Photo courtesy of National Park Service
A mile deep, 277 miles long, and up to 18 miles wide—few places on earth command awe the way the Grand Canyon does. The play of light on the canyon's height and shape constantly reveals new contours and depths of geologic time. You’ll understand why, more than a century ago, naturalist John Muir wro…te, "No matter how far you have wandered hitherto, or how many famous gorges and valleys you have seen, this one . . . will seem as novel to you, as unearthly in the color and grandeur and quantity of its architecture, as if you had found it after death, on some other star."
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The promises of summer easily find fulfillment in and around the Grand Canyon. Beat the heat by rafting and kayaking on the Colorado River, which cuts through the canyon. Seeking warmth after a cool desert night? Find a perch on the rim at dawn and greet the sun as it pours into seemingly endless chasms. On the hiking trails, you can spot elk, eagles, and the occasional condor as you earn some dust on your boots. For further insight, take a free ranger-led walk, or listen in on a talk, also free and varied enough for all ages and interests. Ride on a mule train down to Phantom Ranch and stay overnight in a historic cabin, or find a camper’s solitude on the less-traveled North Rim. And you can always take a helicopter tour.
As the days get shorter and temperatures drop, snow frosts the junipers and the red rock rims of the canyon. Crowds diminish. Savor the quiet pleasures of a thermos of hot chocolate on a solitary hike, or the companionship of other cold-weather travelers during an evening by the fireplace in the historic El Tovar Dining Room. If getting your heart pumping on a see-your-breath day is more your idea of winter fun, then pick a trail for some cross-country skiing or snowshoeing. The San Francisco Peaks—a mountain range that includes Humphreys Peak, Arizona's highest point—offer lofty downhill skiing, and you can even go snowmobiling on trails in Coconino National Forest. If you want to try the emerging sport of snowbiking, check out the Arizona Nordic Village.
Gone are the days when beans and cowboy steaks were the only food options around the Grand Canyon. Fine dining is available within the national park at the historic El Tovar Dining Room. Nearby restaurants such as the Arizona Room offer regional specialties, as well as Navajo and Mexican dishes. On venerable Route 66, the nearby town of Williams, Arizona, boasts a bevy of foodie favorites, including Red Raven Restaurant and Kicks on Route 66. And Flagstaff is making a name for itself as a destination for farm-to-table dining. Join the hungry crowds in the city's 19th-century downtown by checking out the brewpubs, such as Beaver Street Brewery, and fusion eateries, along with unique spots like Rendezvous Coffee House/Martini Bar.
There’s enough geology, flora, and fauna to fill up any trip to the Grand Canyon, but don’t forget the human element. People have lived here for millennia, and their cultures continue to be shaped by the vast landscape. You’ll hear all of the world’s major languages as you mingle among the canyon’s visitors today, but the historic trio of American Indian, Hispanic, and Anglo cultures is what gives the region its distinctive culture. The Havasupai and Hualapai tribes live in and around the canyon, while further afield are the Navajo, Paiute, and Hopi nations. Add to that the ranches, mines, university-and-ski-town vibe of Flagstaff, and Route 66 Americana, and you’ll find there is more to the region than just the canyon.
The Grand Canyon's South Rim is open year-round; the North Rim is open only from May 15 to October 15. Be prepared for weather extremes: Temperatures can vary by as much as 30 degrees, depending on whether you're on the canyon rim or its floor.
The closest major airports are in Phoenix and Las Vegas; expect a four-hour drive from either. Flagstaff, Arizona, also has a small airport with daily flights to and from Phoenix. You can take the historic Grand Canyon Railway to the park from the town of Williams, but most visitors find that a car is indispensable. In the park, shuttle buses are free and offer regular service on the South Rim.