One of the wonders of the world celebrates its 100th birthday this year, as 2019 marks a 100 years since the Grand Canyon was designated a US National Park.
President Woodrow Wilson did the honours back in February 1919, and since then millions of visitors have flocked to the awe-inspiring site, which is one mile deep and 18 miles across at its widest point. The Canyon also stretches for an incredible 277 miles through the Arizona Desert, so no matter how good your vantage point, you’re only ever going to see a fraction of it.
Not that it matters. No matter where you see it from, I guarantee you’ll be wide-eyed and slack-jawed. It’s a fact of life - well my life, anyway - that most things fail to live up to the hype, but the Grand Canyon definitely isn’t one of them. On my first visit I was totally blown away, not just by the sheer size, but the beautiful colours of rock, magnificently contrasting with the clear blue skies above, and the shapes and lines of the landscape, offering fascinating clues about its formation. The Canyon was primarily carved by the Colorado River (itself 1,450 miles long) over six million years - a figure that coincidentally mirrors its annual number of visitors - and the layer of rock at the bottom is some of the oldest exposed rock on Earth.
But for all the numbers and rich history - not surprisingly the Canyon has a range of inhabitants, from the Ancestral Puebloans to the early pioneers heading west to seek their fortune - the UNESCO World Heritage Site is the kind of natural wonder that visitors see, feel, touch and totally connect with. And yes, I know that sounds a bit hippy but I did say I was blown away by it!
There are lots of ways to enjoy the Canyon depending on the time and money you have available, from hiking up and down it and rafting through it, to horse-trekking on it or even flying over it. All will obviously give you a different experience, but all will be very unique in those stunning surroundings.
I’m reliably informed that one of the best ways to see it - if you have the time, gear, energy and fitness - is to hike from Rim-to-Rim, camping overnight on the Canyon floor, where the absence of artificial light makes it a great spot for stargazing. The 24-mile hike is no easy undertaking - it involves around 1,500 metres of ascent and descent - but the rewards, which include escaping the tourists at the ever-popular South Rim, are more than worth it.
My hike was rather less severe, but certainly gave a glimpse, not only of the Canyon’s dynamic changing colours, but the effort of doing the longer trek. I chose to do a section of the South Kaibab Trail, a seven-mile trek from the Canyon Rim down to the Bright Angel Campground, and the only trail in the National Park that holds true to a ridgeline descent.
It’s pretty much impossible - and you’re advised not to even try - to hike from the Rim to the Canyon floor and back in one day, but the incredible views, and relative ease of walking downhill, mean many day hikers invariably descend further than the recommended turn around point at Cedar Ridge (1.5 miles down) before deciding to turn back. I know, because I was one of them. It felt like I’d got there in no time at all, and as a fairly keen hill walker I didn’t feel too tired, so I carried on for another half mile or so.
Schoolboy error. Hill walking never involves going uphill all the way back. Better yet, and according to the National Park trail map, which I didn’t fully read before setting off “the steepness of the trail is very misleading on the way down”.
Suffice to say I stopped quite a lot on the way back up. Oh, and next time I’ll pay greater heed to the “plan on taking twice as long to hike up as it took to hike down” advice, also provided on the map. On the plus side, it was one of the most brilliant days of my life - I met lots of friendly people (mostly while I was pausing for breath), the route more than delivered on its promise to provide the most panoramic views of any trail in the park - and I definitely earned the plate of fries and pint of Sam Adams (no relation, sadly) I enjoyed in a restaurant back at Grand Canyon Village.
The Village is home to most of the main attractions - restaurants, gift shops, and the all-important Visitor Center, where you can not only find out about the history and geology of the Canyon, but also sign up for any of the wide-ranging activities and ways to enjoy the wondrous surroundings. These include guided hikes (now he tells me!), bike rentals and guided bicycle tours along the South Rim, off-road jeep and van tours to viewpoints along the Canyon Rim, mule rides into the Canyon, horse and wagon trails, rafting trips, air tours (by plane or helicopter) and South Rim bus tours.
