The serene power of the Colorado River carves through Marble Canyon, sculpted by water and time.
By Rebecca Rivas
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.
The two main entrances to the park are the South Rim via Flagstaff and Williams, Arizona, and the North Rim via Jacob Lake, Arizona. The South Rim— including all visitor services and facilities—is open 365 days a year. However, the North Rim services and facilities inside the park are open only from mid-May to mid-October.
Driving Public transportation directly to the canyon is limited, so most visitors drive through the captivating desert landscapes. Interstate 40 is the most common route to the South Rim. It runs east-west between New Mexico and southern California, passing Flagstaff and Williams. Arizona Route 64 meets I-40 at Williams and shoots up north 60 miles (97 kilometers) to the South Rim. The only way to get to the North Rim is through Jacob Lake, some 100 miles (160 kilometers) southeast of Interstate 15 between Las Vegas and Salt Lake City on U.S. Route 89A. The last 44 miles (71 kilometers) to the North Rim are on Highway 67.
Air Those arriving by plane often fly into Phoenix, Salt Lake City, or Las Vegas, and then rent a vehicle or take a bus the rest of the way. The South Rim is 278 miles (447 kilometers) from Las Vegas and 231 miles (372 kilometers) from Phoenix. The North Rim is 264 miles (425 kilometers) from Las Vegas and 351 miles (565 kilometers) from Phoenix. There are a few reasonably priced flights to the Grand Canyon National Park Airport via Grand Canyon Airlines and Scenic Airlines. Air tours are also available. For these flights, visit www.scenic.com or www.grandcanyonairlines.com or call 1-866-2FLY-GCA.
Train Train riders can be caught in an old-fashioned shoot-out or train robbery on the historic Grand Canyon Railway. The train runs daily in the summer, departing from Williams. Musicians stroll throughout the cars and liven up the ride, which cuts through prairies and pines. The train runs all year except December 24 and 25. Round-trip fares range from $140 to $155 for adults. For reservations, visit www.thetrain.com or call 1-800-THE-TRAIN (1-800-843-8724).
Bus Buses, including Open Road Tours and Transportation, leave regularly from Flagstaff to the South Rim. The only public transportation to the North Rim is the Trans-Canyon Shuttle, which leaves from the South Rim. Learn more about Open Road Tours at www.openroadtours.com or call 1-800-766-7117. For more information about the Trans-Canyon Shuttle, which operates seasonally, call 928-638-2820.
Backcountry Classes If you hike around the Grand Canyon, you'll soon see signs reading, "The desert grows by the inch but dies by the foot." Although the desert seems like a harsh climate, the environment is as delicate as a flower. As a way to open this intricate world to visitors of all ages, the nonprofit Grand Canyon Association formed the Grand Canyon Field Institute, which includes a team of the finest and friendliest specialists available. These experts teach classes in photography, art, and the canyon's natural and cultural history. About three-fourths of the courses involve overnight backpacking. However, the Learning and Lodging program—more family-oriented and less strenuous—allows participants to stay at the Xanterra South Rim lodges.
The institute's archaeological survey trips provide the National Park Service with data to preserve ancient sites. In January 2002 one such survey in the extreme western Grand Canyon found a living-room-size roasting pit left by ancestral Pueblo people, often referred to as the Anasazi. This thousand-year-old site—as well as others—proved instrumental in establishing the known western boundary of this ancient culture.
Bicycling Bikers can lose themselves among shady ponderosa pines on well-constructed mountain trails in the South Rim. Or they can wind through the Kaibab Plateau's alpine scenery, where trails skirt the North Rim and roll through meadows. Unfortunately, bicycles are not available for rent inside the park. However, they're permitted on all paved and unpaved park roads as well as the new Greenway Trail. Biking the Canyon Area, by Andrea Lankford, offers a detailed description of all biking trails in the canyon. For more information, visit www.fs.fed.us/r3/kai or contact the Tusayan Ranger District Office, Kaibab National Forest, 928-638-2443.
Mule or Horseback Rides Plunge into the turquoise waters of Havasu Falls after a horseback descent through thousands of years of geological layers. The waterfall area is home to the Havasupai Indians, "people of the blue-green waters," who have lived here for hundreds of years. During guided tours, visitors learn about canyon geology, wildlife, and the history of the Havasupai. Visitors who want to photograph or pass through the waterfalls require permission from the Havasupai Tourist Enterprise (928-448-2141). Just two miles (three kilometers) from the falls, the Havasupai reservation offers horseback rides. Get more information at www.havasupaitribe.com/horses.html. Various companies also lead multi-day horse trips that range from $800 to $2,000 a person. For more information, visit www.thecanyon.com. Contact the Havasupai Tourist Enterprise at 928-448-2141.
