travel destinations

Helicopter tours are available at the Grand Canyon National Park. (Christopher Reynolds, McClatchy-Tribune / February 22, 2007)

Visitors to the Grand Canyon National Park this year will find new water-bottle refilling stations, a South Rim bicycle rental and bike-tour operation is expected to open, a multiuse trail is expected to be finished, and more.

Grand Canyon National Park, the 5-million or 6-million-year-old granddaddy of Arizona tourism, logged 4.3 million visitors last year.

Rangers say that's a dip of 3.7 percent from the year before, but the canyon remains among the nation's most visited parks. And despite its age (also a ranger estimate), it does keep changing.

Visitors to the heavily trafficked South Rim will find six recently installed bottle-refilling stations near major trail heads. (There are three more on the North Rim.) The stations are designed to improve hikers' access to free water and boost reuse of bottles. For more park info, visit nps.gov/grca.

Other developments:

Park officials may have a new South Rim bicycle rental and bike-tour operation running as soon as May 15 in the Mather Point area. The new summertime concession (May 15-Oct. 15) will replace a pilot program that operated in 2010-11.

Also due this year: completion of an eight-mile multiuse trail that connects the South Rim visitor center with the gateway town of Tusayan.

The park's Bright Angel Lodge & Cabins has moved and returned the South Rim's oldest building to service as a two-room cabin. The unit, built in 1890 and known as Red Horse Cabin, was used for storage for decades until a recent rehab effort by Xanterra, the South Rim lodging concessionaire. Now, standing a few feet from the rim, it rents for $340 a night. There are about 950 lodging units on the South Rim. For info, grandcanyonlodges.com.

Mule trips from the South Rim are still offered year round (and often fill up far in advance). Mule riders and hikers with overnight itineraries can still stay in the rustic cabins and dorms at Phantom Ranch (built in 1922 at the canyon bottom), where beds often are reserved 13 months in advance. grandcanyonlodges.com

At the canyon's more isolated North Rim (a 210-mile drive from the South Rim), lodging and camping facilities are open mid-May through mid-October. grandcanyonlodgenorth.com

Twenty-one visitors died in the park last year of causes that include heart attack, suicide, falls, lightning strike, boating accident, RV fire and hypothermia/dehydration, a park spokesman said. In late April, a 21-year-old man accidentally drove his vehicle over the canyon rim — and survived. The driver crawled up to safety; rangers said they found the vehicle lodged against a tree 200 feet beneath the rim.

Then there's the Hualapai Tribe's Grand Canyon West operation, 2 1/2 hours' drive from Las Vegas and five hours from the South Rim. The Hualapai's 5-year-old Grand Canyon Skywalk, a horseshoe-shaped walkway with a glass floor that allows visitors to look straight down to the red rock gorge 4,000 feet below. The tribe also offers Colorado River rafting day trips and pontoon boat rides, helicopter rides, horseback rides, lodging, dining and a faux Old West town for kids near the canyon's edge, along with more lodging on tribal land along Route 66 at Peach Springs. The minimum cost to walk the Skywalk is $76.10 under the tribe's complex ticketing system. grandcanyonwest.com