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GRAND CANYON NATIONAL PARK

No matter what you've heard about its legendary beauty, the first time you peer over the edge of the Grand Canyon, you'll probably be amazed. Many visitors sum up the view from the rim with one word: Wow. An immense landscape spreads below your feet, dropping cliff by cliff into a winding, ragged gorge. In the distance, imposing walls and towers of stone rise to a green line of forest.

About 5 million visitors go to behold this Grand Canyon sight each year, the vast majority of them visiting the canyon's more popular South Rim. It's one of the most-visited natural wonders in the world. As incredible as the views are, as long as you stay above the rim, be prepared to deal with crowds. Those with the time and conditioning to venture below the rim, however, will receive a special treat.

The best strategy is to visit the park at the times of year when it won't be packed with sightseers and to explore the less-developed areas. Summer is Grand Canyon's peak season. Spring and fall see lighter crowds, especially in early March and late October. Even a winter visit is possible on the South Rim, though the snow may deter most travelers. To avoid crowds and to visit during pleasant weather, late spring and fall are good times to visit.

A visit to the more remote North Rim (usually open mid-May to October, depending on the snowfall) will help you avoid crowds. The northern route also gives you the opportunity to visit Pipe Spring National Monument, an early Mormon settlement near the border with Utah.

If you have to visit during the summer, reserve accommodations and specialty tours at least six to nine months in advance. If you're just visiting the Grand Canyon for a day, arrive early, as parking is limited.

Try to arrange a trip into the canyon, which is the best way to appreciate its size and topography. Options include hiking, riding a mule down from the top or passing through the canyon on a river excursion. A prime destination for overnight hikes is Havasu Falls on the Havasupai Reservation, with the option of a helicopter ride to the falls for the leg weary. A neighboring tribe, the Hualapai, controls access to the West Rim and offers raft trips through the Canyon's western extremities.

Should you decide to stick to the topside, as most visitors do, you'll hardly be disappointed. The vistas from the rim are incomparable, especially at sunset.

HIGHLIGHTS

Sights—Any of the 14 official viewpoints along the South Rim, especially Mather Point and Yavapai Point; Hopi Point and Hermits Rest overlooks; the historic El Tovar Hotel; the Hopi House and Lookout Studio, which blend into the landscape; Bright Angel Point on the North Rim.

Museums—Bright Angel Lodge for its architecture and history; the century-old Kolb Studio and galleries in Grand Canyon Village on the South Rim; Tusayan Ruin and Museum to explore an 800-year-old Puebloan site.

Memorable Meals—El Tovar Dining Room for fine dining on seafood and steaks with a southwestern flair; The Arizona Room at Bright Angel Lodge; the Yavapai Cafeteria; a seasonal Grand Canyon Cookout Experience at the North Rim Lodge.

Late Night—El Tovar bar for the best views; the lounge at Bright Angel for its occasional live music; campfire fun.

Walks—Trails between the South Rim overlooks; wander the Grand Canyon Village and its historic buildings; hike part or all of the Bright Angel Trail (but make sure you are prepared for steep inclines and heat).

Especially for Kids—The Mule Barn; a movie at the National Geographic Theater.

HISTORY

The Grand Canyon was formed over hundreds of millions of years by erosion, with the Colorado River cutting into the Colorado Plateau. The rock formations along the rim, known as the Kaibab Formation, are the youngest of the canyon's geological features (270 million years old). About 5,000 ft below the rim, in what's known as the "basement," rocks range from 800 million to 1,850 million years old.

More than 3,000 prehistoric archaeological sites have been uncovered within the park. The oldest human artifacts date from nearly 12,000 years ago. The first human inhabitants were bands of hunters who passed through the area toward the end of the last Ice Age. The region's indigenous Pueblo cultures peaked around the 13th century, and the park contains almost 2,000 ancestral Puebloan sites.

In the 1300s, the Cerbat (who later became the Hualapai and Havasupai tribes) and the Southern Paiutes settled in the area. About a hundred years later, the Navajo and the Dine (Apache relatives) settled around the canyon. The Navajo reservation is still located along the eastern section of the canyon.

In 1869, Civil War veteran John Wesley Powell became the first non-native explorer to successfully float the length of the canyon on wooden boats (he lost three of his nine men to the rapids and excessive heat). Nearly three decades later, a group of businessmen from Flagstaff, Arizona, built the first tourism accommodations on the South Rim. U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt designated the canyon as a game preserve in 1906, and Congress established the Grand Canyon National Park in 1919. Today, the park sees about 5 million visitors each year.

 
 

GEOGRAPHY

The Grand Canyon is most accessed via the Grand Canyon Village on the South Rim. That's about 80 mi northwest of Flagstaff, in northern Arizona. The North Rim is only about 10 mi away from Grand Canyon Village as the crow flies, but it's 215 mi (about a five-hour drive) by car, because you have to drive around the canyon to get there. The North Rim is best accessed from southern Utah.