The National Park Service also offers one-day and two-day mule trips. For $360 a person, riders can stay and dine at the Phantom Ranch in the inner canyon. A one-day trip trots down the river and stops at Plateau Point on the Bright Angel Trail at a cost of $130 per person and includes a box lunch. Call Xanterra Parks & Resorts, 303-297-2757 or toll free 888-297-2757, or visit www.grandcanyonlodges.com.
Camping Backcountry on Your Own Although the Grand Canyon is one of the most amazing places to camp, it's also one of the most challenging, particularly with the extraordinary summer heat. Hikers should be aware of the severe risks of hiking in desert conditions. Each year park officials receive approximately 30,000 requests for backcountry permits, but they issue only 13,000.
The National Park Service regularly monitors only Bright Angel, South Kaibab, and North Kaibab trails. Its website maps out the safest routes and best campsites for overnight trips in the backcountry. All camping on the rim—outside developed campgrounds—requires a permit from the Backcountry Information Center. Although a small number of permits are sometimes available for the same day, hikers should apply well in advance. Each permit is $10 plus additional fees depending on the length of stay, number of campers, and whether camping above or below the rim. For more information, visit www.nps.org or contact the Backcountry Information Center at 928-638-7875. Dory Trips While 16 companies offer rafting adventures down the Colorado River, a trip in a dory—small, rigid boats designed to carry four people and plenty of gear—provides an exhilarating experience on the river. To learn more, check out O.A.R.S., one of the outfitters licensed by the National Park Service, at www.oars.com/htdocs/grandcanyon/dories.html.
Artists-in-Residence The North Rim of the Grand Canyon is a true wilderness that provides unending inspiration and perfect solitude for artists. The Artist-in-Residence program offers professionalartists—including writers, composers, visual, and performing artists—the opportunity to spend three weeks in the immense splendor of the North Rim. For the application deadline, contact Jennie Albrinck at 928-638-7739 or email@example.com.
Semester in the Grand Canyon College students have a special opportunity to stay among the cliffs and the Colorado River. Participants can earn as many as 18 credit hours a semester through an integral experiential learning program that takes students from backcountry field trips to rafting the rapids. The program is in partnership with Northern Arizona University and the National Park Service. For more information, visit www.grandcanyonsemester.nau.edu.
The least crowded time to visit the Grand Canyon is November through February. Camping is permitted only in designated campsites, and they fill up fast. So reservations for camping and lodging are essential. When making reservations, be sure to identify the rim you plan on visiting.
South Rim Mather Campground Despite the campground's 323 sites and its proximity to the business district of Grand Canyon Village, the beautiful pine trees offer a good amount of privacy and partial shade. Sites far from the busy park roads even evoke a feeling of serenity. Mather offers tent and RV camping. But there are no facilities hook-ups, and the maximum length for trailers and RVs is 30 feet (nine meters). Fees are $15 per site per night. A maximum of two vehicles, six people, and three tents are allowed per site. Group sites are also available for $40 a night, with a maximum of 50 people and three vehicles per group site. Sites may be reserved up to five months in advance. The campground frequently fills up in summer, but cancellations are common. Reservations are unavailable from December through March. During that period campsites are $10 per site per night on a first-come first-served basis. For reservations, visit reservations.nps.gov or call 800-365-2267. Outside the U.S. call 301-722-1257.
Desert View Campground This camping location can be found a short breezy walk from the busy Desert View overlook. The sounds of wildlife lend a feeling of remoteness to the sites, even with traffic nearby. A few grocery stores are available at Desert View, but the nearest showers are 26 miles (42 kilometers) away in Grand Canyon Village. The campground is open mid-May through mid-October and has no hook-ups. It operates on a first-come, first-served basis at $10 per site per night. A maximum of two vehicles, six people, and three tents are allowed per site. Only leashed pets are allowed. Trailer Village Connected to Mather Campground, Trailer Village's RV sites have hook-ups. For advance reservations, call 888-297-2757. Call 928-638-2631 for same-day reservations. The cost is $25 per site per night for two people and $2 for each additional person over the age of 16. North Rim North Rim Campground Unlike the other major camping areas in the park, this 83-site campground offers a few sites with canyon views. Campers are close to showers and a store, and a rim-side trail begins nearby. Open mid-May through mid-October, this campground fills up quickly. Campsites are $15 to $20. They offer no hook-ups, and a dump station is available. A maximum of two vehicles, six people, and three tents are allowed per site. For online reservations visit reservations.nps.gov, or call Spherix at 800-365-2267. Outside the U.S. call 301-722-1257.
Tuweep Visitors can reach this primitive (waterless) campground by driving an hour or more across remote bumpy roads that are impassable when wet. Just a few yards from the campsites, you can look straight down to the Colorado River. A challenging route from rim to river begins nearby. The first-come, first-served campground often fills up, but if all else fails you can camp on nearby Bureau of Land Management property by paying a fee and acquiring a permit. A variety of campsites are located just outside the park. For more information, go to www.nps.gov/grca.