President Teddy Roosevelt once declared,
“In the Grand Canyon, Arizona has a natural wonder which is in kind absolutely unparalleled throughout the rest of the world.”
He was spot on. The Big Ditch is truly unlike any other place on Earth. Its sheer size is incomprehensible. Need proof? Check out this picture of Manhattan Island dwarfed by the canyon walls. Its enormous size means there is plenty of space to roam. With over 400 miles of trails, the canyon is a hiker’s paradise. During a 3 month stay in 2012, I hiked many of these trails including a rim to rim to rim journey. The Grand Canyon always seems to be calling my name. And it could be calling yours too! Not convinced… read on. When you’re done, pack up your backpack, catch the next flight out to Arizona and come experience one of the wonders of the world for yourself. Just be sure to bring your camera!
1.) Unparalleled Views
Perched on the rim of the Grand Canyon, visitors have a bird’s eye view that extends for over 100 miles. The timeless war between water and land has created a spectacular landscape. Weather resistant rocks form sheer cliffs while softer layers ease into gentle slopes. Side canyons divert off the main channel in every direction and the spider web of mesas, buttes, and plateaus is never-ending. It’s reminiscent of summiting the tallest mountain in the range and gazing out on all the peaks below. Walking the path along the rim presents new vantage points around every corner. No two views are ever the same. If you can gaze upon the Grand Canyon unmoved, you better check that you still have a heartbeat. It’s that glorious.
2.) The Mighty Colorado River
Tamed since the days John Powell took his legendary first run through the canyon in a wooden boat, the Colorado River is still a powerful waterway. Helped out by the uplift of the Colorado Plateau, the river has carved through 6,000+ feet of limestone, sandstone, and granite. And it’s not done yet… evidence of erosion at work is ever present in the sets of mighty rapids that string through the canyon. To the thrill of whitewater rafters and spectators alike, rapids inside the Grand Canyon are so extreme they are classified on a scale all to themselves! One of the greatest joys of any trip in the canyon is reaching the river and taking a plunge in the icy water. The river spawns life both in the vegetation along its shores and the animals who rely on it for survival. It is the literal heart of the canyon.
3.) Mules Make it Accessible
Since the 1800’s, humans have been using mules to haul goods and people in and out of the Grand Canyon. Early pioneers found these surefooted hybrids to be more reliable in the steep terrain. Originally, they were used solely for the mining biz that attracted hundreds to the otherwise empty landscape. However, prospectors quickly learned that getting any minerals they did find out of the canyon made for a difficult task. They found tourism to be a much more lucrative undertaking. Nowadays, you can choose between a day ride and overnight options. The overnight trip to Phantom Ranch even includes a steak dinner! If you aren’t in that great of shape or are just not the hiking type, the mule rides provide a way to access the wonders of the inner Grand Canyon without the strain of doing so on foot.
Let’s face it; sunsets can be pretty just about anywhere. As the sun descends below the horizon and the sky lights up in brilliant shades of orange and purple, our hearts skip a beat. Sunsets are alluring, captivating, and romantic. For this reason, I can think of nowhere better to watch one than the Grand Canyon. When the sun goes down, the canyon walls light up. The light sandstones and the dark red shales are illuminated by the sun’s late afternoon rays. Far below the rim, the river glimmers and glistens in the light. The few wispy clouds that may be floating, in an otherwise unimpeded sky, will surely take on incredible hues of their own. Watching a sunset, or three, above the Grand Canyon is sure to be a highlight of any trip.
5.) A New Perspective
The Grand Canyon is beyond huge. It extends for 280 miles and is in some places over 18 miles wide! At any given point, it is roughly a mile from the rim to the river. It’s one place quick to bring you down to size. From the rim, hikers descending into the canyon look like little ants. Heck, even the river doesn’t look that big. The Spaniards who first came upon the Grand Canyon actually thought that from above the river seemed so small they could simply wade across it! This is obviously not the case, but it’s precisely how the canyon will make you feel; insignificant. Wrapped up in our own little worlds dictated by careers, social media, and ourselves, humans love to forget how small we really are in the scheme of things. But Mother Nature is quick to slap our wrist. The Grand Canyon will re-open your eyes to the vastness of our planet.