Once again it comes down to time and budget - and for walk-up visitors what’s available at the time you turn up. I decided I wanted to see as much as I could so opted to take both of the bus tours - west to Hermit's Rest, and east to Desert View. The former is a 16-mile round trip along a former wagon road with stops at a number of spectacular overlooks where you can look out across the Canyon as well as down to the Colorado River rapids below. It never gets boring and you won’t want to get back on the bus.
The latter tour is longer (the 52-mile round-trip takes around four hours), stops at more fabulous viewpoints - this time along East Rim Drive - and has an extended pause at Desert View itself, an outpost at the eastern end of the Canyon marked by a 21-metre tall Watchtower. Perched on the rim of the Canyon, the stone structure was designed by Mary Colter in the style of the Ancestral Puebloans and houses an observation deck offering views up and down the Canyon.
But as unforgettable as those views were, I’ll remember the second coach tour as much for the wonderful, and highly personal, commentary by the driver. His stories were more about his own life and how he came to live and work in the Canyon - and what it meant to him to do so - than the wonderful views out the window, most of which needed no explanation or elaboration.
His tales were lovely and heartfelt, and added much more to the occasion than a basic commentary ever could, and in a year that the National Park celebrates its centenary it’s fitting to remember that it has a personal impact on everyone who lives, works and visits here.
Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon
The nearest major international airport to the Grand Canyon is Phoenix, 230 miles away (around 3hrs 35mins driving time), but most international visitors make the slightly longer journey from Las Vegas.
The entertainment metropolis is a convenient gateway due to the wide variety of flights available, and is obviously a great holiday destination in its own right, with an incredible array of attractions, shows, shops and more. It’s a firm favourite among RCI members, and we have many resorts there.
A trip to the Canyon makes for a memorable break from the bright lights of the big city, and while the 280-mile drive to Grand Canyon Village will take you around four hours in a hire car, there are a variety of other options if you don’t want to drive or are pressed for time:
• Bus tour
It might make for a long day (around 14 hours in total) but a coach trip to the Grand Canyon’s South Rim is an unforgettable day too. You’ll get to see the mighty Hoover Dam and world-famous Route 66 en route, and most coach trips also include stops at Mather Point and Bright Angel Lodge inside the National Park. You can also upgrade to add excursions or activities at the park, such as a guided walking tour.
• Helicopter tour
Helicopter tours to the Grand Canyon are one of the most popular excursions from Vegas, and obviously have the two-fold benefits of getting there quicker, as well as wonderful aerial views en route as well as when you arrive. A wide variety of options are available, including basic flights to Grand Canyon Village, luxury trips that land on the Canyon floor for a picnic - which certainly saves some walking - to a trip to the Skywalk at Grand Canyon West. The incredible horseshoe-shaped glass walkway juts 21 metres out over the Rim of the Canyon, giving breathtaking views, including straight down beneath your feet. Located at Eagle Point in the Hualapai Indian Reservation, the Skywalk isn’t actually in the National Park, but is a fabulous way to see part of it nonetheless.
As you might expect, the National Park Service isn’t letting the 100th anniversary pass without a few celebrations. Here’s a selection of the events you can check out between now and the close of the year:
• Cultural Demonstrations (all year) - Head for the Canyon’s Desert View to learn about the cultures and traditional crafts of the Native Americans who have lived in and around the park for more than 12,000 years.
• Annual Celebration of Art (7-15 September) - Check out a range of art inspired by the Canyon in a dedicated venue at the South Rim.
• Naturalization Ceremony (28 September) - The Park joins forces with the Phoenix field office of the US Citizenship and Immigration Service to welcome the country’s newest citizens in an emotional ceremony at Mather Point.
• Fall Sustainability Fair (12 October) - Enjoy a range of family-friendly activities at the Grand Canyon Visitor Center, promoting ways to travel green and help preserve and protect the park.
• Native American Heritage Month Celebration (9-10 November) - The Visitor Center hosts a range of presentations and demonstrations highlighting the achievements, contributions and sacrifices made by America’s first people.
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