by Pamela Petro, The Daily Telegraph, December 21, 2016
Don’t be blasé about the Grand Canyon. If you are, it will eat you. It will shame and humiliate you. Go ahead and get ‘morning-before-Christmas’ style excited about this place. And expect the dictionary definition of the word ‘awe’ when you see it for the first time: “solemn wonder tinged with latent fear”. The canyon will not let you down. Either way, you’ll probably cry. I did.
As one of the seven natural wonders of the world, the Grand Canyon, in the high desert of northern Arizona, offers the most complete engagement with the human spirit I’ve ever witnessed.
Ravishing visual beauty; physical challenge (should you so desire); historic and cultural depth (American Indian split-twig figures found at the canyon are older than Stonehenge); and that rarest of experiences – a genuine encounter with the sublime. For Edmund Burke the sublime meant “greatness beyond all possibility of calculation”, and that’s precisely what the canyon’s strata reveal: a metaphoric trip in time from the 230 million-year-old limestone at the rim to the nearly two-billion-year-old Vishnu schist at the bottom.
Our brains can do the maths, but the weight of deep time on display crushes comprehension. We look, we gasp, we shudder with awe.
When to travel
An unexpected perk: the Grand Canyon is a very international spot. On the course of one half-mile walk I met German, Japanese, Dutch, English, Hawaiian, and Brazilian visitors, all of whom were joyous to be there. The downside: all of these people were there. And that was in January! Know ahead of time that the canyon won’t be a solitary experience; four to five million people visit every year, most of them in summer, when it’s hot. On average, the canyon in August reaches 28C (82F) along the South Rim and 39C (103F) at the bottom. Go in winter: it’s far less crowded, the air is clear, and it’s not too cold.
Note: the canyon’s heat is dangerous. Signs keep track of the number of people who die of heat and thirst hiking the canyon every year. Another good reason to go when it’s cooler.
The Canyon runs in an east-west direction for 27 miles, and is an average of 10 miles wide. Grand Canyon National Park encompasses 1.2 million acres. Your experience there will be determined by which rim you visit (the edges are only 24 miles apart as the crow flies; a distance that takes 200 miles to drive by car). The South Rim is easier to reach from Phoenix or Las Vegas, and consequently much more crowded, but has far more amenities (it’s also open all year long; the North Rim is inaccessible from mid-October to mid-May).
As the Artist in Residence at the South Rim in January/February, I was unable to visit the canyon’s northern edge, but because it was winter and crowds were thin, I never felt cheated.
When you make advance reservations – an absolute must in summer, and smart in winter – it’s truly worth staying inside the National Park (all in-park lodging is within eyeshot of, or within, the canyon). If you think it’s worth it to save a few bucks by staying on the strip just outside the park, you’ll kick yourself when you get there.
The only lodging within the National Park on the North Rim is the Grand Canyon Lodge; make a point of asking for one of the cabins rather than motel rooms. Cabins accommodate from three to six people and rates vary from £113 to £177. See grandcanyonlodgenorth.com . The motel rooms, which require a short walk to the rim, go for £105.
There are a variety of lodging options in-park on the South Rim, from the El Tovar, a grand hotel built in 1905 (rates for two from £161-£432) to the Bright Angel Lodge, a 1935 rustic, rim-side landmark (standard rooms run from £75-£88, but ask to stay in one of the detached log cabins; double rates from £107-£375). See the complete list at: explorethecanyon.com/grand-canyon-lodging-and-hotels .
To the bottom
If you must stick your toe in the Colorado River, there are two ways down to the bottom of the canyon: by foot or by mule. Note that mule trips book 13 months in advance; an overnight trip from the South Rim to the bottom and back, including accommodation, costs £442 per person; a two-night trip costs £631. To check on their Day Before Cancellation policy, call 928 638 2631. Shorter trips are available from both rims, including a four-mile, three-hour ride along the new East Rim Trail, for £108 per person. See nps.gov/planyourvisit/index.htm .
The bragging-rights option is to hike. From the South Rim it’s a long way down along the Bright Angel or Kaibab Trail, and an even longer way back up. So whatever you do, make a reservation for at least one night at Phantom Ranch, the only lodging option at the bottom of the canyon – preferably, two nights. A cabin for two costs £113. The budget option is a dormitory-style bunk bed for about £39.
