"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.
ESCAPE TO THE BOTTOM (WITH LIFE PRESERVERS)
Among the 16 outfitters licensed to run canyon rafting trips, only Arizona River Runners was willing to accept an eight-year-old. The problem isn't safety, the tour operators explained, but holding a child's attention during a nowhere-else-to-go-if-you- get-bored boat ride. But they thought Jake could handle their Three-Day Escape, a sort of Grand Canyon sampler that begins and ends, oddly enough, at the Las Vegas airport.
The journey was an almost perfect way of easing up on the canyon. The first day was all about readjusting our eyes and ears to the dry, enormous, boldly colored, starkly sculptural landforms; to distances that seem to have no end; to silences that wrap around you like a blanket. Just before noon, two small planes flew our 28-person group from Vegas up the length of Lake Mead (once the lower 40 miles of the Grand Canyon, before it was flooded in 1935 by the colossal Hoover Dam). Skirting the canyon, the plane climbed over forests and emptiness before setting us down abruptly at the landing strip next to Bar 10 Ranch, a 60,000-acre cattle spread near the North Rim. For the rest of the day, we rode horses, shot skeet, and listened to cowboy songs before bedding down in a bunkhouse. One way or another, our focus changed. We were briefed about the bottom of the canyon: it's a desert environment inhabited by scorpions but not mosquitoes. The river water is always cold (about 60 degrees) because it now comes out of pipes near the bottom of Glen Canyon Dam.
At 8 a.m. it was time to take the helicopter plunge into the canyon itself—six minutes in bright sun as we followed a gradual slope, one minute in an exhilarating drop. Soon we stood shivering on a small beach still darkened by morning shadows, about to enter what Major John Wesley Powell, the first person to travel here by boat, had in 1869 called the Great Unknown.
Powell and his crew of 10 had rowboats, but we went in large blue inflatable rafts with outboard motors— the kind of vessel environmentalists call "baloney boats." The motors move the rafts at 9 or 10 miles an hour, twice the river's speed. Except for the rapids, where you hold tight to a rope and get sloshed by icy brown water (very fun, according to Jake), you drift through the canyon at a cyclist's pace.
Our two-day route took us through a dozen-odd rapids in 50 miles of the canyon's western end, where cactus-like plants send up slender, frog-hand strands of pale green. Even at noon, the walls of the layered rock looming overhead—red, tan, pink, brown, or gray—seemed almost uniformly black. Farther on we came to a section of the canyon where the Colorado has dug through rocks so deeply buried that few human eyes have ever seen them. This black stuff, the heart of the earth, is Vishnu Schist, mud that was compressed and heated more than 1.8 billion years ago.
Along the way we were drenched by rapids and dried by the sun; we stopped at one beach for sandwiches and at another for a frigid shower under a waterfall. As the day lengthened, a sense of the energies that sustain the earth seeped into us. That night we unrolled sleeping bags next to a Vishnu Schist boulder that seemed to smolder from all the sun it had absorbed. Bathed in moonlight, we lay watching the heavens. Then Jupiter peeped out from behind the canyon walls and, soon after that, Saturn. It looked as if the earth were part of a parade of celestial bodies out for an evening stroll.
On our third day, though we weren't quite ready to escape the Escape, we transferred to a powerboat that took us to a tour bus. Two and a half hours later we were ensconced at Las Vegas's MGM Grand for the night. Jake spent a full hour and a half in the marble bathroom's Jacuzzi.
HELLO, DOWN THERE
Of the 5 million people who visit the Grand Canyon every year, just 22,000 raft down the Colorado and sleep beside it. Far fewer get to spend a night in Supai, the only permanent human settlement inside the canyon. This village of 500 Havasupai Indians is the center of the 185,000-acre Havasupai Indian Reservation, accessible only by foot, mule, horse, or helicopter.
We chose the 25-minute chopper ride, much of it over serenely empty forests, then down into the mid-level, 300-million-year-old red sandstone rocks called the Supai Formation, and finally a steep descent, and a sighting of houses, crops, horses, a school.
