The Grand Canyon comes with a lot of baggage. For a century at least, the 277-mile gash through Earth's skin in northwestern Arizona has been unrivaled as the must-see monument of natural America. Nearly 5 million people a year visit, and therein lies the problem. They're packed six deep along the guardrails of overlooks. But dodging crowds in the backcountry can mean missing classic views. Can the casual day visitor experience the grandeur without feeling like a passenger on the Tokyo subway?
Fortunately, yes. Most visitors head straight to Grand Canyon Village, just inside the South Entrance, and slowly spread out along the rim through the day. Flip that itinerary, and you're on your way to seeing what everyone else does, without having to see everyone else in the process.
The little-used East Entrance is in the middle of nowhere, a 230-mile drive from Phoenix or 300 miles from Las Vegas. But it's only 30 miles from the dusty town of Cameron, Ariz., where the comfortable Trading Post and Motel makes an excellent starting point. Stock up on gas, water, and buffalo jerky the night before, and get ready for a predawn departure.
The canyon can be spectacular any time of day, but it's worth making the effort to time your first view to sunrise, about 5:15 a.m. in June or 6 a.m. by late August. Drive to Lipan Point, a few miles past the East Entrance (it will be unattended--you'll have to pay the $20 entrance fee later in the day) and prepare to be dazzled. The sun rises slowly, revealing each horizon of the layer-cake geology in turn. Gaze back to the east, and you'll see the 1932 stone Watchtower in silhouette against the rising sun; scan across the 180-degree view to the west and new colors and features will emerge every few minutes as the complex rock forms are thrown into ever sharper relief. Solitude factor: high.
A dozen miles farther along Desert View Drive--about halfway to the village--you come to Grandview Point and a look at the view that first made the canyon famous. This was the South Rim's first tourist hub, home to a rustic lodging as early as 1893. Grandview Trail was closed for upkeep on a recent morning, but the point was nearly deserted--East Entrance tourists tend to gather at the Watchtower for sunrise, and those coming from Grand Canyon Village won't be here for hours. Solitude factor: moderate.
Go down. It's still early, but traffic is picking up and the crowds are swelling with tour bus arrivals. It's time to dip a little deeper into the abyss. "Especially at mid-day, the canyon can look pretty static when you're glued to the rim," says Mike Buchheit, 41, director of the Grand Canyon Field Institute. "But below the rim, the view changes with every switchback. You don't have to descend far to get a taste." Your best bet is the South Kaibab Trail--the only hiking route built along a ridgeline, providing unforgettable 360-degree views (and occasional bouts of vertigo). The trailhead is accessible only by park bus, so you'll have to drive into the village to catch the free shuttle. Gawk at crowds snapping cellphone photos from the most crowded overlooks as you pass.
Grand Canyon: Can You Ever Gawk Alone?
It's a steep descent--you'll want sturdy shoes or hiking boots and plenty of water--and you'll most likely run into other hikers. But make your way down 1.5 miles to Cedar Ridge (about an hour down and two hours back at a moderate pace), and you'll find that even the human encounters take on a different character below the rim. "This is spectacular," says Sharon Bloodgood, 65, surveying the view from Cedar Ridge with her sister and longtime hiking partner, Irene Cline, 84, both from Madison, Wis. "Mount Rainier and Lake Tahoe are pretty spectacular too," says Bloodgood, "but the sheer size of this is awesome." Solitude factor: low, but down here that doesn't seem to matter.
With the sun now overhead, it's time to head for cover. Shoshone Point doesn't show up on the park's tourist maps, making it your afternoon ace in the hole. Turn into the small roadside clearing 1.2 miles east of Yaki Point for a milelong hike along a dirt road through cool juniper forest to a permit-only picnic area near the point. Walk out onto the spectacular overlook--no guardrails here--and make your way a few dozen feet below the rim and out of sight of civilization. Solitude factor: near perfect.
There's still sunset, of course. Just for contrast, hop a free shuttle from the village to Hopi Point on the western Hermit Road, where it seems all 5 million visitors have gathered for the final show of the day. Solitude factor: Are you kidding? Watching grumpy sunsetters race for prime seats on the return bus before the sun has even dipped below the horizon, you'll be glad your earlier vistas were enjoyed more or less alone.
The Ins and Outs of the Grand Canyon
Much of the Grand Canyon's charm comes from its remoteness, but that can also make it a pain to visit-this World Heritage Site isn't exactly on the way to anything. Most visitors start off either in Las Vegas or in Phoenix, and spend a good part of their first day making the drive-about four or five hours, depending on starting point and destination-to the canyon. The gateway cities both have their own charms. Vegas, of course, is Vegas, and a side trip to the canyon can make a nice break from the hectic Strip. But Phoenix has its own, more demure charms, and the drive north to the canyon-through mountain towns and the beautiful red-rock country-beats the slog from Vegas hands down.
Accommodations at Grand Canyon National Park are limited and tend to fill up fast. A company called Xanterra operates all six lodges in the Park-one on the North Rim and five in Grand Canyon Village-as well as an RV campground near the South Entrance. Call ahead (888-297-2757) or visit the website (www.grandcanyonlodges.comfor the South Rim, www.grandcanyonnorthrim.comfor the North Rim) well in advance of your trip. The Park Service also runs campgrounds at the South Entrance, the East Entrance, and the North Rim. Some sites can be reserved in advance by calling 800-365-2267 or visiting reservations.nps.gov. You can also try for last-minute reservations-Xanterra accepts cancellations with 48 hours' notice-or you can try one of the several hotels and motels in Tusayan, about 7 miles south of the South Entrance. They aren't much for charm, but you can find better prices and earlier check-in times.
Another good option is a visit to the Havasupai Indian Reservation, located at the bottom of the canyon. Call the Havasupai Tourist Enterprise (928-448-2141) for information on visits to Havasu Canyon, a spectacular hidden valley featuring four waterfalls and swimming holes. You can arrive by foot, horseback, or helicopter. The hike is about 8 miles one-way. There are a lodge and campgrounds as well.
You can get a good sense of the Grand Canyon in a day or two, if you plan carefully. But you can also spend weeks without getting bored. The Park Service's free daily educational talks and guided hikes provide a great introduction. (For a schedule, information about the park's free shuttle buses, and other services, pick up a copy of The Guide, a free newspaper put out by the Park Service and available throughout the park.) The simplest-and least expensive-way to really explore the canyon is on foot. You'll need a backcountry permit from the National Park Service to camp below the rim ($10, plus $5 per person, per night), and they're in limited supply. Permits go on sale four months before the start date and sell out quickly, so you'll have to plan well in advance. You can start planning here: www.nps.gov
If you prefer to spend a little more money and a little less effort, there are several options. The popular mule excursions down into the canyon are also run by Xanterra, and cost $136.35 for one person for a day trip, or $366.38 for an overnight stay at Phantom Ranch at the bottom. You can also sign up for whitewater rafting trips through the canyon on the Colorado River. Several commercial operators run trips ranging from three days to several weeks, and charge about $200 and up per day, per person. You can even book a helicopter or airplane tour out of Tusayan, starting at about $140 for a half hour.
To delve even deeper into the history, geology, and biology of the canyon, check out the multiday classes offered by the nonprofit Grand Canyon Field Institute. The classes are pricey-starting at several hundred dollars-but are arguably the best way to really get to know the canyon.