by Lee Foster
Lt. Joseph Christmas Ives wins top honors in the history of American travel for the classic misjudgment of interest in a travel destination. Ives wrote, in 1857, after viewing the Grand Canyon, “Ours has been the first, and will doubtless be the last, party of whites to visit this profitless locality.”
Little did Ives know that Coronado and his men had gazed into these reaches earlier, but saw little profit in scenery and more in gold.
Ives could not imagine that by the 21st century nearly five million annual visitors, both Americans and citizens from many other countries, would rank the Grand Canyon as one of the superb travel destinations on the planet. For spectacular vistas from dizzying heights and for technicolor transformations, especially at sunrise and sunset, the Grand Canyon is world class. A mile deep, 600 feet to 18 miles wide, and 277 miles long, the Grand Canyon offers a sublime spectacle, with a slice of geologic time visible on the vertical walls.
Not content to be completely wrong about the Canyon, Ives went on to generalize about the Colorado River.
“It seems intended by nature that the Colorado River, along the greater portion of its lonely and majestic way, shall be forever unvisited and undisturbed,” said Ives.
The mighty Colorado River, eroding its way through Utah and entering Arizona from the north, cuts into the deep gorges of the Grand Canyon as it passes west. The river, moving at assured and moderate speed, pushes boulders ahead with ease. Over eons, the river created the canyon, displacing the soil a grain at a time. Ives would be surprised to see the number of nature observers and rafters who express a great fondness for the river.
A third of the visitors to the park each year are foreigners. Records kept at the park show that people from 110-120 countries seek out the park each year. The Japanese, British, Germans, French, Italians, Canadians, and Australians are among the more prominent groups. The park service once conducted some revealing studies of human behavior at the South Rim. For example, the average Japanese visitor spent 17 minutes gazing into the Canyon and 57 minutes in the gift shops.
The beauty of natural erosion is the major draw to this rather harsh environment, situated at 7,000 feet above sea level. Most visitors come to see the Canyon from the South Rim.
Winter brings the dedicated photographers who seek out the crispest particulate-free light. It is said that air pollution, from multiple sources, reduces the optimal visibility by perhaps 30 percent.
Getting to Grand Canyon National Park
The Grand Canyon is in northwest Arizona. The nearest major fly-in cities are Phoenix, 225 miles southeast, and Las Vegas, 278 miles west. Flagstaff is closer, but has limited commercial aircraft flights from Phoenix. The small Grand Canyon National Park Airport is served by charter flights from Salt Lake, Las Vegas, and Phoenix.
Interstates 17 and 40 lead to the Canyon, with connecting routes 89 and 64, which are both good paved roads.
One way to arrive at the Grand Canyon is the Grand Canyon Railway, connecting the town of Williams to the South Rim, some 62 miles away. The experience of riding the railway is highly recommended. Lodging at both ends can be arranged with a rail ticket in packages from AAA and other travel agents. You begin at the train platform in Williams in the morning. Cowboy shootout performers entertain with re-enactments of the “lawless” Old West. The same entertainers stage a “robbery” on the train ride back from Williams.
The leisurely three-hour ride up to the Canyon passes juniper and pinon pine forests alternating with ponderosa pine enclaves, as the altitude changes. On the train you can order a beer or wine. There is a luxury club car and dome cars for scenic viewing. The park service is delighted with the train because the 150,000 people carried each year on the train cuts down on the automobiles that would be entering the park.
History of Grand Canyon National Park
The natural history of the planet is visible in a two-billion-year record on the walls of the Grand Canyon. The Vishnu schist at the bottom of the Canyon is part of the earliest earth formations. The river has been sandpapering or buzz-sawing its way, depending on your preferred metaphor, through the more recently deposited sediment. Sediment that accumulated in the wink of a geologist’s eye, mere millions of years ago, allowed for the possibility of a Grand Canyon.
The human story can be seen at the main Anasazi Native American site along the Canyon. This site is called Tusayan, east from the Rim Village, and has a visitor interpretive center. Anasazi is a Navajo word meaning “the ancient ones.” The Anasazi culture, which developed prominently at other Southwest sites such as Chaco Canyon, Mesa Verde, and Kayenta, includes the Basketmaker culture (circa 500 AD), when tight baskets of exceptional quality were produced, and the Pueblo culture (1200 AD), when the agrarian and sedentary life of farming reached its peak. About 2,000 known Native American sites have been identified by archaeologists in the Grand Canyon. When drought forced the Anasazi to move east, they contributed to the racial stock that became the Hopi and Navajo cultures.
