No matter what you've heard about its legendary beauty, the first time you peer over the edge of the Grand Canyon, you'll probably be amazed. Many visitors sum up the view from the rim with one word: Wow. An immense landscape spreads below your feet, dropping cliff by cliff into a winding, ragged gorge. In the distance, imposing walls and towers of stone rise to a green line of forest.
About 5 million visitors go to behold this grand sight each year, the vast majority of them visiting the canyon's more popular South Rim. It's one of the most-visited natural wonders in the world. As incredible as the views are, as long as you stay above the rim, be prepared to deal with crowds. Those with the time and conditioning to venture below the rim, however, will receive a special treat.
The best strategy is to visit the park at the times of year when it won't be packed with sightseers and to explore the less-developed areas. Summer is Grand Canyon's peak season. Spring and fall see lighter crowds, especially in early March and late October. Even a winter visit is possible on the South Rim, though the snow may deter most travelers. To avoid crowds and to visit during pleasant weather, late spring and fall are good times to visit.
A visit to the more remote North Rim (usually open mid-May to October, depending on the snowfall) will help you avoid crowds. The northern route also gives you the opportunity to visit Pipe Spring National Monument, an early Mormon settlement near the border with Utah.
If you have to visit during the summer, reserve accommodations and specialty tours at least six to nine months in advance. If you're just visiting the Grand Canyon for a day, arrive early, as parking is limited.
Try to arrange a trip into the canyon, which is the best way to appreciate its size and topography. Options include hiking, riding a mule down from the top or passing through the canyon on a river excursion. A prime destination for overnight hikes is Havasu Falls on the Havasupai Reservation, with the option of a helicopter ride to the falls for the leg-weary. A neighboring tribe, the Hualapai, controls access to the West Rim and offers raft trips through the Canyon's western extremities.
Should you decide to stick to the topside, as most visitors do, you'll hardly be disappointed. The vistas from the rim are incomparable, especially at sunset.
The Grand Canyon is most accessed via the Grand Canyon Village on the South Rim. That's about 80 mi/125 km northwest of Flagstaff, in northern Arizona. The North Rim is only about 10 mi/16 km away from Grand Canyon Village as the crow flies, but it's 215 mi/345 km (about a five-hour drive) by car, because you have to drive around the canyon to get there. The North Rim is best accessed from southern Utah.
The West Rim of the Grand Canyon is owned and operated by the Hualapai tribe, not the National Park Service. Although the Hualapai have been increasing convenience facilities, it's best visited using a tour that includes group transportation, because there are few gas stations, markets or restaurants in the area. There is also about 14 mi/23 km of unpaved road. However, it is home to the SkyWalk, where you can walk over the canyon on a transparent floor. The West Rim is located about 120 mi/193 km east of Las Vegas, Nevada, about 72 mi/116 km northwest of Kingman, Arizona. There is a park-and-ride shuttle from Dolan Springs, Arizona, about a one-hour drive from Las Vegas. You can park your vehicle there and take a shuttle to the West Rim.
The canyon is the product of the Colorado River cutting into the Kaibab Plateau (part of the larger Colorado Plateau). It measures 277 mi/446 km in length and averages 1 mi/2 km in depth. Its width varies from a few hundred feet/meters to almost 20 mi/33 km. The park adjoins the Navajo, Havasupai and Hualapai Reservations, as well as the Kaibab National Forest. If you travel from the rim to the inner canyon, the steep gorge at the bottom of the canyon that contains the Colorado, you'll traverse several life zones, moving from a landscape of ponderosa pines at the top to a harsh, cactus-laden desert at the bottom.
Hundreds of species of mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians dwell in the canyon's habitats. Mule deer, rock squirrels and ravens are the most common animals seen, but you may also encounter desert bighorn sheep, bobcats, coyotes, mountain lions (mainly confined to the North Rim), scorpions, rattlesnakes, frogs and even millipedes that glow in the dark. The park is also home to a number of endangered and protected bird species, including the immense California condor, the southwestern willow flycatcher, the peregrine falcon and the bald eagle. The canyon boasts several endangered species of fish endemic to the region, including humpback and bonytail chub.
The Grand Canyon was formed over hundreds of millions of years by erosion, with the Colorado River cutting into the Colorado Plateau. The rock formations along the rim, known as the Kaibab Formation, are the youngest of the canyon's geological features (270 million years old). About 5,000 ft/1,550 m below the rim, in what's known as the "basement," rocks range from 800 million to 1,850 million years old.
More than 3,000 prehistoric archaeological sites have been uncovered within the park. The oldest human artifacts date from nearly 12,000 years ago. The first human inhabitants were bands of hunters who passed through the area toward the end of the last Ice Age. The region's indigenous Pueblo cultures peaked around the 13th century, and the park contains almost 2,000 ancestral Puebloan sites.
In the 1300s, the Cerbat (who later became the Hualapai and Havasupai tribes) and the Southern Paiutes settled in the area. About a hundred years later, the Navajo and the Dine (Apache relatives) settled around the canyon. The Navajo reservation is still located along the eastern section of the canyon.
In 1869, Civil War veteran John Wesley Powell became the first non-native explorer to successfully float the length of the canyon on wooden boats (he lost three of his nine men to the rapids and excessive heat). Nearly three decades later, a group of businessmen from Flagstaff, Arizona, built the first tourism accommodations on the South Rim. U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt designated the canyon as a game preserve in 1906, and Congress established the Grand Canyon National Park in 1919. Today, the park sees about 5 million visitors each year.
Entrance to the park for a visit of seven days or fewer costs US$35 per passenger vehicle, or US$20 per walk-in visitor, cyclist or motorcyclist.
An annual pass for the Grand Canyon is US$70, but a better value for those making multiple visits is the America the Beautiful Pass (National Parks Pass), which costs US$80 per year and allows unlimited entry to all national parks and federal recreational lands in the U.S.
If you plan to camp below the rim, you'll need to pay US$10 for a permit, plus US$8 per person per night.
There are cocktail lounges at Bright Angel Lodge and El Tovar Hotel on the South Rim. Bright Angel Lodge has a joke-telling guitar player who specializes in oldies and cowboy songs. Both are open daily 11 am-11 pm.
On the North Rim, enjoy a drink at the Grand Canyon Lodge.
Upscale cuisine is probably not your motivation for going to the Grand Canyon, and that's good: You're not going to find much of it. You will, however, pay a high price for whatever you eat—even if it's a hamburger or pizza.
Expect to pay within these general guidelines for a dinner for one, not including drinks, tax or tip: $ = less than US$15; $$ = US$15-$25; $$$ = US$26-$50; $$$$ = more than US$50.
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