The Grand Canyon is said to be the most famous naturally-created tourist destination in the US, and quite possibly the world. Many people look to its awesome grandeur as artistic inspiration, and no doubt the number of photos taken of this wonder defies belief. If you are considering spending time at or in the Grand Canyon, I will offer my own personal experiences as a tour driver and six-year resident in the area, to help guide you.
The National Park Service website ( http://www.nps.gov ), hints at the problem with visiting the Grand Canyon: sheer size. This is the largest river gorge in the world, 277 miles long. It is, on average, ten miles wide, a mile deep, and it encompasses a variety of plants and animals and geological features that challenge even the most educated minds. People spend their lives painting, photographing, and studying this immense creation. River-rafters delight in the countless rapids, hikers are challenged on rim-to-rim experiences, and those wishing to ride the mules will find their own set of memories. So, then, how can the average family or person gather some decent glimpses and photography of a spectacle so great in a limited timeframe?
Guidebooks help, but with so many, how does one choose? Tour companies thrive in this environment, and competition can often confuse things. Often, no one understands what is available. Please use this as a thumbnail to determine your interests, goals, physical limits, and budget. Then, plan ahead!
The arrival: Two major airports serve the area: McCarran Airport in Las Vegas (about a 5 hour trip), and Sky Harbor (about a 4 hour trip) in Phoenix. The Grand Canyon lies on Highway 64, about 60 miles northbound on Interstate 40, out of Williams, Arizona. The roads are all well maintained, and rental car companies abound. So one can fly, drive, bus-tour, or even rent an RV or motorcycle.
In the Grand Canyon National Park we find El Tovar Lodge and Bright Angel Lodge are right on the rim. Yavapai Lodge and Maswick Lodge are about a mile from the rim, as are the campground and RV park. In Tusayan, a mile south of the park entrance, there is excellent lodging, and two hotels offer gourmet dining. There’s an RV park as well. Williams (60 miles from the park on Hwy 64) and Flagstaff (80 miles from the park on scenic Hwy 180, which intersects Hwy 64) offer a variety of budget through high-end lodging and food establishments. Sedona, about 140 miles away, down Interstate 17 from Flagstaff (or scenic Hwy 89A), is a remarkably beautiful spot as well.
Tourist Peak Seasons: Influxes of tourists occur during all national holidays, school breaks, and summertime. Memorial Day begins tourist peak season, which lasts until Labor Day. Winter months are usually quiet. Always try to make reservations whenever possible. Otherwise, you’ll likely be disappointed.
The Weather and Climate: The Grand Canyon includes the North Rim, seldom visited and sparsely provided, with mostly just a lodge. It’s elevation runs 8,000 feet or higher, and the lack of amenities appeal to hikers, hunters, and outdoors folks. Often, roads are closed on the North Rim during the winter due to heavy snow.
The South Rim, elevation 7,000 feet, has all the amenities required, including tourist centers, restrooms, a market, a Post Office, a variety of restaurants and food courts, and plenty of parking. The vast majority of visitors see their first glimpse of the Grand Canyon here.
The high elevations at the South Rim suggest temperatures cool off rapidly at night. In winter, nightly temperatures (Fahrenheit) are often sub-zero, reaching daytime highs of teens through 40’s. In summer, daytime temperatures can hit into the 90’s. Those descending into the canyon may find summer temperatures exceeding 120! Fall and spring can offer wide variations in temperature. We are often blanketed by snow in winter and spring, causing forest road closures. Ponderosa Pine forests prevail about 6,500 feet. Pinion and Juniper woodlands exist below 6,500 feet.
The environment is largely desert, and rainfall can be infrequent. However, we can see heavy and unpredictable thunderstorms from July through September, caused by monsoonal flow. Weather at the South Rim can change in moments, and winds can howl in winter or during thunderstorms of summer, pushing people to their death! Thunderstorms can drench and lightning strikes are very common, especially right along the rim!
The Spots: The vastness of the Grand Canyon defies imagination and perception. Therefore, considering it is 277 miles long, there are many places to see. I’ll mention the biggest draws. No matter what, bring cameras and plenty of batteries!
