Our World What it's really like to visit the Grand Canyon: “It’s ... so ... big”

Photo of Gemma Nisbet

"So big, in fact, that words like 'big' or 'huge' or even 'enormous' don’t really do it justice, and feel a little like describing Bill Gates as 'comfortably off' or the Antarctic as 'a bit chilly'."

The world’s great attractions tend to announce themselves well in advance. When you visit Victoria Falls, it heralds itself with a spray that can be seen kilometres away. It’s hard to imagine anyone feeling that the Statue of Liberty had sneaked up on them.

The Grand Canyon isn’t like that. It is vast, obviously — at this point I’m obliged to recite the statistics and remind you the canyon is 1.6km deep, nearly 29km across at its widest point and 433km long, which is roughly equivalent to the drive from Perth to Albany. Despite this, you can quite easily not even see the canyon until you’re almost at the edge of its precipitous rim.

So it is when we arrive at the Grand Canyon’s South Rim, in the eponymous national park. We pull up in the carpark and hop out, expecting a decent walk ahead, only to cover not more than a few metres before this great natural wonder reveals itself, entirely without fanfare, seemingly out of nowhere.

I’d like to report that the sight of it moved me to profundity or even a dignified silence but instead I’m awestruck into banality. “It’s ... so ... big,” I breathe. But it is — big in a way that all the photographs hopelessly fail to convey. So big, in fact, that words like “big” or “huge” or even “enormous” don’t really do it justice, and feel a little like describing Bill Gates as “comfortably off” or the Antarctic as “a bit chilly”.

When we join the small crowd at the lookout, I’m relieved to find my reaction seems not to be unusual. People congregate along the barrier, some peering down to the canyon floor, others with smartphones held aloft, trying and no doubt failing to capture the majesty of it all. A few just gaze off into the sea of space and rocks and sky, watching as the heavy shadows of the late afternoon fall on to the canyon walls. Everyone seems to be transfixed.

A little way off, three people lounge at the edge, apparently unfazed by the sheer drop. Just looking at them is enough to make me woozy with vertigo. “Are they going to die,” a concerned young child asks her mother. This is the second unexpected thing about the Grand Canyon: how unfettered and unrestricted your access to it is. There are relatively few barriers and railings, and therefore not much to keep you back from the rim beyond your own sense of fear and the official warnings to stay away from the cliffs. You’re even allowed to bring your dog, as the pair of bootie-clad white poodles trotting along the footpath attest.

To be honest, I hadn’t even wanted to come to the Grand Canyon that much — it had just seemed like a thing we should do, given we were in the area. But now I’m cursing the fact that we left it too late to book even halfway-affordable accommodation within the national park and have ended up staying in Tusayan, a little town that’s not much more than a strip of motels, restaurants and souvenir shops along the highway a 15-minute drive away. It’s fine there, but I’m so swept up by this place that I want to go to sleep here and wake up here. I don’t want to waste a minute of our stay by being away.

The feeling only intensifies that evening when we eat in the cafeteria in one of the lodges. It’s cosy and unpretentious to the point of being basic, but I love it — something about the place feels like being on school camp, in the best possible way. Then there’s the cherry pie I have for dessert, which is so good it haunts my dreams long after I return home.

There are a few different ways to visit the Grand Canyon. You can visit the North Rim, which is about four hours away by car and closes over the winter, or go to Grand Canyon West, which is owned and operated by the Hualapai tribe and is closer to Las Vegas. But the South Rim is the most popular option. During the peak season, entrance lines can be long and parking scarce, but our late-October visit seems to be well timed. The skies are blue, the weather mild and the only traffic jams are the result of animal activity: stopping to allow a family of mule deer to cross the road, or to take pictures of the elk grazing in the bushes.

Outdoorsy types — the kind of people who are adept with assembling tents and other sorts of sorcery — tend to say you can’t really appreciate the scale of the Grand Canyon until you hike below its rim. And it’s true, as we discover early the next day when we set off on foot down the Bright Angel Trail. 

Very quickly we can appreciate not only how very far it is down to the Colorado River at the bottom but also the layering of rock along the folds of the canyon walls. Thanks to a slow natural process of erosion, the nearly 40 identified rock layers reveal something remarkable: “a largely undisturbed cross-section of the Earth’s crust extending back some two billion years”, as the park’s official website puts it. 

Stretching more than 12km down to the river and then connecting on to lodgings and a campground a few more kilometres beyond, the Bright Angel Trail approximately follows a route once used by Native Americans. It’s one of the park’s most popular trails — convenient to the lodgings and eateries of the Grand Canyon Village, but potentially dangerous too. 

There are dire warnings about the perils of attempting to hike to the river and back in one day, particularly during the summer months, when temperatures on the trail’s lower reaches can reach upwards of 38C. In contrast, in winter, the top sections can be icy. 

The drop in elevation between the trailhead and the river is considerable, and so the danger — besides running out of water — is overestimating your ability and running out of steam on the far more strenuous return hike. As a sign at the trailhead puts it: “Down is optional, up is mandatory.”

But today the trail is lovely — cool and shady, the morning light creeping down the canyon walls as we walk, the turn of each corner bringing a fresh and spectacular view. We follow the trail down stairs and around winding switchbacks, past huge boulders and the occasional fluffy-tailed squirrel disappearing into the bushes. We stop to rest regularly and at the Three Mile Resthouse turn around for the challenging but unhurried hike of nearly 5km back to the rim.

The number of people on the trail has increased as the morning has progressed and on the way up the diversity of the hikers is apparent. There are white-haired couples with packs and poles, a man with his young son aged maybe eight or nine, and a very noisy group of schoolchildren escorted by harried-looking teachers who herd them back from the drop-off as we pass. 

There’s a tiny late-middle-aged woman who asks us to take her photo, and a guy with a salt-and-pepper handlebar moustache and a mobile phone holstered to the belt of his cargo shorts. 

A family with an infant, a pair of young women dressed more for brunch than hiking, and a man in his 30s kitted out for a corporate casual Friday, complete with dress shoes and a smartly pressed shirt.

Later that afternoon — after a shower and more cherry pie — we catch a shuttle bus around the rim to Mojave Point to watch the sunset. Around us, there’s the clicking of camera shutters and the murmur of conversation as the last light of the day filters golden through the trees. 

And as the sky is lit yellow and orange, and the canyon falls under a hazy blanket of purple and blue shadows, I’m awestruck all over again.

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