Vien R. Guenther
Grand Canyon National Park - Arizona
Updated: Jan 7
When you think about visiting Arizona, your first thought is the Grand Canyon. There are other beautiful sites to visit in this state, but this park must be the most popular of all sites to visit in the area. If you haven't been there, you will know why once you have seen it. Photos can't do justice to what you will personally see while visiting.
Driving from the Four Corners Monument to Grand Canyon National Park takes a little over three hours. About 206 miles following US-Hwy 160 to US-89 south, then to AZ-64 and to the east entrance to the park. It is a very scenic drive with beautiful desert landscape found only in the west.
Grand Canyon National Park is located in Coconino County in northwestern Arizona. It is the 15th park to be named a national park, officially designated on February 16, 1919 (the park was well known for over 30 years prior to that). It was also designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1979.
The park covers 1,217,262 acres of unincorporated (not governed by a local municipal corporation) area. The park’s main feature is the canyon, a gorge of the Colorado River considered one of the wonders of the world. More than six million people visited this place in 2017, the second most visited of all U.S.National Parks after Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
The canyon is indeed grand, a fitting name for such an incredible landscape. In 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt visited this site and said:
"The Grand Canyon fills me with awe. It is beyond comparison—beyond description; absolutely unparalleled through-out the wide world... Let this great wonder of nature remain as it now is. Do nothing to mar its grandeur, sublimity and loveliness. You cannot improve on it. But what you can do is to keep it for your children, your children's children, and all who come after you, as the one great sight which every American should see."
Indeed we cannot improve on it. As they say, "nature takes care of itself"; all we have to do is to preserve it for the next generation to enjoy.
Plants and Wildlife
The entire park area of the Grand Canyon is considered semi-arid desert, but there are many different plant species and animals (mule deer, cliff chipmunk, plateau lizard) that are well adapted to the conditions of the land and climate here.
Distinct habitats can be found at different elevations in the park starting at the Colorado River at the bottom, continuing up to the top of the canyon rim. Riparian vegetation and sandy beaches, desert scrub species, Douglas-fir, pinyon and juniper woodland, ponderosa pine and spruce-fir forest on top.
Without water, these habitats would not thrive. Water is the lifeblood of the Grand Canyon. The Colorado River and its tributaries, as well as springs, little pools and seepage provide a sustaining lifeline to both flora and fauna in this area.
The canyon supports wildlife such as the the California Condor which was re-introduced in the area to prevent its extinction. The canyon wall provides their nesting sites. They have thrived here and were brought back from the brink of extinction (although they are still under threat due to lead poisoning ingested from animals shot by hunters).
People have been part of the Grand Canyon's history and culture for centuries. Based on archaeological evidence, hunter-gatherers passed through the canyon 10,000 or more years ago. Then ancestral Puebloan people have lived in and around the canyon for several thousand years, leaving behind dwellings and artifacts.
When early explorers of the canyon and the Colorado River documented the power of the river and its immense size, miners came to exploit its resources. Later, the tourism industry set up tent camps and lodging.
From 1933 until 1942 at least seven companies of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) lived and worked in Grand Canyon National Park. The CCC was a work program designed by the government to provide jobs during the country's worst economic depression, providing jobs for young men who helped in conservation projects on both state and federal lands. Most of the trails that you walk today were built by the CCC.
THE SOUTH RIM
There are two areas you can visit at Grand Canyon National Park, the South and North Rims. The South Rim is more accessible than the North Rim and most visitors flock here due to its easy access from the highway. The north rim, closer to the Utah border, is rugged and remote and is open only from May to October. It is much higher than the south rim and therefore gets lots more snow.
We came from the Four Corners area and entered the park by the east entrance to the south rim. There are many hiking trails in the park and we planned on doing at least one on this trip, just an easy one-way hike, nothing extreme. But we found out that bus services are not available during winter time. So we did what most of the visitors do - we drove along the south rim and stopped at many viewpoints. Some 30 miles of the South Rim are accessible by road.
The Grand Canyon’s size and depth is an awe-inspiring experience to see. It contains amazing rock formations and an extensive system of tributary canyons. You will understand why the park is considered one of the natural wonders of the world.
Take time to read the many interpretative signs at the park. It will be a learning experience worthy of your time. May it be natural or man-made, there is plenty of history behind of what you see today.
The canyon itself is full of historic and natural development. Looking at the views in the park you will be awed at its beauty, but you will wonder why the canyon has many different colors and layers.
