Adventures in the Grand Canyon
I fancy myself a world traveler, but as they say, you never visit the giant, gaping hole in your own backyard. I have been to more than 40 countries and countless destinations in the States. I have seen the sun rise or set at the Taj Mahal, Eiffel Tower, Great Wall, Machu Picchu, Haleakala, Table Mountain, and Sydney Opera House, to name a few. I’ve had dinner at Fidel Castro’s place in Havana (really) and gone diving with sharks in Fiji. They were harmless whitetip reef sharks, but still. Given its proximity to my homebase in Salt Lake City, a journey to the closest of the seven natural wonders of the world should have been cinched long ago, but adventures in the Grand Canyon always eluded me. I finally got a chance to go this spring and, gee, it sure is aptly named.
Formed between five and 17 million years ago, the Grand Canyon is 7,000 feet above sea level in the Colorado River basin. It’s 277 miles long, 18 miles wide, and more than 6,000 feet deep. According to geologists, it deepens by the width of a single sheet of paper each year. In 1869, John Wesley Powell and a few of his pals led the first geographic expedition down the Canyon. It took them nearly three months to get some 900 miles from Green River, Wyoming to Grand Wash in the “Big Canyon.” Powell named it the Grand Canyon in 1871. In 1908, President Theodore Roosevelt declared it a National Monument and said, “The Grand Canyon fills me with awe. It is beyond comparison—beyond description; absolutely unparalleled throughout the wide world.” President Woodrow Wilson made it a national park in 1919.
Planes, Trains, and Classic Automobiles
The most fun way to arrive is by flying to Phoenix and driving three and a half hours through Saguaro Cactus-filled Sonoran Desert to the town of Williams. It’s home to a little stretch of historic Route 66, and you won’t want to miss the gift shops filled with every type of classic car souvenir in existence. From Williams, hop aboard the vintage diesel-powered train, operated by the Grand Canyon Railway, and enjoy a two-hour train ride to the South Rim. Interpretive tour information is given throughout the entire ride so you’ll be a veritable Grand Canyon expert by the time the train arrives. Kids love the non-stop entertainment from banjo-plucking musicians to train-robbing theatrics.
One of the most popular ways to experience the Grand Canyon is to take a whitewater rafting trip through it. River trips last from three to 18 days and can be commercial (guided) or non-commercial (self-guided), but both require permits. Make reservations (nps.gov/grca/planyourvisit/whitewater-rafting.htm) up to a year in advance. Before the National Park Service overhauled the permit lottery system in 2006, a 16-year wait was not uncommon. This 225-mile trip through the canyon launches at Lees Ferry and ends at Diamond Creek with a whole lot of hootin’ and hollerin’ in between. It’s largely recognized as one of the most coveted whitewater rafting trips in the world and features a full spectrum of flow from quiet ripples to churning thunder at Lava Falls, which has the highest concentration of Class IV rapids in the Canyon.
Yes, you can climb in the Grand Canyon! There are close to 50 sport and trad routes with difficulty levels ranging from 5.6 to 5.13. Here are Mountain Project’s top picks:
- Mountain Project’s determination of some of the classic, most popular, highest rated routes for Grand Canyon National Park:
- South Face 5.8 ★★★ Trad, 3 pitches, 300′ Mount Hayden
- NE Arete 5.9 ★★★★ Trad, 6 pitches, 600′ Zoroaster Temple
- North Face 5.10a C1 ★★★★ Trad, Aid, 4 pitches, 250′ Monument Creek Pinnacle: Monument Creek Pinnacle
- Southwest Ridge, 5.10+ R ★★★ Sport, 12 pitches, 2800′ Comanche Ridge Comanche Point (NW Ridge of…)
- Pegasus 5.10+ ★★★★ Trad, 3 pitches, 350′ Mount Hayden
The overnight mule ride trip to Phantom Ranch is a great option, but the park also offers a new tour called the Canyon Vistas Ride, which travels along the South Rim. This half-day tour stops at several observation points along the way so riders can appreciate how the varying light and locations influence the ever-changing visual perspectives of the Canyon. You will get a souvenir canteen that also serves as your ticket to ride. Impressively, disposable plastic water bottles are not sold anywhere at Grand Canyon National Park, but visitors can buy a variety of reusable water bottles and fill them up at designated water stations located throughout the Park.
There are those who derive delight from running the Grand Canyon rim to rim. If you are one of them, congratulations—you’re amazing! For everyone else, there are four day hikes that are steep or very steep from the South Rim that range from two to 12 miles roundtrip. The North Rim boasts 13 trails with distances ranging from less than a mile roundtrip to 28 miles roundtrip. The park service strongly advises against hiking from rim to river and back in one day and recommends planning on taking about twice as long to hike out as it takes you to hike in. Some park rangers refer to the Canyon as a “Darwin Pit” because each year more than 250 hikers need to be rescued due to ill-preparedness.
Historic Hotels, Tents, and Secluded Lodges
Phantom Ranch is the only lodging facility below the canyon rim and is reachable by foot, mule, or raft. It’s a small, historic resort village near the Bright Angel Creek and Phantom Creek confluence and can accommodate just 60 people per night. Rafters have the option to take a half trip if they wish to hike in or out at Phantom Ranch. The creek is so named because of an elusive water flow on the property. Postcard senders get a kick out of Phantom Ranch Mail Service because it’s transported via mule and is marked, “Mailed by mule at the bottom of the Grand Canyon – Phantom Ranch.”
Make reservations up to six months in advance for Grand Canyon Campgrounds. The Mather Campground on the South Rim is open year-round and the North Rim Campground is open May 15 through October 15. The Bright Angel Campground is the most popular area to camp because it’s located just below Phantom Ranch, but you have to obtain a backcountry camping permit (nps.gov/grca/planyourvisit/backcountry-permit.htm) to camp there.
The El Tovar Historic Hotel was built in 1905 and is the crown jewel of Historic National Park Lodges, but there are five other hotel lodges perched next to it on the South Rim that offer equally resplendent views. My room at the Kachina Lodge featured the best view from a hotel room window I’ve ever seen. Everywhere in the Grand Canyon is a feast for the eyes. I especially enjoyed watching sunlight spill into the Grand Canyon at dawn from Hopi Point. It made a nice addition to my collection of sun salutations at global travel destinations.