Can’t the Grand Canyon be, well, just a little less grand? With a sigh, you might ask such a question if you’re trying to plan a trip there. After all, the Canyon can easily frustrate a sightseer’s basic desire to see everything, to want to take it all in, especially if the visit will only be for a couple of days.
But then no one really ever takes in the Canyon anyway; rather, it takes you in.
So to ensure that you’ll be happily captivated, here’s an overview of it and an itinerary for a brief, day-tripper visit to its South Rim.
Where the Grand Canyon Is Located
The Canyon holds court (and sway) in all of its colorful grandeur in northwestern Arizona. Most people who visit it do so through Grand Canyon National Park and in particular through the Park’s South Entrance where the main visitor center and the Canyon’s South Rim are easily accessible. Adding grandness to the already grand, UNESCO declared the Park to be a World Heritage site in 1979, and the National Trust for Historic Preservation designated the Grand Canyon a National Treasure in 2015.
Sizing Up the Grand Canyon
Here are some of the Canyon’s dramatic dimensions:
► It’s 277 miles long as measured against the 1,450 mile course of the Colorado River, which runs westward through it, dividing it into its north and south rims. (Grand Canyon National Park, by contrast, is about 190 miles long by the same measure.)
► It’s as wide as 18 miles in spots, but averages about 10 miles wide.
► It’s about 6,000 feet deep from rim to river at its deepest point.
Yet the Canyon’s dimensions are still not technically set in stone (wink) since the Colorado River, weakened though it is now by as many as fourteen dams on its main stem, continues, against all odds, to steadily carve it out of the land, if much more slowly.
So vast is the Canyon then that Grand Canyon National Park, which ranges over 1 million acres, can’t contain it. Some of the Canyon lies outside the Park on Native American Indian reservations such as that of the Hualapai (pronounced Wal-lah-pie) located at its western end.
Indeed, to look upon the Canyon is to see an endless land whose otherworldly, dreamlike maze of mesas, buttes, domes, and spires has a beauty, mysteriousness, and romance that beckon to all.
The Canyon Has a Big, Colorful Spirit Too
Like the massive stratified rock for which the Canyon is famous, the spirit of the Canyon has been forged over time, vibrant layer upon vibrant layer, by different groups of people who have brought to it their unique ambitions, values, talents, and traditions.
To the Native American Indians, who were its first inhabitants, the Canyon has always been a sacred place, a hallowed homeland, and a source of a livelihood to be had in harmony with nature. The European settlers and pioneers who arrived later brought a spirit of adventure, exploration, conquest, and commercial exploitation that has clashed with some of the Indian tribes like the collision of tectonic plates beneath the Canyon long ago. And while artists have helped us to appreciate the Canyon’s beauty through their creative spirit, scientists have helped us to understand its creation through their inquisitive one.
But the Canyon’s spirit is also reflected in the tourists who visit it daily. Just look at others looking at the Canyon. You’ll see people who are dream lost, wonderstruck, humbled, triumphant, enraptured, and forever changed.
You’ll see families picnicking in idyllic bliss, absorbed in the spectacle of color that unfolds each day in America’s greatest amphitheater for Technicolor nature.
Why Go to the South Rim?
Most people visit the Grand Canyon’s South Rim for the following reasons:
► It’s easier to get to, being closer than the North Rim is to the towns of Tusayan and Sedona and the cities of Williams, Flagstaff, and Phoenix.
► It’s open all year round. (The North Rim is only open from May 15 through October 15.)
► It has been hosting visitors since 1905, and has plenty of facilities such as visitor centers, lodges, restaurants, restrooms, museums, stores, etc.
► It has a long, continuous trail called the Rim Trail that you can easily hike for about 13 miles, stopping at its many lookouts for spectacular views. (The North Rim has separate trails to its lookouts.)
► It has a free shuttle bus system that you can take from lookout to lookout on the Rim Trail and to other areas of the Park.