Although the Anasazi are known to have flourished in the Grand Canyon, there were also earlier tribes, about 4,000-2,000 years ago. Archaeologists have found wood twig fetishes made by these people in the shape of deer and sheep, sometimes with small arrows piercing them. Several are on display at the Tusayan site visitor center. Techniques such as carbon dating have determined the 4,000-year date. Between these early people and the Anasazi, a long uninhabited period ensued in the Canyon.
The next chapter of the human story occurred when Francis Vasques de Coronado entered the region. Coronado dispatched Don Lopez de Cardenas to the Grand Canyon area, where the Hopi tribe directed him to the rim. Coronado and his comrades searched restlessly for the fabled Seven Cities of Cibola, which were presumed to glitter like a mirage of gold and silver somewhere out on the deserts of the Southwest.
Pueblo Native Americans of the Grand Canyon area also attracted missionaries. Father Francisco Tomas Garces, who visited the Hualapai and Havasupai lands at the Grand Canyon, is believed to be the first person to use the term Rio Colorado, meaning the “river colored red” by the silt.
The U.S. assumed control of the Grand Canyon from Mexico with the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe. Several geological surveys of the area occurred in the next decades. The most famous of these geological explorers was the one-armed Civil War veteran, John Wesley Powell, who rode a dory through the Grand Canyon in 1869, charting the river’s course. His book on the expedition is a classic of exploration. Powell and his men didn’t know what lay around the next bend.
In 1916 Woodrow Wilson signed the bill making the Grand Canyon a National Park.
Main Attraction of Grand Canyon National Park
The most accessible area of the Grand Canyon is the Grand Canyon Village along the South Rim, where most of the support facilities and 95 percent of all visitors congregate. A circuitous route leads east from the South Rim and then north before curving in in to the North Rim, but that is another world altogether and can be considered as a Nearby Trip.
If you plan to stay at the Grand Canyon, know that there are extensive lodging choices at the South Rim and in the gateway town of Williams. There are also camping and RV sites at the South Rim. However, reservations should be made as far in advance as possible, especially during the busy summer season.
El Tovar is the oldest and most elegant of the lodgings at the Grand Canyon. El Tovar was built in 1905, followed by Bright Angel Lodge in 1935. The El Tovar dining room is famous for sumptuous dining in this rustic setting. Try their specialties, such as French onion soup and roast duck, perhaps preceded by a prickly-pear syrup margarita. Maswik Lodge is the most recent and modern of the South Rim properties. When pausing in Williams before or after a trip, the Grand Canyon Railway Hotel is a dependable choice.
When at the Grand Canyon there are several ways to see it. The most popular method of viewing the Canyon is by driving to overlooks along the east side of the South Rim. In the busy summer season, due to the numerous cars, the Park Service restricts driving along the west side portion of the South Rim overlooks. Park shuttles provide the transportation. Other ways of encountering the Canyon include hiking along the South Rim or into the canyon, biking the South Rim with rental bikes, riding a mule on a day trip through a ponderosa pine forest to the Abyss overlook, and riding a mule (only 10 per day allowed) down to Phantom Ranch at the river. Rafting the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon is another option.
One spectacular way to view the Grand Canyon is on a helicopter ride from the South Rim. Twenty-five and 45 minutes rides can be arranged with AirStar. From a helicopter the full grandeur of the canyon becomes apparent, with the river snaking along at the bottom and the geological time scale on the canyon walls apparent. Next to the AirStar launch site there is an elaborate Indian craft store, full of silver jewelry, managed by Navajo people.
However you see the Grand Canyon, your awareness of the forces at work will determine the quality of your experience. The power of moving water, the chisel of wind, the pull of gravity, and the contraction-expansion of rock with freezing and thawing temperatures are some players in the concert of nature always performing here. Justifiably, the United Nations ranks the Grand Canyon as a World Heritage Site.
One of the popular ways to encounter the Grand Canyon is to start at the far eastern point and drive, bike, or hike west, stopping at turnouts, either using your car or park shuttle buses, which can transport bikes. See the Canyon from as many perspectives as possible and at different times of the day to enjoy fully its beauty.
Here are some of main pleasures, moving east to west.
At the far eastern point, actually outside the park, a first stop if you have a car could be the Little Colorado River Overlook, a deep chasm showing you a tributary of the Colorado River known as the Little Colorado. At this overlook you will most likely find Navajo and Hopi selling their crafts. Nearby are the Navajo-Hopi Reservations. At this site, outside the park boundary, the tribes can sell their wares directly. Within the park, sales are controlled by the concessionaire. The Hopi and Navajo reservations are well worth exploring. The main Hopi area is within the larger Navajo domain. Both groups produce outstanding crafts in silver, ceramics, and fabrics. The Hopi tend to live in communities, but many Navajo retain their rural life, flourishing in single-family groups.
