A horseback ride through the Grand Canyon.(Courtesy Grand Canyon NPS/Flickr)
For all its stature as an American icon, the Grand Canyon belongs to the world, too. On any given day, the South Rim may be the country's most diverse place, an international village with a population that changes by the hour. Buddhist monks in saffron robes and Mennonite women in black bonnets. Busloads of grand-touring Germans and giggling Japanese teens moving and texting in packs. Even a Scotsman playing bagpipes for an audience of hikers and curious ravens on a promontory.
WHERE TO START: Grand Canyon Visitor Center. A short walk to Mather Point, the newly renovated center shows a free, 20-minute orientation film twice an hour in its new auditorium. nps.gov/grca.
WHERE TO STAY: Bright Angel Lodge. Less than a hundred feet from the rim, this National Landmark is celebrated for its history-and its ice-cream fountain. grandcanyonlodges.com, rooms from $81, ice-cream $2.65.
WHERE TO EAT: Arizona Room Steaks. This is the place for BBQ ribs, chicken, and fish, all served with a Southwestern flavor. grandcanyonlodges.com/arizona-room-418.html, lime-marinated chicken $16.50.
WHERE TO GO: Kolb Studio Art Exhibits. Rotating exhibits on canyon art, archaeology, and history, as well as a permanent display of the Kolb Brothers' seminal photos. grandcanyon.org/kolb, admission free.
DON'T MISS: Even the quickie canyon visitor to do one thing: Hike below the rim on Bright Angel Trail. That's because as the mile-plus trail drops, it redefines the space. Cliffs that appeared insignificant tower above the trail; woodlands thin out to scrubbier, desert-like vegetation.
A five-hour drive from the nearest major airport, the North Rim attracts the sort of visitors inclined to linger. They pause a little longer at the lookouts. They store up on provisions for a hike, and along the route, they'll see ecosystems change as if they'd walked from Canada to Mexico, and the rocks on view age more than a billion years. It's a trip through space and time.
WHERE TO START: North Rim Visitor Center. Get tips from a park ranger, visit the bookstore, and take in interpretive programs. nps.gov/grca.
WHERE TO STAY: Grand Canyon Lodge. The only lodge within the North Rim, it features cabins with stunning views and simpler motel rooms with private baths. foreverlodging.com, from $116.
WHERE TO EAT: Grand Canyon Cookout. Experience Slow-cooked brisket, roasted chicken, and an evening of country music under the stars. foreverlodging.com, adults $35, children 6-15 $22, June 1-Sept. 30.
WHAT TO DO: Mule Trips. Guided rides from an hourlong trip along the rim to a half-day excursion descending 2,300 feet down into the Supai Tunnel. nps.gov/grca, one-hour trip $40, half-day $75, ages 7 and older.
DON'T MISS: The North Kaibab Trail stretches 14 miles and is the only maintained trail that leads to the Colorado River. The rim-to-river round-trip requires one overnight, at least, with ample rest along the way. Refuel at Roaring Springs, a half-mile below the rim, and up camp at the Cottonwood Campground, Bright Angel Campground, or Phantom Ranch.
After a few days of a weeklong trip, something happens. A moment comes when the canyon ceases to be an icon and finally becomes real. In a world where the instantaneous isn't fast enough, the Grand Canyon measures time not in billionths of seconds but in billions of years. You can't tweet the Grand Canyon. The panoramas keep changing, and with every mile, the canyon becomes a living place, not an extra-wide postcard.
WHERE TO STAY/EAT: El Tovar. The dining room is built of pine and native stone, the veranda views are spectacular, and Teddy Roosevelt himself slept here. grandcanyonlodges.com, rooms from $178 (kids under 16 stay free), wild salmon $24.
WHERE TO GO: All-Star Grand Canyon Tours. Guided excursions, from a short, no-sweat option in an SUV to longer backpacking hikes. allstargrandcanyontours.com, adults from $120, kids 4-15 $90, toddlers 3 and under $55.
WHAT TO DO: Grand Canyon Field Institute. Run by a nonprofit partner of the park, the institute offers single- or multiday classes in photography, natural history, archaeology, and more. grandcanyon.org/fieldinstitute, classes from $195.
HOW TO CAMP: Permits can be requested in person or in writing no earlier than four months before a trip. nps.gov/grca/planyourvisit/backcountry-permit.htm, $10 fee, plus $5 per person per night spent camping below the rim.
DON'T MISS: The most compelling reason for a week in the canyon is to visit both rims. At nearly 9,000 feet, the North Rim sits more than 1,000 feet higher than the South. The extra elevation reverses the familiar perspective and puts you closer to the epic temples and plateaus. Suddenly, amazingly, the Grand Canyon feels new again.