At the edge of great experiences – Memorable adventure in the Grand Canyon
The Grand Canyon with its majestic scenery is a bucket-list destination for many, where you might want to travel at least once in a lifetime. There are different ways to experience this rather unique national park, whether you prefer to hike, admire it from above on a helicopter ride, or do some kayaking through it. Finnair pilot Valtteri Murto shares his best tips for your Grand Canyon visit.
The Grand Canyon is considered one of the greatest attractions on the American continent, although calling it an attraction seems a bit of an understatement. This natural wonder, carved by the Colorado River over millions of years, is one of those experiences that no pictures can do justice to – it simply needs to be experienced.
The last unexplored wilderness
The first Native Americans moved around the area already more than 10,000 years ago, and the Hopi Tribe considers the area the sacred birthplace of their people. The difficult terrain kept European settlers away for a long time, and the bottom of the canyon was the last unmapped place on the American map. Already at the beginning of the 20th century, the canyon attracted tourists, thanks to the newly opened railway. In 1919, the approximately 5,000km²-area was consecrated as a US national park. The Grand Canyon is also on the UNESCO World Heritage List due to its unique natural values.
The Grand Canyon is almost 500 kilometres long and as is typical in America, the distances are vast. The nearest international airports are in Salt Lake City, Denver, Las Vegas and Los Angeles, and the canyon effectively divides the area in two. Although the distance between the north and south edges is only 10–25 kilometres as the crow flies, it can take up to five hours to get from one edge to the other by car, as there are no bridges in the national park. On the other hand, the western rim, located outside the national park, is just over two hours away from Las Vegas and is, thus, an easy day trip destination.
Starting from the southern edge
If you’re visiting the canyon for the very first time, the most popular starting point is the Grand Canyon Village located on the southern edge of the canyon. While it’s the most natural starting point for first-timers, it’s also generally considered "the real Grand Canyon". When arriving from Los Angeles or Phoenix, the journey is uphill all the way, as the south edge of the canyon is located at an altitude of more than 2,000 metres and the north edge at an altitude of up to 2,500 metres. Due to its elevated location, the northern edge is closed to visitors until late spring, and even on the southern edge, you can still see snow in April.
However, the southern edge is open to visitors all year round, and the best time to visit is outside the hottest summer months and the peak season, so from April to May or from September to October. Temperatures vary greatly – even if the daytime temperatures are high, it is good to be prepared for chilly temperatures at night and early in the morning. Make sure to check the current information on open services on the national park's official website.
Put on your hiking boots and get going
Most visitors arrive at the canyon by car, but there are also good bus connections from the biggest cities, especially to Grand Canyon Village. A rarer experience is to arrive by train from Williams to Grand Canyon Village. The original railway closed in 1968 but reopened in 1989. The rails follow the original route, and the two-hour journey passes like a breeze while admiring the scenery.
There are many different types of accommodation available from campsites to hotels, but especially during the most popular summer season, you should book your stay well in advance. If your intention is to stay on the edge of the canyon, two days are enough for hiking and admiring the scenery. The most popular hiking trail, the Rim Trail, follows the edge of the canyon and offers breathtaking views.
The massiveness of the Grand Canyon and the shape of the terrain guarantee that, even in the most popular times, you will find a private spot to look at the scenery and enjoy your snacks. It’s worth noting that safety rails and fences have only been installed near the most famous official viewing points, and otherwise, it is your responsibility to stay on the path and on the safe side of the edge. Cycling on the Rim Trail is prohibited for safety reasons.
Near Grand Canyon Village, private driving is restricted on some routes, so the free buses are an excellent way to move between the hiking routes. For example, the approximately 10-kilometre hike from Grand Canyon Village to Hermit's Rest's 100-year-old cafe is quite flat and suitable for walkers of all levels, especially if you take the free shuttle bus on the way back.
Deeper and higher
If you’re an experienced hiker, Grand Canyon Village has many alternative routes to hike from the rim to the bottom and back, or even from the south rim to the north rim. When standing on the edge of the canyon, things tend to appear much closer than they actually are. This should not tempt you into unplanned hikes – the difference in height of the edge of the canyon to the level of the river flowing below is over 1,500 metres at its deepest point, and the distance between the south and north edges at its widest is 16 kilometres.
The warning signs tell you about the dangers of unplanned hikes. The height differences are surprisingly large, the air thin and the temperature at the bottom of the canyon can be twenty degrees Celsius warmer than at the edge of the canyon.
However, with proper preparation, the hike to the bottom is memorable as long as you allow enough time. At the bottom of the canyon, you can camp or spend the night in the only lodge located below the rim, Phantom Ranch where you can also take a guided trip on a mule.
When you reach the bottom of the canyon, you may see canoes and rafts in the roaring Colorado River. Kayaking offers quite a unique perspective on the canyon: There are organised day trips for short whitewater kayaking trips, but kayaking the entire length of the canyon on your own might take up to three weeks. There are several rapids on the way, and the currents vary depending on the weather, so preparation for self-guided camping must be done carefully.
While hiking on the edge of the canyon, I ran into a gentleman with a telephoto lens who had come to see his son's unique project. Now already in his thirties, the son and his friends had been waiting since high school for a permit to go kayaking, and just as we were talking, a column of six rafts floated along the river far at a distance. To protect natural resources, the annual number of independent paddlers is limited, and paddle permits can be won in an annual lottery, where you may actually have to wait up to ten years for your turn.
The easiest way to get to the river to paddle is to sign up for a commercial trip offered by tour operators, where the companies are responsible for obtaining the necessary permits. The most popular, longer tours are fully booked well in advance, but for a shorter tour, you might also be able to join spontaneously.
Helicopter rides from Las Vegas offer the shortest option for exploring the Grand Canyon. With these flights, you will get to see the western edge of the canyon, and already with the short 30-minute flight, you can experience the massiveness of the national park. With the longer flights, you will also descend to the bottom of the canyon. There are also helicopter flights to the South Rim that depart from Grand Canyon Village and offer a bird's eye view of the South Rim's finest landmarks.
Everything is big in America
You've surely heard this cliché before, but whether you're near, on top or at the bottom of the Grand Canyon for half an hour or half a month, one thing is certain: The massiveness of the area is not evident from any pictures or texts, it simply must be experienced. The western edge offers an easy day trip for first-time hikers, the northern edge a more exotic experience for independent travellers and the southern edge the best services and the most famous attractions for everyone.
Whatever your choice is, sitting by the canyon in complete silence in front of a seemingly infinite landscape is an experience you will remember for the rest of your life. The effect has been indelible, at least for me, because there is so much left to experience on the next visit!