I’ve flown over it, hiked around it, climbed down it and ridden through it, and it never ceases to amaze me. Its average depth is one mile. Its length, about 277 miles. You can find 373 bird species, more than 1700 plant species and 91 mammal species, not to mention more than 5 million mammals — people — who visit each year.
It’s the Grand Canyon, and the surrounding Grand Canyon National Park is more than 1,217,000 acres. And yes, a river (the Colorado) runs through it.
I first saw the Grand Canyon when I was about 6 years old, flying on a DC-7 from New York to Los Angeles, and the pilot dipped the wings of the plane to the right and asked us to look out the window and see one of the most magnificent views we’d ever have. And that view — of the colorful, swirling rocks of the Grand Canyon — remains with me to this day.
It’s been a National Park since 1919. But there is strong evidence of human habitation in the Grand Canyon dating back to 3,000 or 4,000 years ago, when the Desert Archaic people lived within the Canyon. Native Americans were the primary residents of the Canyon until the 1500s, when Spanish conquistadors stumbled upon it.
Today, the infrastructure of the Grand Canyon is far more accommodating.
Yes, you can still do “flight seeing” over the Canyon, in both helicopter and fixed wing aircraft. But if you want a more up close and personal experience, bring your camera and see the Canyon on the ground.
The Grand Canyon has many overlooks for photo opportunities. Many consider the North Rim to be a great location; due to the rim’s being 1,000 feet higher than the South Rim, it’s less developed, and it has spectacular views of the Grand Canyon.
When to visitThe Grand Canyon is very crowded in spring, summer and fall months. Fewer crowds are found in early spring or late fall. The South Rim is open year-round, but due to heavy snowfall, the road to the North Rim is closed from late October to mid-May. If you want to visit the North Rim, plan on going in early October. January and February are the slowest months, due to winter weather.
The North Rim of the Grand Canyon is most easily reached from Southern Utah, and this area is significantly less crowded than the South Rim.
Keep in mind that the North Rim is closed in the winter due to the snow (usually late October into mid-May). The drive directly from Las Vegas to the Grand Canyon will take you over the Hoover Dam, which is a must-see attraction.
For a great experience in Southern Utah, you can easily head north to Southern Utah and into Zion National Park. A good bet is to drive from Vegas to Zion (85 miles or so) and spend a night or two there before heading to the Grand Canyon (you can find directions here). If you have some extra time, you can also take a detour to Bryce Canyon National Park before driving to the Grand Canyon (it’s about 60 miles from Zion).
Other ways to see the Canyon
Riding a mule in the Canyon is an iconic image, but it is a great way to experience the Canyon. Keep in mind that the rides are often booked two years in advance. South Rim mule rides are offered year-round, both day and overnight trips, while North Rim trips are only available mid-May through mid-October. Trips can be booked up to 13 months in advance. The South Rim has a seven-hour trail ride to Plateau Point and offers panoramic views of the Canyon and the river below. Lunch is included. The overnight ride takes people to Phantom Ranch in the Canyon near the river. Trips range from one to two nights with all meals included. One- to two-hour horse rides are also available on the South Rim trails. The rides are booked through Xanterra Parks & Resorts Grand Canyon North Rim Lodge. For more information, call 888.29.PARKS or visit http://www.grandcanyonnorthrim.com/.
Many of the trails are challenging, but children, senior citizens and disabled people have successfully hiked the Grand Canyon. There are trails on both the North and South Rim that offer spectacular views of the inner canyon. The Rim Trail on the South Rim offers an easier option, while Bright Angel Point Trail and Cape Royal Trail on the North Rim are paved and not time-consuming. For those looking for more of a challenge, Bright Angel Trail, South Kaibab Trail, Hermit Trail and especially Grandview Trail offer longer and more demanding options on the South Rim. The North Rim has ten other trails ranging in distance and difficulty.
Overnight hiking and camping requires a permit from the Backcountry Information Center. Early planning is recommended, as there are more requests for permits than the Canyon’s environment can sustain. The earliest you can apply for a permit is on the first of the month, four months prior to the date requested. There are 15 trails as well as numerous obscure routes to the inner canyon. The Grand Canyon Field Institute offers guided trips.