South Rim is most popular, as it is the deepest (over 6,000 ft.) and widest (about 18 miles) spot. A US Park Service seven day pass of $25 is good for an entire car-load of people, and some weekends, (published in-advance by the Park Service) are FREE! The ranger at the gate provides a free map of the area to help guide you. Available activities are hiking, helicopter rides, mule rides, self-guided tours by personal vehicle or public transportation (free), or guided tours by van, bus, open-air truck, or open-air Jeeps. All the lodges offer restaurants or food courts, catering to all whims or budgets. Restrooms are available at each mentioned point, at Market Plaza Grocery, and at the Visitor’s Center.
One can walk right up to the rim, often without any walls or barriers, and gaze into a mile-deep, 18 mile wide, awe-inspiring sight. The book “Over the Edge, ” for-sale in many tourist shops, details those unfortunate souls who found-out the hard way how far down one can fall! Small children should therefore be watched and are often literally kept on-leash! Trails abound, safe walks are everywhere, but during winter months, watch for ice and snow and slippery conditions, and during summer months, keep plenty of water and snacks available, and wear and hats and long-sleeved shirts (I have seen dozens of heat exhaustion victims at the Grand Canyon Clinic on the hottest days).
For hikers with physical ability, training, and the moxie, you can hike to the bottom! But beware: this canyon has killed—and continues to kill—the unwary and unprepared hiker! The NPS.gov site can give you some information, but check with rangers always. Know your limits!
Mule rides are fun but they’re not for everyone. There are weight limits and you’ll need physical ability. The rides often require a year’s advance reservations. The mule trails and schedules are changing due to various factors, and this bears watching. Contact Bright Angel Lodge for details or see http://www.grandcanyonlodges.com/Mule-Trips-716.html.
Rafting trips can be a single day (http://www.hualapaitourism.com), or a week, or weeks, depending on the tour company (there are many!), amenities, and budget. You can relax and be cradled in unexpected luxury, or get some great upper body workouts in roughing-it fashion, or anything in-between!
Animals: Watch for elk, mule deer, antelope, coyote, fox, rabbits, bobcats, black bears, cougars, badgers, skunks, javelinas, squirrels (the ubiquitous Rock Squirrel, the tiny White-tailed Antelope Squirrel, and the tufted-ear Abert’s Squirrel), California Condors (mostly at the Rim), ravens, vultures, hawks, and eagles.
Favorite South Rim Places:
• Best view: Grandview point. One can see the river, Utah, and the whole South Rim Area.
• Most interesting view: Desert View and Watchtower. It’s an hour drive east, towards Cameron.
• Favorite walks: (1) Rim Walk. (2) Bright Angel Trail…just down to the first window rock and no further…as an after-meal walk ONLY! (3) Hermit’s Rest Trail.
• Favorite restaurant: Bright Angel café, best for the budget and families.
• Best food court: Maswick Lodge.
• Best educational point: Grand Canyon Visitor’s Center.
Note: public transportation in the Park is free, and operates during daylight hours to many outlooks and centers of interest.
West Rim: For those travelling in or out of Las Vegas, especially, after viewing Hoover Dam and the newly-completed Interstate 93 Bypass, the Skywalk beckons. One can walk out over the edge of the Grand Canyon, on a structure which is an “Extreme Engineering” marvel. Visitors are treated to a view of Eagle Point, walking upon a glass surface suspended 4,000 feet in mid-air. Helicopter and smooth-water tour upgrades are also available, weather permitting.
Bus transportation, Skywalk, and lunch are included in the entry price (around $100 per person, check the provided website at the bottom of this article for current pricing). Native American jewelry, dancing, traditional building methods, and folklore prove fascinating, and the “Hualapai Ranch” offers (children especially love it) buckboard rides, horseback riding, shootouts, horseshoes, gold panning, a great restaurant with western entertainment, and even lodging for the night if desired. The territory is owned by the Hualapai tribe.
Directions: Take Stockton Hill Road eastwards/northwards out of Kingman, AZ (intersection of I-40 and I-93) about 1 ½ hours to arrive at Skywalk.