For centuries, the Havasupai farmed the fertile ground halfway down the canyon and grazed their horses and hunted on the plateau above—until 1920, when the National Park Service confined them to Supai. In 1975, 185,000 acres were returned to the Havasupai, and in recent years their traditions have been revived, thanks to people like Dianna Sue Uqualla, a guide and lecturer whose mission is to preserve Havasupai culture. Through Havasupai Tourist Enterprize we arranged to spend some time with Dianna Sue. When our helicopter landed in a cloud of red dust, she was there to meet us.
Supai has no paved streets or cars, so children have the run of the town. Jake was enthralled. He told us the Havasupai Lodge, whose rooms are comfy but don't have TV's, was the best hotel he'd ever stayed in—except for the MGM Grand. A guide named Claudius brought four horses to the lodge so we could ride down to Havasu Falls, two miles below the village. Dianna Sue followed in her all-terrain vehicle, with a picnic basket.
Havasupai means "People of the Blue-Green Waters"; the milky-white Havasu Creek turns a mix of emerald and royal blue as it deepens into wading and swimming pools, getting whiter again where it spills over falls. Jake loved everything about that day and night—playing in the sand and water; riding back to the village in Dianna Sue's ATV; eating the Indian taco dinner cooked for us by Dianna Sue's cousin Carla; finding a group of kids he could run around with; dashing to see the new puppies at the doctor's house; stopping by another house where a woman sold ice cream cones from her back window; listening to the hush after the last village dogs had gone to sleep.
The helicopter ride back to the South Rim was a 40-minute sightseeing flight: we crossed Havasu Canyon at an angle, then headed due south across the full width of the canyon. The pilot tried to play Richard Strauss's Also Sprach Zarathustra, but the tape jammed. We didn't need it.
THE NORTH VS. THE SOUTH
A thousand feet taller than the South Rim, the North Rim is also colder, more rugged, and quieter—it gets a tenth as many visitors. Its air revitalizes you, until you settle into a quaint cabin at the Grand Canyon Lodge, where the lack of dusting makes you feel you're living in a Legoland that's been left under the bed for a couple of months.
What's amazing about these cabins (of the 161, only four actually face the canyon) is their proximity to a spectacular sunset view—one that's doubly impressive because from this vantage point on the North Rim, you get to see the canyon in the foreground. A paved trail extends for a quarter mile behind the lodge out to Bright Angel Point, a sliver of boulder- and juniper-covered rock that sticks out into the canyon like a bowsprit. If you start on the trail about 20 minutes before sunset, then you, the sun, and the canyon and sky colors will all be in motion at once. What you're not expecting is the strong wind that springs up just at the moment of sunset.
Since one of us was eight, we didn't do much into-the-canyon hiking, settling for a North Rim dip along the shady and not-too-steep North Kaibab Trail; and a brief South Rim descent on Bright Angel Trail, the canyon's first path, completed in 1891, and its most popular. This second hike was a way of saying hello again to the Havasupai, because a short distance down the trail, if you turn around and look back up, you can spot some of their pictographs of human figures on the rock face.
Jake wasn't tall enough for a ride into the canyon on the famous South Rim mules—you have to be more than four-foot-seven. This didn't disappoint Lois, who has a fear of heights. Instead we went on a twilight campfire ride at Moqui Lodge, just outside Grand Canyon National Park on the way to Tusayan, a town near the South Rim. The trail passes through the same pine forest we'd flown across on the way to Supai, so you don't see the canyon. But the path is packed with families; the cow ponies amble at a gentle pace; and you're enveloped by an ever-changing sky. Just before sunset, you arrive to a huge, blazing campfire. It's BYO marshmallows and hot dogs, but everyone shares. As darkness sets in, you clamber onto a horse-drawn wagon covered with hay bales for a ride back to the corral—totally charming.
The South Rim has one spectacular hotel, El Tovar, a turn-of-the-century pile of dark and soaring wooden beams. We spent a comfortable night in a porch suite with a sunroom and a Frederic Remington reproduction. Here on the South Rim, the sunrise is the spectacle, but since our rooms faced away from the canyon, Lois and Jake slept right through it. We did find a sunrise view nobody could sleep through at the Bright Angel Lodge, a few hundred yards west of El Tovar. We nabbed Room 6101, actually a two-room log cabin, built by Buckey O'Neill, a prospec-tor, sheriff, judge, and reporter who died fighting alongside Teddy Roosevelt at San Juan Hill. Now surrounded by a warren of hotel rooms, the cabin is normally entered through a hotel corridor. Fortunately, no one has ever sealed off its front door, only 40 feet from the canyon edge.
