held at Mather Point Amphitheater and the Shrine of the Ages. Consult your copy of The Guide for information on times and meeting points.
The Grand Canyon Field Institute
If you're the active type or would like to turn your visit to the Grand Canyon into more of an educational experience, you may want to consider doing a trip with the Grand Canyon Field Institute (tel. 866/471-4435 or 928/638-2485; www.grandcanyon.org/fieldinstitute). Cosponsored by Grand Canyon National Park and the Grand Canyon Association, the Field Institute schedules a wide variety of guided educational trips, such as challenging backpacking trips through the canyon (some for women only) and programs lasting anywhere from 1 day to more than a week. Subjects covered include wilderness studies, geology, natural history, human history, photography, and art.
If you'd like to explore parts of Grand Canyon National Park that most visitors never see, contact Grand Canyon Jeep Tours & Safaris (tel. 800/320-5337 or 928/638-5337; www.grandcanyonjeeptours.com), which offers three different tours that visit the park as well as the adjacent Kaibab National Forest. One tour stops at a lookout tower that affords an elevated view of the canyon, while another visits an Indian ruin and site of petroglyphs and cave paintings. Prices range from $45 to $104 for adults and $35 to $84 for children 11 and under.
Rafting the Colorado River
Ever since John Wesley Powell ignored everyone who knew better and proved that it was possible to travel by boat down the tumultuous Colorado, running the big river has become a passion and an obsession with adventurers. Today, rafting down the Colorado River as it roars and tumbles through the mile-deep gorge of the Grand Canyon is the adventure of a lifetime, and anyone from grade-schoolers to grandmothers can join the elite group of people who have made the run. However, be prepared for some of the most furious white water in the world.
Numerous companies offer trips through various sections of the canyon. You can spend as little as half a day on the Colorado (downstream from Glen Canyon Dam or more than 2 weeks. You can go down the river in a huge motorized rubber raft (the quickest and noisiest way to see the entire canyon), a paddle- or oar-powered raft (more thrills and, if you have to help paddle, more energy expended on your part), or a wooden dory (the biggest thrill of all). In a motorized raft, you can travel the entire canyon from Lees Ferry to Lake Mead in only 8 days; however, you'll have to listen to the outboard motor whenever you aren't in the middle of a rapid. Should you opt for a dory or an oar- or paddle-powered raft, expect to spend 5 to 6 days getting from Lees Ferry to Phantom Ranch, or 7 to 9 days getting from Phantom Ranch to Diamond Creek, just above Lake Mead. Aside from the half-day trips near Glen Canyon Dam, any Grand Canyon rafting trip will involve lots of monster rapids. Variables to consider include hiking in or out of Phantom Ranch for a combination rafting-and-hiking adventure.
Most trips start from Lees Ferry near Page and Lake Powell. It's also possible to start a trip at Phantom Ranch, hiking in from either the North or South Rim. The main rafting season is April through October, but some companies operate year-round. Rafting trips tend to book up more than a year in advance, and some companies begin taking reservations as early as January for the following year's trips. Although it is possible to book a rafting trip for around $250 per day, the majority of trips fall in the $300 to $350 per day range, with rates depending on the length of the trip and the type of boat used.
The following are companies I recommend checking out when you start planning your Grand Canyon rafting adventure:
- Arizona Raft Adventures, 4050 E. Huntington Rd., Flagstaff, AZ 86004 (tel. 800/786-7238; www.azraft.com); 6- to 16-day motor, oar, and paddle trips. Although this is not one of the larger companies operating on the river, it offers lots of different trips, including those that focus on natural history and others that double as yoga workshops. They also do trips in paddle rafts that allow you to help navigate and provide the power while shooting the canyon's many rapids.
- Canyoneers, P.O. Box 2997, Flagstaff, AZ 86003 (tel. 800/525-0924 or 928/526-0924; www.canyoneers.com); 3- to 10-day motorized-raft trips and 6- to 14-day oar-powered trips. Way back in 1938, this was the first company to take paying customers down the Colorado, and Canyoneers is still one of the top companies on the river.
- Grand Canyon Whitewater, 916 Vista St. (P.O. Box 1300), Page, AZ 86040 (tel. 800/343-3121 or 928/645-8866; www.grandcanyonwhitewater.com); 4- to 8-day motorized-raft trips and 5- to 13-day oar trips.
- Grand Canyon Expeditions Company, P.O. Box O, Kanab, UT 84741 (tel. 800/544-2691 or 435/644-2691; www.gcex.com); 8-day motorized trips and 14- and 16-day dory trips. If you've got the time, I highly recommend these dory trips -- they're among the most thrilling adventures in the world.
- Hatch River Expeditions, HC 67 Box 35, Marble Canyon, AZ 86036 (tel. 800/856-8966 or 928/355-2241; www.hatchriverexpeditions.com); 4- to 8-day motorized trips and 6-, 7, and 12-day oar trips. All of this company's trips, except their upper-canyon expedition, end with a helicopter flight out of the canyon. This company has been in business since 1929 and claims to be the oldest commercial rafting company in the U.S. With so much experience, you can count on Hatch to provide you with a great trip.
- Outdoors Unlimited, 6900 Townsend Winona Rd., Flagstaff, AZ 86004 (tel. 800/637-7238 or 928/526-4511; www.outdoorsunlimited.com); 5- to 15-day oar and paddle trips. This company has been taking people through the canyon for more than 40 years and usually sends them home very happy.
- Wilderness River Adventures, P.O. Box 717, Page, AZ 86040 (tel. 800/992-8022; www.riveradventures.com); 4- to 8-day motorized-raft trips and 6-, 7-, 10-, 12-, 14-, and 16-day oar trips. The 4-day trips (actually 3 1/2 days) involve hiking out from Phantom Ranch. This is one of the bigger companies operating on the canyon, and it offers a wide variety of trips, which makes it a good one to check with if you're not sure which type of trip you want to do.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.