The Grandest of Canyons

What can I say about the Grand Canyon? It’s awesome. It’s breathtaking. It’s inspiring. And it’s truly overwhelming. The Canyon just draws you in – every time you look into its mile-long depth, colors and shadows change, or you notice something you never saw before.

If you’re into geology, the Canyon reveals a beautiful sequence of rock layers that serve as windows into time. At the bottom, rocks are nearly two billion (that’s with a B!) years old. Because the Canyon sits in an elevated plateau, its walls expose the various geological layers for all to see.

Native Americans introduced white settlers to this amazing chasm, and it opened the area to entrepreneurs who tried to ranch, mine and chop lumber in the area. But lack of transportation, the absence of a local labor pool and the native people’s resistance to development hindered their efforts and only a few were able to eke out a subsistence living.

When the railroad was introduced in Arizona, tourists found the Grand Canyon. They disembarked from their trains in Flagstaff and rented buggies to ride to the Canyon. In 1901, a rail spur was opened which brought visitors right to the head of the Canyon’s Bright Angel Trail – it took three hours to get there and cost $4. More and more people came and the Canyon’s tourist industry began with hotels, restaurants, and lodges opening up along the south rim, now known as Grand Canyon Village.

By the late 1800s, the Canyon had no protection or conservation measures. Some legislation to set it aside as a public park had been introduced but died in Congress. In 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt visited the Grand Canyon. He stated that it should remain “pristine for future generations” and decided to make it into a game preserve. In 1909, he designated the Canyon as a National Monument, assigning its management to the Forest Service. Tourism was not a priority for the Forest Service at that time – they focused on ranching, mining, timber production and fire suppression on public lands – and their rangers had little incentive to manage Canyon visitors. Instead, they relied on private concessionaires and corporations like Fred Harvey and the Santa Fe Railroad to develop and manage tourism to the area.

By 1910, motorists were arriving unannounced at the Canyon, and the hotels were unable to adequately accommodate them. As there were no designated campgrounds, visitors were setting up tent sites and sleeping in their Model Ts’ scattered around the south rim. Meanwhile, back in Washington, D.C., in August of 1916, the National Park Service was created. Eventually, the Grand Canyon became America’s 17th National Park.

Today, five million visitors enter the park each year. There are two unconnected areas of the Park – the more developed south rim, and the less-traveled north rim. It’s about a 200-mile journey to get from one to the other, (due to that giant hole in the middle!) and drivers must leave the Park boundaries to get back and forth.

Our visit was one of several we’ve made to the south rim, and it was one of the most enjoyable. Camping at the South Rim is permitted only in one of the three designated campgrounds. Desert View Campground is only open in the summer months, does not accept reservations, has no hookups but can accommodate RVs up to 30 feet. Camping is on a first come availability and usually fills up by 1 p.m. each day. Mather Campground is located in the village, accepts reservations, but has no hookups and also can only accommodate RVs up to 30 feet. We chose to stay in Trailer Village, which is a full-service RV park with full hookups right in the village. Sites vary, but are up to 50 feet in length, and are reasonably spaced apart. There are very clean restrooms and the Park’s free shuttle buses stop right at the campground’s entrance.We experienced a problem with our RV’s water connection while we were at the park and one morning a very friendly elk stopped by to help herself to the leakage, drinking from the faucet as if it were a water fountain. There were a number of elk wandering through the campground, particularly during the morning hours.

Image by Sue Bray
There are some private campgrounds in and near Tusayan, at the south rim gate to the Canyon, and more in Williams, Arizona, about a 50-mile drive from the Park entrance. Tusayan also offers an IMAX Theatre, with an interesting 34-minute film on the origins of the Grand Canyon (and some breathtaking river rafting scenes) produced by National Geographic. We took an early morning walk along the west end of the village, following the rim for seven miles to Hermits Rest. This route can be accessed by the free shuttle buses, bicycle or by foot, but private vehicles are not allowed to drive this route during summer months.

By staying in the Park, we had time to also enjoy the many trails throughout the park, not necessarily right on the rim. While summer tourists crowd along the rim, these pathways and trails meandering through forested areas are peaceful and beautiful walks with very little traffic.

The America the Beautiful Pass works here – regular entrance fee is $30 per vehicle for seven days, and they also offer a Grand Canyon National Park annual pass for $60 for 12 months.

No matter what time of year, the Grand Canyon will always draw me back. Next stop, north rim!