Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona
It may be one of the world's most impressive and perfect examples of erosion, but what leaves visitors breathless at its edge is not always the science lesson implicit in the wonder we call the Grand Canyon. Standing alongside the rim, soaking in the vast cliffs and colors, and finally recognizing nature's immense power over humankind has helped put the lives of countless visitors in perspective. The canyon is by definition a void of land, yet it has become a tangible "thing," filling people with hope and wonder, and the itch to explore.
The landscape is rugged and raw; jagged walls of canyons are striped with rainbows of ever-changing mineral colors. Juniper trees and ponderosa pines cling to the sides of the canyon, and it isn't unusual to see a banana yucca sprouting defiantly along its rim. Even the native animals seem rugged - mule deer, bobcats, coyotes, and the occasional scorpion or rattlesnake lurk in the canyon's niches.
Ideally, two days are needed to experience both the North and South rims of Grand Canyon National Park, but it is possible to see some of the main attractions in one day. Starting with the South Rim, Park Loop Drive or either West Rim or East Rim Drive promise exceptional lookout points. Rim Trail is partially paved and provides an easy hike along the canyon's edge, where stops at various historical sites like Hermit's Point can be made along the way. The canyon's North Rim is seen by a mere 10 percent of visitors because it is a bit farther to reach, yet many hikers claim it offers some of the best views. Transcept Trail (three miles round trip) meanders along the rim of the canyon and ends at the North Rim campground and general store, while Cliff Springs Trail (one mile round trip) - though a bit more arduous - passes ancient dwellings and leads to another fantastic view of the canyon.
Carved by the power of the Colorado River, the Grand Canyon is possibly the world's, well, grandest example of erosion. Other forces of erosion shaping the canyon include running water from rain, snowmelt and tributary streams that enter the canyon. The wildly rugged shape comes from the response of rock layers in the canyon walls to erosion. The varying layers erode at different rates, forming slopes and cliffs. The canyon's beautiful colors are a result of different minerals in the rocks.
The Canyon View Information Center is a great starting point for park visitors. Information, maps, books and rangers offering suggestions are at your fingertips. Hiking and driving are the most popular ways to explore the Grand Canyon and its environs. There are a few "must-see" stops and trail heads visitors will want to explore. Bright Angel Trail is the most popular route and descends to the Colorado River. Desert View and the Watchtower allow hikers to take in views all the way to the Painted Desert and Utah's Vermillion Cliffs. And Mather Point and Grandview Point offer sprawling vistas as well. Visitors will also want to explore Village Loop Drive and East Rim Drive, which are sprinkled with many of the canyon's most scenic lookouts.
Where to Stay
A surefire way to fully experience the glories of the Grand Canyon is by camping under Arizona's twinkling night sky, sleeping just steps away from the canyon rim. Nestled amid ponderosa pines, the North Rim campground is more tranquil and less crowded than the popular South Rim campgrounds and offers better views of the canyon.
Though it might have been tame for the likes of Billy the Kid, a mule trip down the winding trails of the Grand Canyon lets you live out your Old Wild West fantasies (minus the shootouts and ponchos, of course). Two-day trips to the Colorado River and a one-day trip stopping at Bright Angel Trail or Plateau Point are available to visitors. Plan ahead - trips fill up nearly two years in advance. For more information, contact Xanterra Parks & Resorts at (888) 297-2757 or on the Web at www.grandcanyonlodges.com.