Which means you get your own snug VIP skybox onto the canyon. We took in the morning spectacle for well over an hour—an extraordinary grand finale that left us with a new appreciation of the planet, an ancient place by our reckoning, but in the prime of its life.
THE GREATER GRAND CANYON
Four cool things to check out as you circle the abyss:
• A true ghost town in Grafton, Utah (435/673-2454) founded in 1859 and abandoned in 1921 by Mormon pioneers.
• A powerboat ride on Lake Powell (520/608-6404), in Page, Arizona. To arrange a cruise or a houseboat rental, contact a private marina, such as Wahweap Marina, through the central Lake Powell boat reservation office (800/528-6154)
• A direct—and safe—look at the sun, through a specially filtered telescope (rigged up on clear days at 12:30) at the Lowell Observatory, in Flagstaff, Arizona (1400 West Mars Hill Rd.; 520/774-2096). What you see is smoldering, seething, and unexpectedly smoky.
• The gigantic meteor crater southeast of Flagstaff (520/289-2362)—almost 600 feet deep, practically a mile across, and almost as awesome as the Grand Canyon, though you can't climb in it. And whereas the canyon is the result of a 5-million-year carving process, the crater was formed in about 10 seconds.
PLANNING YOUR TRIP
GRAND CANYON NATIONAL PARK'S general information line is 520/638-7888. Its two Web sites are www.thecanyon.com/nps/ and www.nps.gov/grca/. From these you can click to specialized pages about the park's new transit and greenway programs, and to a lavish file of downloadable canyon photos.
THE NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC SOCIETY'S www.nationalgeographic.com offers both a "Destinations" page and a "Books" page loaded with insights, tips, and maps.
THE GRAND CANYON TRUST SITE, www.grandcanyontrust.org, has the most reliable environmental information about the health of the Grand Canyon.
FROMMER'S GRAND CANYON NATIONAL PARK by Alex Wells (Macmillan) can direct you to little-known wonders, such as Buckey O'Neill's cabin and the Havasupai rock paintings on Bright Angel Trail.
BELKNAP'S WATERPROOF GRAND CANYON RIVER GUIDE (Westwater Books) by Buzz Belknap and Loie Belknap Evans is useful to have on a rafting trip because, along with copious lore about the rocks, river, and river runners, it compactly contains detailed maps of every single mile of the canyon.
The central reservations line for most Grand Canyon hotels is 303/297-2757. Another number to know is 520/638-2631, which connects callers to the front desks at both North and South Rim hotels (these sometimes have more up-to-date info on room availability).
GRAND CANYON LODGE DOUBLE-occupancy "frontier cabins" from $78; doubles in the motel from $84; family-size "pioneer cabins" from $91; deluxe "rim cabins" $104.
BAR 10 RANCH 435/628-4010; $128 per person, including meals and activities.
EL TOVAR Doubles from $116; family of four from $130.
BRIGHT ANGEL LODGE Doubles from $46; family of four from $63; Buckey O'Neill cabin suite $234.
MOQUI LODGE 520/638-2424; doubles from $94. Located just outside Grand Canyon National Park, on the way to Tusayan. Trail rides by horse, mule, or wagon are available to guests and nonguests starting at $25.
ARIZONA RIVER RUNNERS 800/477-7238; Three-Day Escape, $725 per person.
PAPILLON GRAND CANYON HELICOPTERS 800/528-2418; $461 per person round-trip to the Havasupai reservation; $503 per person round-trip with overnight Havasupai Lodge stay included. Every summer the South Rim's little Grand Canyon National Park Airport—located just off Route 64 as you enter the town of Tusayan—becomes the second-busiest airport in Arizona.
HAVASUPAI TOURIST ENTERPRISE 520/448-2141. You can arrange for guides like Dianna Sue Uqualla and make camping reservations through this office.
HAVASUPAI LODGE 520/448-2111; doubles from $80; family of four from $96, plus $20 per person reservation entrance fee.