The Grand Canyon is 277 miles long and up to 18 miles wide in places.
"I looked at its huge alternating bands of cliff and hanging terraces that reach down, repeating but never repetitious, from Rim almost to river. I looked east and west, as far as my eyes could strain, until cliff and terrace tapered away into hazy distances. It was mysterious and terrible—and beckoning."—Colin Fletcher in The Man Who Walked Through Time
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At 5:30 in the morning people emerge from their camps and hotel rooms at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. They climb onto shuttle buses and into cars, and migrate to the edge to watch the rising sun paint canyon spires and walls with brilliant crimson and pink. I nudged through clouds of hushed voices to reach the edge. Slowly, as the sun moved higher, a spectrum of reds and oranges and browns played across the canyon. We all stood silent, in awe.
I had planned this trip carefully: two full days exploring the South Rim and the Grand Canyon Village, then I would hike down into the canyon, spend the night at Phantom Ranch on the Colorado River, and hike back. After sunrise that first day, I wandered the trail that twists east and west alongside the South Rim. Behind me was the Village, with hotels and stores and gift shops all mingled in a forest of juniper and piñon. But each time I looked away from the canyon, I was wrenched back. Each rift, each tan and green plateau, each red layer of earth seemed to change when the sun set a new angle. If I didn’t keep looking, I was afraid I’d miss another scene I had to see.
At Yaki Point I stopped above the South Kaibab Trailhead and watched mule trains climbing to the rim, and day-hikers taking short strolls while backpackers ventured into the depths. And I could hardly keep from shouting to the people around me, "I’m going down there!" If they knew, I kept thinking, they’d be so envious.
At the end of the day—still high on hiking anticipation—I succumbed to the other offerings of the national park, and took my place among the crowds that mill around the South Rim.
Covering 1,904 square miles, Grand Canyon is the second most popular national park. Visitors come for many reasons. Some just to get a glimpse, some to run sections of the Colorado River, others to hike the trails. Last year, for the first time, 5 million people visited the park in one year.
For the next two days I tried to learn something of the canyon’s 2-billion-year-old geological history by attending ranger-led geology talks. Maps at the rim list the unusual names of some of the formations in the park, such as Elves Chasm, Buddha Temple, Cheops Pyramid. In Verkamp’s Curios, I bought a guide to the Grand Canyon Village Historic District, and poked around the Bright Angel Lodge, the Hopi House, and the Lookout Studio, all designed by architect Mary Jane Colter.
Part of the Grand Canyon's appeal is its homage to history, ancient and recent. Much of a visit to the rim resounds with the past. The first visitors arrived by stage and rail. But the canyon's human history starts far earlier.
Almost 4,000 years ago, Native Americans lived and farmed in the canyon and on its rims. In 1540, Spaniards from Coronado's expedition were the first Europeans here. Modern settlement began in 1883 when John Hance built a cabin east of the present village.
Today, visitors can take a self guided tour of the historic district of the South Rim and see sites from photographic studios built in 1904 to the Hopi House, built as a place for Hopi craftsmen to live and work, to the grand El Tovar Hotel built in 1905.
Inside the Bright Angel Lodge, I pored over an exhibit on Harvey Girls—the women brought out west by hotelier Fred Harvey to work in his Santa Fe Railway hotels. I had an exquisite lamb stew at the newly renovated El Tovar Hotel, the most elegant of the Grand Canyon Lodges, built in 1905. At the visitor center, I looked at maps and exhibits on the strong Indian history here—large sections of the western canyon remain Hualapai and Havasupai reservations.
Mules have been carrying people into the canyon since the Bright Angel Trail opened in 1891. Today’s wranglers guarantee the mules are extremely surefooted. Options include one-day trips 3,200 feet into the canyon, overnight trips to Phantom Ranch, or three-day trips to Phantom in the winter.
I also found myself dodging lots of other visitors, excusing myself as I ducked under snapping cameras. I skirted around cars parked alongside the roads. I watched out for drivers concentrating on finding a place to park, and not on me crossing the street.
Overcrowding is a fact of life on a summer day at the South Rim. The average visit is four hours, and two of those are spent in interpretive centers and shops. At this point, however, the problem isn’t too many people, but too many cars. It’s not unusual on a summer day to find 6,000 cars vying for 2,000 parking spots. To alleviate the problem, the park service hopes to have a new light-rail transportation system in place early next century that will bring day-visitors from the nearby town of Tusayan to a transportation center at the Village. There, alternative-fuel and electric buses will take them to points throughout the South Rim, and to Desert View. Overnight visitors will be able to drive into the park.
But who can blame all the visitors; there is nothing like it on the planet. And, there is no one way to visit the canyon—there are hundreds.
After two days on the rim, it was time for me to venture into the depths.
At 6:00 a.m. I stopped trying to sleep. By 7:30, I stood at the edge. "Remember this moment," I thought, and I gingerly lifted my hiking boot and took the first step of my trip to the river.
