It sneaks up on you. There’s just flat, boring desert for miles around, and even after you’ve paid the entrance fee to one of the hyper-friendly park rangers, it’s still just a whole lot of pine trees and shrubs everywhere you look.
But then you’ll see some cars parked alongside the road, so you’ll park too, and you’ll walk a bit through more flat scrub brush and parched trees thinking for sure you’re in the wrong place…and then (cue the horn section):
You can’t help but be overwhelmed. The sheer SCALE of it. To look into the Grand Canyon is to witness deep time – almost two billion years of it.
At the bottom, the rock is 1.7 billion years old. At the top, where all us tourists are walking around, is 270 million year old limestone formed by living creatures that died in our ancestral Pacific Ocean (they’ve found fossils of shark teeth in the top layer of limestone that all us tourists walk on).
The canyon is a work of art, and the master sculptor is water. The Colorado River carved it, while snow, ice, and rain (and an earthquake or two) widened it. And this carving and widening is still going on at the rate of about an inch a year.
There’s more. The limestone that makes up the top layer of the canyon was deposited before even the dinosaurs were walking the Earth. Wrap your mind around that – there are several more layers of rock that were on top of what you’re seeing here, but they’ve all been eroded away, swept into the Gulf of California by the Colorado River over millions of years.
“Let your kind attention be like the water,” said the master to his students. “There is nothing softer, more accepting of whatever enters, but there is also nothing stronger for dissolving that which is hard.”
Look no further than the Grand Canyon for a living example of this teaching.
Some things to do:
Taking Pictures: The best light, as always, is early in the morning and just before sunset. If you take pictures in the middle of the day your shots will be hazy. One of the shuttle drivers cautioned us about taking selfies near the edge of the canyon. Most of the canyon is open – no barriers or hand rails – so you can walk right to the edge. A lot of people (740…that they know of) have died by falling off. Most of them while trying to take pictures of themselves or by just being stupid.
Museums and Talks: The museums are small, but worth the time if you have it. Prioritize the Geology Museum, which offers great information on the rocks and the formation of the canyon. The Trail of Time along the Rim Trail is also a great interactive way to understand the age of the rocks – there’s also samples on hand that you can touch.
Hiking: Go to the main Visitor Center for an excellent overview of easy, moderate, and difficult hikes. We hiked the Rim Trail on our first day since my ankle was a bit sore from having dropped the motorcycle on it while trail riding (I hit a patch of sand that resulted in an inelegant communion with the Earth). The next day we hiked part of the Southern Kaibab Trail – very, very difficult but worth it for the views and for being inside the canyon. Any hike into the canyon is easy on the way down, but super hard coming back, so bring lots of water and salty foods.
Biking: the main visitor center offers bike rentals and there are well paved and marked biking paths.
Getting Around: Ryan and I had motorcycles, but we still availed ourselves of the shuttle services offered by the park. There are some parts of the park that are only accessible via shuttle, so grab a map at the visitor’s center. The shuttles run every 10-15 minutes and can get crowded, but the shared sense of awe keeps everyone friendly.
Eating and Drinking: There is a supermarket that’s accessible via shuttle bus, and the hotels all have restaurants and bars. The food is decent, though we didn’t stop in at every establishment. We mostly just stopped in for a beer after a hike.
Where to Stay: We highly recommend staying inside the park if you can. If you’re not making reservations at the hotels in the park, get to a campground by 8:00 or 9:00 am to secure one of the first come first served spots. We stayed at the Desert View campsite, which is about 20 miles away from the Visitor’s Center, but was quieter at night.
One last bit of important info about the park – they don’t sell bottled water at all. There are refill stations along the rim, and on some of the hiking trails. Bring your own containers and keep refilling.