This itinerary takes you to the western end of the Rim Trail for some lofty, dreamy Canyon views, then to the middle of it to dig deeper into the Canyon’s geological history, and finally to the Canyon’s eastern end for some up-close views of the Colorado and Little Colorado rivers. While you won’t come close to seeing the whole Canyon, you’ll at least feel like you’ve covered a good bit of ground.
Day 1 – Bike the Hermit Road; Hike the Trail of Time
9:30 a.m. – Bright Angel Bicycle Tour of the Hermit Road
Arrive at Bright Angel Bicycles in front of the Grand Canyon Visitor Center, which is about five miles past the South Entrance Ranger Station just off the South Entrance Road. (Reservations for the tour should be made in advance via their website.)
About the Tour
Hermit or no hermit, the Hermit Road and Hermits Rest, which date back to the early 1900s, are beloved by all.
The road parallels the western end of the Rim Trail for about 7 miles where there are 9 lookouts with stunning Canyon views. Hermits Rest is an adorable earthen, cave-like structure (a hermit’s kind of a home), which was designed by Mary Colter, at the end of the road. It’s built of stone and timber, which was sourced from the Canyon, in a style that’s now known as Park rustic.
The Bright Angel Bicycle tour takes you in a van from the Grand Canyon Visitor Center up onto the Hermit Road, bypassing its steepest part (6% gradient), which is known as the “Soul Crusher.” So you begin biking at Hopi lookout, which is popular for its expansive views, located about 1.5 miles up the road. You’ll bike from there for about 5.5 miles to Hermits Rest, stopping at lookouts along the way. The tour guides tell you about the Canyon’s flora and fauna and geology as well.
Biking along the Hermit Road is a beautiful, breezy, and fun way to meet the Canyon and to cover about a third of the Rim Trail quickly. It’s a very quiet area (a hermit’s kind of quiet) of the Park where you can contemplate the Canyon.
The Scenic Scene
From the lookouts along the Hermit Road, you’ll see sunlit mesas and buttes rippled with long, horizontally layered bands of color, ranging from beige to light pink to red to purple-red – stacks of color like huge versions of Van Gogh’s or Monet’s haystacks. Some bands are thick, others thin; some bold, others subtle. Mineral green and powdery rouge rock studded with black schist elegantly ring parts of the mesas and buttes.
Overall, the Canyon is a florid feast for your eyes, a quiet fire for your soul.
Indeed, the Canyon is so quiet and still that it seems almost to be in awe of itself. Sometimes it even seems like a fantastic static image projected before you from Kolb Studio, such is its strange, unreal quality.
Immersed in the vision of the Canyon, you may find that that question returns: Can’t the Grand Canyon be, well, just a little less grand?
For time is fleeting and you must be moving on, but just how do you leave, how do you turn your back on such an incredible sight? Such is the powerful pull of the Canyon.
1:00 p.m. Picnic at Hermits Rest
Bring a picnic lunch with you to eat at the tables just beyond Hermits Rest; or, buy lunch at its snack bar. Then take the shuttle bus to the Yavapai Point and Geology Museum, which is the next stop in the itinerary. (Alternatively, return to Bright Angel Bicycles in their van, have lunch in their café, and then walk over to Yavapai Point.)
3:00 p.m. Hit the Trail of Time
Arrive at the Yavapai Point and Geology Museum on the Rim Trail, just west of the Grand Canyon Visitor Center and Bright Angel Bicycles, and then walk west along the Rim Trail towards Grand Canyon Village. You’ll soon see the Trail of Time welcome sign. The Trail of Time runs for about three miles right on the Rim Trail to Verkamp’s Visitor Center.
About the Trail of Time
This geoscience exhibit is a timeline that lets you experience, with each step you take, how long nature took to create the Canyon. You begin by walking 1 million years of human or shallow time and then transition into geologic or deep time where you experience the 2 billion years of the Canyon’s geological history. Some 50 samples of Canyon rock have been placed at their “birthdays” along the timeline; and, related “viewing tubes” let you see where the rocks are located in the Canyon.
The trail is a great opportunity to look deep into the Canyon while you think deeply about deep time and deep rock. Even if you’re not into geology, it’s worth taking the trail for its incredible views.
