“In the Grand Canyon, Arizona has a natural wonder which is in kind absolutely unparalleled throughout the rest of the world. I want to ask you to keep this great wonder of nature as it now is. I hope you will not have a building of any kind, not a summer cottage, a hotel or anything else, to mar the wonderful grandeur, the sublimity, the great loneliness and beauty of the canyon. Leave it as it is. You cannot improve on it. The ages have been at work on it, and man can only mar it.”
In 1903, while on a three-month tour of the western United States, President Theodore Roosevelt, an avid hunter and lover of the outdoors, made his first excursion to the Grand Canyon. His visit was brief—time enough for a horseback ride, a tour of the canyon’s southern rim, several receptions, and a speech. But the words that Roosevelt spoke that day would soon become a rallying cry for the fledgling national park movement. And by February 1919, 1.2 million acres of the Grand Canyon would become one of America’s most beloved national parks.
A century later, the Grand Canyon draws nearly five million visitors to northern Arizona each year, most opting for the easy access and breathtaking vistas of the South Rim. Yet the wonderful grandeur, the sublimity, and the great loneliness that Roosevelt spoke of are not lost, especially to those who visit the park in spring or fall. With blissfully mild temperatures and trails less-traveled, you’ll find peace, solitude, and endless opportunities to explore the canyon from above and below.
So if you find yourself on the road north from Flagstaff, here are some unforgettable ways to spend three days.
A Room With A Desert View
Although recent studies have suggested the Grand Canyon was formed nearly 70 million years ago—about the time when dinosaurs became extinct—the prevailing geological theory sets the canyon’s age closer to five or six million years. Either way, the Colorado River has managed to carve a canyon that is 277 miles in length, 18 miles at its widest point, and an average of 4,000 feet deep.
Introduce yourself to this natural wonder on Desert View Drive, an awe-inspiring road that traces the South Rim for 25 miles between the park visitor center and the Desert View Watchtower. Along the way, you’ll be treated to four picnic areas and 11 viewpoints and pullouts, including the unforgettable panorama from Lipan Point, best enjoyed in the low morning light.
Above The Rim
Stretch your legs with an afternoon stroll along the Rim Trail, a (mostly) paved 13-mile path that teeters on the canyon’s edge. Walk three miles westward from the park headquarters to Powell Point, a memorial to Major John Wesley Powell’s Colorado River expeditions in 1869 and 1871-1872. Less than a mile later, take note of Hopi Point and make plans to return there at sunset. And two miles further, the lookout at The Abyss provides a near-vertical view down into the canyon—a stunning 3,000-foot drop to the Tonto Platform below.
The Best Exotic El Tovar Hotel
When the Atchison Topeka and Santa Fe Railway reached the Grand Canyon in 1901, construction began on a luxury hotel to draw travelers to this remote corner of Arizona. Four years later, El Tovar would open its doors, offering visitors a dose of rustic comfort a mere 20 feet from the canyon’s edge.
If there’s room in your budget, staying at El Tovar has endless benefits, from the best restaurant on the South Rim to porch swings with commanding canyon views. But budget travelers, fear not. The nearby cabins at Bright Angel Lodge are charming and affordable—and El Tovar’s scrumptious breakfast is only a short walk away.
Song Of The South Kaibab Trail
In the early 1900s, as the nation grew and the demand on American resources became greater, policymakers engaged in a fierce debate over the wisdom of the national park experiment. There were those such as Arizona Senator Ralph Cameron, who believed the Grand Canyon was ripe for several hydroelectric dams and a platinum mine. Cameron also owned the Bright Angel Trail, a renowned hiking path into the canyon, and charged visitors a toll for using it. Although Cameron would eventually lose this battle, his ownership of the Bright Angel Trail led the National Park Service to create a means of bypassing the toll—and thus, the South Kaibab Trail was born.
Often described as “a trail in a hurry to get to the river,” South Kaibab is unique among Grand Canyon trails for its exposed ridgeline descent, which offers hikers exhilarating views with every step. Day hikers should set a goal of reaching Skeleton Point at the base of O’Neill Butte, a strenuous three miles and 2,040 vertical feet from the rim. But permitted backpackers and lucky reservation holders can push through to Bright Angel Campground or Phantom Ranch on the canyon floor, where you’ll spend a night amidst two billion years of exposed geological history.
Constructed by a prospector named Peter Berry in 1893, the lovely Grandview Trail was originally intended to link the rim with the Last Chance Mine, a copper operation in the canyon below. Today, day hikers can descend three steep miles to the appropriately named Horseshoe Mesa, still scattered with rusty nails, tools, and other hints of the canyon’s mining history.
To experience another Grand Canyon classic, brave the winding switchbacks—and larger crowds—of the Bright Angel Trail. With exceptional opportunities to enjoy plant and animal life, ambitious day hikers can follow this side canyon trail 4.5 miles to Indian Garden, a small oasis shaded by cottonwood trees.
But if you honor your Sundays as a day of (relative) rest, consider renting a bicycle and joining a guided tour of the geology and wildlife of Hermit Road. Interpretive ranger programs also run nearly every hour, allowing participants to learn about ancient marine fossils or the reintroduction of the California condor. Just make sure you’re back on the porch at El Tovar by sunset.
A Few Notes
With its designation as a national park, the Grand Canyon has been protected for the future benefit and enjoyment of the people. Unfortunately, with that designation also came the curse of bad food. Two exceptions to this rule are El Tovar, which serves great meals in the most atmospheric of dining rooms, and the Arizona Room, which specializes in simple, American dishes with a grand view of the canyon. During the day, it’s wise to pack picnic supplies—and plenty of them.
Although we’ve focused solely on the South Rim here, don’t forget that the more secluded North Rim of the Grand Canyon is an equally thrilling destination. Want the best of both worlds? Consider making the multi-day, 25-mile rim-to-rim trek on the South and North Kaibab Trails.
You’ll be reminded time and time again, but heed the hiking warnings: No matter the season, drinking enough water is no joke here. For every hour hiking in the canyon, make sure you have nearly a quart of water.
And what about those mules? If sweaty, panting animals teetering on the edge of a narrow trail is your thing, more power to you. With an advance reservation through Xanterra, you’ll descend to the canyon floor on the Bright Angel Trail, stay the night at Phantom Ranch, and ascend the following day via South Kaibab.
TITLE: The view from the South Kaibab Trail | FRIDAY: Lipan Point; the Desert View Drive; Lipan Point; the Desert View Drive | SATURDAY: O’Neill Butte on the South Kaibab Trail; the view from Skeleton Point; the trail below Skeleton Point | SUNDAY: Horseshoe Mesa; the porch at El Tovar; sunset at El Tovar.