The Grand Canyon is quite possibly the world’s most famous natural wonder. It is easy to understand why – a 435 km (270 miles) chasm in the earth’s crust speaks to everyone’s imagination.
Actually standing on its rim and looking down into the canyon goes beyond your imagination. The Grand Canyon is an in-your-face dramatic landscape, but its sheer immensity almost makes it feel surreal.
If you want something real, you should work those legs and descend into the canyon for a spectacular day hike or perhaps even the overnight Bright Angel Trail.
If you want the superlative of surreal, treat yourself to a helicopter flight with Maverick Helicopters.
Hiking the Grand Canyon
It is impossible to grasp the history that hides inside the red, yellow and black rock. The colourful stacked layers of stone have seen the era of dinosaurs. If only the walls could speak…
To get closer to the secrets that are hidden inside the canyon, I take a hike that feels very different from any other trail I have ever explored. Instead of gaining height, I start my descend right from the start. With every step I take on the dusty red dirt trail, I start to feel a bit smaller. Surrounded by dramatic layers of rock and guided by a mountain squirrel, I dive deeper into a landscape that once was below sea level. Almost a kilometre down below me, the bright green leaves of a group of trees stand out against the red brownish colour of the gorge. The Colorado river most probably flows past it, but it zigzags through the ravine so far down below that it is out of my sight. Looking up I can hardly believe that I have already walked down this far. The rim I was standing on just 1,5 hours ago now looks like an unreachable mountain top. I wish I could continue the trail down to the river, but instead I have to turn around to climb back up on the Bright Angel Trail. I hope to return one day with a permit in my backpack to enjoy the overnight hike all the way down to the river.
For now, I follow the route back up to the rim in the golden light of the late afternoon sunshine. Another spectacular sight awaits as the sun drops behind the rim and paints the skies all shades of pink, yellow, orange and red. This piece of art by nature is definitely aiming for the stars on my list of breathtaking destinations.
The Grand Canyon from above: an unforgettable helicopter flight
Standing next to the world’s largest canyon will surely dazzle you – the view stretches out as far you can see. But what you see is actually just a small pixel of the bigger picture. There is no better way to treat yourself to a full frame sight of the Grand Canyon than from up in the air. And that is why I now find myself in a helicopter bound for a canyon flight.
As the speed of the rotating propellers increase, we test our headphones. Yes, everybody can hear how excited I am. As the helicopter leaves solid ground, I have difficulty choosing where to direct my gaze. I am right next to the pilot and the indicators and switches right in front of me on the dashboard make me want to know what they mean. The switchboard is a compelling sight, but as soon as we leave the helicopter landing site behind us I am captivated by the view at the other side of the window. Below us are the tree tops of Ponderosa pines that make up most of the Kaibab Forest. The lush green woodland looks like a soft blanket tucking up the jagged skin of the old earth. Instead, wildlife roams its rugged plateaus below the foliage. The 250 million years old upper layer of the Grand Canyon – Kaibab Limestone – contains marine fossils that indicate that its creation started at the bottom of a sea. Mountain lions, coyotes and elk now follow in the footsteps of extinct mammals, or perhaps in the traces of long gone fish. We have enough surreal facts to fantasize about while we smoothly move closer to the canyon.
In the distance the green carpet abruptly come to an end. As we make our way to the side of the rim, there is nothing left to fantasize about. What we see is the superlative of surreal. One second we are soaring above the forest, the next second we stare down at the gaping chasm that is the Grand Canyon. The sudden 1500 metre drop of the earth’s crest is breathtaking and so are the panoramic views on our left and right as we fly towards the other side of the ravine. It is only now that the size of the Grand Canyon becomes apprehensible, flying over the 29 kilometre wide fissure and seeing the Colorado River snaking its way through it. We fly past eroded rock formations with names like Dragon Head and try to take that full frame picture that we already know will never be able to fully transfer this unique experience. Like all things good, the flight feels way too short and while we head back to the South Rim, we enjoy a spectacular light show of the shadows of clouds that flicker across the ancient layers of rock. This is art by nature.
Say yes to a unique Grand Canyon adventure yourself!
How to choose the perfect helicopter flight:
I have spent hours and hours trying to find the perfect helicopter flight. In the end, the smoke from a wildfire threw a spanner in the works and made it impossible to enjoy the itinerary of the 50 minute flight I had booked with Maverick Helicopters. We were up in the air for 25 minutes and loved every minute of it. I would still recommend the longer Canyon Spirit flight as having more minutes in the skies means you can love it even longer. Starting your flight from the Grand Canyon itself (instead of from Las Vegas) allows more time taking views of the stunning nature, which I think should be the focus of a Grand Canyon flight.
How to escape the crowds in the Grand Canyon:
The Grand Canyon is not precisely an undiscovered patch of raw nature. Its easy accessibility attracts many tourists from around the world, day trippers from party town Las Vegas included. That means you will not have this natural wonder of the world to yourself. Most visitors drive through, stop at an overlook, enjoy the view and take pictures, and continue their way. You reading this travel story most probably means you are not like any of those tourists, or at least, not all of the time. Best time to visit is clearly in Spring or Autumn, but sometimes you just have to accept hot and over-priced Summer months. Having that said, it is actually quite easy to escape the crowds, even when you are travelling in peak season:
Accommodations are hard to come by, especially if you have a particular spot in mind, so plan in advance! For me, that spot was Mather Campground which I booked five months in advance. Mather Campground is the only campground on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon and offers wonderful campsites in the woods with a picnic table and firepit (and I have to add, the occasional noise of traffic passing by). The campground is obviously only going to work if you have a camper or a tent. Otherwise, try to find a hotel close to a trailhead of a hike that you like.
It will come as no surprise that hiking is a much loved activity in the Grand Canyon. If you have any clue what the day time temperatures are like it will also come as no surprise that only a small minority of the visitors to the Grand Canyon walk further then 100 metres away from an overlook. The perfect example is the Desert View Watchtower. The Watchtower and viewing platform are usually crowded because of its close proximity to the park entrance – and the nice views of course. However, on the far right of the viewing platform, right after the fencing stops, a short path will take you down to a quiet, jaw-dropping viewpoint.
Talking about actual hikes, Bright Angel Trail is a real beauty. If you want to go all the way down to the river – which is a serious undertaking – you need to book a permit in advance. You can also decide to make a day trip and make it a 3 to 6 miles roundtrip. I decided on the latter and started the descent in the afternoon shade and walked back up again as the golden hour lit up the red rocks.
A very useful online overview of hikes in the Grand Canyon is available at 10 Hikes.
In peak season, car parks reach their capacity by 11am, so do not even give try to give it a go with your camper. Free shuttle buses connect accommodations with lookout points and trailheads on the rim half an hour before sunrise up to an hour after sunset (pick-up a time table at the visitor information center for exact times during your stay)
Exploring other parts of USA?
Read our travel stories on hiking in Monument Valley, cruising along Highway 1, the ultimate road trip Route 66, or something completely different: exploring New York City.
Want more inspiration for spectacular activities up in the air?
Check out our stories on a helicopter flight & hot air balloon flight in New Zealand and paragliding in Nepal.