An American Classic: The Grand Canyon
With its rich inventory of reasonably priced lodgings and tour facilities, the Grand Canyon is available easily and enjoyably to everyone
I first visited the Grand Canyon on a camping trip through the West just after I graduated from college, hiking deep into the inner gorge. I've since ridden a mule to the bottom and spent a week floating its length on a huge whitewater raft. You too should try to get deep inside the canyon, because the sensation there is so different. On the rim, you get vast and distant panoramas; from the bottom looking up, the views become more intimate. You really see the canyon up close. Unfortunately, mule rides to the bottom and raft trips on the Colorado River tend to be pricey. But a couple of less costly options I describe below can give you a satisfying taste of these adventures.
My focus here is on travel to the south rim, the most heavily visited area of the park. Sure, you'll face summer crowds. But this is where the best budget lodgings are found and, as it happens, the views are most spectacular. At 7,000 feet, the south rim's summer temperatures are sunny, dry, and pleasant. The north rim is much quieter, but it is also harder to get to, accommodations are very limited, and winter snows close the entrance road from mid-October to mid-May. On a budget, you're better off staying at the south rim. Save the north rim for a return visit.
And here's how to enjoy it best
Ideally, you've accepted my advice and plan to spend a few days at or near the Grand Canyon. You want to see it and get to know it. Here are some of my favorite, least-expensive ways to do so:
Go for a hike into the canyon. With strong legs and lungs, you can hike all the way to the bottom of the canyon in about half a day on the Bright Angel Trail (9.6 miles) or South Kaibab Trail (7.1 miles). Both end at Phantom Ranch (303/297-2757), a small park lodge on the Colorado River, where a bunk and bedding for overnight hikers go for just $21 a night. A dinner of stew is $16.25; breakfast is $11.50, or bring your own food. Too strenuous? Hike partway into the canyon-perhaps a mile or two. But count on taking twice as long to climb out as you did to descend. No charge for this.
Stroll the rim. A fairly level trail (no hard climbing here) edges the south rim for eight miles from Bright Angel Lodge west to Hermit's Rest, offering new canyon vistas every step of the way. With binoculars you can spot rafters running the rapids far below. No need to go the entire distance. At a half-dozen points, a free bus shuttles back to the trailhead. Surprisingly little-used, the partially paved path makes an inviting escape route from summer crowds.
Ride a mule. The legendary overnight trip by mule to Phantom Ranch (with cabin lodging and meals) costs about $280 per person. Ouch! But day-trips by mule (303/297-2757), descending about halfway into the canyon, cost only about $100 (with box lunch). Still a hefty price, but maybe worth the expense if it's the only way you're going to get into the canyon's depths. Even going just partway, the trip is still a real adventure. You'll be wowing friends with your stories for months. Count this as added value for your money.
Raft the river. No, not on one of those eight-day, $1,700 whitewater trips through the Grand Canyon, though I know firsthand they are great fun. For similarly majestic scenery and plenty of thrills - but without the stiff price-sign on for a half-day or full-day float trip out of Page, Arizona, about 140 miles north of the south rim. These outings are organized by Aramark-Wilderness River Adventures (800/528-6154 or 520/645-3279). Half day, $55 for adults; full day (with picnic lunch), $77; under 12, about $10 less. From the base of Glen Canyon Dam, the Colorado River splashes across a series of modest rapids as it flows between soaring rock walls toward the Grand Canyon. The float trip, which recently delighted my wife and me, ends at Lees Ferry, the last take-out spot for the next 300 miles.
Learn with the rangers. How did the canyon develop? Join a ranger for an afternoon's geology lesson. It's just one program in a full schedule of free walks, talks, and slide shows offered daily. On a March visit, I was amused by an evening lecture called "Gee, This Place Is Just Like Disneyland." The talk turned out to be a comparison of the two parks. One big difference: the price. Disney busts your budget for fake thrills; you can get the real thing free at the Grand Canyon.
Go backpacking with the experts. For outdoor enthusiasts. The Grand Canyon Field Institute (520/638-2485, www.grandcanyon.org/fieldinstitute), an educational arm of the park, puts together a series of reasonably priced, multiday treks into the backcountry from March into November. Topics include geology, natural history, photography, and wilderness medicine. This is a great way to explore the canyon's little-visited corners. In September, a five-day hike into Havasu Canyon, a hidden retreat of waterfalls and blue-green pools, costs $350. You bring camping gear and food; the institute leads the way. An overnight class in orienteering-finding your way by map and compass-is $95.