Few things in this world produce such awe as one’s first glimpse of the Grand Canyon. The mesmerized John Muir wrote, “It will seem as novel to you, as unearthly in color and grandeur and quantity of its architecture as if you had found it after death, on some other star.”
It took nature more than 2 billion years to create the vast chasm-in some places 17 miles wide-through a combination of shifting uplift, erosion, and the relentless force of the roaring Colorado River, which runs 277 miles along its length, a mile beneath its towering rims.
Each year more than 4 million visitors flock to experience the wonder of its constantly changing pastel hues and unpredictable play of light and shadow, but 90 percent of them never make it past the visitor center, exhibits, museums, and gift shops at the popular (and congested) South Rim, at an elevation of 7,000 feet
Book at least a year in advance (or pray for last-minute cancellations) at the uniquely sited El Tovar Hotel, built here by Hopi workers in 1905 of native stone and ponderosa pine logs. It is considered the crown jewel of all the national park hotels, and guests will find out why during a quiet moment in a wicker rocking chair on its wide porch, with edge-of-the-world views.
Mule trips leave from the South Rim for one-day trips down to Plateau Point, about halfway to the canyon floor; overnight mule riders and hikers can check into the Phantom Ranch, a rustic, bare-bones former working ranch from the early 1900s, and the only accommodation below the canyon’s rim.
From the South Rim it’s a scenic 235-mile drive through mighty impressive country to the more tranquil, remote North Rim. At an elevation of 8,000 feet, it is only open mid May through October.
One of the most poetic ways to experience the canyon is to see it from the bottom up, white-water rafting the Colorado River, whether in kayaks, rafts, or motor-driven pontoon boats. One of America’s greatest adventures, it’s a guaranteed keeper on anyone’s short list.
What: site, hotel.
Grand Canyon: the South Rim is 230 miles north of Phoenix, 80 miles north of Flagstaff. The North Rim is 352 miles north of Phoenix, 210 miles north of Flagstaff. Tel 928-638-7888; www.nps.gov/grca
Cost: park admission $20 per car. El Tovar Hotel, Phantom Ranch, Mule Trips, And River Rafting: for all, contact Grand Canyon National Park Lodges, tel 303-297-2757, fax 303-297-3175; www.grandcanyonlodges.com.
Cost: El Tovar Hotel, doubles from $129 year round (3 canyon-view suites $289) – reservations are accepted 23 months in advance.
Phantom Ranch, $28 per person when arriving on foot, with accommodation in 10-person dorms. Mule trips $345 per person year-round, includes all meals and an overnight stay in a cabin. Easy 4-hour rafting trips $107 per person, includes lunch. Multiple Day Whitewater Rafting Trips: Wilderness River Adventures. tel 800992-8022.
When: Park, hotels, and treks year-round.
Best Times: May-Aug draw the greatest crowds, so consider Mar, Apr, Sept, or Oct. Off months of Nov-Feb have a beauty of their own.