While too many visitors just stop, look, and move on, this incredible geological wonder deserves far more attention than a brief glance over the rim.
In the pantheon of American landmarks, the Grand Canyon ranks at the top. And no wonder. This indescribable void is up to 18 miles across, one mile deep and, by river course, 277 miles long. It took nature millions of years to carve out this emptiness and excavation is still underway.
While too many visitors just stop, look, and move on, this incredible geological wonder deserves far more attention than a brief glance over the rim. Of the many ways to experience it, here are five iconic activities that will create memories not available anywhere else in America.
Hike Into the Canyon
Rather than cluster with others at an overlook, walk several yards away and find a private spot where it’s just you and a Cinemascope view of the canyon. The vistas only get better as you step below the rim.
“Hike into the canyon,” suggests Bruce Brossman, director of sales and marketing for the Grand Canyon South Rim. “At least partway.”
“You don’t have to hike all the way to the bottom to get a different perspective. Just walking a mile or two down the path will change the way you feel about the canyon,” he adds. “If I had to recommend just one, I’d say the Cedar Ridge hike on the South Kaibab Trail is probably one of the best short hikes in the world.”
But beware of the 1,291-foot elevation change on this challenging hike. And be sure to bring snacks and water and plan appropriately for the weather.
Ride the Grand Canyon Railway
A ride on this railway remains one of the most magical events of my life. There was almost a spiritual element that enhanced the journey as the train rolled across the high desert. When you look out the window or step onto the platform, you’re in the middle of a world seen only by those who ride these rails. And when you stay the night in Williams on historic Route 66, it’s as if you’ve entered a time tunnel into the retro 1950s.
As Brossman suggests, “Give up the car for a while and let the train take you away. When you board the Grand Canyon Railway, you’ll have time to watch the scenery, to relax, and to listen to musicians playing western songs. It all puts you in a different place. You’ll slow down and travel to the Grand Canyon the way visitors did back in 1901.”
Ride a Mule to the Canyon Floor
Americans may remember long-ago home movies showing tourists descending into the canyon on mules. Incredibly, those mules were there long before the advent of home movie cameras. Or movies. Mules began carrying visitors into the canyon in the late 1800s, since hiking was not very popular then — and wouldn’t become popular for many years afterwards.
All of which makes sitting astride a mule for a round trip to the canyon floor an unforgettable throwback experience. Led by expert trail guides, this once-in-a-lifetime adventure down the narrow winding trails, as the sure-footed animals hug the cliff edges, recalls images of the Old West.
“However you reach the bottom of Grand Canyon will be a special experience,” Brossman agrees. “But if you go by mule, you’re part of a tradition that has been around for more than a century. Mules helped build the canyon trails and are an integral part of the human history at Grand Canyon. In fact, the Bright Angel Trail was built for burro and mule traffic and Phantom Ranch, which opened in 1922, was built specifically for mule riders.”
Not surprisingly, South Rim mule rides fill up early. Reservations can be made 13 months in advance, so visitors should plan ahead. Note: Overnight riders must not weigh more than 200 lbs. and each rider must be at least 4’7” tall.
Experience Sunrise or Sunset
“Sunrises and sunsets at Grand Canyon should not be missed,” says Brossman. ‘The opportunity to sit at the rim at sunset and watch the colors change is why everyone should try to stay at least one night in or near the park. The best photos and memories will be made during these times.”
Indeed, I found it to be a zen moment to rise before others, find a sanctuary along the rim and, in private, watch the world awaken. With the dawn’s early light the canyon comes to life as a swirl of hues and colors seem to change with each passing minute. Return again at sunset and bid farewell to the day, as the rim of the canyon seems to glow in the last rays of sunlight and the colors below change to a completely new palette of tones.
Raft the Colorado River
And the No. 1 iconic Grand Canyon experience? Rafting down the Colorado River, a multi-day trip that Brossman says is one that most travelers want to experience because it puts the Grand Canyon — and life — in a whole new perspective.
As you run the rapids, knowing that this river was instrumental in carving out the canyon heightens the excitement. But there’s more to this than just an adrenaline surge, since your craft will deliver you to places you didn’t know existed.
“You can do this on a motorized pontoon boat, smaller raft, or — probably the ultimate — in a wooden dory,” suggests Brossman. “But this experience is more than just the rapids and the river. While you’re exploring the bottom of the canyon, you’ll have time to take side hikes to waterfalls and views that you’ll find nowhere else on earth.”
To book a rafting trip, visit nps.gov/grca/planyourvisit/whitewater-rafting.
For more information, visit grandcanyonlodges.com or call 888-297-2757.
For more travel experiences available from Xanterra Parks & Resorts and its affiliated properties, visit xanterra.com/explore.