This article should be titled The Tale of Two Rims. Or maybe North and South. It’s the same canyon, but two entirely different experiences, depending on which side you land. Over the years I’ve been to both rims and they are both distinctive, spectacular, and awe-inspiring. But wait…there’s now a third rim! West. It’s the home of the latest thrill to join the Park…Skywalk.
No matter how many times you visit, there is always something new to discover. Pictures don’t do it justice. You have to be there, standing on the rim to truly experience the majesty, the vast and overwhelming display of nature at its absolute finest. And the view changes almost by the hour. The play of light and shadow, sunrise and sunset, clouds and weather affect the canyon colors in a striking and ever-changing way. The panorama is of a rare magnitude that few places on this earth can claim.
The Grand Canyon should be on your list of ‘Must-See’ places. From the casual observer to the wild adventurer there is more to see and do here than you have time to do it. Scenic drives, hiking, biking, rafting, mule riding, helicopter flights, intriguing history, fascinating geology, native Indian lore and archeology, educational tours, and the sightseeing and photo ops are endless.
Specs for the techies: President Woodrow Wilson officially established the park in 1919. The Grand Canyon is often considered one of the Seven Wonders of the World and was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979. It is roughly 1,217,262 acres, runs 277 river miles long, stretches 18 miles across at its widest, and dives down one mile deep. It also spectacularly divides Arizona. Go to the National Park page for more info: www.nps.gov/grca/index.htm
Now let’s break it down by rim…
My personal favorite. Quiet, peaceful, remote. We visited the north side during our big Canyonlands adventure trip of June 2012 and spent a couple of idyllic days at the lodge. Statistics show that 90% of all canyon tourists go to the south rim. That’s because it’s easier to get to and much more developed. I’ve been to the south rim many years ago, but this was my first visit to the north. Did I mention remote?
We’re talking rustic – no tourist spots, no endless shops, no hustle and bustle, and the only nightlife came in the form of a star party. We’re talking celestial, where the main attraction held different sized telescopes trained on a dark night sky so fantastic, so clear and vivid, it has to be seen to be believed. This is a place where you really get in touch with nature. You can sit for hours, stare out at a canyon vista that constantly changes and never get bored. We took a couple hiking trails and the photo above is from a sunset hike on Bright Angel Point. If you’ve got nerves of steel you can also skirt the canyon walls on the back of a sure-footed mule. It’s all up to you.
Even for dining you never have to leave the lodge. Which is good because there’s nothing around for miles and miles. Thankfully there’s a few options including a sit down fine-dining restaurant offering excellent meals and an unrivaled view. There’s also a more casual burger & fast food style cafe, as well as a saloon that serves breakfast too. Plus there’s a great gift shop at the lodge, with lots of variety including snacks.
If you decide to go, keep in mind that trips to the north rim are seasonal. Heavy snows close the access road from late October to mid May. Another thing to note…if you are going, be sure to make those reservations early. Like a year in advance early, because the North Rim Lodge books up fast. Especially if you want one of the rare cabins that perch on the edge of the canyon and offers its own spectacular view. Just no air-conditioning. Don’t really need it! You are at a much higher elevation on the north rim and the winds rarely stop blowing. It actually gets sort of chilly at night.
Home of Grand Canyon Village. This is where all the action is. Where all the tourists are. Hotels, restaurants, gift shops, tour buses full of visitors from every country on the planet. Seriously. It’s the most active part of the National Park. The list of adventure tours here will leave you breathless, along with the views. There are visitor centers, shuttle buses, handicap access, interactive hikes, scenic flights, anything and everything to do with the canyon is found here.
Basically, the south rim can be divided into three sections. Hermit Road in the west, the Grand Canyon Village in the center, and the Desert View Road in the east. Where you begin the journey is up to you, but the easiest method (if you stay at one of the six lodges at the Grand Canyon Village) is to park the car and take the free shuttles to the major vista points along the south rim. When you see a place you’d like to hike or explore deeper, then drive back and scout around at your leisure.
If you just want to cruise the rim your route depends on the direction you reach it from, but a good recommendation is to enter the park from the East Entrance at Desert View. There’s Watchtower, the Tusayan Ruin and Museum, and several scenic overlooks as you head west toward the center and Grand Canyon Village. There’s loads to do there before continuing west on the Hermit’s Rest route. That route is a bit rough, the roads not as well maintained, but the views are completely worth it.
If you are into trains, there are several that operate at the Grand Canyon Village. From hours to days, a train ride is always a memorable adventure. And a relaxing way to take in the sights.
If your time at the south rim is limited head for the Village and do a couple short hikes and hit the visitors centers. There’s a wonderful 1.6 mile path on the south rim that takes you to a Geologic Center where you can enjoy a great historical and geological perspective of the canyon.
I haven’t yet visited the latest attraction for the canyon, but it’s definitely on my list. Who wouldn’t want to walk out on a glass bottom sky bridge that stretches out over sheer vertical drop of over 4,000 feet? I admit that kind of stomach flopping adrenaline rush isn’t for the faint of heart, I almost have second thoughts myself. But the views, the depth and sense of free floating out over the canyon, it’s got to be magnificent. I’m a big fan of new and exciting experiences, surely this would qualify!
I’m also a big fan of the website TripAdvisor because it’s full of reviews from real people who have blazed that trail before me. Scrolling through the hundreds of posts it’s pretty easy to see most everyone is amazed by the dizzying experience and incredible views.
However, to keep a balance I have to admit there are also more than a few reviews that give warning. Things like it’s crazy expensive, that you can’t take your own camera or recorder because they’re snapping photos they want to sell to you, and that the roads into the place are rough, perpetually under construction, and traffic snarls are wearily commonplace. Something to keep in mind if you decide to brave the wilds of Arizona and aren’t scared to dance out over a 4,000 foot freefall.
Tons of great visitor info: www.thecanyon.com
Official National Park site: www.nps.gov/grca/planyourvisit/index.htm
Train rides! www.thetrain.com
North Rim Lodge: http://grandcanyonlodgenorth.com
South Rim Info: http://www.grandcanyon.net/south-rim
West Rim Info: http://www.hualapaitourism.com
OTHER TRAVEL TIPS:
- The vehicle entry fee is $25 good for a 7 day visit. Seniors 62+ may get a lifetime entry pass for $10.
- The park operates on Mountain Time.
- No matter what time of year, bring a hat, camera, and water.
- Grand Canyon is absolutely a four-season park. Spring, summer, winter, and fall each offer different views and aspects for people to enjoy. So no matter what time of year you want to visit, there is something to see and do.
- If you want to stay in any of the lodges or ranches, make those reservations early. They fill up fast, sometimes well over a year in advance. Especially on the north rim where availability is limited by the seasons.
- Day hikes are popular and do not require registering. If you plan on hiking deeper or spending the night inside any of the canyon trails a backcountry permit is mandatory.
- Keep in mind it’s a canyon. What goes down, must come up. That climb out can be very strenuous and the farther down you go, the more demanding the return trip.
- If you plan on hiking down into the canyon during the summer, use caution. The heat can be overwhelming, heatstroke a very real possibility. You need plenty of water.
- Always, always, always be eco-minded. Keep to the trails, do no harm, and if you pack it in…always pack it out.