Just inside the eastern boundary of the park is the Desert View turnoff, with its Watchtower, a 1930s interpretation of Hopi architecture. Here you can see the Colorado River stretching below you. Rafters are often visible in the distance. To the east stretch the Navajo and Hopi Reservations.
The Watchtower is the first of several structures in the park built by the gifted designer Mary Colter, an employee of the Fred Harvey Company, which managed much of the early-era tourism. Colter also built Hermit’s Rest at the far west end of the South Rim road and the noted “geologic” fireplace at Bright Angel Lodge, composing the fireplace of rock from the different strata in the Canyon. She wanted her structures to reflect the distinctive Southwest stone and masonry motifs indigenous to the region, as shown in many historic Native American structures.
Desert View is a good place to see Grand Canyon wildflowers in summer after the thunderstorm rains, which Arizonans call “the monsoons,” stimulate the flowering. Look for orange flower mallows, purple asters, and bushy yellow sunflowers on the grounds around the Watchtower structure.
Lipan Point shows a clear view of the Colorado River. The river drops some 2,000 feet through 280 river miles as it runs through the Grand Canyon. There are 160 major rapids in the park, all rated from 1-10 in terms of complexity. Below you, at Lipan point, the Unkar rapids are rated six on the scale.
Tusayan, mentioned above, is an intriguing stop because of its Native American ruins and interpretive center. Built of Kaibab limestone, the ruins include a kiva, or ceremonial room. The small tribe of perhaps 30 individuals farmed corn, beans, and squash, supplementing this agrarian diet with game, yucca shoots, pinon pine nuts, and berries. Their life required constant attention to food supply. The failure of one crop season could mean starvation. Their method of grinding grain on rocks inevitably caused pieces of sand to appear in the food, which wore down their teeth. By age 20, a typical Anasazi had substantial tooth loss. The average life span was a mere 35-40 years. Utah juniper was used as the structural wood in the wood-limestone buildings. The ruin was an inhabited structure around 1185 AD, when the Anasazi flourished here. The ruin was occupied, archaeologists estimate, for only a short time, approximately 25 years. The cause of its abandonment is not clear, but drought is a probable contributor.
From Tusayan you get a good view of the San Francisco Peaks. In the Navajo language these peaks were given a name that translates roughly as “brilliant and shining like jewels.” In the Hopi language, the peaks were named with words meaning “high place of hills covered with snow.” The descriptions suggest the majestic appearance of these peaks, which dominate the landscape southeast of the Grand Canyon.
There are three trails down into the Canyon from the South Kaibab Trailhead, the Bright Angel Trailhead, and Hermits Rest Trailhead. A hike down into the Canyon should be undertaken only after consultation with the excursions desk at Bright Angel Lodge. You need to be in excellent physical condition to make the hike back up, especially in warm weather. Part of the challenge of a hike into the Canyon is an invisible factor that many visitors fail to allow for–the altitude. At the South Rim you are at 7,000 feet, which demands that you take it slow and easy for at least a couple of days as your body adjusts. If in doubt, underestimate your capacity for strenuous hiking. If you hike, be sure to carry, and drink, sufficient water, at least two quarts per person per day. Wear a hat and prepare for summer temperatures at the bottom of the Canyon in excess of 105 degrees.
If you question your ability to walk down and out, consider a two-day mule ride to the bottom and back, with an overnight at Phantom Ranch. You need to be under 200 pounds weight and capable of the physical exertion of the ride. Anyone who hikes into the Canyon and needs to be brought out must pay the increasingly expensive rescue fees. If you hike in and plan to camp or lodge overnight in the Canyon, obtain a permit and reservation.
Yaki Point is a major turnout with some short hikes to Canyon overlooks. From Yaki Point you get a good sense of the difference between the North Rim and the South Rim. The North Rim, or Kaibab Plateau, slopes gradually down, while the South Rim rises abruptly.
Yavapi Point and Mather Point are within walking distance of Grand Canyon Village. Yavapi Point’s Geology Museum helps interpret the geological story of the Canyon. In the Village area, the nine-mile Rim Trail makes a pleasant, level hiking and biking trail offering views between Hermit’s Rest and Mather Point. There is a 3.5-mile Nature Trail starting at Yavapi Point.
The Grand Canyon Village is where the Park Service has its main interpretive Visitor Center and introductory movie, Grand Canyon: A Journey of Wonder. Here you can also rent bicycles from Bright Angel Bicycles and peruse a bookstore. An ample food store provides basic supplies. The Village was originally built when there were expectations that the five million annual visitors would rise to seven million, with a light-rail train bringing visitors into the park. However, consumer demand for Grand Canyon National Park visits plateaued at five million, so the light-rail vision was abandoned. The Village also offers RV/camping facilities, complete with showers and laundry. From the Village it is an easy walk out to Mather Point, one of the rewarding panoramic views of the Canyon.