The West Rim of the Grand Canyon is owned and operated by the Hualapai Indian tribe, not the National Park Service. Although the Hualapai have been increasing convenience facilities, it's best visited using a tour that includes group transportation, because there are few gas stations, markets or restaurants in the area. There is also about 14 mi of unpaved road. However, it is home to the Skywalk, where you can walk over the canyon on a transparent floor. The West Rim is located about 120 mi east of Las Vegas, Nevada, about 72 mi northwest of Kingman, Arizona. There is a park-and-ride shuttle from Dolan Springs, Arizona, about a one-hour drive from Las Vegas. You can park your vehicle there and take a shuttle to the West Rim.

The canyon is the product of the Colorado River cutting into the Kaibab Plateau (part of the larger Colorado Plateau). It measures 277 mi in length and averages 1 mi in depth. Its width varies from a few hundred feet to almost 20 mi. The park adjoins the Navajo, Havasupai and Hualapai Reservations, as well as the Kaibab National Forest. If you travel from the rim to the inner canyon, the steep gorge at the bottom of the canyon that contains the Colorado, you'll traverse several life zones, moving from a landscape of ponderosa pines at the top to a harsh, cactus-laden desert at the bottom.

Hundreds of species of mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians’ dwell in the canyon's habitats. Mule deer, rock squirrels and ravens are the most common animals seen, but you may also encounter desert bighorn sheep, bobcats, coyotes, mountain lions (mainly confined to the North Rim), scorpions, rattlesnakes, frogs and even millipedes that glow in the dark. The park is also home to a number of endangered and protected bird species, including the immense California condor, the southwestern willow flycatcher, the peregrine falcon and the bald eagle. The canyon boasts several endangered species of fish endemic to the region, including humpback and bonytail chub.

 

 

Potpourri

At 6,000 ft above sea level, the South Rim is more than 1,000 ft below the North Rim. At Grand Canyon Village, the two are separated by 10 mi, but there's no easy way across.

Endangered California condors, which nest along the South Rim, are the largest land bird in North America. They have a wingspan of 9.5 ft and can be seen flying near Grand Canyon Village.

The tallest tree on the South Rim is the ponderosa pine. Many smaller pines also are part of the forest. Most are much older than they appear, because they grow slowly in the arid, windy climate.

Drought conditions upstream of Grand Canyon National Park have revealed the walls of Glen Canyon, a spectacular area long hidden beneath the waters of Lake Powell. Some say Glen Canyon is even more beautiful than the Grand Canyon.

Because of its 8,000 ft elevation, the Grand Canyon is home to about 1,737 known species of vascular plants, 195 species of lichen, 167 species of fungi and 64 species of moss. It also has more than a dozen plants that only grow in the Grand Canyon and can be found nowhere else in the world.

Born in 1869, architect Mary Elizabeth Jane Colter designed the Hopi House, Desert View Watchtower, Bright Angel Lodge and Lookout Studio. Influenced by Native American and Mexican architecture, Colter sought to build structures that did not detract from their surroundings.

WEATHER

The canyon offers spectacular scenery any time of year. Spring and fall offer the best combination of moderate temperatures, colorful scenery, active wildlife and smaller crowds. April and May have cooler nights than September and October. Visitors will want a warm coat or jacket for lows of 37-49 F. Expect daytime highs of 69-79 F in the spring and 68-85 F in early fall. Spring and fall are also best for those journeying to the inner canyon, where the lower elevation makes for much warmer temperatures. Though the spring and fall highs in the inner canyon (80-90 F) can be a bit uncomfortable, they're much better than the summer readings, which can get dangerously high—up to 115 F.

If you visit the South Rim in the summer, expect temperatures to reach around 85 F. The North Rim is cooler in summer—temperatures there usually only get up around 75 F. July, August and early September are the height of the monsoon season; be prepared for sudden and sometimes severe thunderstorms during these months.

Summers are hotter and drier in the bottom of the canyon, and winters are damper and cooler than on the rim.

Winter weather closes the road to the North Rim from late October to early May. Roads are open to the South Rim year-round. Winter temperatures there run 20-43 F. Even though travel is a little more difficult in winter, many people find that the lack of crowds and the sight of snow on the rim make winter an excellent time to visit. Trails can become icy in the winter, however. Average snowfall is usually 50-100 in per year on the rim.

DO'S AND DON'TS

Do make sure to take a camera, an extra memory card (or extra film) and batteries.

Don't litter. If you pack it in, you must also pack it out.

Do watch your step along the rim.

Don't feed the wildlife, and if you see a snake, back off slowly.

Do take sun protection (a hat, sunscreen and long-sleeved shirt).

Don't call Native Americans "chief" or make other potentially offensive references.

GEOSTATS

Time Zone: 7 hours behind Greenwich Mean Time (-7 GMT). Daylight Saving Time is not observed.

Telephone Codes: 928, area code

Travel 42

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Courtesy of: Darla Logsdon

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