A storm had just blown over at dawn. Early sunrays highlighted a few wispy clouds kissing the highest pink and purple plateaus. On this October morning, Mike Buchheit, director of the Grand Canyon Field Institute, marveled over the sweeping crests that drop down a mile deep. In his 13 years of exploring more than 2,000 miles (3,200 kilometers) through one of the world's seven wonders, he had never seen a sunrise like it.
Every day he awakens to new surprises. And with every exploration trip he leads, he finds new ways that Grand Canyon National Park, established as a national park in 1919, transforms its nearly five million visitors each year. "The Grand Canyon has a way of putting one's life into context," says Buchheit. "When it comes to understanding yourself and the world around you, there is no better crucible on Earth."
Those who move past the South Rim, where 90 percent of visitors stop to gawk down into the canyon, will find a world unimaginable from the scenic overlooks. Many travelers miss the fascinating ways to explore the canyon, which cuts through 277 miles (446 kilometers) of northern Arizona and extends 18 miles (29 kilometers) wide at its broadest point.
Adventure-seekers can hike one of the 38 trails, bike its two rims, or raft through the canyon base on the Colorado River. Visitors can explore the canyon's desert on horseback or take a mule and camp in the backcountry. The curious can take daylong to weeklong classes in wilderness studies with some of the top experts in the field. And students can spend a semester letting this five-million-year-old treasure teach them about time and space.
American Indians, Spanish explorers, gold miners, American tourists in the early 1900s, and now the whole world have left their mark on the Grand Canyon. But today, conservation dictates leaving no trace at all. These tips will show you how to travel the less-beaten path and will help you preserve this natural wonder.