This is a land of time. Massive cliffs reveal limestone composed of animals who lived in long-departed seas, sandstone formed of ancient desert sand dunes, and shale made of silt from now-vanished rivers and shores. Volcanic eruptions deposited layers of ash, cinders, and lava. Deeper into the Canyon lie the roots of mountain ranges, whose peaks towered over a primitive land two billion years ago. Time continues to flow in the Canyon with the cycles of the plants and animals that live here, and with the erosive forces of water and wind ever widening and deepening the chasm.
Two mighty but opposing forces—uplifting of the massive Colorado Plateau and vigorous downcutting by the Colorado River—created the awe-inspiring Grand Canyon and its many tributaries. Neither pictures nor words can fully describe the sight. You have to experience the Canyon by traveling along the rim, descending into the depths, riding the waves of the Colorado River, and watching the continuous show of colors and patterns as the sun moves across the sky.
The Canyon's grandeur stretches for 277 miles across northern Arizona; it's as much as 18 miles wide—10 miles on average—and one mile deep. Roads provide access to developed areas and viewpoints on both rims. Trails allow hikers and mule riders to descend precipitous cliffs to the Colorado River. Yet most of the park remains as remote as ever, rarely visited by humans.
Most people head first to the South Rim, entering at either the South Entrance Station near Grand Canyon Village or the East Entrance Station near Desert View. A 25-mile scenic drive along the rim connects these entrances. The South Rim features great views, a full range of accommodations and restaurants, and easy access—it's just 58 miles north of I-40 from Williams. Roads and most facilities stay open all year. Attractions include views and historic buildings at Grand Canyon Village, the scenic drive west on Hermit Road to Hermits Rest (8 miles), and Desert View Drive east to Desert View (25 miles). Some remarkable architecture lines the South Rim, including a series of unique stone structures designed by Mary Colter. The South Rim also features most of the Canyon's easily accessible viewpoints and trails. It's not surprising, then, that large crowds of visitors are the main drawback of this part of the Canyon. Park staff have long-range plans to relieve the congestion by adding more shuttles, bike paths, and foot trails.
Only about one in 10 visitors makes it to the North Rim, but if you go you'll be rewarded with pristine forests, rolling meadows, splendid wildflower displays, and superb panoramas. Viewpoints here stand some 1,300 feet higher than those at the South Rim and provide a dramatically different perspective of the Canyon. The North Rim area offers lodging, dining, and camping facilities similar to the South Rim's, though on a smaller scale. Because of harsh winters, facilities at the North Rim operate only from mid-May to mid-October, though the road remains open until the arrival of the first big winter storm. Although the rims stand just 10 miles apart, motorists on the South Rim must drive 215 miles and about five hours via Cameron and Jacob Lake to get here.
Adventurous travelers on the North Rim willing to tackle 61 miles of dirt road (each way; impassable when wet) can head west to Toroweap Overlook. This perch sits a dizzying 3,000 feet directly above the Colorado River—one of the Canyon's most spectacular viewpoints. Don't expect any facilities other than the road and a primitive campground. Bring all supplies, including water. Low elevations of 4,500–5,000 feet allow access most of the year.
The park collects an admission fee of $20 per private vehicle ($10 per pedestrian or bicyclist) that's good for seven days at the south and east entrances of the South Rim and at the main entrance of the North Rim. You'll get a colorful park map and a copy of The Guide newspaper, which lists programs and sightseeing suggestions. Once you're in the park, visitor centers, exhibits, programs, and day hiking are free. Budget travelers can save money by stocking up on gas, groceries, and camping supplies at Flagstaff, Williams, or other towns away from the Canyon; prices at Tusayan and within the park can run substantially higher.
The Grand Canyon offers too much to see in one day—you'll probably wish to spend one or more nights in the area. Grand Canyon Village on the South Rim offers rooms and cabins, some right on the rim and others back in the forest. Dining choices include simple cafeterias, family restaurants, or the elegant dining room at El Tovar. The small town of Tusayan nine miles south of Grand Canyon Village also has a range of places to stay and eat, but there's the disadvantage that you may face long lines at the entrance station when you return to the park. Neither place has inexpensive accommodations, so low-budget travelers might consider the camping options or staying in Williams or Flagstaff. The only lodge on the North Rim, at Bright Angel Point, offers cabins and basic motel rooms; they're heavily booked, so you definitely need a reservation. If you don't mind the commute, two lodges north outside the park have rooms and cabins; you'll need reservations at these places as well. Camping is your only low-budget option for the North Rim. Farther north, the towns of Page, Fredonia, and nearby Kanab make useful bases for the Arizona Strip.
You can obtain helpful trip-planning literature before your arrival by writing to the park (P.O. Box 129, Grand Canyon, AZ 86023) or visiting the official website www.nps.gov/grca, which provides a great deal of information, including news, visiting tips, hiking possibilities, and river running opportunities. The automated switchboard (928/638-7888) connects with all park offices and offers recorded information, including a weather forecast; hearing-impaired people use the TDD number (928/638-7804).
Groups can arrange to have weddings, get-togethers, and memorials at secluded spots on both rims; contact the park for details.
Theft has become a problem at the Canyon—be sure to hide valuables or keep them with you. Also check that car windows are all the way up and doors locked when you leave the vehicle. Park rangers patrol the park, serving as law enforcement officers and firefighters; see them if you have difficulties.
Beggars will almost certainly approach you at the overlooks, hoping for a handout. Squirrels and chipmunks are the most notorious offenders, and the occasional raven may hop over too. Just say no, as human food can be addictive for wildlife and may cause them to lose their ability to feed themselves. Also, feeding animals is against park regulations and will make National Park Service people very unhappy! In addition, a surprising number of people are bitten by the begging rock squirrels.
Although 215 miles and about five hours may seem long to cover just 10 raven-flying miles, the drive passes an incredible variety of scenery. From Grand Canyon Village on the South Rim, you'll first head east along the Desert View Drive with its many viewpoints of the Grand Canyon. Then, at 16.5 and 21.7 miles past Desert View, you'll come to overlooks into the sheer-walled Little Colorado River Canyon; they're also a good place to buy Navajo crafts directly from the families who made them. Cameron Trading Post, a mile north of the AZ 64-US 89 highway junction, is a great place to take a break for a meal; the motel and Native American gallery here are very good as well. North from Cameron, the colors of the Painted Desert glow softly all around. At the Tuba City junction, dinosaur fans may wish to detour five miles east on US 160 to see tracks just north of the highway. Continuing north on US 89 through Navajo lands, the long line of the Echo Cliffs rises high on the east before you turn onto US 89A and drop down to Navajo Bridge across the Colorado River. It's worth stopping at either end of the bridge to walk across the old span here and admire Marble Canyon. Lees Ferry and Lonely Dell Ranch lie about five miles north, allowing you to take in some history and see a bit of Glen Canyon. The highway then skirts the base of the well-named Vermilion Cliffs before starting the long climb up to the pine-forested Kaibab Plateau; a viewpoint on the left shortly after the climb begins has a panorama of the Vermilion Cliffs, which blaze in fiery red at sunset. Three small motels with restaurants stand beside the highway below the cliffs. At Jacob Lake, which has a lodge, campground, RV park, restaurant, and a visitor center, turn south 45 miles on AZ 67, a beautiful forest and meadow drive that heads straight for Bright Angel Point on the North Rim.
VISITING GRAND CANYON NATIONAL PARK
On to The Land