The Grand Canyon -- the name is at once both apt and inadequate. How can words sum up the grandeur of 2 billion years of the earth's history sliced open by the power of a single river? Once an impassable and forbidding barrier to explorers and settlers, the Grand Canyon today is a magnet that each year attracts millions of visitors from all over the world. The pastel layers of rock weaving through the canyon's rugged ramparts, the interplay of shadows and light, the wind in the pines, California condors soaring overhead, the croaking of ravens on the rim -- these are the sights and sounds that never fail to transfix the hordes of visitors who gaze awestruck into the canyon's seemingly infinite depths.
While the Grand Canyon is undeniably the most awe-inspiring natural attraction anywhere in the state, northern Arizona contains other natural attractions that are also worthwhile, and certainly less crowded. Only 60 miles south of the great yawning chasm stand the San Francisco Peaks, the tallest of which, Humphreys Peak, rises to 12,643 feet. These peaks, sacred to the Hopi and Navajo, are ancient volcanoes that today are popular with skiers, hikers, and mountain bikers.
Volcanic eruptions 900 to 1,000 years ago helped turn the land east of the San Francisco Peaks into fertile farmland that allowed the Sinagua people to thrive in this otherwise inhospitable environment. Within a few hundred years, however, the Sinagua disappeared. Today the ruins of their ancient villages, scattered across lonely, windswept plains, are all that remain of their culture.
Just as the region once attracted Native Americans, it also attracted pioneers, who settled on the south side of the San Francisco Peaks. Amid expansive ponderosa pine forests now stands the city of Flagstaff, which at 7,000 feet in elevation is one of the highest cities in the U.S. Flagstaff is home to Northern Arizona University, whose students ensure that this is a lively, liberal town. Born of the railroads and named for a flagpole, Flagstaff is now the main jumping-off point for trips to the Grand Canyon. Because the city has preserved much of its Western heritage in its restored downtown historic district, it's well worth a visit.
While it's the Grand Canyon that brings many people to northern Arizona, most visitors spend only a day or so in Grand Canyon National Park, so you may want to take a look at what else there is to do in this part of the state. If, on the other hand, you only want to visit the canyon, there are many different ways to accomplish this goal. You can do so on your own or in a group; on foot or on a mule; or from a raft, a train, or a helicopter. Regardless of what you decide, you'll find that the Grand Canyon more than lives up to its name.