Grand Canyon National Park
Of the five million visitors who come to the Grand Canyon every year, most spend an average of less than two hours in the park—hardly adequate enough to experience this vast and prodigious landscape.
"As someone who's lived here for 12 years and hiked thousands of miles in the park, I'd say that the more time you spend here the more you realize that you're just scratching the surface of what the Grand Canyon has to offer," says Mike Buchheit, director of the Grand Canyon Field Institute, a program of the nonprofit Grand Canyon Association that works with the Park Service in support of science and education. "It would take lifetimes to really be able to say 'I've done the Grand Canyon.'"
More than a million acres of land await exploration in the park. Those who are prepared for the Canyon's sometimes extreme heat and difficult terrain will discover a myriad of natural and archeological treasures within the canyon and along its rims. You can hike along, into, and across the Canyon on marked trails, or head out into the backcountry. If you'd rather not hoof it yourself, mules can be hired to carry you down to the canyon floor. And then there's the trip many consider the experience of a lifetime: rafting the Colorado River through the canyon.
Hike rim to rim
The best way to experience a full biological and geographic cross section of the park is to do a rim-to-rim hike, a challenging but deeply rewarding trek. "Botanically speaking, hiking the 14 miles from the North Rim to the bottom of the canyon is like hiking the coastline from central Canada to central Mexico—you leave the aspens and end up in cactus," says Buchheit.
There are several routes you can follow, but the 23.5-mile trip from the North Rim to South Rim on the North Kaibab and Bright Angel trails has reliable water sources and avoids the additional 1,400 feet you'd have to ascend if you hiked from the South Rim to the higher-elevation North Rim. It's wise to break the trip into two or three overnights, staying at the Cottonwood, Bright Angel, and Indian Garden campsites.
You're limited as to when to go because the North Rim is only open from mid-May to Mid-October, and the inner Canyon is dangerously hot in the summer. "The best times are mid-May to the first week of June and then mid-September to mid-October," says Buchheit.
If you're planning the trip yourself, you'll need to obtain a backcountry permit, which costs $10 plus $5 per person per night spent below the rim. Demand for permits is high, so make a reservation early. The earliest you can apply is the first of the month, four months out from your start month.
You can avoid the permit headache and learn about the natural and human history of the park by going on a guided rim-to-rim backpack with the Grand Canyon Field Institute. "Hiking on your own you're likely to hustle right past any number of amazing points of interest such as fossil beds, rock art, and wildlife," says Buchheit. "An instructor can point these things out to you and explain their significance."
Trips are scheduled throughout the year. The $555 tour cost covers instruction, a backcountry permit, North Rim shuttle service, and pre-class literature. You provide your own camping gear and food.
Raft the Colorado River
If a rim-to-rim hike is the best way to see a microcosm of the Canyon, rafting the length of it (or part of it) gives the best panorama. It's one heck of a ride too.
For the most comprehensive experience, raft the full 277 miles of the Colorado River that flows through the canyon from Lees Ferry to Lake Mead. On this trip you'll hit more than 100 rapids, including the legendary Lava Falls, which has the highest rating possible (10 out of 10) on the canyon's white-water difficulty scale. As you twist and turn down the river, you'll witness the changing face of the canyon, its walls turning from the pink sandstone of the upper canyon to the dark volcanic rock of the lower canyon. "For every mile you travel in the canyon, you go farther back in geological time," says Barb Steffen of Outdoors Unlimited, a rafting outfitter.
While some Grand Canyon rafting companies do the trips in motorized boats or rafts powered by a guide with a set of oars, Outdoors Unlimited has the option for its clients to do the paddling themselves, something that adds much to the sense of accomplishment at the end of the trip. The company has 13-day full canyon trips (from $2,895), or, for those with less time, five- or six-day upper canyon trips (from $1,395 and $1,595) and eight- or nine-day lower canyon trips (from $2,045 and $2,315). There is an extra charge for paddle rafts.
The National Park Service website has detailed information about recreation options, camping, permits, and safety in the park. Go to the Grand Canyon Field Institute website to learn about more guided tours on topics ranging from photography to backcountry medicine. For general travel information, visit the Arizona Office of Tourism website.