Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona
Take your game below the rim
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There isn’t just one Grand Canyonthere are three. No, not any of those faux Grands (“The Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania!” “The Grand Canyon of France!”). The trio, rather, is a matter of multiple perspectives. First, there’s the view from the top. “It staggers,” says Mike Buchheit, the director of the Grand Canyon Field Institute. “I’ve known people who have wept.”
View two is from midway down, where your gaze can drift to the rim above, to the river below, and across nearly two billion years of earth history in between.
Finally, at river level, you’re swallowed in a canyon within the canyon. Almost every other great park has a road through its midst, but the heart of the Grand Canyon is reached only by those who tread its trails or brave its rapids.
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The Ultimate Itinerary
Arrive in the park at the East Entrance, which is the calmer of the two gateways to the South Rim, and head two miles [3.2 kilometers] to Lipan Point for the Grand Canyon’s best rim-top view. Then, before noon, claim one of the first-come, first-served tent sites at nearby Desert View Campground, which is usually a good bet for quiet.
Rather than plunge cluelessly into the park, take your first hike below the rim with a naturalist on a Meet the Canyon tour, arranged through the Grand Canyon Field Institute ($95 per person; www.grandcanyon.org/field institute).
Fifteen trails in the park dive from rim to riverand the Hermit Trail is arguably the best of the bunch.
Ranger Steve Bridgehouse calls it “the quintessential canyon trail. You’ll see the biggest peaks, the deepest canyons, the steepest edgesand you’ll catch views of the Colorado a bunch of times.” (If campsites along the way are booked upsee Park Information, below, for advance-reservation informationtake the Grandview Trail to Horseshoe Mesa.)
As you hike, keep in mind that (on average, at least) every step downward takes you back 60,000 years in geologic time. Allot at least five hours to reach campsites at Hermit Creek, which runs year-round, and be prepared for a tough descent. “There are no easy trails,” warns Grand Canyon Hikes owner Jon Shkolnik. “Even the Bright Angel crushes people.”
Leave your camp set up and use today for unencumbered exploration. Bridgehouse suggests scrambling up steep-walled Hermit Creek canyon to investigate side gulches cut through Vishnu schist, ancient black bedrock swirled with pink-and-white Zoroaster granite. A variety of shaded pools yield ideal spots for sitting out the heat of the day.
Then hike down to sandy Hermit Beach, beside the rampaging Colorado River, to watch boats run the wave train at Hermit Rapids.
Head around Cope Butte on the Tonto Trail to the Monument Creek Camp. It’s located in front of the Abyss, where some of the steepest walls in the park plunge 3,500 feet [1,067 meters] from the canyon rim.
After ditching your pack, wander down Monument Creek, where you’ll find shade in deep-set narrows. You’ll wind up on a beautiful sand beach on the Colorado.
Budding geologists will appreciate this area. “Nearly every rock layer in the park is on displayincredible geology,” says Mike Buchheit.
The local expression for canyon hiking“reverse mountaineering”becomes all too real today. Figure on averaging only one mile [1.6 kilometers] an hour on the 3,600-foot [1,097-meter], 8.7-mile [14-kilometer] slog back up the Hermit Trail and out of the canyon.
You’ll want at least a gallon of water to last until Santa Maria Spring, 2.5 miles [4 kilometers] below the rim. Outstanding views, though, make even the torturous switchbacks at Cathedral Stairs bearable.
Permits: Camping permits ($10, plus $5 per person below the rim and $5 per group above) are required and are limited by strict quotas. You can reserve them on the first of the month four months before your arrival.
Contact: For a trip planner, contact the park’s backcountry office (+1 928 638 7888; www.nps.gov/grca).
For the full Grand Canyon guide, pick up the May 2002 Adventure.
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