GRAND CANYON, Ariz. — Watching the comings and goings at the head of the Bright Angel hiking trail over the course of a couple of days tells you a lot about the Grand Canyon. Or at least a lot about who visits one of the world's seven natural wonders.
• A young boy with a heavy backpack bounds up the trail at 7:30 a.m. and proudly announces he has been hiking since 4 a.m. His parents are, as he puts it, "way down there."
• Two older women in crimson and marigold saris saunter along the winding trail. One has a hiking stick, but neither carries water or wears a hat. Like many other people, they walk a mile or so then come back up.
• A young man and woman speaking French and dressed sort of like American cowboys saddle up on mules heading to the bottom. They look nervous. The mules like to walk the outside of the narrow path.
And then there are the folks crowded at the top of the canyon's South Rim, shaking their heads in amazement at the tremendous sight before them and the derring-do of those venturing closer. A couple set out chairs to watch the changing colors at sunset; a small table holds their white wine and hors d'oeuvres. A mother marshals the family into position for the Christmas card photo. Not surprisingly, there is whining.
A cocky guy loses his footing and slides 15 feet down an embankment, chasing a hat that has blown off his head. Gasps rise from a group gathered for a ranger talk on the history of the canyon. Cocky guy scrambles to safety and is chastised by the tour leader in her self-proclaimed "mean ranger voice."
The average stay for a tourist at the Grand Canyon is three hours. Don't be that person, or you'll miss the canyon's transformation at sunrise and sunset, not to mention the colorful human drama.
It's truly grand
The Grand Canyon is the last of four national parks on our June-July Western driving tour. Glacier, Yellowstone and Grand Teton all gave us visual memories to last a lifetime. Their majestic mountains and geothermal spectacles are unparalleled. (Go to links.tampabay.com to read stories and see photo galleries from those places.)
But now, we are staring at a big hole in the ground and rubbing our eyes. Is this for real? We stare across the canyon, from the South Rim to the north, and the July haze plays tricks. The far side seems closer than it is, and the 3-D quality so vivid over here flattens out over there. Rocky walls go from deep vermilion to muddy brown with streaks of yellow. A pale pink settles into the farthest formations.
"Grand" is such a simple adjective but it succinctly sums up what we see. In general, words are inadequate to describe what nature has wrought in the northwest corner of Arizona. The canyon is 277 miles long, 18 miles wide in some spots and nearly a mile deep. The bottom is where the Colorado River snakes, rolling along sweetly in some places and tearing it up in others. Rafters, strapped in and wearing helmets, have plenty of tales to tell about the river's Class V rapids.
But those are just the Grand Canyon's physical attributes. There's a spiritual side to a visit here. Over the course of several days, we see several people stand at the rim and throw their hands in the air as if surrendering to the power of the canyon. Their actions seem a solemn salute to nature, and perhaps even prayerful thanks to a higher being.
But physical phenomena are easier to explain, especially to tourists standing in the hot sun. Ranger Nicole DeLuca, a graduate of Flagler College in St. Augustine, is all boundless energy and excitement as she breaks down the elements that formed the canyon. It's apt that she uses the acronym DUDE as the basis for her talk.
Diversification refers to the different types of rock that make up the canyon, explaining 2 billion years of the earth's geologic history.
Uplift happened when tectonic shifts pushed up the plateaus.
Down cutting is how the Colorado River plowed through the rock with mighty force.
Then Erosion, due mostly to melting snow, formed some of the impressive canyon walls and other features.
And, DUDE, that's really, really cool. That's how she says it.
We're staying three nights at the Maswik Lodge, easy walking distance to the rim. It's nice to be close, even though an extensive system of shuttle buses will get you anywhere you want to go. Some of the shuttle stops are so jammed with people that they look like a rush-hour city scene. If you can park and walk, so much the better.
(Everyone tells us to come back after Labor Day, when the kids have gone back to school, or even October, when there could be light snow. Spring is nice, too, they say.)
We are at the Maswik at the same time as the World Cup soccer semifinal between Germany and Spain. The pizza pub is jammed with visitors from those countries, many with their country's flag adorning both cheeks. They must travel with face paint.
The adjoining cafeteria is dotted with mildly interested fans who look toward the soccer devotees every now and then when a groan or cheer erupts. The atmosphere in the pizza pub is intense. It gets even more quiet when the German fans slink out after the game ends.
The Grand Canyon is nothing if not an international draw. Some 5 million people visit every year, and though the National Park Service does not keep track of the nationalities of those who come, we can attest that people come from all over. We hear a multitude of languages, including many from Asian countries. The park's proximity to Las Vegas, Phoenix and Los Angeles put it within reach of major airports. But location is only part of the story. If you're coming to America, the Grand Canyon is a must-see, right up there with the Statue of Liberty and the Golden Gate Bridge.
More Americans are putting the national parks on their travel lists, too. The lousy economy is prompting them to explore their own turf, and Ken Burns' 2009 PBS series on the national parks generated interest as well.
There are many types of accommodations, including the historic El Tovar Hotel, which sits just 20 feet from the rim. It opened in 1905 and was built in conjunction with the railways. Even today, the Grand Canyon Railway brings passengers on tracks that end near El Tovar.
To the east of El Tovar are the more modern Kachina and Thunderbird lodges and, beyond that, the Bright Angel Lodge. We vow to see if we can get a Bright Angel cabin overlooking the rim the next time.
After all, there's no such thing as too much of this view.
Aside from peering into the canyon's depths, visitors will find plenty to do at various activity levels. The most in-shape hoof it to the bottom; those with steely nerves ride mules. Adventure lovers sign up for raft trips and helicopter rides, and people with money check into El Tovar to dine in the lovely restaurant and read a book or two. Still others rough it in tents, taking their chances with the wildlife, especially hulking elk wandering through the campgrounds. Photography and bird-watching are popular activities, and there are plenty of bicycle trails.
We are partial to ranger talks, or at least I am and the others occasionally come along.
I attend five talks, including two night events. One evening event was on condors and the other was about the Colorado River, both in a pitch-black amphitheater surrounded by towering ponderosa pines. I don't know which I like more, the information or the brilliant stars in the sky overhead. On other days, I learn about geology and the history of the park, but my favorite is a fossil walk. It's me and a bunch of little kids and their parents.
We hope to find serious dinosaur fossils, but we quickly learn that those relics don't survive on the rim of the Grand Canyon. You see, our ranger guide says, the rim used to be the ocean floor — before the U in DUDE — and what we'll find if we look closely are corals, sea lilies and clamshells. Florida things, really. Looking and touching is all we can do. No fossil is to become a souvenir.
I don't spy anything in the fossil beds near Maricopa Point. Luckily, a kind girl points out her finds and I am pretty pumped up. Now I see what I am looking for. I inspect several bivalves imbedded in a flat rock and my young friend identifies what she suspects is a brachiopod, another shell-looking fossil. After 30 minutes of stooping and one head whack on a tree, I sit down on a wide rock to stare at the canyon again.
I am so happy here, and very glad that I have way more than three hours to experience this grand canyon. One more sunset and sunrise before I go.
Janet K. Keeler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8586.