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Experiencing the Grand Canyon

Grand Canyon South Rim, looking through the trees from the path along the rim.

The Grand Canyon: one of the seven natural wonders of the world!

Only two hours from Sedona is the majestic Grand Canyon, one of seven natural wonders of the world and the most visited national park in North America.

The Grand Canyon can be explored on foot, by air, by water and on the back of a mule, and viewed at many overlooks along its rim. How ever it is discovered, many visitors would agree with explorer John Wesley Powell who called the canyon, "the most sublime spectacle on earth."

To see the Grand Canyon is to see nature at its most dramatic, a great chasm of majestic spires, buttes, gorges, mesas, and mesmerizing rock formations that look like ancient temples in a windswept city.

The Grand Canyon is awe-inspiring, unimaginably huge and spectacularly beautiful. Sightseers gasp, artists rejoice and everyone feels humbled by the sight. Nothing can prepare one for the enormity of the Grand Canyon, which is 277 miles long, 10 miles wide and 1 mile deep. It is almost as if the heart and soul of the earth has suddenly been laid bare.

About 70 million years ago the collision of tectonic plates caused the Colorado Plateau to rise from sea level to 10,000 feet. Then the Colorado River began its work of cutting through the rock, a powerful force chiseling away at limestone, sandstone, shale, schist and gneiss. Wind, rain and melting snow contributed to the erosion. Rocks split off and came crashing down. Slowly, the canyon's magical formations took shape.

As the Colorado River continues to wind its way through the Grand Canyon like an unfurling ribbon, the process of sculpting also goes on one inch every 500 years. Today, some of the exposed canyon walls are a fascinating geology lesson, their layers a history of the earth through time. The oldest rocks at the bottom of the canyon (gneiss and schist) go back 2 billion years. Kaibab Limestone, deposited 260 million years ago, forms most of the cap rock.

The majority of the Grand Canyon's four million visitors drive along park roads on the canyon's South Rim, stopping at scenic viewing points, such as Desert View, Mather Point and Grandview Point, marveling at formations such as the Vishnu Temple.

Grand Canyon South RimNearly as striking as the Canyon's size and shape are the exquisitely varied colors, from pale pinks and creams, to purples, crimsons, sandy yellows and blacks. The sunlight changes their tone and hue, creating the most spectacular display at sunrise and sunset.

Those with more time for viewing take the shuttle towards the west on the Hermits Rest Route, stopping at overlooks such as Pima Point. Fewer take the five-hour, 215-mile drive to the more remote North Rim on the opposite side of the canyon, which in the winter months is closed because of snow.

Peering across a ledge into the canyon's abyss-like depths or seeing it from a distance are not the only ways to experience the Grand Canyon. There are trails to hike, mules or horses to ride, rapids to conquer, and the vastness of the canyon to comprehend in helicopters and small planes.

The Grand Canyon is awe-inspiring, unimaginably huge and spectacularly beautiful.

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Some people even live at the Grand Canyon! But available time and weather can be a limiting factor. This is where the Grand Canyon Movie at the IMAX theater (in the National Geographic Visitor Center, one mile south of the South Rim entrance to the Grand Canyon National Park) can help fill in the blanks. The seven-story, giant-screen presentation puts viewers right inside the canyon walls, sometimes only feet above the foaming waters of the Colorado River - a view no longer available on any commercial air tour because of FAA regulations. With its dramatic close-ups and almost dizzying twists and turns, the movie introduces the canyon from nearly every vantage point and showcases its history through dramatic reenactments.

Grand Canyon North RimFor visitors who don't have time to explore the Grand Canyon, this puts the enormity, beauty, history and majesty of the canyon in perspective - all in 35 minutes. Right outside the theater are replicas of the wooden boats used by Civil War Major John Wesley Powell, the first explorer to navigate the Colorado River in 1869. Today, large, inflatable river rafts (motorized or oar-powered) follow the route, providing an unforgettable adventure for people of all ages.

River-Rafting Adventures

Some people choose river-rafting trips along the calmer portions of the Colorado River. Others prefer to bronco ride the more challenging of the canyon's 60 rapids, and a few commit themselves to the entire 277-mile span, becoming so at one with the canyon that after 17 days they feel their lives have been altered and the canyon has become a part of them.