Suddenly, my world was the narrow stretch of path that leads down to the powerful Colorado, and all the brittle, crumbling rocks and the multicolored plants and the warm desert smells that surround it. I would look far ahead, with my eyes tracing the winding trail, then I would refocus on where to put my next step.
What better way to arrive at the Grand Canyon than the old way—by train? At the historic Williams Depot, 65 miles south of the Grand Canyon, the waiting train steams and sighs. Western characters stroll the grounds; antique railcars await exploration. In front of the depot is the elegant Fray Marcos Railway Hotel. Then, it’s all aboard for the 2 1/4-hour ride to the rim. Call (800) 843-8724.
The South Rim offers two main trails to the river. I chose to descend the South Kaibab (a steep 7.3 miles, rim to river, no water available), spend one night at Phantom Ranch, and hike back up the Bright Angel Trail (10 miles, less steep, water at halfway point). I wanted two different looks at the canyon walls; and, since the mule trains descend the Bright Angel Trail, I figured walking behind a mule wouldn’t enhance my hiking experience.
The South Kaibab begins with a series of switchbacks. One other hiker, a man from Germany who spoke little English, was on the trail with me. As the trail dropped through millions of years of rock strata—gray Kaibab Limestone, Toroweap Formation—the German and I played leapfrog, passing each other as one of us stopped to take photos or drink water.
Soon, the trail was clinging to the canyon walls—brilliant red through the 280-million-year-old Hermit Shale, the Supai Group, and the Redwall Limestone—until it landed on the Tonto Platform. In minutes, I had moved from steep rocky terrain to open desert. The soft smell of sage filled the air. Prickly pear lined the trail. The sun was high now, and the South Kaibab didn’t offer much shade, so I kept my hat pulled low, and slathered on the sunscreen.
Just before the last drop to the river, I joined another hiker on a rock high above the inner gorge, and gulped down water, thinking of a ranger’s tale of a hiker who died of heat stroke. When they found him he still had two full water bottles with him. Below, the river rolled and lapped its way west. Huge walls soared in all directions, tiny yellow flowers pushed through the rocky ground.
Day or overnight hiking in the Grand is a dangerous activity. It is not uncommon for people to get seriously injured or die because they simply didn’t drink enough water, or didn’t have enough nutrients in their system. Temperatures inside the canyon can easily soar above 100 degrees.
Toes pushing against the front of my hiking boots, hot spots flaring on the balls of my feet, I walked through the dark gray Tapeats Sandstone, and over a bridge across the Colorado. The last dusty mile took me along Bright Angel Canyon to Phantom Ranch. Here, the river has cut through to some of the oldest and densest layer of rocks, the 1.7-billion-year-old Vishnu Metamorphic Complex.
Small wood cabins and dorms, and some tree-covered grassy clearings, make up Phantom Ranch. I passed tents set up at the campground, just south of the ranch, moved through the mule-pen, then past the small dining hall to my dorm. Tossing my sweaty backpack onto a bed, I pulled out my sandals and made a beeline to the creek to cool my feet. Then, I found a shady spot under a cottonwood tree to watch the disappearing sun change the walls from brown to orange to red.
It was steak night at Phantom, and at 5:30 hikers and mule-riders gathered for a family-style dinner. Later, we moved to a clearing for a ranger’s talk about canyon geology. The gray walls rose sharply around us, framing a distant block of sparkling stars.
By 5:30 the next morning a staggered line of hikers moved along the inner gorge of the Grand, me among them. We were lucky: The sky was overcast, which meant cooler weather. A steady pace took me up Bright Angel Creek. High walls hid the long hike ahead, until enough switchbacks brought me to the next terrace. After 6 miles I stopped to refill my water bottles at a rest stop called Indian Garden. One great wall waited for me, the final 4 miles. About a half-mile below the rim, I ran into a group of day hikers. "Where’d you come from?" one asked. It was exactly the right question. In two days I’d hiked 17.5 miles into the grandest canyon of them all and back out again. It felt so good to answer.
Almost as good as stepping back onto the rim. I had been all the way, and now I knew the ribbon of Colorado is really a wide river, jade green, and that red wildflowers grow in between scattered boulders, and that yucca, cholla, and agave line the trail.
This article was first published in May 1998. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.
See your AAA Travel Agency. Check out the AAA Arizona/New Mexico Tour-Book and the Arizona/New Mexico map.
Grand Canyon National Park Information: (520) 638-7888.
Lodging: Phantom Ranch, and most of the rim lodges, are booked far in advance. For reservations call Amfac Parks and Resorts at (303) 297-2757.
Hiking: Hiking in the Grand, be it a day hike, or an overnight trip, is dangerous. The park service offers a safety video to day and overnight hikers. For hiking permits, write to the Backcountry Office at P.O. Box 129, Grand Canyon, AZ 86023.