Those who take mules to the bottom get to stay in cabins as part of the deal. See grandcanyonlodges.com/phantom-ranch .
Scared of heights? Allergic to mules? Then float into the Grand Canyon in a raft on the Colorado river. See nps.gov for government-sponsored rafting opportunities.
Most packages offer 280-mile, 15-18 day raft excursions of the canyon. Again, book a year in advance. Begin with a look at rafting.com/arizona/grand-canyon . All manner of combination trips are also available. The outfitter OARS offers a seven-to-eight-day journey that combines hiking into the canyon from the South Rim with rafting on the Colorado and a helicopter flight out of the canyon. For details see oars.com/grandcanyon/dories/phantomranch-whitmorewash.html . Prices start at around £3,907 per person.
Beyond the Rim
Don’t miss the Desert View Watchtower at the canyon’s eastern edge, built by architect Mary Colter in 1932 (Colter was also responsible for the Bright Angel Lodge, Phantom Ranch, and many other park structures).
Colter based her design on Pueblo peoples’ lookout towers, and commissioned local artists to decorate the interior with murals and copies of ancient petroglyphs discovered in and around the park. It’s like climbing into a four-storey dream.
Leave any fear of heights at the door if you opt for the Grand Canyon Skywalk at the western end of the canyon. Skywalk is a horseshoe-shaped glass bridge that cantilevers 70ft beyond the canyon’s rim, and 4,000ft above the Colorado River below. It was built and is maintained by the Hualapai tribe. You’ll pay about £63 per adult to feel suspended in mid air.
The Skywalk at the Grand Canyon
Buy something at Hopi House – Colter’s 1905 re-creation of a Hopi pueblo – and support local American Indian artists. Even if you don’t purchase jewellery, Navajo rugs, or an American Indian pot, this is the place to learn about local traditions. For instance, the Santa Clara pueblo has kept up an unbroken tradition of pottery-making since pre-Columbian times, while the Jemez tradition died out and has recently been re-established – making Jemez pots a relative bargain.
Befriend the artist-in-residence, who has an apartment above Verkamp’s Visitor Center. Ask to meet him or her – the resident artist will be happy to visit (I speak from experience), and can offer a unique perspective on the canyon. Or, apply for a residency yourself by going to nps.gov .
If you’ve got a car, don’t miss the Painted Desert, which stretches eastward from Grand Canyon National Park to Petrified Forest National Park, mostly on Navajo territory. The Painted Desert lacks the canyon’s hold-your-breath drama, but its vivid colours and patterns are every bit as beautiful.
The desert is packed with deposits of iron and manganese, responsible for staining the host rock red, orange, pink and purple.
Keep driving to see the Petrified Forest itself, and consider a stay at the recently restored, adobe-style Painted Desert Inn within the park. See nps.gov for more information.
The Painted Desert
If you want to see what happens when a large meteor breaches Earth’s atmosphere, also visit the Meteor Crater, about two hours south-east of the canyon. And be thankful you were nowhere nearby 50,000 years ago: meteorcrater.com .
Before you go
Embrace long-range planning: decide on a trip well over a year in advance and make reservations at least a year ahead. I know I’m repeating this advice, but I can’t say it enough.
If you plan to hike: seriously, get in shape first. If you can train at a high altitude, all the better. If not, at least practise hiking on some steep hills. I met three young men just after they’d finish climbing the Bright Angel Trail; they had trained, and their knees were wobbly as rubber bands. Train beforehand!
The more you know about the canyon in advance the more interesting it will be. Try Travelers’ Tales: Grand Canyon, edited by James O’Reilly, Sean O’Reilly and Larry Habegger (2005). For a visual perspective, see Thomas Moran, by Nancy Anderson (1997 exhibition catalogue), which offers sumptuous colour plates by the first – and still most iconic – painter of the canyon and American West.
Get kids caught up in pre-trip excitement with Brighty of the Grand Canyon, by Marguerite Henry, a children’s book (ages 6-11) about a real mule who lived at the Grand Canyon in Theodore Roosevelt’s day.
Finally, read up – even if online – about the canyon’s geology. Knowing ahead of time to look for the Great Unconformity – a gap in the canyon’s strata from which all rock has eroded, “like a chapter torn from a book” – makes a visit all the richer.
This article was written by Pamela Petro from The Daily Telegraph and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.