"Can we go back next weekend?" asked our eight-year-old son, Jake, as we flew home to New York after a two-week summer trip into, over, and all around the Grand Canyon. Whenever my wife, Lois, and I had told friends about our upcoming vacation, it had sounded exhausting—we'd gathered bundles of tickets and reservation forms, and the itinerary alone filled four pages. In truth, the planning had actually been fun; it was like putting together an amazing puzzle.
I'd played with this puzzle once before. Just out of college, a friend and I headed across the country, straight for the canyon. Shortly before sunset we pulled up to the hotel where my friend had booked us a room facing the South Rim, hurried to our second-floor quarters, and beheld. We had a glorious view—of the first floor's gravel roof. The canyon, which stretched for miles beyond the gravel, was completely, almost brilliantly, hidden from sight.
When I told the story of that first gruesome trip to my friend Roger Kennedy, the retired director of the National Park Service, he acknowledged that schlock and gridlock sometimes diminish what the Park Service now calls the "visitor experience." He outlined the extraordinary steps that canyon officials have planned for the next few years, including a light-rail line and a rimside greenway for bicycles, to clear the air and the mind by pushing traffic noise and fumes away from the canyon's brink. With any luck, they'll even tear down that view-robbing hotel.
Rob Arnberger, Grand Canyon National Park superintendent from 1994 to 2000, once said that canyon visitors (of which there are 5 million a year) "should have a park experience, not a parking experience." These days, Arnberger told me one afternoon at the canyon, efforts to restore the Grand Canyon's hush and solitude are brushing against the suburbanization and sprawl that's creeping southward through Utah and northward from Arizona.
So is this a trip that families should avoid until the new setup is completed? Decidedly not. But first, two warnings—and I mean warnings:
1. The Grand Canyon is an untamed place, despite the roads and hotels right next to it. When you're out there, pack lots of water, energy bars, sunscreen and hats, and bug spray. Always.
2. Because of its size (277 miles long and crossed by a single car bridge), there are often hours of driving between canyon encounters. With a kid along, you have to make the moments between the moments fun, or at least okay. We did this in the usual way, with electronic games, audio-books, and silly songs that we could all bellow. At night we played the National Park's version of Monopoly from the Grand Canyon Lodge gift shop.
Our trip was a mix of short package tours and do-it-yourself adventures. We hopped on a plane from New York to Las Vegas, and took a quick canyon rafting tour that brought us back to Vegas. Then we drove a rental car through a Utah ghost town and Zion National Park to the canyon's North Rim (higher, wilder, and less visited than the South Rim). From there we proceeded to the South Rim via Lake Powell, and down through Flagstaff, before flying home from Phoenix.
It's hard to imagine what a shock the canyon must have been to the first explorers who encountered it. Nothing about the surrounding forests suggests you're near a place where the land simply vanishes for the next 10 to 18 miles. Five million years old and more than a mile deep, the Grand Canyon is a visible manifestation of forces that act at the planetary scale, the unending outcome of ocean-seeking water—the rushing Colorado River—as it bears down on layer after layer of rocks that long ago were lifted toward the sky by tectonic plates colliding deep below the earth's surface. How do you begin to seek its essence? We decided to start in the river itself.