While often overlooked because of wildlife meccas like Yellowstone and Denali, the Grand Canyon is a great place to spot animals of all types. Deer and elk frequent the open Ponderosa Pine forests of the rim and wander amongst the buildings of the Grand Canyon Village like they’re tourists themselves. Less frequent visitors are Bighorn Sheep who cling to the cliff sides they call home. Watch in awe as they scramble up the rocks like it’s a stroll through the park. One of the real success stories of the canyon is the California Condor. Reintroduced in 1996 after their population had dwindled to a mere 9 in the wild, the California Condor is once again on the rise. This massive bird is a thrill to watch, especially when it catches thermals and rises effortlessly through the canyon. And if you don’t see any of those, you can always count on seeing a squirrel or ten. These little guys are everywhere along the rim and have no fear whatsoever of humans. Watch your food or end up empty handed!
Over 5 million people a year come to the Grand Canyon. Most of them will stay for less than an hour. They’ll check out a few overlooks, take a few requisite pictures, eat some ice cream, buy some souvenirs and leave. Less than 1% makes a trek more than a mile or two from the trailhead. The trails remain empty for the adventurous few. Outside of the main corridor of trails (Bright Angel & North/South Kaibab Trails) you can go several days without seeing a single other person. If you are looking to experience nature the way it is intended, unaltered and undisturbed by us, the Grand Canyon is the place for you. While the commercialization and crowds may be stifling at the rim, the serenity found below is breathtaking. It can almost be disturbing at times how quiet the canyon is. Few places in this world can offer the solitude that the Grand Canyon does. Enjoy one of the wonders of the world all to yourself.
8.) Spring Flowers
With an elevation change of 8,000 feet, the Grand Canyon supports five of the seven life zones and an incredible amount of diversity. Over 1,700 vascular plants have been found within the park. Simply put, spring time turns this place into a canvas of colors. Yuccas, penstemons, and primrose are among the most common flowering plants seen in the canyon. My favorites though, are the cacti blooms. It’s amazing to see the otherwise harsh looking cacti suddenly sprout delicate flowers amidst their inch long needles. From the soothing yellow flowers of the Prickly Pear to the popping pink of the Grizzly Bear, cacti really come out to party in the spring. Don’t forget to bring your camera.
9.) Empty Beaches
As mentioned before, the Colorado is continuously eroding through layers of sediment, creating much residue. This leftover sand and silt gets deposited on the shores of the river, creating beautiful dunes and beaches. Most major trails in the Grand Canyon lead from the rim to the river, meaning there is access to a lot of the river’s shoreline. The tough conditions all but guarantee that you’ll have these pristine beaches all to yourself. Yeah, you may not be able to have a margarita or a beer, unless you lug it the 9+miles and in which case it will be the best damn drink ever, but you will have the sand, the sun, and the water to yourself. My favorite spot for a relaxing afternoon was Pipe Creek Beach. You would never guess that the picture above was shot just steps away from the most popular trail in the park, the Bright Angel. Bring a towel and your trunks… or not!
10.) It’s Rewarding
Making it back to the rim after a long day’s hike is one of the most satisfying feelings in the world. Simply put, the canyon is steep. Gradients of 10-15% make any trail’s ascent arduous. On descent, you know this is true yet the canyon can be deceptively easy on the way down. The way up is a whole other story. I have run marathons and summited 14,000 mountains, but the Grand Canyon still ranks among the most physically exhausting and mentally challenging thing I have ever done. No matter how fit you are the canyon will kick your ass. At some point, you will probably ask yourself “Why am I doing this?” I know I did. But when you get to the top and look down on the insane elevation you just covered, a great wave of accomplishment will wash over you.
With an ice cream cone in hand, look out over the expanse of the canyon and the mighty beast you conquered. You did it!