Bear witness to the USA’s greatest landscape of all, then clamber down into it
The Grand Canyon gives no warning. Approaching from the south through the great thickets of ponderosa pine that make up the Kaibab National Forest, there is no indication of the spectacle to come. Deer dance between the trees, seemingly oblivious to their proximity to the void. Only at the precipice does the canyon reveal itself, the earth simply dropping away to reveal one of nature’s most audacious wonders. It is a mile deep and 18 miles across at its widest point. Gazing out at this great chasm of red rock shifts your perspective in a skipped heartbeat. The scale of it humbles man’s greatest constructions: stack three Empire State Buildings on top of one another and you still wouldn’t reach the rim. One lookout stop says it all: The Abyss.
It is not just the size of the canyon that startles but the sweep of history it illustrates. It is six million years since the Colorado River first found this route to the Gulf of California, and began slicing down through the soft top layers of dirt and rock. On it went, patiently cutting through sandstone and limestone before it reached its current level more than 1,500 metres below the rim. It is still getting deeper, although at a slower rate now that it has reached the hard basement rock. The river is now 730 metres above sea level and scientists believe it will keep going down, millimetre by millimetre, year after year, until it reaches the level of the sea, where all rivers stop.
To better understand the canyon, it’s necessary to leave your perch on the brink and descend into it. Hikers Katie and Nic Hawbaker, from nearby Flagstaff, have done so several times. Today, they’re climbing the Bright Angel Trail, the Grand Canyon’s most popular, which descends 1,370 metres to the Colorado River. From there, it joins the River Trail leading to Phantom Ranch in the canyon base, where they camped last night.
“It’s totally different at the bottom,” says Katie. “It’s magical. We can’t imagine how long it took to carve out the canyon or where the river was initially. It’s just so deep.”
Another way to attempt to get to grips with the sheer scale of the place is to get over it. From a Maverick Helicopters’ chopper, it’s possible to see the Painted Desert and follow the Colorado River before diving through the Dragon Corridor, the widest and deepest part of the canyon. For peak impact, though, it’s hard to beat the early moment when you’re ambling along 15 metres above the treeline of the ponderosas, then suddenly you’re 1,500 metres over the rushing waters.
It’s all a far cry from 1893, when hotelier Pete Berry first opened a crude cabin at Grandview. Berry had come to the canyon in 1890 as a prospector and staked the Last Chance copper claim 915 metres below. The ore was rich, but the vast cost of transporting it to the rim doomed the whole operation.
Before long, President Theodore Roosevelt realised the canyon needed to be protected. He made it a national monument in 1908, having declared: “Let this great wonder of nature remain as it now is. Do nothing to mar its grandeur, sublimity and loveliness. You cannot improve on it. But what you can do is to keep it for your children, your children’s children, and all who come after you, as the one great sight which every American should see.”
Maswik Lodge is in the Grand Canyon National Park, deep in the ponderosa pine forest. Built in the ’60s, it offers simple, comfortable lodging and has an onsite gift shop and pizza pub.
Entry to Grand Canyon National Park costs £24 per vehicle. Permits are required for all backcountry camping and private river trips. Maverick Helicopters depart from the airport near the small town of Tusayan, on the south side of the park.