How about human activities in the canyon? Looking at the views you wouldn’t think that a mining operation once thrived here. Located on the South Rim two miles north of Grand Canyon Village (between Maricopa Point and the Powell Memorial), the area was mined for copper in the early 20th century. Then in 1951, uranium was found here and resulted in a big mining operation for thirteen years. Today, the waste left behind in the mine is a multi-million clean-up job.
The story of how the canyon was created is long and complex, but begins with the formation of rocks (igneous and metamorphic) about 2 billion years ago. Then many layers of different sedimentary rocks (sandstone, shale or mudstone, and limestone) were laid on top of each other creating various shades of earth tone colors from cream, reddish-brownish to purplish.
These layers of rocks formed deep beneath the surface of the earth. The Kaibab Limestone (the youngest layer) was formed at the bottom of the ocean about 250 million years ago, but today covers the top of the Colorado Plateau. What happened between 70 and 30 million years ago, is that the whole region was uplifted, resulting in what is now called the Colorado Plateau, encompassing the whole Four Corners region.
The exposed layers of these colorful sedimentary rocks are rich with marine fossils. The layered rock trapped and preserved these fossils which are invaluable in discovering the region’s geologic history, which geologists are still studying. The arid climate in the area has been instrumental in preserving many prehistoric records.
There are no dinosaur fossils here, however. If you are looking for some, they can be found at the Triassic-aged Chinle Formation on the Navajo Reservation and at Petrified Forest National Park, a one-of-a-kind park worth visiting.
DESERT VIEW WATCHTOWER
Also known as the Indian Watchtower, Desert View is an Ancestral Style Puebloan tower designed by American architect Mary Colter (known as the architect of the southwest and employee of the Fred Harvey Company). The tower was aptly named due to the over 100 mile panoramic views the tower provides on a clear day.
The four-story tower was completed in 1932, inspired by ancient Native American watchtowers (such as the Hovenweep and the Round Tower of Mesa Verde). Its design was intended to blend into the environment. According to the architect, “First and most important, was to design a building that would become part of its surroundings; one that would create no discordant note against the time eroded walls of this promontory.”
Inside, you will find murals done by Fred Kabotie, a Hopi artist, representing the physical and spiritual origins of Hopi life. Other images inside are pictographs painted by Fred Geary who was in charge of art and decorating for the Fred Harvey restaurant system of the Santa Fe Railroad.
LODGING & DINING
We stayed just outside the Grand Canyon National Park, in Tusayan, a town high in the Kaibab Forest, near the Grand Canyon National Park Airport. Tusayan is the smallest town in Arizona, by area, but it is the gateway to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon (just about 2 miles to the park boundary). If you don't want to drive, a shuttle bus is available to take visitors to the park’s main Visitor Center every 20 minutes between March to September.
Although there are several restaurants nearby, we opted to eat at the hotel’s restaurant. One thing about traveling in winter - it gets chilly at night, and we don’t want to be walking far or even driving looking for a good restaurant after being on our feet the whole day. The hotel’s restaurant offers a good meal.
OTHER ACTIVITIES IN THE PARK
There are no easy trails into or out of the Grand Canyon. An attempt to hike from the rim to the river and back in one day is not advisable. You will know why after you attempted it. Hiking during the hottest part of the day is not a good idea either. This is Arizona after all, desert country which gets really hot, especially in summer.
One famous trail in the Grand Canyon is the Bright Angel Trail. The trail descends steeply down along the fault line of the canyon, one of the few breaks in the massive cliff faces that otherwise prohibit descent into the canyon.
Even if you are an avid hiker, hiking the Grand Canyon is very different from most other hiking experiences. This hike will test your physical and mental endurance. But many have successfully hiked the canyon, no matter what age. It’s just a matter of how prepared you are, mentally and physically.
A friend of ours (a woman in her 70’s) backpacked down the canyon several times and told us what it’s like. You will probably think that at her age if she can do it anyone can do it. But she is different, she is an avid hiker, backpacker, cross country skier and a mountain biker. In other words, she is “well-seasoned” when it comes to outdoors.
Lodging down the Canyon
There is an option of hiking down into the canyon if you don’t want to carry a heavy backpack with all your provisions (food, tent and water). That is, if you can reserve a room way ahead of time, as in 15 months ahead of time. The Phantom Ranch provides lodging, food and mules to carry your stuff. All you have to do is to hike down and up the next day, for a hefty fee of course. So, as much as we wanted to hike down the canyon with mules carrying our stuff, we haven’t done it so far. Is it worth it? For some it is.