When you reach the South Rim section around the El Tovar Hotel and Bright Angel Lodge, you are in the midst of the main developed area. There you’ll find several gift shops, of which the Hopi House is the most elaborate.
East from El Tovar is the more affordable Bright Angel Lodge, built in 1935. Stop in at the History Room to see Mary Colter’s stone fireplace celebrating the rock strata of the Canyon. Adjacent is a log cabin, the Bucky O’Neill Cabin, the oldest extant structure on the South Rim. Bucky was a miner and helped facilitate building of the Grand Canyon railway. Nearby is the Lookout Studio, another fine view, and the remarkable Kolb Studio, where the quirky brothers, Ellsworth and Emery Kolb, photographed park visitors and the landscapes. In 1911 the Kolb Brothers made the notable first film about running the Colorado River in small, wooden dory boats through the Grand Canyon. They showed the film to tourist visitors at their studio. Emery remained in the park until his death in 1976 at the age of 95.
If you wish to make a river rafting trip through the Grand Canyon, see the Park Service website for a list of concessionaires allowed to take parties through the Canyon. Most of the trips depart from Lee’s Ferry, Arizona. Some companies offer partial trips that allow you to get on or off at Phantom Ranch, which is directly below the South Rim developed area. Most of the trips occur between April and October, though some companies run trips all year. The variety of float options includes motorized rafts, oar-powered rafts, oar-powered boats, dory boats, and kayaks. This historical start of these whitewater adventures was the 1869 river run by John Wesley Powell, the one-armed Civil War veteran and future director of the United States Geological Survey, who negotiated the treacherous Grand Canyon in his fragile dory boat.
West along the South Rim trail, several turnoffs, easily accessible with park shuttles, show stunning views. Hopi Point, for example, presents a panorama portraying 60 miles of the canyon stretching east and west. Consider stops also for scenic masterpieces at The Abyss and at Pima Point. The road ends at Hermits Rest, another Mary Colter architectural stone gem, where visitors often pause for drinks, snacks, and the gift shop. The Park Service’s favored absence of an apostrophe in the place name Hermits Rest suggests the evolution of the American language, which is proceeding somewhat faster than changes in the geological phenomena observable at this promontory.
Nearby Trips from Grand Canyon National Park
The major nearby trip, for most visitors, would be an excursion to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. This is not a casual outing. Although the North Rim is only 10 air miles from the South Rim, you either must hike there down through the Canyon, which is multi-day and heroic, or drive a circuitous five-hour, 215-mile route east, north, west, and then south. The North Rim has its own lodge, Grand Canyon Lodge, and its special view points, such as Bright Angel Point. Camping is also possible at the North Rim.
Expect the North Rim to be cooler and wetter than the South Rim. The North Rim is at 8,000 to 9,000 feet, while the South Rim is at 7,000 feet. Annual rainfall is greater, 26 inches compared to 15 inches. Due to the factors of elevation, rainfall, and temperature, the forest is also different. Blue spruce and white fir abound on the North Rim. Ponderosa pine, pinyon pine, and Utah juniper populate the South Rim.
The Canyon bottom, incidentally, is a desert with less than 10 inches of annual rainfall and temperatures that can reach 120 degrees. Only a few life forms survive there, such as the kangaroo rat, which can metabolize water from the dry seeds it eats.
All visitors coming to the South Rim pass through Williams, a lively little town with a fun Route 66 historic tradition. Spend an evening at Cruiser’s Cafe 66, indulging in the pork barbecue and a glass of Oak Creek Pale Ale, mulling the fact that Williams was the last of the Route 66 towns to be bypassed by Interstate 40.
Between Williams and Flagstaff is the Bearizona wildlife-viewing drive-thru attraction, where you can see, from the safety of your car, major North American fauna, including elk, deer, bear, wolves, mountain lions, bison, and mountain goats.
Grand Canyon: If You Go
For information on the park, see the official Park Service website at www.nps.gov/grca.
To take the Grand Canyon Railway train ride from Williams to and from the park, contact Grand Canyon Railway at www.thetrain.com.
The overall Arizona state tourism information site is Arizona Office of Tourism.
Helicopter rides over the Grand Canyon are offered by AirStar Helicopters, www.airstar.com.
Information on Williams, gateway to the Grand Canyon, is presented by the Williams/Grand Canyon Chamber of Commerce, www.williamschamber.com.
For personalized tours of the Grand Canyon and other parts of northern Arizona, contact Phoenix-based Detours, www.detoursaz.com.