One of a series celebrating the 100th anniversary of the U.S. National Park Service
Perhaps the most iconic of the U.S. National Parks is the Grand Canyon.
Travelers around the world have the Grand Canyon on their bucket lists. It’s the second most-visited of the U.S. National Parks*, with 5.5 million visits in 2015. I meet travelers from everywhere in the world who have gone (literally) to great lengths to see it, even if the rest of their itinerary was in locations perhaps a thousand miles from Arizona.
Yes, you should go there. The enthusiastic descriptions and spectacular photos you’ve seen are not hyperbole: It’s truly that “grand.” You should stay late in the day to watch the lowering sun paint the canyon walls vermilion, violet and pink, and get up early the next morning to watch the rising sun do the same, whatever the season. You should tour Bright Angel Lodge, Desert View Watchtower, Hopi House and other remarkable structures designed or decorated by the American architect, Mary Colter, early in the 20th Century. Here’s the Desert View Watchtower:
There are miles of easily accessible trails and viewpoints along the rim affording an almost endless variety of views that constantly change the point of view of the vast chasm.
Whether you get to the canyon in a car, by train or airplane, there are innumerable options for reaching viewpoints and overlooks**. As you move around, as the moving sun shortens or lengthens shadows and the color of the light shifts, the canyon changes character , and presents an infinitely varied spectacle. The vast gorge you see at 8 a.m. is different than the one you see in late afternoon.
Here’s something I urge you to seriously consider: Go down into the canyon.
I know. You have limited time to get back to Phoenix or Las Vegas to catch your flight, or you need to get onto I-40 to reach Dallas or Los Angeles that night. You’re not equipped for back country hiking and … allow me to make my case.
There are a number of trails that lead into the canyon. You’ll see the serious hikers on them, outfitted to reach the river a mile below the rim, camp for the night, perhaps hike up the other side of the canyon to the North Rim, and maybe back again.
You don’t have to do that, because there are regular, ordinary people on day trips of varying lengths, too. They’ve done a little preparation, but they’re not conquering the wilderness. They are, though, tasting it, seeing it, and feeling it around them. Take only a few hundred steps down, for example, Bright Angel Trail, and you’ll enter another world.
I’m not exaggerating. Only steps along the trail, you’ll leave behind the throngs of people lining the guardrails along the overlooks, talking, exclaiming, “Come see THIS, Mom!” You’ll be IN the Grand Canyon, surrounded by one of the planet’s absolute wonders.
Whether you descend a mere 100 meters, walk for 20 or 30 minutes or an hour, you’ll be able to stop in the shadow of a cliff, and simply gaze at a scene that is yours alone. You will have company: other hikers, even companies of riders on burros (another option for seeing the canyon — check the website for info). You’ll also see those serious hikers, and if you have a chance, ask them how long they’ve been on the trail. Don’t be surprised if the answer is, “Nine days.” Congratulate them, and marvel. They’re part of the scene.
As soon as your head is below the level of the rim, you’ll get it. I promise you. There’s a different ambience, and even the sound is different. The sky, no longer hedged by trees or adjacent buildings, spreads above you. The canyon will no longer be competing for attention with all those other people at the viewpoint and traffic passing on the access roads. Instead, there’s only the canyon, all around you, and no guardrail separates it from you. You are there.
That’s correct: no guardrails. Although the trail is amply wide for two or more people to walk abreast, comfortably, if you have a terrific fear of heights, or an unconquerable case of vertigo, it may not be for you. Sometimes, having company helps, and there are ranger-led guides in addition to those burro-back excursions.
Make no mistake, it is a serious endeavor, even for an hour-long hike. The trail can be steep (although it doesn’t require any scrambling; you can walk), and no trails are accessible for individuals with limited mobility**. You’ll need shoes, NOT sandals. It will be hot in the summer, and you’ll need water, whatever the season. Do NOT start if you don’t have water. Almost certainly a park ranger will pass you, stop, and inquire if you do. If you don’t, they’ll do everything they can to dissuade you from taking another step. It’s a lot easier for them to advise people who are conscious and mobile to walk back out than it is to haul them out on a stretcher, something they do innumerable times the year round. Pay attention, please.
Remember, it will take you at least as long to walk up as it does to walk down, and, yes, it will be uphill all the way, so don’t overextend yourself. Stay within your abilities, and you’ll experience Grand Canyon in a way not every visitor does.
After all, who knows when you’ll be back? Imagine yourself saying, “Oh, I took that photo went we hiked down into the Grand Canyon.”
© Brad Nixon 2016. All photos © Willard Nixon 2016, used by kind permission.
Do your research before you visit the canyon. There are numerous transportation, food, lodging and itinerary options. Start with the website, http://www.nps.gov/grca.
*The most-visited U.S. National Park is Great Smoky Mountains, with more than 10 million 2015 visits (it’s easily accessible from numerous well-populated parts of the U.S., unlike the more remote Grand Canyon).
**The NPS website provides an overview of Grand Canyon accessibility information as well as a downloadable accessibility guide at THIS LINK.