Several hundred years before the first European cast a glance down the breathtaking depth of the gorge, members of ancient Indian peoples lived in the area around the Grand Canyon. Among these were the Anasazi, Hualapai and Dineh (Navajo). Only in September 1540, a group of Spanish soldiers, guided by a member of the Hopi, first came into the region. Despite their enthusiastic reports however, no other European should find his way here for the next 200 years. There is proof for a trip by two Spanish priests in 1776 who were looking for a route from Santa Fe to California near the Grand Canyon. Only from the 1820s on, exploration efforts in the region intensified. In 1869, the expedition of John Wesley Powell explored the Green River and the Colorado River and in that course completed the first documented crossing of the canyon. Theodore Roosevelt, 26th US President and an avid outdoors man always eager to protect unique landscapes, visited Grand Canyon in 1903. Three years later, he decreed the setup of a conservation area here and a little later, the adjacent areas received the protected status of a National forest. However, it took until Woodrow Wilson was President before the Grand Canyon was declared a National Park - before that, strong lobbying interest groups had prevented this step from happening. In 1956, the natural attraction became the location of a severe air crash, when two commercial airliners that had departed from Los Angeles collided above the canyon - 128 people lost their lives. In order to revitalize the original eco system, which had been strongly impacted by the construction of the Glen Canyon dam in 1963, a flooding of the canyon was done in 2007. The efforts to restore the original habitats are ongoing.
Flora and fauna
The sheer size of Grand Canyon, its various climatic conditions and the gorge’s unique nature, which in large parts is barely accessible, make sure that the natural wonder provides a valuable and versatile habitat for many plant and animal species despite being visited by millions of tourists. The National Park Service estimates that there are some 2,000 plant species present within the park area. Some of these are threatened in their existence, about ten species only live here. In the higher locations there are mostly pinme forests, also firs and spruce in the uppermost sections near the rims, while in the western half, vegetation is impacted by the adjoining Mojave desert. Cacti can be found everywhere in the canyon, along the Colorado River at the bottom there are many cacti species that are usually found in riparian areas. Also along the river and in side canyons, there are a lot of salt cedars, but those are not a species native to the area. The Park Rangers are trying to reduce the tamarisk stock step by step in order to clear more space for those species actually native here.
The National Park also has many different habitats for animals. According to the National Park Service, more than 350 bird species, more than 50 reptiles and amphibians and almost 90 mammal species have been identified in the canyon area. Among the latter are beavers and various bat species near the river, furthermore coyotes, raccoons, skunks and lynx. In the upper areas there are elk, mountain lions, bighorn sheep and even black bears. Reptiles are also primarily found at the canyon’s bottom alongside the river. Among these are various kinds of snakes - six different rattlesnake species alone have been identified -, and also geckos and, in the higher regions, desert tortoise. There, in the wetlands in the forests, with some luck, one can also find a number of rare salamander species. Other amphibians can of course be found near the Colorado Rivers. These are mostly toads and frogs, among them a few of the rare leopard frogs. With regards to insects, a few species of scorpions should be mentioned.
Visiting Grand Canyon
Of course, the actual attraction of Grand Canyon is the canyon itself. The first look into the depth after arriving at the canyon’s rim for most visitors is a unique and often unforgettable experience. The sheer size and vastness of Grand Canyon indeed is extraordinarily impressive, but those who only peer down from the rim will miss a large part of what this natural wonder is about. The vast majority of tourists visits the canyons’s South Rim. The North Rim is, in comparison, more difficult to access but offers yet a completely different look into the Canyon and has its own unique attractions. If you want to see both sides in one visit must schedule about five hours to drive from the South to the North rim (note that the access road is often not passable in the winter), but it’s worth the drive for the amazing sceneries one passes through. If you want to go from one rim to the other by foot, the the route leads you via the South Kaibab Trail, a narrow pedestrian bridge crossing the Colorado River and most importantly, a very steep descent and a very steep ascent. Crossing the Grand Canyon by foot is not possible in one day.
At the North Rim there is a Visitors Center and while going there, one passes a handful of opportunities to buy groveries, fill the tank or stay overnight. In general, however, tourism infrastructure on this side is limited to the bare essentials. The most favorite viewpoint on the northern side is Bright Angel Point, accessible via a short, but steep path beginning at the Grand Canyon Lodge. From here, one can see two side canyons, called Roaring Springs Canyon and Bright Angel Canyon. There is also a relatively easy hiking trail with a length of about three kilometers, leading to the camping site and always meandering along the canyon’s rim. Additionally, signs guide the way to more viewing points, of which Point Imperial is the one with the highest elevation of the National Park at almost 2,700 meters. From this point, one not only gets an amazing view down into the Canyon, but also into the adjoining Navajo reservation and into the Painted Desert. There are a total of 16 hiking trails with varying degrees of difficulty available; one of these, North Kaibab Trail, leads all the way down into Grand Canyon. After about eight kilometers - considering the steep decline that roughly corresponds to a daylong journey - you will get to the Phantom Ranch. This historic lodging opportunity, consisting of a “village” of stonemade shacks, has been in operation since the 19th century and has counted Theodore Roosevelt to its guests. The ranch, often booked up to a year in advance, can only be reached by hiking or with one of the mule tours offered.
