The Grand Canyon is considered to be one of the seven wonders of the world for good reason. It is visually stunning, as red hued rocks extend as far as the eye can see, and along the walls of one of the deepest gorges on the planet. Words and images often fail to do justice to the grandiosity of the Grand Canyon, so naturally it comes up on lists of the top National Parks in North America since so many people want to see it for themselves at least once.
The South Rim of the Grand Canyon offers expansive panoramic views, and it is easily accessible from both Flagstaff and Las Vegas. The road into the National Park from either of those cities leads directly to the Grand Canyon Visitor’s Center, the ideal place to learn about the area and decide on the most worthwhile way to spend some time at the Grand Canyon, either by watching a twenty minute movie, or getting some advice from a Park Ranger. The nearby Yavapai Geological Museum has a gift shop, and exhibits that detail the area’s geology. From there the rim trail extends in either direction;
Towards the east is the Desert View Watchtower, a four-story stone cylinder built with local stones and inspired by Hopi art and architecture. On the way to this tower, there is a series of ruins from a thousand year old Pueblo settlement that now serves as an educational area. Heading west, the trail ultimately comes to Hermits Rest, a hundred year old structure known for the prominent fireplace and chimney made with rubble stone. This direction offers the best experience for a single day Grand Canyon trip, so this is what I ended up doing.
The early portion of the westward trail is known as the Trail of Time. It’s an interactive walking tour that tells the story of the geological eons of the Grand Canyon and the different types of rocks associated with each eon. It establishes that humans inhabited the Grand Canyon for over one thousand years, but then shows how short this actually is since one long step along the trail of time represents one million years. The eroding forces of the Colorado River have exposed rocks formed over two billion years ago, and several specimens are included along the Trail of Time. This is ultimately the largest geoscience exhibition in the world, with the added bonus of being located on the rim of one of the planet’s most stunning geologic landscapes.
The trail continues to the Grand Canyon Village, an area with a railroad station, and accommodations for visitors. These accommodations include El Tovar, a historic hotel built with local pine and limestone with the exclusive location of being situated along the rim of the canyon. There is also the more budget friendly Bright Angel Lodge, which is a series of cabins designed by Mary Colter, the same creative mind behind Desert View Watchtower.
This area marks the beginning of one of the most popular hiking paths in the park, the Bright Angel Trail. This trail passes through an area known as the Havasupai Gardens, where groundwater meets solid shale stone and rises into a creek. For centuries before the arrival of Europeans, Native Americans would farm this area for half of the year before moving to the surrounding plateaus to spend winter. The Havasupai people farmed corn, sunflowers and pumpkins here until the late 1800s when their traditional way of life was disrupted. Observing from the rim, this patch of green stands out from the surrounding earth tones at the base of the canyon.
Further along the Rim Trail is Maricopa Point, a prominent and narrow strip of land that allows for views in either direction. Looking down from here, structures from the Orphan Lode Mine are visible. This abandoned uranium mine remains closed to the public because of the exposed radioactive material deep within the tunnels.
The trail then reaches Powell Point, where there is a memorial and sign that honors the pioneers who embarked on the first documented expedition through the Grand Canyon, a journey along the Colorado River that lasted close to three months. Braving rapids, losing supplies, and the possibility of attack from hostile Native Americans meant that the Powell Geographic Expedition of 1869 was more about survival than scientific research, so General Powell undertook another expedition less than three years later to document flora and take photographs.
As I approached Hopi Point, I noticed a tall solitary figure with a yagi antenna and a pair of binoculars looking towards Battleship Station Rock; a formation named for its resemblance of a war vessel, known as a popular nesting area for California Condors. This was wildlife researcher and National Park Volunteer Bob George, more popularly known as Condor Bob. He explained to me that he was currently tracking a nearby California condor. This is a critically endangered member of the raptor family, so rare that every single individual is actively tracked by conservationists aiming to preserve them. He then told me that if I was willing to remain at Hopi Point for the next hour, it was highly likely that I would be able to get a glimpse of a California condor that was in the area.
Before becoming a volunteer with the National Park Service, Bob was a wildlife researcher who studied blue whales in the Gulf of Maine, and pilot whales in the Gulf of Mexico, as well as red wolves and sea turtles in Florida. Some of the wait was spent talking about whale watching in Dominica, and seeing leatherback turtles hatch on Paria Beach in Trinidad. Bob is also an avid sailor with a boat moored in the Bahamas, so we also spoke about the connections between Caribbean Rum and maritime traditions. The condor eventually sails into view, just over the canyon rim across from where we stood. With wings that span almost ten feet, this bird has the largest wingspan of any North American bird, and it is also the largest bird on the continent. By riding columns of rising warm air, condors often travel for miles without a single flap of their enormous wings. The large size and flight without flapping means that they are sometimes confused with gliders from afar. It was too far away to capture a clear picture, but a photograph probably would not have done justice to this magnificent bird.
Continuing along on the route are some of the most tranquil areas of the rim trail with vistas that are both picturesque and peaceful. An area known as The Abyss allows for almost vertical views to the bottom of the canyon to those daring enough to stand on the edge and stare down a three thousand foot cliff.
Just further is Pima Point, an area of the trail known for the clearest view of the Colorado River in all of the Grand Canyon. Conditions are often quiet enough to actually hear the rumbling of the river in the distance along with the drones of the occasional airplanes flying overhead. Sitting on the rim and seeing this river is a surreal experience.
A bell originally used by a New Mexico missionary hanging from an archway built from boulders marks the arrival at Hermits Rest. Also built by Mary Colter, it follows her theme of embracing design elements of early Spanish settlements in the American southwest, and combining them with Native American motifs. All structures here are built from these huge boulders, and are meant to resemble a mountain man’s attempt at building a luxurious but robust dwelling, and rubble masonry is extensively used.
The main south rim walking trail ends here, but the Hermit Trail that descends towards the Colorado River begins. This trek is meant for more experienced hikers and I began the day with no intention of hiking, but when I realized that I could refill my water bottles at Hermits Rest, I decided to spend half an hour rambling along the rocky early portion of the trail before heading back to see the sunset from a more scenic spot.
Seeing a sunset at the Grand Canyon allows you to literally see the beauty of the canyon in a brand new light. The crimson rocks glow scarlet, then auburn. Blue shadows grow longer and darker as the air gets noticeably cooler. It lasts for just a few minutes, and then it is over.
For more articles about hiking in North America, here’s one about Exploring an Island in the largest lake West of the Mississippi River, and here’s another about Spending a Day in Glacier National Park.
As long as you plan on visiting the Grand Canyon, driving to Flagstaff to visiting Mother Road Brewing is a detour worth making!