"How long is this durn mountain?" one man asked another as they left the tour bus.
"It's 277 miles!" came the reply, each syllable drawn out for dramatic effect.
The first man glanced toward the abyss and shrugged. This, the most famous canyon in the world -- thought by many to be the most beautiful, the most astounding -- seemed to astound him not at all.
Mountain? No. The south rim does stand more than 7,000 feet above the ocean at some points, and there are rocks everywhere you look, but the fact is, a river cuts through the stone of the Colorado Plateau and burrows down a good 5,000 feet, forming a canyon of astounding proportions -- from just below the Utah state line, westward through Arizona to the Nevada border. But the blase tourist stood uncorrected.
A few hundred yards away, inside the Grand Canyon National Park visitor center, an irate tourist wanted to know what was the big deal. "Well, just take a walk out past the building and down that path along the rim and look around," a shocked park ranger advised.
"I did that," said the man. "I don't see why you charge $10 to my family for just this."
It was the ranger's turn to shrug. Sorry, no refunds.
What does it take to impress some people?
Maybe I'm naive, but the Grand Canyon gets to me every time. When the transcontinental pilot announces that we can see the Grand Canyon through the windows on the left side of the plane, I lean across cluttered tray tables just to get a glimpse. When I find myself anywhere in the vicinity of Arizona, I detour so I can take another peek.
One reason I like the Grand Canyon is because it always seems to alter itself. Perhaps the season of the year or the angle of the sun will make it more purple than the last time I was here, or more orange than the time before. Maybe I'll notice a pinnacle that I forgot, or discover a point of view that somehow I had missed on every previous visit.
Because the Grand Canyon pulls so many surprises, in its presence I feel a part of geological time. The excavation has been going on for 5 million years, and still the Colorado River tells me, "Come back in another million and check out my progress." So I return, during a moment in my limited human chronology, and, sure enough, a few things look different.
How the eons fly.
During certain periods, the south rim of the Grand Canyon has the ambience of a crowded art gallery. At dawn and dusk, people gather on the ledges and gasp appreciatively as low-level sunbeams paint glorious pictures on the serrated walls. That may be enough to stir their souls and last them until they and the canyon meet again.
17 minutes per visitor
They even may be among those who figure in this startling estimate calculated by park officials: The average visitor spends a mere 17 minutes looking at the canyon.
Ranger Katharine Gloistein told me that's only a rough guess, based on all the heavy traffic traversing the rim.
In Gloistein's ideal Grand Canyon world, travelers would come at it from several angles. "People should do a little bit of driving, a little bit of walking -- either up on the rim or, if they feel strong enough, a bit of hiking down in the canyon," she said. "There are half-day, smooth-water rafting trips and longer whitewater trips on the Colorado River that give an entirely different perspective.
"The more variety you have in your visit, the more you'll have an idea what the canyon's about."
Spanish explorers in the 16th century visited the Grand Canyon only long enough to decide it held no precious minerals and was therefore useless; 18th-century prospectors and fur trappers came to pretty much the same conclusion. Hundreds of years earlier, the Anasazi did their farming farther out on the mesas, or settled at riverside, where they could find receptive soil in and around the forbidding ditch.
They, however, did not require fabulous riches from their surroundings. If the canyon sustained life, that was good enough.
The typical modern visitor comes to marvel -- not to capitalize. You could stack five Sears Towers in that canyon before the antennae would tickle your toes at the rim. Way down there, the Manhattan skyline would resemble a little spilled granola.
In 1869, Maj. John Wesley Powell, a retired Union Army officer, led the first expedition to travel the entire length of the canyon by boat. His journals sparked the initial glimmer of interest in the Grand Canyon as a stimulus to wonder and contemplation, even if otherwise it was -- as an earlier explorer scoffed -- "a profitless locality."
Powell touted the canyon as "the most sublime spectacle on the earth," a place where "the glories and the beauties of form, color and sound unite."
Some must hike
Most of us manage to absorb that message from the south rim. Others simply must become one with nature and escape the crowds. They follow steep trails leading down and across into solitude, past the distinctly tinted rock layers representing the different ages of Earth itself -- a parfait of geology.
The escapists may spend days along the river, but eventually they must come back up, an arduous climb that occasionally defeats even veteran lovers of the outdoors.
Ranger Stu Fritts shudders when he thinks about their struggles. "To me, hiking ranks in enjoyment between a triple root canal without Novocaine and getting audited by the Internal Revenue Service," he likes to say.
During one of his evening lectures, Fritts suddenly froze his imposing frame into a statue. "We find people on the trails standing like this," he said. "They are too stiff to sit down, too stiff to fall down, too stiff to walk."
If park personnel determine that the stiffness isn't life-threatening, they usually advise panicky hikers to drink lots of water, get plenty of rest and crawl back in the morning.
At the visitor centers, would-be canyon explorers receive plenty of counsel from rangers stationed at every desk. They find official hiking-guide publications distributed at every turn. The cautions boil down to this: Take plenty of food and water, wear sturdy and protective clothing, stick to the trails, allow ample time and know your limitations.
Rangers dole out backcountry permits sparingly to protect the canyon walls and floor from trampling, preserve the wilderness experience and cut down on the number of emergencies.
In 1994, the last year with a full count, backcountry users spent 108,000 nights in the canyon, out of 928,000 hikes. Another 9,922 adventurers rode below the rim on mules, and 20,000 rafted through the canyon on the Colorado River. Emergency workers conducted 457 search-and-rescue missions and provided medical services 4,404 times. There were 18 deaths from various causes.
