Visiting Grand Canyon National Park by Car, Mule and Helicopter

Grand Canyon National Park is one of the world’s greatest natural wonders.

“Golly, what a gully,” President William Howard Taft was heard to mutter when he first saw the Grand Canyon.

Teddy Roosevelt was more profound: “Leave it as it is. You cannot improve on it. The ages have been at work on it, and man can only mar it.”

Both of these thoughts are rumbling through my brain as I think about the 18 days Peggy and I are about to spend rafting 280 miles down the Colorado River.

Few people come away from the Grand Canyon untouched and we are no exception. Its vastness, beauty, and geology have pulled us back time and again, as have its natural and cultural history.

There are many ways to explore the Canyon. For the vast majority of people, some five million a year, this involves a drive up to the South Rim and a quick tour of the most popular overlooks. If that is all the time you have, it’s worth the journey, believe me.

Numerous overlooks along the South Rim provide breathtaking views into the Canyon. This a view up Bright Angel Canyon. North Rim, also worth a journey, is at the top. You can hike from South Rim to North Rim, which I have.

Sitting on the edge for an hour or two enhances the experience several times over. Hanging out on the rim for a few days while roughing it at a campground or luxuriating in one of the lodges, is even better.

I once spent a pleasant night in the El Tovar Lodge courtesy of Nancy Reagan. Snow forced her and her large entourage to cancel a visit there in November 2001. Peggy, the kids, and I were camping out in a large tent at the Park’s Mather Campground. The foot of snow on our tent and 18 degrees F temperature had provided us with more than enough “roughing it.” We gladly took advantage of Nancy’s misfortune and the discounted vacant rooms.

For those wanting for a bird’s eye view, a helicopter trip is a tempting option. After three tours of duty in Iraq flying helicopters for the Marines and being shot at, our son Tony decided to try his hand at flying tourists over the Grand Canyon. He took Peggy and me on a thrilling ride into Havasupai Canyon… to the music from Star Wars, if I recall correctly. (Tony now flies helicopters for the Coast Guard out of Kodiak, Alaska.)

Beyond these sedentary approaches to the Canyon lie more challenging adventures. Even a half hour hike down one of the more popular trails provides a trip through millions of years of history, incredible views and the heart-pounding thought that only a few feet separate you from a thousand foot tumble.

There are several trails down into the Canyon with Bright Angel and Kaibab being the most popular and the ones recommended by the Park Service. I prefer less travelled, mule free trails. But it also means the trails are less maintained.

Longer hikes and especially backpacking trips provide a perspective that only a small percentage of Canyon visitors ever have.

If you want to visit the inner canyon but fear you’re lifetime warranty will expire hiking out, check out the sure-footed mules that carry tourists in and out of the Canyon. It’s an experience your rear will remember for years. Mine did.

Don’t you dare climb on my back.

Charlie, that was the mule’s name, did not like me. There was a 200-pound weight limit and I was at 195. I wore light tennis shoes and clothes to the weigh-in and hit 199. I wore my backpacking shoes on the trip; it pushed me over the limit.

Charlie knew I was cheating. He immediately whipped his head around and tried to bite me. Failing that, he walked as close to the edge as he could and provided me with a front-row seat of my ultimate demise. Only my knowledge that mules don’t commit suicide kept me in the saddle.

My most challenging journeys have been six backpack trips into the Canyon, including a week alone. I will feature that particular misadventure in my next blog. But, in the mean time, here are more photos from the Rim.

I rolled my window down to photo this Mule Deer and she tried to stick her nose in my window. There are reasons for all of the signs that urge “Don’t Feed the Wildlife.”

This elk was a magnificent fellow but he wouldn’t come out in the open for me.

More views to encourage a visit to the Grand Canyon.

Early morning and late afternoon sun provide the best colors. Time your visit to include both if you can.

Another view looking down that demonstrates the rich colors.

I’ll be backpacking into the heart of the Grand Canyon down the Tanner Trail in my next blog. A  Sierra Club member insisted I hike an easier, well maintained trail.