The South Rim of Grand Canyon is its tourism center - approximately 90% of all visitors come to this side of the natural wonder. There a number of good viewing points around the South Rim Visitors Center, but if you want to discover more of Grand Canyon, you should plan a little more time and use one of the many hiking trails that guide the way inside the gorge. At the southernmost point of the South Rim, aptly named Grandview Point, a trail of the same name begins, winding in the direction of the Colorado Rivers, but not going all the way down. Those intending to get to the bottom of the canyon should use the South Kaibab Trail, which is about 10 kilometers in length and offers great views from almost anywhere along the route. However, contrary to the Trail at the Northern side, there are no water places along South Kaibab and the trail is extremely steep, thus only recommendable for experienced hikers. To get to the canyon’s bottom and back, one should plan a complete-day trip. The trail starts at Yaki Point, which in turn can be reached via the East Rim Drive and the free shuttle bus available there. Once you have reached the bottom, there is slightly swaying bridge available to cross the Colorado River. From the Visitors Center, the Hermit Road brings visitors over a total of 11 kilometers to several viewpoints, among these the stone monument Powell Point erected to honor the discoverer John Powell, and finally to Hermits Rest, a building constructed by Mary Colter in 1914. Visitors may only drive in their own cars during the summer months, but shuttle buses are available year-round. Also built after plans by Mary Colter is the Watchtower, made to resemble ancient Indian pueblos, from which one has a view of up to 100 miles on a clear day. The tower, standing 21 meters tall, is located at the Desert View Point, some 40 kilometers east of the so-called Grand Canyon Village, that’s the tourism center yiu reach upon entering the National Park. There is also a small visitors center at Desert View Point as well as the Tusayan Museum, showing the history of Native settlement of the canyon area. To get there, visitors can use the Desert View Drive, starting at Grand Canyon Village.
Hiking is the best possible method to get more than a superficial impression of America’s largest natural wonder, but at Grand Canyon, there are also a number of further opportunities to explore the area. A popular and somewhat vintage alternative are mule tours - even Roosevelt used these durable animals back in his time. Those tours are being offered on both sides of the canyon, but they must be booked well in advance. Tours with various lengths and route profiles are available, even multiday tours are possible. Also, one- or two-hour long horseback riding tours are bookable. A very special experience is crossing the Grand Canyon with a rafting tour down the Colorado River. For these, there are many different options available, reaching from one-day trips in comparatively calm waters to tours lasting up to 25 days. These programs are also very popular and well-booked - those interested in participating often even have to try their luck in a lottery for spots. Further opportunities to discover Grand Canyon National Park are bus tours which are especially popular for sunrise and sunset, guided hiking tours as offered by the Park Rangers or sightseeing flights with small aircraft or helicopters. These are also offered in large cities of the extended region, especially in Phoenix and Las Vegas.
Skywalk / Hualapai Reservation
There are quite a few interesting options for side trips outside of the actual National Park. Notable among these is the 160 kilometers long section at the southern end of the canyon which belongs to the Hualapai reservation. They also offer various outdoor experiences and other activities in Grand Canyon. They also have a program for weddings at the edge of the Canyons, but they are most famous for having installed the Skywalk. This viewing platform with a glass floor was opened in March 2007, building it had cost $ 31 million. Visiting the platform requires paying a steep entrance fee. At the apex of the U-shaped Skywalk, visitors are 21 meters from the rock wall and can look down into the canyon for 150 to 240 meters. Due to concerns about the sensitive glass bottom, taking cameras and mobile phones onto the Skywalk is not allowed and for the same reason, visitors are required to put a cover coat over their shoes. Also interesting is the reservation’s capital, the town of Supai, counting about 400 inhabitants. This town is located deep inside the Canyon and can only be reached by hiking or helicopter; mail here is delivered by mule. Supai has a campground, a small lodge and a handful of small stores. To get to Supai, one takes the Havasupai Trail, which traverses a difference in altitude of 900 meters over a length of 13 kilometers. Taking the trail, you pass two waterfalls worth seeing: at Havasu Falls, the water falls down a cliff with a height of 37 meters and at Mooney Falls near the campground, it falls in cascades over 64 meters. Navajo Falls, which used to be another popular photo motif, disappeared in a flood in August 2008.
There are various options available to spend the night in the Park or ion nearby towns, notably in Tusayan, from where is a shuttle service to Grand Canyon Village. For the main season it is highly recommended to make advance reservations if you plan on lodging within the National Park or nearby. Via the South Rim, seven lodges within the Park can be reached - it should be noted that there are significant rate differences between those. THere had once also been a youth hostel, but it doesn’t exist anymore. Visitors get to all the lodges and to the South Rim campground with the shuttle buses departing from the Visitors Center. Another campground called Desert View is located near the east entrance. Those planning to visit the North Rim should note that all services here as well as the Visitors Center is only available from mid-May to mid-October. The North Rim also has a campground and a lodge, the latter has very limited capacity and is often fully booked. The same applies to the Phantom Ranch that can be reached via a hiking trail from the North Rim. Outside of park limits, there are further camping opportunities that are also open for RVs. If you plan to go on a multiday tour through the Grand Canyon and intend to do backcountry camping off the official campgrounds, you will need a permit issued by the Park Rangers, which must be requested well in advance.
Everyone planning a Grand Canyon visit must first make the decision which rim side the journey should go to, because it takes approximately five hours to go from the South to the North rim by car. There is also a commercial transport service provider, offering regularly scheduled bus service between both sides. To get to the North Rim, a good orientation point is the small town of Jacob Lake along Highway 89A. From there, follow Highway 67 for 30 miles in a southern direction. To get to the South Rim, take Interstate I-40 towards Flagstaff / Williams. Near Williams there is an exit to Highway 64, which will lead directly to Grand Canyon. From Flagstaff and from Williams, private shuttle services to the park entrance are available. There is a very limited number of air connections to Grand Canyon Airport, all of which depart from Nevada, and a few more going to Flagstaff.
More and up-to-date information is available on the National Park Service website