Those who prefer the soft approach -- riding vehicles to the rim, taking short strolls and avoiding all risks -- still get a taste of the Grand Canyon as previous generations of travelers might have found it.
Every day, the passenger train from Williams, Ariz., pulls up to the log-hewn depot, a railroad tradition that began in 1901. Passengers climb the stairs to a sort of tourist compound, where the chalet-style El Tovar Hotel -- built in 1905 -- shares a broad lawn with Hopi House, a building designed by architect Mary Colter that same year. Hopi House, a high-end arts and crafts gallery, is a meticulous copy of a Hopi dwelling. At one time, Hopi artisans actually lived on the second floor. A few steps east and visitors find themselves at Verkamp's Curios, serving souvenir hunters since 1906.
A short stroll west along the rim leads to Bright Angel Lodge, another venerable structure. The neighboring Kolb Studio, where photographer brothers Ellsworth and Emery Kolb built their headquarters, was constructed of native stone and cantilevered over the rim near the Bright Angel trailhead.
From that location, the brothers could photograph mule riders as they set off on their canyon treks and sell them the prints when they returned.
nTC 5 million a year
Shortly after the turn of the century, gapers began arriving by the thousands, and today the crush of an annual 5 million visitors strains the facilities.
Park officials would like Congress to grant the Grand Canyon official status as a wilderness, which would prevent development in the 95 percent of the park still untouched.
A display board in the visitor center asks: "Would you be willing to take mass transit to visit the canyon? Would you be willing to make reservations to visit the canyon for the day? Or, would you like more hotels, parking lots and facilities built in the park to meet the ever-increasing demand?"
In 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt obviously felt the Grand Canyon could fall prey to developers. "Do nothing to mar its grandeur, sublimity and loveliness," he urged. "You cannot improve on it. But what you can do is keep it for all who come after you, as the one great sight which every American should see. Don't let them skin this wonderful country -- as they will try to do."
If you go
Las Vegas and Flagstaff, Ariz., are the nearest large cities served by major airlines. From those launching pads, several highways lead to the heavily traveled south rim. Access to the the north rim requires a 215-mile drive around the eastern end of the canyon on Arizona Highway 64, northbound U.S. Highway 89 and westbound U.S. Alternate Highway 89. Arizona Highway 67, which dips south from Alt. U.S. 89 to the north rim, is closed from late October to mid-May.
Grand Canyon Railway offers excursions from Williams, Ariz., in vintage coaches pulled by antique locomotives. Round-trip adult fares start at $49.50. The railway also can arrange hotel, meal and canyon-tour packages. Call (800) 843-8724
Mule trips into the canyon require reservations far in advance. Day trips, including lunch, cost $100 per person. Overnight trips with a stay at Phantom Ranch in the canyon start at $251.75 per person (including all meals). Call (520) 638-2401 or fax (520) 638-9247.
Colorado River raft and boat trips, which vary in length and difficulty, are offered by more than a dozen companies. The voyages begin at Lees Ferry, Ariz., at the northeast extremity of the park -- nearly a 50-mile drive from the main south rim visitor center. Again, Summertime reservations are a must. These are best booked through a knowledgeable travel agent.
Hikers will find some undemanding trails along the rim, but even short hikes into the canyon call for stamina and plenty of food and water. Free backcountry permits are required for overnight treks. The visitor centers can provide detailed information on the intricate Grand Canyon hiking situation.
Information: Write: Superintendent, Grand Canyon National Park, P.O. Box 129, Grand Canyon, Ariz. 86023; or call (520) 638-7888.
The following highlights, all on the south rim, provide a sample of Grand Canyon's beauty and history.
Mather Point: Named for Stephen Tyng Mather, first director of the National Park Service, this shelf is easily reached because of its proximity to the south entrance and Grand Canyon Village. At Mather, many get their first peek at the mighty gorge, and it's a favorite spot at dawn and sunset.
Yavapai Point and Observation Station: Large windows frame a panoramic view of the canyon. Fossil and rock exhibits, a book shop and ranger talks offer insights into what happened here over the millenniums.
Grand Canyon Village: The rustic setting evokes turn-of-the-century canyon worship: The venerable El Tovar Hotel, the railroad depot, the vintage Kolb photo studio, the Hopi Gift Shop (faithfully replicating a Hopi residence), assorted restaurants, shops and lodging facilities. And just beyond the lawns and flower beds, there's that astounding hole in the ground.
Hopi Point: A popular gathering place at dusk, the overlook here gives visitors a striking view of canyon walls turning orange and purple as they reflect the setting sun.
Hermits Rest: At the end of the eight-mile West Rim Drive, motorists and hikers can marvel at the scenery from a small cafe and gift shop.
Yaki Point: Below this portion of the East Rim Drive, dawn and dusk put on fantastic shows. The Colorado River is clearly visible a mile beneath the rim.
Tusayan Ruins and Museum: In the late 12th century, about 30 Anasazi ("ancient ones") lived in a tiny village near what is now the East Rim Drive. The ruins of their dwellings and the field where they farmed constitute the most heavily visited archaeological site in the national park system.
Desert View: Near the park's eastern entrance, a Hopi-style watchtower (admission 25 cents) looks out upon an expanse of canyon, the river below and the Painted Desert beyond. This is another big winner at dawn and sundown.
Pub Date: 2/16/97