The vast majority of visitors to the Grand Canyon spend 20 minutes gazing from the lookout points, a little longer in the gift shops then hit the road hoping to reach Las Vegas by sunset. While they hurry off to the casinos, lace up your hiking boots and venture into the abyss. You’ll be glad you did.
Autumn and winter are good times to visit. The trails are quieter, temperatures cooler and accommodation is easier to come by. Head for the easily accessible South Rim, which has all the usual tourist facilities and free buses that shuttle to the South Kaibab trailhead every 20 minutes. The route down is strenuous but perfectly manageable for anyone who regularly hikes in Hong Kong.
It takes four to six hours to reach the Colorado River but don’t be tempted to rush. The views from the rim are sublime and, if you’re lucky, there’ll be a dusting of icing sugar-like snow. The scenery inside the canyon is even more brain bending. This is no place for the colour blind. You’ll start shedding layers before you get to Ooh Aah Point, 750 metres down, and by the time you arrive at the canyon floor, temperatures should be pleasantly mild.
Phantom Ranch is an inviting oasis in an otherwise arid landscape and the only lodging inside the canyon. There’s a campsite, rustic dorm rooms and private cabins, although you’ll be so tired, you’d sleep on a cactus if you had to. Compare blisters with fellow hikers over a beer in the canteen then tuck into the delicious hiker’s beef stew followed by chocolate cake. Bet you’ll be tucked up in bed before it’s dark.
Set off along the Bright Angel Trail at sunrise to complete the loop back to the South Rim. The route is longer than the South Kaibab Trail but there’s water, shade, a ranger station and the path isn’t as steep. Have your camera ready as the vistas are just as stupendous on the way up and, as you climb higher, there’ll be the surreal experience of watching helicopters circling beneath your feet.
Eventually roads replace rivers and cars replace calm. The gift shops on the rim start to appear larger, crowds thicken and smartly dressed tourists clutching shopping bags pose for “been there, done that” selfies. Exchange satisfied nods with sweat-stained strangers in the car park then drive to the nearby town of Tusayan and treat yourself to a hotel with a jacuzzi.
Of course, there are plenty of other ways to enjoy the Grand Canyon. The more isolated and inaccessible North Rim attracts wilderness hikers and no one can claim to be a white-water-rafting devotee until they have paddled down the mighty Colorado. The turquoise-hued Havasu Falls, situated on Native American Havasupai land, have to be seen to be believed and The Skywalk, a horseshoe-shaped glass viewing platform suspended 1,200 metres above the gorge offers views to infinity and beyond. And if none of those is exhilarating enough for you, there’s always a helicopter sightseeing flight.
Mention should also be made of the National Parks Service, which provides world-class visitor facilities and educational programmes; information centres, environmental initiatives, museums, ranger-led hikes, non-profit bookstores and more than 640km of trails monitored by emergency medical teams. In 2015, 5.5 million visitors spent US$584 million in the park and nearby communities, supporting almost 9,000 jobs.
While on an expedition into the Grand Canyon in 1857, explorer Joseph Ives noted in his journal that “ours has been the first, and will doubtless be the last, party of whites to visit this profitless locality. [It] shall be forever unvisited and undisturbed.” Presumably, he was better at exploring than predicting the future.
The South Rim is the most convenient place to gaze into the chasm – unfortunately, 90 per cent of those 5.5 million sightseers have the same idea. Crowds converge in cafés, pizzerias and lookout points and, during the high season, car parks reach capacity by 11am, leading to congestion and choking exhaust fumes. Spending a couple of nights at Phantom Ranch is a good way to escape the commotion but you’ll need to book a year in advance to snag a cabin.
Steep gradients and extreme climactic conditions combined with heavy foot traffic mean trails are being eroded as fast as they can be repaired. There’s a strain on water resources and animal habitats are under threat. The impact is most pronounced in areas of concentrated use, such as campgrounds, viewing points, bush toilets and anywhere firewood is collected. Footpaths are further degraded by mule trains that carry provisions and people into the gorge.
If hiking sounds too much like hard work, perhaps that sightseeing flight is the answer. Or maybe not, according to audio ecologists. Studies show noise from tourist aircraft can be heard within the canyon every 90 seconds. For their part, helicopter companies have long argued that proposed flight capping legislation restricts freedom of choice and is thus “un-American”. They point out hikers trample through the wilderness, break tree limbs, cause soil erosion and leave human waste and rubbish along the trails, all of which is far more damaging to the fragile ecosystem than flying high above and taking a few photos.
Despite the excellent work of the emergency medical teams, there’s an average of 250 search and rescue incidents a year and almost 700 people have died in the canyon since it became a national park, in 1919. Accidents range from aircraft crashes to white-water-rafting drownings, rock slips and more than a few suicide leaps. The area is home to a variety of snakes, although the only related death occurred in 1933, when a prospector was confronted (but not bitten) by a rattlesnake. He promptly suffered a heart attack.
The Skywalk welcomed its millionth customer in December 2015 but complaints about exorbitant entry fees and ‘stealth charges’ for unwanted bus tours and overpriced “professional” photos (cameras and phones must be left in lockers beforehand) suggest not everyone believes the attraction offers good value. There are far better (free) viewpoints along the South Rim.