Best Ways to Experience the Grand Canyon
Visit America's Natural Playground
There's no overstating the Grand Canyon. From visitor numbers – almost five million annually – to physical statistics – a mind-boggling one-mile deep and up to 18 miles wide – this is truly a superlative American icon. Its National Park is one of the country's best natural playgrounds, offering countless ways to navigate the king of chasms, including jeep tours, hair-raising helicopter rides, luxury camping trips, guided treks and river rafting excursions. Nothing beats those first jaw-dropping moments in the canyon, a forest of insurmountable pinnacles of sandstone, limestone, shale, and schist that soar and plunge from the abyss. Hey! There’s a lot of canyon to cover, but there is more than one way to take it all in. Here are few ways you can build your next vacation around this monumental landmark.
One of the canyon's hottest attractions isn’t for vertigo sufferers. The Grand Canyon Skywalk is a glass bottom, steel reinforced cantilever bridge jutting from the canyon wall in a horse-shoe-shaped curve about 4,000 feet above the Colorado River. Owned and operated by the Hualapai tribe, the Skywalk opened to the general public on March 28, 2007, and today, more than 4 million people visit each year, despite its location in Grand Canyon West, beyond the national park boundaries and the more tourist-frequented North and South rims.
Excursions by air from the famous landmark’s westerly region do what those in the national park can't - drop below the canyon rim to land on the ground. Take an air trip through the Hualapai Reservation, dropping off passengers for an easy trek to the crystalline Havasupai waterfalls, a prime swimming spot otherwise only accessible by a daylong hike.
There are numerous helicopter tours over the National Park itself, most touring the more popular South Rim, departing from Grand Canyon airport, Sedona and Phoenix. They offer unparalleled birds' eye views and the chance to do everything from watching the sunset to a romantic jaunt to propose to your boo. You can also take a longer ride to view the region's other star attractions: the almost-as-incredible Hoover Dam, the vast man-made Lake Mead recreation area; and Red Rock Canyon rising out of the majestic Mojave Desert.
On the Water
One of America's great water arteries, the Colorado River has taken a little longer – 17 million years in fact – to carve out the Grand Canyon, and today, it offers perhaps visitors the best vantage point. From the river, marvel at the sheer, out-of-scale canyon walls and layer upon layer of exposed geological strata telling the tale of the gorge's incredible history. With a white water grading system that sets a standard (1-10 as opposed to the usual 1-6), this place certainly attracts adrenaline junkies; however, the river also offers superb smooth water rides, complete with expert naturalist guides and well-equipped camping overnight.
On the Rails
The Grand Canyon Railway – a plush, vintage locomotive – travels from rural Arizona to the Canyon's South Rim. It offers incredible views of both the canyon and the high desert country. Cut the Canyon's traffic queues and your carbon footprint with tourist transport that dates back over 100 years when mine trains once rolled across these rails. The Grand Canyon Railway departs daily at 9:30 a.m. from Williams, Ariz., and travels due north to the Canyon’s South Rim arriving at 11:45 a.m., and it heads back at 3:30 p.m. Looking out the window, you’ll pass thoroughly varied landscapes, from lush pine forests to arid desert. There’s also a thrilling 1,500-foot vertical drop along the way offering spectacular views below.
If you want your feet firmly on the ground to marvel at this natural wonder, take an escorted tour with everything from breathtaking 4x4 drives around the rim to mule treks on the South Rim, offered year round (book a year in advance), and the North Rim from May 15 to October 15. An alternative to these is the 1-hour or 2-hour trek along the Kaibab National Forest Trail. You can choose a horse or mule for this excursion that also offers a twilight campfire and wagon rides.
Wildlife & Trekking
There are several tours to wildlife refuges that offer guided treks along scenic by-ways and back road trails for eagle spotting or mountain lion tracking. In addition to the canyon’s majestic landscape, the trails also give visitors a view of surrounding sights like Spring Mountain State Park whose ranch, founded in the 1800s, was once owned – at different times – by millionaire Howard Hughes and German actress Vera Krupp. Today, the working ranch has turned into a popular luxury retreat.
There are even archaeology tours where you can dig up clues about the canyon's ancient inhabitants with some sites along the Colorado River dating back 1,000 years or more. The National Park Service and the Museum of Northern Arizona excavated nine archeological sites along the river in the Grand Canyon during three years of fieldwork that started in 2006, revealing rooms and artifacts that provide insight into the lives of the people who once made their home here.
Get Some R&R
Peak season in the Grand Canyon (spring-fall) can get a little overcrowded; so, finding a place to kick back can be vital. Thankfully, the region's burgeoning crop of top-notch spas offers just that. Just south of Phoenix, check out the fabled grandmother of American spas, the Canyon Health Ranch Resort. This huge eco-holistic spa focuses on Native American therapies and the hotel comes with ancient Hohokam Indian petroglyphs carved into the mountainside and a Jack Nicklaus signature golf course.
Speaking of golf… there are plenty of world-class courses to choose from in canyon country. Scottsdale has several in gorgeous desert design like the 18-hole "monument" course at Troon North. For scenery spectacular enough to wobble your swing, head to Lake Powell National Golf Course where fairways wrap around a red sandstone bluff, crowned by the town of Page.