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Grand Canyon National Park

Updated: March 18, 2011 01:02 PM EDT
Nothing prepares you for that first glimpse of the Grand Canyon. (©National Park Service Photo) Nothing prepares you for that first glimpse of the Grand Canyon. (©National Park Service Photo)

By Shane Christensen

Nothing prepares you for that first glimpse of the Grand Canyon. Carved by the snaking Colorado River, this mile-deep, 277-mile long chasm reveals the sheer force of nature with its towering buttes, pinnacles and mesas; its spectrum of colors and shifting shadows; its wildlife, from the tiniest ant lions to 1,000-pound elk; and its two-billion year geology. It's humbling. Whether you choose the accessibility of the South Rim or the wild solitude of the North Rim (open May to October), the seventh natural wonder is just that -- wonderful.

Park Highlights

The best prelude is the accessible 25-mile Desert View Drive. Watch rippling rock faces glow at sunrise and sunset from Lipan Point, situated above a sweeping bend in the river, and glimpse the Marble Platform from the eastern overlooks. Along the way, delve into the culture of Pueblo Indians at Tusayan Pueblo and take in 100-mile views from the 1930s Watchtower. Have your camera handy for the vertigo-inducing visit to the horseshoe-shaped, glass-bottomed Grand Canyon Skywalk.

Active Pursuits

The canyon views are always astonishing on day hikes like the popular, well-graded Rim Trail and Bright Angel Trail, and the more challenging North Kaibab Trail. Backcountry hikers explore the solitude and silence of the Inner Canyon. Or tackle the Colorado River's foaming rapids on a rafting trip. Closed to most vehicles in summer, cyclists rule on Hermit Road. Plan carefully, as distances are immense and most activities require pre-booking.

Guided Tours

Stop at the South Rim Visitor Center to learn about the free Ranger Programs, such as full moon walks and geology talks. The Grand Canyon Field Institute runs expert guided tours from backcountry hiking to rafting and family walks. If you don't fancy hiking, befriend a mule for a guided half-day trek to Uncle Jim Point or an overnight ride to Phantom Ranch. Helicopter rides, based outside of the park, afford a bird's-eye perspective.

Camping and Dining

Whether you want a luxurious, historic hunting-lodge or a campground by the Colorado River, you'll need to book up to 12 months ahead in summer. A prime picnic spot is Vista Encantada. South Rim has the most options: from views at century-old El Tovar to art-strewn Cottage Place where Chateaubriand is served by candlelight. The Pine Country Restaurant lures with the best pies in Arizona. See the canyon change colors like a mood ring as you tuck into a juicy buffalo steak at the North Rim's Grand Canyon Lodge.

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