For all the Colorado River adventures, experienced guides are at the helm, mindful of each rapid's pattern and dangers and skillfully maneuvering the boats for the safest ride possible. On these trips, there are astonishing side hikes to otherwise inaccessible canyons, surprise waterfalls, unanticipated flowering gardens, and memorable camping experiences where one sleeps on the ground or on a ledge and bathes in the river without a care in the world. While adventurers pitch their tents, the guides set up camp and meals.

Grand Canyon South RimBy air, the Grand Canyon unfolds in all its glory, and one sees the canyon the way only birds have seen it - laid out in all its splendor. Tours such as the "The Grand Discovery" at Grand Canyon Airlines offer breathtaking overviews of the Canyon. The Grand Discovery is a 100-mile air tour around the most famous and beautiful parts of the Grand Canyon. The airline's signature 19-passenger Vistaliner airplane, with its panoramic windows for unobstructed views, travels along the Canyon's South Rim up the Zuni Corridor, past the confluence of the Colorado and Little Colorado Rivers and back along the North Rim and down the Dragon's Corridor, which has an uncanny resemblance to a sleeping dragon.

The effect of seeing the Grand Canyon, with its exquisite colors and formations, suddenly appearing out of a flat plateau is unforgettable. Headphones provide rousing symphonic music and narration in several languages. The only thing missing is the Hallelujah Chorus.

On foot, there are three ways to experience the Grand Canyon: walking part of the Rim Trail, which can be accessed at many locations; day hiking into the Grand Canyon (it takes twice as long to hike up as it does to hike down) and backpacking, which requires a permit. It is on foot that one is most likely to see the abundant animal life in the Canyon - 300 species of birds, 50 species of mammals and 25 species of amphibians. Eagles, falcons, and California condors circling overhead and big-horned sheep, elk, lizards, squirrels, snakes and mountain lions moving around the crevices and rocks are among the animals that call the canyon home.

There are 15 trails and many more obscure routes into the Grand Canyon. The four main trails on the South Rim are Bright Angel, Hermit Trail, Grandview Trail and South Kaibab. The main trail on the North Rim is the North Kaibab. Most of these trails are steep, with no water along the path. Hiking requires physical stamina, planning and taking appropriate precautions. The National Park Service provides helpful written guides and there is information online at www.nps.gov/grca.

One of the more romantic ways to experience the canyon is on the back of the trained mules that hike down canyon slopes to the bottom of the Canyon. Although the feeling is one of stepping back in time, it is not for the faint of heart, especially those with a fear of heights. Wrangler-guided trips take from several hours to two days, and the concessionaire requires that riders weigh less than 200 pounds, be taller than 4 feet 7 inches, not be pregnant and be fluent in English so they can understand instructions. The two-day mule rides include an overnight stay at Phantom Ranch at the bottom of the Canyon. The same-day trip stops at Plateau Point on the Bright Angel Trail. Mule trips are often booked nearly two years in advance and they fill up early. (Call Xantera Parks & Resorts at 303-297-2757 or toll free at 888-297-2757.)

As if on some distant star ...

Whatever way you choose to explore the Grand Canyon, its grandeur and unearthly splendor are sure to fill you with wonder and you will never see your place in the universe in the same way again. As the great naturalist John Muir wrote at the beginning of the last century: "No matter how far you have wandered hitherto, or how many famous gorges and valleys you have seen, this one, the Grand Canyon of the Colorados, will seem as novel to you, as unearthly in the color and grandeur and quantity of its architecture, as if you had found it after death, on some other star..."

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Information Centers in Grand Canyon National Park

1. Canyon View Information Center - the park's newest visitor center.

2. Desert View Information Center - information and books on the park's east entrance.

3. Kolb Studio - in the historic district, once the home of pioneering photographers the Kolb brothers. The restored building has free art exhibits and a bookstore.

4. Tusayan Museum - three miles west of Desert View, it provides a glimpse of Pueblo Indian life 800 years ago. A self-guiding trail leads through the adjacent ruin.

5. Yavapai Observation Station - one mile east of Market Plaza, the stations contains temporary exhibits about the fossil record of the Grand Canyon. It has wonderful views and a nonprofit bookstore.

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