Cautions: Some of the last few miles of road are graveled, so go slowly. Cell phone service is unavailable at West Rim, so auto breakdowns can be a real problem. The Skywalk adventure requires a full day! Therefore, I recommend planning ahead: reserve local lodging after your Skywalk day (Kingman or Hualapai Ranch). Cameras, cell phones, backpacks, and ALL other objects are not permitted while on the Skywalk structure, but the tribe does take photos for you (they charge for this). Of course, photos everywhere else are allowed.
“Rte 66: Get your Kicks:” Interstate 40 is fine, but old Route 66 still lives, for those interested in a fun road trip. Start in Kingman and travel through towns like Hackberry, Valentine (home of the Keepers of the Wild…retired show animals, unwanted wild “pet” animals), Truxton, Peach Springs, past Havasupai Falls (call ahead, 10 mile hike, etc.), Grand Canyon Caverns (1 hour tour, 21 stories below ground!) and Seligman (birthplace of the Disney/Pixar movie: Cars!).
You can easily find Route 66 between Andy Devine Blvd (Kingman) and exit 123 (Seligman), off Interstate 40.
Williams: “Gateway to the Grand Canyon:” (I-40, exit 161 – 165)
Many visitors find the Grand Canyon Railroad a delightful tour, travelling on rails up to the South Rim in the morning to spend the day. There’s a return trip in the evening. Oh, and don’t be surprised if there’s an unscheduled “stop!” It’s a fun, peaceful way to spend the day at the Canyon.
Over the Christmas holidays, the Grand Canyon Railroad transforms to become the “Polar Express!” Santa visits the train, hot chocolate is available, and pajama-wearing is strongly encouraged (bundle up, though…it can be frigid in December here!).
Williams features flash-backs to its old-West beginnings, with nightly shoot-outs in the streets during the summer season. The town is charming and often quite lively, with many organized events.
You’ll also find “Bearizona,” a drive-through animal park/animal rescue at the East end of Williams (check for seasonal closure dates in winter).
Valle: (intersection of Hwy 180 and Hwy 64)
• Planes of Fame Museum (vintage planes and autos, all working and fully restored).
• Limited lodging & restaurants.
• IMAX Movie: “The Grand Canyon.” History, geology, stunning photography.
• Grand Canyon Museum.
• Helicopter tours at the Tusayan Airport.
• Lowell Observatory.
• Old Town Flagstaff.
Highway 180, going northbound from Flagstaff to the Canyon:
• Museum of Northern Arizona.
• Snow Bowl (summer chair rides-dress warmly-and winter ski/snowboarding fun).
• Wing Mountain Snow Play Area (Mile marker 226).
• Nordic Ski Center (cross country skiing and snowmobiling).
• Lava Tube (Forest Road 245, see the link provided. Expert spelunkers only!).
• Red Mountain (Mile Post 247, a 1.5 mile hike into a blown-out cinder cone volcano. Bring a picnic and enjoy some incredible rock formations).
In summary: the Grand Canyon simply overwhelms, and too often visitors short themselves by only spending a short 20 or 30 minutes at South Rim. Study the web sites, know your budget, time, and physical limits, and if possible, spend some quality time in and around one of our greatest natural treasures.
Links of interest:
National Park Service: http://www.nps.gov
National Park Service Canyon Statistics: http://www.nps.gov/grca/parkmgmt/statistics.htm
Canyon Information: http://www.bobspixels.com/kaibab.org/misc/gc_gen.htm
Canyon Attractions: http://grandcanyonnews.com/main.asp?SectionID=230
Mule Rides: http://www.grandcanyonlodges.com/Mule-Trips-716.html
West Rim and Hualapai Tourism: http://www.hualapaitourism.com
Havasu Falls Tourism: http://www.havasupai-nsn.gov/tourism.html
Wing Mountain Snowplay: http://snowplayaz.com/
Lava Tubes: http://www.ehow.com/how_5889008_lava-_lava-tubes_-flagstaff-arizona.html