5:00 p.m. Catch the Sunset at Yavapai Point.
To return to Yavapai point, just hop on a Park shuttle at Verkamp’s Visitor Center.
Day 2 – The Eastern Approach – Visit Little Colorado River Gorge; Go All Along the Watchtower
10:30 a.m. Arrive at Little Colorado River Gorge Overlook
You take AZ-64 – east if driving from the Park; or, west if coming from the Cameron area – to the Little Colorado River Gorge Overlook. (You’ll have to have a lot of self-discipline to not let this scenic drive delay you.) The Overlook is about 22 miles or so outside the Park’s East Entrance on the Navajo reservation. There’s a very small, easily missible sign for it, just before the turn off. You’ll see a tiny toll booth on the road to the Overlook where you donate to the Navajo before entering. You park and then take a somewhat rocky walk to the Overlook.
About the Gorge
The Gorge, which the Little Colorado River has been carving out of the land for tens of thousands of years, runs for about 45 miles through the Painted Desert. It’s entirely on the Navajo Indian Reservation, which is the largest Native American reservation.
The Scenic Scene
The Gorge and the Grand Canyon are like discordant echoes of similar, mostly bygone geological forces, and are associated at the confluence of their respective rivers.
While the Canyon is obvious, expansive, brilliantly colorful, if sometimes distant; the Gorge is hidden, narrow, monochromatic, and always perilously proximate.
The Gorge lookout is only about 1,000 feet above the Little Colorado. So it’s an up close yet dizzying view from atop the spine-tingling sheer walls of the Gorge. You can see the Little Colorado River well as it flows from the Painted Desert. Turquoise-colored in spring and summer, it turns muddy red in the fall, after the monsoons, as it runs from deep in Indian territory, through the Gorge to join the Colorado River in the Canyon further west.
After seeing the Gorge, head to the Navajo Indian jewelry market to chat with some of the Navajo and pick up some of their handmade necklaces and bracelets at very reasonable prices.
1:30 p.m. Lunch in the Desert View Area of the Park
Get on AZ-64 east, go through the East Entrance of Grand Canyon National Park, and head for the Desert View area. This is a very scenic part of the Park in which you can have a picnic lunch that you bring at one of its many picnic spots; or, you can buy lunch in the cafeteria at the Trading Post.
3:00 p.m. Visit the Desert View Watchtower
About the Watchtower
Like Hermits Rest, the Watchtower was also designed by Mary Colter. It was built with unworked, handpicked rocks and other materials from the Canyon. It’s a strikingly beautiful, 70-foot-tall tower that rises majestically yet organically above the Canyon, appearing to belong to it like one of its rocky spires even as it stands apart from it. It’s a sort of grand totem pole of resplendent golden rocks from which to look at and reflect upon the crimson Canyon below. Commanding views of the Canyon are yours from its windows and reflectoscopes, which are like black mirrors that you adjust to see the Canyon from different angles. Magically, they give you the feeling that you’ve got the whole Canyon in the palm of your hand.
The Scenic Scene
From the Watchtower, you can see for miles and miles and miles from the east on to the west. You can see the vast Painted Desert in all of its beautiful barrenness, and watch the Colorado River bend west as it slices its way through the Canyon. This is one of the best places on the South Rim to see the river. And these are some of the most exhilarating views of the Canyon that you’ll ever see.
As the sun sets, the hollows and depressions of the Canyon fill with a rich, inky blue that seems to seep up and spread from subterranean vents, extinguishing the Canyon’s fiery colors before your surprised, bewildered eyes. Unbelievably, the crimson Canyon becomes totally tangled up in blue (to borrow from Bob Dylan again). At about this time, you might find that that question comes a knockin’…you know the one: Can’t the Canyon be just a little less grand? After all, the hour is getting late…the wind is beginning to howl.
Have you visited Arizona to see the Grand Canyon yet? If so, let us know your favorite spot or activity. If not, tell us what part of the Canyon you’re looking forward to visiting.