Want to Experience the Best of Grand Canyon National Park?
You’ve Got to Earn It.
When people ask me about the Grand Canyon, I always say the same thing: you get out of it exactly what you put into it. Drive to the park on your way to Vegas, spend some time gazing over the rim, and you will no doubt have a wonderful experience. But ultimately you’re selling yourself short. Yes, the view is stunning, and yes, the scale is breathtaking. But you’re really just scratching the surface of the park. To truly appreciate the Grand Canyon, you need to hike into the Grand Canyon.
The view from the rim is incredible, but the view from within the canyon is beyond belief. As you descend nearly a vertical mile through two billion years of Earth history, you’ll pass through eleven layers of ancient rocks. Some, like the Kaibab Limestone, formed when Arizona was a shallow tropical sea. Others, like the Coconino Sandstone, are the petrified remains of giant sand dunes. Look close and you can still see the fossilized evidence of creatures that roamed these ancient landscapes. Continue your descent, twisting and turning through prehistory, until you reach the sandy banks of the Colorado River. Sit down, take off your boots and dip you feet in the water. If it’s spring, the cactus will be blooming; if it’s fall, soft autumn light will illuminate the canyon walls. As you gaze back towards the rim, dozens of massive rock formations will tower above you on all sides. For those with a love of the natural world, it’s pure sensory overload—thrilling, dizzying, enlightening.
But of course, you’ll have to earn it.
Hiking to the bottom of the Grand Canyon is hard, which is exactly why so few people choose to do it. Of the roughly five million people who visit Grand Canyon National Park each year, the vast majority never set foot below the rim. Apart from the physical demands, there are the logistical challenges. Want to hike to the Colorado River? You’ll need to spend at least one night below the rim. That means camping at one of three inner-canyon campgrounds or booking a room at Phantom Ranch, a rustic lodge at the bottom of the canyon. But camping permits and lodge reservations can be hard to come by, especially on weekends and holidays. Even if you’re up for the physical challenge of hiking to the river, the logistics can be tough.
So when I had the opportunity to join OARS on their first Grand Canyon hiking trip, I jumped at the chance. I knew I was up for the physical challenge. It was the logistics – transportation, permits, reservations at Phantom Ranch – that gave me pause. But on this trip all that was taken care of. All I had to do was hop on a plane, allowing me to focus 100 percent on photography. In addition, the trip included visits to fascinating archaeological ruins outside of the Grand Canyon—ruins that, in hindsight, I had overlooked for far too long.
It was an incredible trip. Here’s what I saw…
Descending into Walnut Canyon. Eight hundred years ago, this rugged canyon was home to the Sinagua people.
The Sinagua people used masonry to construct dwellings in cliff overhangs.
The grounds at Wupatki include a ballcourt where competitive sports were played.
Built in the 1100s, Wupatki was home to roughly 100 people. Some of the multi-story dwellings contained over 100 rooms.
Wupatki Pueblo is one of the most impressive archaeological ruins in Arizona.
Our hiking guide Andre Potochnik (center) is a geology professor who loved sharing his knowledge of Grand Canyon. Here, Desert View Watchtower offers impressive views of the Colorado River from Grand Canyon’s South Rim.
We started hiking on the South Kaibab Trail before dawn. By sunrise we had reached Ooh Aah Point.
Taking in the view from Ooh Aah Point.
Checking out O’Neil Butte (right), the most prominent feature on the trail.
As the sun rises O’Neil Butte becomes fully illuminated.
Mule wranglers, who transport food and supplies to Phantom Ranch, are a common sight on the trail.
Down, down we go. Descending into the heart of the Canyon.
Not surprisingly, switchbacks abound.
The scale of the Grand Canyon is breathtaking.
Looking over the Colorado River from the South Kaibab Trail.
As we approach the bottom of the Canyon, Black Bridge comes into view.
Phantom Ranch, a collection of rustic cabins, offers the only overnight accommodations at the bottom of the Grand Canyon.
Starting our hike up the Bright Angel Trail the following morning.
Last view of the Colorado River.
The ascent begins.
Hiking through Vishnu Schist, some of the oldest rocks in the Grand Canyon (1.8 billion years old).
Hiking above Devils Corkscrew.
Onward and upward! Almost there…
After reaching the rim, we checked out the Trail of Time, an exhibit designed to put the Grand Canyon’s geology in perspective. Although interesting, it couldn’t compare with our hike!
See more from James Kaiser, including his bestselling travel guides at: jameskaiser.com.