"Are we there yet?"
"Aw, it's just a big hole in the ground."
"I've seen all the pictures."
In touring the Grand Canyon, there are as many different options as there are visitors who make the pilgrimage to one of America's most beautiful landscapes. There are dozens of published guide books. The National Park Service has extensive information in its seasonal publication. The Grand Canyon Association (well worth joining) has even more information.
Those who visit the Grand Canyon can be divided into several categories:
1. OK, we're here and there it is
2. Country Comforts
3. Roughing it
4. The North Rim
Each cluster appeals to a different class of visitor. There are some commonalities worth considering when preparing for a Grand Canyon tour. Bring extra memory for the digital camera. Every hour, the Canyon is different. It was not uncommon for visitors to run through five to ten rolls of film in just a few days. With digital memory chips, it's not impossible to fill a new multimegabyte chip with images every day.
It doesn't matter which touring approach you take. The Canyon can be unforgiving. Carry water at all times. Wear a hat and sunscreen not matter what the season. Know your personal physical limits. Outside of limited developed areas, it is rugged, high desert with all the accoutrements: rattlesnakes, coyotes, deer, scorpions and, of course, mosquitoes.
OK, We're Here, and There It Is
The vast majority of visitors arrive at the park, check in to accommodations and go to the rim. The developed South Rim includes the Bright Angel Lodge and restaurant, the internationally famous El Tovar hotel and restaurant, and great views of the Canyon. There are gift shops, a paved walking path and several museums. Thousands of people stop here, and that's it. Some will take the shuttle or drive and fight for parking at Mather Point, about five minutes to the east. For the, "wow, what a beautiful hole in the ground" visit, this is the tour.
Many thousands of visitors tour the Canyon in one of the many guided tours provided by companies such as Tauck, the Smithsonian, Gray Line and the historic Grand Canyon Railroad. The tours vary from a couple of days to an entire week. Some tours also include visits to other nearby national parks and scenic areas. In addition to the conventional motor coach tours, there are tours taking visitors deep into the canyon, and many theme tours, such as wildlife watching, archaeology, photography and rafting.
One "leave the driving to someone else" tour is a combination of rustic and comfort--the mule rides to the canyon floor. Mule trains leave Bright Angel throughout the day. The steady feet of the mules stay on the narrow cliff-hanging trails. No experience is needed to ride the mules, and it will be an experience never forgotten.
The Canyon offers historic luxury when staying at the El Tovar hotel was built by the Santa Fe Railroad in the early 1900s. Rail passengers stayed in luxury at the hotel. Both the El Tovar and Bright Angel Lodge, both right at the rim, consistently get three to five-star ratings. Reservations are required nearly a year in advance ot travel, and far in advance, even in the winter. Other South Rim hotels, the Maswick and Yavapai Lodges are more modestly priced, and sometimes offer special rates in the shoulder seasons (spring and fall).
Despite the fact that the Grand Canyon is really one of the most isolated pieces of real estate in America, it is possible to feel like you're in a crowded, rustic village -- because you are on the South Rim with literally thousands and thousands of visitors on peak days. Most people come to the South Rim, see the Canyon, eat meals, buy souvenirs, and go home without realizing they have experienced nothing of its beauty and magnitude.
The historic El Tovar, along with rustic Phantom Ranch, and the Watchtower at Desert View were all designed in the 1920s by architect Mary Colter, a contemporary of Frank Lloyd Wright, and one of the few women architects in America at that time.
An easy drive from Grand Canyon Village, the Desert View area ofers the unique views, especially at dawn. At the Desert View area is the Watchtower, this historic and unique structure lets visitors view Native American culture and an incredible view of the Grand Canyon on one side and the Painted Desert on the other.
Those who really want to tour the Canyon obtain permits from the National Park Service and hike below the rim. Fewer than 10 percent of the millions of visitors take extended hikes or mule rides into the canyon. Backpackers can stay in campgrounds, hike developed trails or raft the Colorado River to appreciate the canyon from the bottom up.
Although it may seem an oxymoron, luxury roughing it awaits hikers to the bottom of the Canyon. The historic Phantom Ranch has cabins, campsites, and a very good hearty meal awaiting arrivals. Located at the very bottom of the Bright Angel Trail from the south and the Kaibab Trail from the north, there is big demand for accommodations and meals. Both must be reserved far ahead of the actual arrival.
The Grand Canyon--particularly in summer--is crowded and there are limited opportunities for spontaneous travel if going below the rim is on a traveler's agenda. Any location taking reservations--Mather Campground and Phantom Ranch, for example, are likely filled. For the spontaneous camper, there is a large, comfortable, campground at Desert View (the east entrance). Reservations are not accepted, so a mid-day arrival means a good chance of finding a campsite at Desert View.
The warnings are everywhere, and bear repeating because of the number of unnecessary deaths at the Canyon each year. Carry water, lots of water. The Canyon is high desert and very dry. There is a 20-degree temperature difference between the top of the Canyon and the Colorado River--a hotter difference. A little preparation will save lives. Standing on the canyon rim is a good way to end up in a deadly fall. Many times, the canyon rim is undercut by erosion. It's never known where or how much weight will be the straw that breaks the piece of the rim. Even children can cause a rockfall. Be prepared, cautious, and take home amazing memories to be cherished.
The North Rim
An entire article could be (and should be) written about the North Rim. Fewer than 25 percent of the Canyon's visitors make the more than 200-mile trip from the South Rim to the North Rim. The North Rim is almost a hidden gem of a park because of the fewer visitors, yet it offers amazing Canyon views and incredible photographic opportunities. More than 1,000 feet higher than the South Rim, it is located within a ponderosa forest. The North Rim has another historic lodge, the Grand Canyon Lodge, cabin rentals, and a reservation-based campground. There are fewer visitors, but also fewer accommodations. Reservations are recommended far in advance.