Box 129, Grand Canyon, AZ 86023
The Big Picture:
You can talk about its storied past, its imposing scale, or the wondrous powers of water, rock, and aeons, but when you get right down to it, the Grand Canyon suffers from a serious image problem: It's too beautiful. Beginning in 1897, when a group of entrepreneurs tore down an old mining cabin on the South Rim and replaced it with the Grandview Hotel, the Grand Canyon stopped being a place people explored and started assuming its position as the original American objet de tourism. The role has its drawbacks. Fly-over tours (8,000 a month during July and August), motel mania along the South Rim, and overuse of the Colorado River, not to mention riverbank erosion and air pollution, form what might be the longest worry list of any park this side of the Mississippi. The advantage for the traveler is that the vistas cause most folks to halt open-mouthed at the South Rim, leaving the 277-mile-long, 6,400-foot-deep, juniper- and piñon-lined canyon open to the well-prepared souls who can get there. And though the canyon might look pretty from the top, the view from a campsite set beneath the red sweep of a 2,000-foot cliff, or from a warm turquoise swimming hole on the Little Colorado River, isn't bad either.
Where Everyone Goes:
Traffic report: 4,222,397 total visitors, 36,723 backcountry visitors
Nine of ten visitors head for the South Rim's growing metropolis (the park newspaper has notes in four languages), and come sunset virtually all of them can be found making the pilgrimage to Hopi Point. Bright Angel Trail ranks as a main drag for hikers into the canyon (memo to hikers: wear shoes that grip well on mule manure), as do, to a lesser extent, the South and North Kaibab trails.
Where You Should Go: In a word, north. Though development has increased in recent years, the North Rim remains the place where it's still possible to find the canyon of old. Consider Whitmore Canyon, off the North Rim near mile 187 of the Colorado River on Bureau of Land Management turf, where you'll find solidified lava flows, quiet beaches, and Indian ruins, which of course are off-limits. Getting there is a little tricky--it's 85 miles from St. George, Utah, on the unpaved Mount Trumbull Road, and then an hour's hike down into the canyon. But if you're well equipped (four-wheel drive, high clearance, two spare tires, two days' extra food, and an extra tank of gas) you can set up housekeeping in fine fashion. A tent is necessary only if the forecast is bad, but you may want a tarp for shade. And always, always, bring plenty of extra water--at least three quarts per person per day.
When it comes to river trips, you have your pick of more than 20 outfitters. Many are good, but Grand Canyon Dories (800-877-3679) and O.A.R.S. (800-346-6277) are among the oldest and, some think, the best. Call at least six months in advance to assure yourself of a seat.
Don't Forget: The words of Bev Perry, backcountry ranger: "There's only two kinds of hikers in the inner canyon in high summer--fools and rangers. And one's only there because of the other."
Where to Bunk: A room overlooking the canyon at the El Tovar Hotel ($101-$151 for a double; 602-638-2631) or a log cabin at the Kaibab Lodge, 18 miles off the North Rim, which can outfit you for nordic skiing in winter ($50 for a double; 602-638-2389).
Food Is: Tourist-in-a-hurry.
Park Lore: Each year, three or four people choose the canyon as their final resting place. Most jump, but a few actually drive off the rim, à la Thelma and Louise, contributing to what might rank as one of the more surreal outdoor experiences: being passed by a flying car as you hike up from the canyon's floor.
Your Park Service at Work: The Park Service trumpets last year's agreement by the nearby coal-fired Navajo Generating Station to reduce emissions 90 percent by 1999 and the Bureau of Reclamation's plans to reduce river erosion. But park officials continue to be pushed around by river outfitters, who raised such a storm over a proposed phase-out of motorboats that it was quickly dropped from a 1980 management plan. There's good news for the North Rim, though: The Park Service has agreed to postpone a contract with concessioner T.W. Recreational Services to build 150 motel units on the North Rim.
Where the money goes:
Visitor services: 40.7%
Flashlight Reading: The Man Who Walked Through Time, by Colin Fletcher (Random House, $10); A Field Guide to the Grand Canyon, by Stephen Whitney (William Morrow, $16).