by Nigel Wright [email protected]
Nigel Wright, and his wife Sue, moved to Portugal seven years ago and live in the countryside near Paderne with their three dogs. They lived and worked in the Far East and Middle East during the 1980s and 90s, and although now retired, still continue to travel and enjoy new cultural experiences. His other interests include tennis, gardening, photography and petanque.
We parked the car and, full of anticipation, strolled through the stunted pine trees and semi-arid scrubland. Suddenly the ground dropped away and we gazed in awe at the magnificent Grand Canyon in all its sundown glory.
Seen for the first time, the earth’s most spectacular natural feature is an overwhelming experience and spontaneously we began to talk in whispers! No matter how many photos or TV documentaries you have seen, they do not prepare you for the hypnotising spectacle of this gigantic gaping crack in the earth – 278 miles long, up to 18 miles wide and in places more than a mile deep.
We gazed in wonder as in the ever-changing evening light, the colours of the different layers of rock softened and slowly dissolved into the dark shadows as they spread across the Canyon below.
Carved by the mighty Colorado River, the Grand Canyon slices deep into the Colorado Plateau. Elevation on the South Rim averages 7,000’ and on the North Rim around 8,500’, with the river grinding its way irrepressibly through the rocks, some 5,000’ below.
This huge chasm provides an unrivalled view into the earth’s geological history as nearly two billion years of time are represented in the exposed rocks! Because of the enormous climate difference due to altitude between the hot desert conditions at the bottom and the cool temperate zone at the rim, the Canyon has an astonishing diversity of plant and animal life, from turkey vultures above to mountain lions below.
The Paleo-Indians were the first human inhabitants about 11,000 years ago, descendents of Asians who migrated to America during the Ice Age. More recent settlers were the Anasazi Indians who left behind many interesting historic sites
They were the ancestors of today’s Hopi Native Indian people. Europeans first discovered the canyon in 1540 but its most famous explorer was John Wesley Powell who led the first expedition to successfully travel through the Canyon by boat in 1869 – a truly epic river run.
The South Rim
Most of the Canyon’s tourist facilities are on the South Rim with Grand Canyon Village the focus of visitor activities, with motels, museums, shops and campsites. We stayed in basic but comfortable accommodation and the following morning rose before 5am to witness the sunrise. This was like sunset in reverse but with more muted colours, as the gentle dawn light progressively illuminated the Canyon’s central pinnacles.
Later, we enjoyed more superb panoramic vistas from the many footpaths and roads along the rim – each revealing new and exciting aspects of the area’s extraordinary topography.
A helicopter flight from the nearby National Park Airport into the heart of the Grand Canyon itself was the highlight of our day. This eagle’s eye view of the amazing scenery gives you a real feeling for the Canyon’s immense proportions, as the helicopter whirls its way through the towering rock pinnacles, some shaped like oriental temples.
After a ‘white knuckle ride’ up Bright Angel Canyon (a tributary to the main Canyon) we finished the tour by hovering in front of ancient Anasazi dwellings carved into sheer rock walls, thousands of feet above the river.
Sadly, we had insufficient time to trek into the Canyon itself. Many options are offered and guides will explain the fascinating geology, fauna and history. The premier hike, the 17-mile S. Kaibab Trail, is an exciting three-day exploration down to the Colorado River.
As hikers walk steadily down into the earth’s crust, they find that the dust on their boots keeps changing colour as they pass through nine separate strata of geological time.
The North Rim
If you don’t mind mingling with crowds of chattering sightseers then the South Rim village is the place to be. It is very busy in summer. However, if you prefer solitude and even more beautiful views of the Canyon, then the North Rim is a much better alternative.
Whilst only 11 miles away as the crow flies from Grand Canyon Village, reaching the North Rim by road involves a journey of 214 miles! On a separate holiday, we enjoyed crisp clear early autumn weather for our visit to this more inaccessible tourist destination.
Most of the facilities had closed for the winter season so, apart from inquisitive squirrels foraging for nuts, we were completely alone as we hiked along the Canyon’s edge.
The higher altitude here means there is more precipitation (much of it as snow) so the lush green meadows are interspersed with attractive spruce, pine, oak and juniper woodland.
We discovered that the appropriately named Bright Angel Point was the ideal place to admire the North Rim panorama.
This lofty ledge has breathtaking views of the many tributary ravines winding their way into the main Canyon and once again we found ourselves talking in whispers!
It was the perfect location to appreciate the astounding natural beauty and scenic magnificence of one of planet earth’s finest landscapes.
The South Rim can be reached by a long but easy road journey from Phoenix, Arizona or Las Vegas, Nevada. Las Vegas is the more suitable starting place as it is the most convenient long-haul destination to this part of the USA from Europe and this vibrant city itself has many entertaining attractions.
From Las Vegas, it is a 300 mile drive to reach the South Rim, passing a famous American icon on the way, the huge but ugly Hoover Dam.
You can increase the enjoyment of the longer journey to the isolated North Rim by visiting the wonderful Bryce Canyon, Arches and Zion National Parks on route.
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