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Exploring the Grand Canyon

Sunset over the Grand Canyon
Exploring the Grand Canyon
Views from the rim of the Grand Canyon are magical, but don't miss a chance to head into the canyon itself. Hike or ride a mule down through layers of time, or enjoy a raft or kayak on the Colorado River, which lies a vertical mile below the rim.
By AFAR Editors, AFAR Staff
Photo by Joseph Cyr
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    Sunset over the Grand Canyon
    Sunset over the Grand Canyon
    No matter how many photos you've seen of the Grand Canyon, nothing compares to being perched, in person, on the rim of its everlasting views. From Hopi Point, the play of late-afternoon shadows bring the gorges into gorgeous relief. Plan to stay for sunset. Bring a blanket; even summer nights can be chilly, and winter evenings, when crowds are thinner, can feel glacial at 7,000 feet above sea level. As day disappears into the distance, absorb the vista and revel in the fact that you've slipped out of your quotidian existence and are now on geologic time. Another great vantage point from sunset? In the air on a helicopter tour.
    Photo by Joseph Cyr
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    Hike Down into the Canyon
    Hike Down into the Canyon
    The canyon’s hiking possibilities are almost as endless as its vistas. Leisurely, if dizzying, walks along the rim are scenic enough, but to truly appreciate the scale of the place, hike down into it. Leave the cool evergreens of the high plateau on your way to the warm canyon floor. Waterfalls, invisible from the top, reveal themselves, cascading miraculously from mossy rocks. The geologic layers you’ll pass are millions of years old. From the South Rim, the Bright Angel and South Kaibab trails will take you all the way down to the Colorado River. They’re well-maintained but steep. (Don’t underestimate what elevation and heat can do to you.) At the bottom, you’re a vertical mile below the rim.
    Photo courtesy of Michael Quinn/Grand Canyon NPS
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    Solitude on the South Rim
    Solitude on the South Rim
    Millions of people from the ends of the earth have put this place on their bucket list, so it might seem impossible to find solitude on the South Rim. But if you're willing to brave the cold sometime between late fall and early spring, you just might find a quiet ledge from which to watch daybreak. Make sure to arrive early: Colors begin animating the sky well before clock time for sunrise. Almost anywhere with “point” in its name—Shoshone, Mohave, Hopi—will be a good spot from which to watch the show. And once the sun's rays begin pouring into the canyon, direct your gaze north and west to see the naked strata come alive with light, shadows dancing for a vertical mile below you.
    Photo by Joseph Cyr
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    Kayaking and Rafting the Colorado River
    Kayaking and Rafting the Colorado River
    With 277 miles of the Colorado River running through it, the Grand Canyon is a paradise for adventurous—and experienced—water enthusiasts. The river drops through a series of more than 160 rapids on its way through the canyon. Most rafters join group trips organized by commercial outfitters that organize the logistics. Rafts, dories, and kayaks are available, but plan well in advance: Spots are often reserved a year ahead of time. This is pristine wilderness, so everything is pack in, pack out. You can run the river spring through fall, but June, July, and August are peak months.
    Photo courtesy of Michael Quinn/Grand Canyon NPS
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    The Western Canyon
    The Western Canyon
    Most people think of the Grand Canyon as having two primary destinations: the popular South Rim and the quieter North Rim. But if you go west to the lands of the Hualapai and the Havasupai tribes, you can access the western sections of the canyon, under American Indian jurisdiction. The Havasupai Nation hosts the only village within the canyon itself: Supai, the most remote village in the lower 48 states. From there, you can hike to the spectacular Havasu Falls, the blue-green waters cascading from red rock into pools below. One of the most popular spots to visit is the Skywalk at Eagle Point, with its horseshoe-shaped glass bridge that extends over the abyss, floating at 4,000 feet above the canyon floor. Dine at the Sa' Nyu Wa restaurant there, which serves Southwestern, Asian, and traditional Hualapai dishes, such as acorn stew and fry bread.
    Photo by Kevin Favro
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    The Grand Canyon’s Historic Cabins
    The Grand Canyon’s Historic Cabins
    If navigating long hotel corridors with ice machines isn’t your idea of wilderness lodging, but you want something more substantial than a tent, there's the option of comfortable log cabins. Both up on the rim and down in the canyon, the cabins were built between the 1890s and 1920s. Many have interesting histories. The Buckey O’Neill Cabin, up by Bright Angel Lodge, was the home of a 19th-century prospector who went on to become mayor of Prescott and a Rough Rider. Down on the canyon floor—accessible only by foot, mule, or raft—is Phantom Ranch, designed by famed architect of the Southwest Mary Colter. There are separate dormitory-style lodgings for men and women, as well as smaller cabins with bunk beds. Book ahead, up to 13 months in advance, for this oasis. You can't stay at Kolb Studio, but it's worth a visit for its collection of historic photos showcasing life in and around the Grand Canyon.
    Photo courtesy of Michael Quinn/Grand Canyon NPS
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    Ride into the Canyon on a Mule Train
    Ride into the Canyon on a Mule Train
    You can’t be afraid of heights or large animals, and you cannot weigh more than 225 pounds fully clothed. If you meet these criteria, then get ready to join a mule train and descend into the canyon via saddle and four hooves. There are day trips from the North and South Rims, as well as an overnight trip down to historic Phantom Ranch on the canyon floor. The mule rides, while not exactly relaxing, are authentically rustic. Marvel at the sure-footedness of your trusty steed as you descend a vertical mile. The South Rim’s mules are extremely popular—reserve up to 13 months in advance for these unforgettable excursions. You’ll come away inspired, if a bit saddle sore, and you’ll never look at a mule the same way again.
    Photo courtesy of Michael Quinn/Grand Canyon NPS