It’s a big hole.
Or it’s the Majesty and the Glory made manifest.
The Grand Canyon is the one place where you can drive up, look out and drive on saying that you’ve “seen it,” but it’s also an ever-changing and evolving view. You can stay in one place and watch the same view change through the day, or walk a few yards down the rim and see a very different view.
Our daughter-in-law says that they should put up a sign warning that any canyon after this one would be a lesser experience. We recommend coming into the park from the east end for the first time, in part to see the Little Colorado canyon. On the way in, the canyon of the Little Colorado is pretty remarkable, being a thousand feet deep and with nearly vertical sides, but on the way out it’s not nearly so impressive.
We’ve taken a ton of pictures of the canyon, some of them pretty good (we think), but none of them are equal to standing on the rim looking at that immense gorge. You can memorize all of the landmarks, use Google Earth to skim through the virtual canyon, see it in IMAX, but it will never be the same as walking up and seeing it yourself for the first time.
We’ve been there nearly a dozen times in just the few years that we’ve been in Arizona and the Grand Canyon has never shown us the same views. We’ve gotten a little jaded – it’s no longer an “Oh. My. Gawd.” experience – but seeing it fills our souls with peace in a way that few other places can.
The best time to see the canyon is at sunset, when the light turns the canyon walls ruddy and the shadows give everything depth.
We have not ventured much below the rim yet. Those who have say that the experience is altered by being in the canyon, looking up and out instead of down, and it’s a goal of ours to get that done. The one time that I’ve been down the trail at all was on Bright Angel (see next paragraph). Going just a few minutes down the trail was exhilarating, but one has to be cautious. It takes at least twice as long coming up as it does going down (at least for the average person).
There are lots of ways to get below the rim, including the famous mules (200-pound weight limit, by the way) and numerous trails. The most famous of those is Bright Angel, which is the mule’s road down as well as the way to get to Phantom Ranch and over to the north rim. On my trip down that first part of Bright Angel I found that one of the things that is different “below the rim” is that you can definitely tell it’s a mule trail (in summer, it’s potent!).
Bright Angel Trail, shot from the west…
The mules, heading for home…
A serious warning: People die at the Grand Canyon because they get careless or overestimate their abilities. They die falling off slopes. They die on hikes: It may be blissfully cool at the top, but Sonoran Desert hot at the bottom. On top of that, going down is easy, so people go farther than they intend and when it takes twice as long, or longer, to get back up then they are in trouble. It’s also high desert most of the way down, so water is a must, and not just a 20-ounce bottle, either. Nobody has, so far, died riding the mules, but they do have sore butts by the time they get back to the top.
There’s a whole different perspective if you go to the North Rim. It’s higher and wetter, so there’s a difference to the forests there. Because of the way the canyon is formed, many of the largest formations in the canyon are on the north side of the river, so they are much closer to the rim. The north side is only open part of the year due to the snow and it’s a long drive north from Flagstaff or the South Rim, but it’s wonderful. Coming from the south, you also get to drive over Marble Canyon on the Navajo Bridge and past some awesome cliffs – the Echo and Vermillion. The first condor releases were on the Vermillion Cliffs and now condors soar over the Grand Canyon regularly.
A part of the park that many people miss is the Tusayan Indian Ruins, located to the east of the main South Rim village. The ruins are a reminder that people have lived around the canyon for a very long time and that our national park is a very late addition to the landscape.
Of course, the canyon can be explored by more ways than just driving, hiking or mule riding. The most thrilling way to experience the canyon is by raft. I’m told that you need to get reservations in a year in advance (I’ve not tried to get any, so this is very much second hand). You can also get helicopter and plane rides over the canyon from several locations, including the airport just south of the park in Tusayan (the town, not the ruins!) and Las Vegas.
There’s also a lot more Grand Canyon than the park. Two other major attractions well to the west of the park are the Skywalk at Grand Canyon West and the Havasupai reservation, home of the beautiful Havasu and Mooney falls.
Grand Canyon West offers several options, so make sure that you understand the pricing. The Skywalk is generally priced as an add-on to other tours. The Hualapai have turned to tourism instead of leaning on gambling.
The village of Supai, the base camp for seeing the falls, was closed because of a flood in 2008, but has recovered. There are only a few ways in: hike several miles, ride a horse, or fly by helicopter. Any of them will get you to a wondrous hideaway with several beautiful waterfalls and amazing travertine pools.
The Grand Canyon is called one of the seven natural wonders of the world and I can’t really imagine any place more qualified.