Grand Canyon National Park
Grand Canyon, Arizona
Hours: The South Rim is open year round, while the North Rim is only open from mid-May to mid-October. After the season closure, the North Rim is open for day use, weather permitting, but services and facilities are unavailable.
Fees: Entrance fees are $10 for an individual and $20 for a vehicle, both good for 7 days. Backcountry passes are $5 a day.
Location: The Grand Canyon is located in Arizona, with the South Rim (also the location of Grand Canyon Village) 230 miles north of Phoenix and 80 miles northwest of Flagstaff via highway 180. The North Rim is 215 miles by car from the South Rim (an actual distance of 10 miles) and is 44 miles south of Jacob Lake.
Activities: auto touring, backpacking, biking, bird watching, boating, camping, cross-country skiing, fishing, hiking, horseback riding, interpretive programs, nature walks, snowshoeing, whitewater rafting, wildlife viewing
Contact: By mail: Grand Canyon National Park, P.O. Box 129, Grand Canyon, AZ 86023. By phone: (928) 638-7888, and by fax: (928) 638-7797
The Grand Canyon is the United States’ very own natural wonder of the world. When foreigners find out you are from the USA, especially if you mention you like traveling, they will often ask if you have seen the Grand Canyon, even if you have never traveled west of the Mississippi. Six million years in the making, neither the crowds nor the congestion of this popular southwest destination can detract from the canyon’s sheer magnitude and raw beauty. Although not the deepest canyon in the world, it is one of the most awe-inspiring examples of the power of erosion to be found anywhere, as evidenced by the park’s five million yearly visitors. First designated as a forest reserve and then as a national monument, the Grand Canyon became a national park in 1919.
The canyon is roughly a mile deep in most places, and is 277 miles in length as measured at the bottom along the Colorado River. The park itself, however, is more than 1,900 square miles. Most visitors start their tour at the South Rim, where there are the most bookstores, restaurants, and visitor centers. The enormous popularity of the Grand Canyon makes reservations for lodging or campgrounds absolutely necessary and even parking for day-trippers can be difficult in the high summer season. Due to the size of the Grand Canyon and the long traveling distances between the different rim areas, a good way to explore the park is to pick one main area of interest, such as the North Rim or the inner canyon, and see as much as possible within that one area. With startling and stunning vistas dotting the rim around every corner, the tendency of most park visitors is to drive to as many as possible in an effort to see the most they can of the canyon. However, by concentrating on one area, you can actually see more of the canyon; even a single day hike below the rim will afford a perspective most tourists never take the time to find.
For those wanting to take more than a single-day hike, take note that backcountry permits (required for spending the night below the rim) are necessary and in high demand; there are approximately 30,000 requests for 13,000 permits a year. As a result, the process of obtaining a permit and the rules and limitations are quite complex, so take the park service’s advice and apply up to four months in advance of your planned outing. For those lucky souls who do obtain a permit, be aware of the canyon’s desert climate, harsh elevation, and temperature fluctuations. Desert backpacking can be addicting, and you want to make sure you have an experience you’d like to repeat after putting in so much advance planning.
There are other ways of seeing the inside and bottom of the canyon besides crossing your fingers in hopes of getting a permit, unfortunately, most of these adventure vacations are extremely difficult to book. The most romantic sounding option, a two-day down and back mule ride departing from the South Rim, has an 11-month waiting list. Xanterra Parks and Resorts takes reservations close to two years in advance. If two years seems a little far ahead to be planning a weekend jaunt to the Grand Canyon, sometimes walk-in riders are able to take the spot of a last-minute cancellation. Whitewater rafting is another adrenaline-filled way of traveling the interior of the canyon, with a wide range of 7-18 day trips available through one of the many affiliated commercial tour concessionaires. A list of companies offering Grand Canyon raft trips can be found here; advance reservations are highly recommended. Private (non-commercial) rafting trips are allowed, but are still subject to long permit wait lists. Three months is the minimum waiting time and then only if you are flexible and persistent, if you aren’t you could be looking at a staggering 12+ years.
Don’t let the fact that the Grand Canyon attracts millions of other adventure-minded travelers keep you from seeing one of the greatest geological formations on earth. The park service offers their normal array of interpretive walks and education programs, options that don’t require months or years of advance planning. More importantly, the Grand Canyon speaks for itself, even if you end up being just another tourist frantically trying to capture the canyon’s incomprehensible size on a digital camera from a rim parking lot. Hopefully seeing the canyon and the unique beauty of the desert inspires visitors to see other, lesser known canyons and rock formations in the southwest that are perhaps more accommodating to spur-of-the moment adventure traveling.