An important caution: It is not recommended to hike from the rim to the river and back again in one day.
Hoover DamMotor coach, airplane and helicopter tours are available through various companies in Las Vegas and Arizona. Permits are available for canoeing, kayaking and rafting through the Bureau of Reclamation. A float trip that begins at the base of the Hoover Dam and travels down the Colorado River for 11 miles is also offered. The Bureau of Reclamation also has a Discovery Tour that takes visitors into various sections on top of the dam that do not conflict with security regulations. For more information, call (866) 730-9097 or visit usbr.gov.
‘Grand Canyon IMAX Movie’
The Grand Canyon IMAX Theater is located in the National Geographic Visitor Center. The “Grand Canyon IMAX Movie” is screened on a seven-story screen, and it gives you an overview of vistas, a history of explorations that have occurred at the Grand Canyon, and hidden canyon experiences that are not available on tours. For more information, call (928) 638-2468 or visit http://www.explorethecanyon.com/.
And what about the newly opened skywalk attraction? The Skywalk in the Grand Canyon is run by the Hualapai Tribe (pronounced WALL-uh-pie) on tribal lands. It is not located in the Grand Canyon National Park. This is a common misconception visitors make. Skywalk is actually located around 250 miles away from the park.
Skywalk construction began in March 2004. For people who need assistance, a wheelchair ramp is being constructed and is scheduled to be completed at the end of 2007. Remember: You cannot bring a camera or any personal belongings on the bridge.
The Spirit Package costs about $80 for an adult (about $60 for children), but it includes a Hop on Hop off shuttle that takes you to all of the view points, such as Eagle Point, a horse-drawn wagon ride at the Hualapai Ranch, Native American performances, and also a walking tour of the Indian Village. For more information on Skywalk, visit destinationgrandcanyon.com.
Train rideThe Grand Canyon Railway offers vintage train rides from Williams to Grand Canyon National Park. Choose from five classes of service: Budd or Pullman Coach, Club, First, Observation Dome and Luxury Parlor. This historic train, one of the first ways to see the Grand Canyon, offers everything from sunset rides to the Polar Express, a winter ride that departs in the evening for the “North Pole.” The usual route is 65 miles between Williams and the South Rim and takes 2 hours and 15 minutes each way. For more information, call (800) THE-TRAIN or visit http://thetrain.com.
Apache Stables offers horseback rides that trot in the ponderosa pine forest not far from the Canyon’s rim. Although you won’t see the Canyon’s vistas, the horseback ride is a great way to view the countryside. For more information, call (928) 638-2891 or visit apachestables.com.
Grand Canyon Field InstituteGrand Canyon Field Institute offers many courses at the Grand Canyon, such as family-friendly “Meet the Canyon,” educational tours and strenuous backpacking trips. Some of the topics include geology, ecology, archaeology, history, photography and others. For more information, call (866) 471 4435 or visit grandcanyon.org.
Havasupai Indian ReservationHavasupai Indian Reservation is located in the Grand Canyon, but it is only accessible by foot or helicopter. It is also the only place in the United States where the mail is still delivered by horseback. The reservation has waterfalls, and the water temperature is 70 degrees and remains around this degree year-round. The Navajo Falls, which were named after a Supai chief, fall 75 feet into a pool that is a great location for swimming. The reservation also has a village, campgrounds, hiking and horseback riding. For more information, call (928) 448-2731 or visit their Web site.
There are multiple affordable options for families. The Kachina Lodge, Thunderbird Lodge, Yavapai Lodge and Maswik Lodge have motel-style rooms with two queen-size beds ranging from $98 to $152 per night. The $152 rooms are located on the rim with a canyon-side view. For more information, visit http://www.grandcanyonlodges.com/.
The most coveted accommodations are the view suites on the north side of the Grand Canyon at the El Tovar hotel. It celebrated its 100th anniversary last year, and it has been recently remodeled. The view suites are a more costly $322 per night.
Peter Greenberg is TODAY’s travel editor. His column appears weekly on TODAYshow.com. Visit his Web site at .