Perhaps the most iconic of all natural wonders in North America, the Grand Canyon is pretty much obligatory fare for this lifetime. That said, it's only right to pay the ditch a little more homage than a tailgate picnic. Instead, venture away from the crowds and into the depths to absorb nature's greatest work the same way it was made—slowly and in peace.
One-Night Stand: On a quick stop, there's no time for a knee-pounding plummet, so tone down the ambition and focus on one thing: unmitigated splendor. From a base camp at North Rim Campground or the Grand Canyon Lodge, head for the Widforss Point Trail for a ten-mile (16-kilometer) out-and-back hike. The gradual path ducks in and out of a fragrant evergreen forest only to emerge for a stunning view at Widforss Point. From there you'll look south toward such landmark formations as the Brahma, Deva, and Zoroaster Temples and across to the South Rim.
Three Days or More: With all due respect for a rim-to-rim hike, the Hermit Trail, a 15.4-mile (25-kilometer) round-trip below the South Rim, delivers much of the same impact and none of the mule trains. Start at Hermits Rest off Hermit Road and descend into the red-rock abyss—a 3,800-foot (1,158-meter) plunge that was carved out for hikers by Santa Fe Railroad workers. Camp at Hermit Creek and take day hikes on nearby portions of the scenic Tonto Trail and down to the Colorado River. Note: There's untreated water at Hermit Creek, but none along the way; carry plenty for the commutes.
Must-Do Secret: As far as desert road trips go, the 61-mile (98-kilometer) Sunshine Route, south from State Route 389, must be in the top ten. The rough but generally 2WD-able route delves into a remote western section of the park known as the Arizona Strip and ends at Toroweap Overlook, a 3,000-foot (914-meter) bright ocher free fall straight down to the Colorado. When you arrive, you just may have the view, and one of 11 nearby primitive (no water) campsites, to yourself.
Vitals: On the South Rim, Bright Angel Lodge has rooms ($50; www.xanterra.com) and detached cabins ($109). On the North Rim, Grand Canyon Lodge has upscale rooms ($96; www.grandcanyonnorthrim.com) and good food. For park info, camp reservations, and backcountry permits ($10, plus $5 a night per person), visit www.nps.gov/grca.
PLUS: The Top Five
The Thrill Factor
Five unexpected itineraries that scream action
Trips Through the Ages
Five classic adventures that will never go out of style
Five off-the-charts escapes that reach deep into the wild
Moments to Live For
Five of life's most essential experiences, done perfectly in the parks
Pick up the June/July 2006 issue for 50 top adventures in the national parks; how to move to Montana; the best ten-day Brazil vacation; 11 instant weekend escapes; and new watches, cameras, and sunglasses for summer.