Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Classic Grand Canyon sights an easy walk

The sun sets over Yavapai Point.
Topo map of South Rim Trail from El Tovar to Mather Point.

Head east from village along canyon rim

The Grand Canyon rightly defies description. Most who see it for the first time say it reminds them of a majestic painting, appropriately suggesting it’s a place that only can be visualized by actually gazing at it.

Among the canyon’s most spectacular sights can be seen within walking distance of Grand Canyon Village, the national park’s gateway to the South Rim. While the South Rim Trail extends several miles along the canyon edge, the short eastern section is perfect for a day hike with children. They’ll be able to see the Colorado River a mile below and an array of incredible buttes, towers and ridges and that stretch up to 10 miles away on the canyon’s other side.

Weather-wise, the best time to hike the trail is late May through summer. That’s also when the park is the busiest, so be prepared for crowds.

Arizona S.R. 64 provides the most direct route to the South Rim Trail. When arriving, park at the lodges in Grand Canyon Village, especially near the El Tovar Hotel.

The trailhead is behind the hotel's parking lot and heads roughly northwest toward the canyon rim. This really is just a spur leading from the lodges to the South Rim Trail. Upon reaching the rim trial, go right (or east). The trail is wide and paved. It’s also close to the canyon edge, so toddlers are best kept in child carriers.

Yavapai Point
The first 1.75 miles of the walk offer the classic striking views of the Grand Canyon. Most of the rock at the top of the canyon is 230 million years old, laid down when the first dinosaurs walked the earth. Each layer beneath the rim is progressively older, with the very bottom where the Colorado River flows some 2 billion years old, almost half of the Earth’s age.

Though the orange and brown striped canyon appears to be utterly desolate, the comforting scent of green Ponderosa pine and juniper fills the air along the rim. Pinyon pine, cactus and yucca generally live close to the canyon edge.

Looking out into the canyon, you may be lucky enough to spot the rare California condor. It’s the largest land bird in North America with a wingspan up to nine feet. You’re certain to spot ravens as well as canyon wrens and the brilliant blue Stellar’s jay. On the ground, expect to spy chipmunks, various small lizards, and the famous Abert's squirrel with its tufted ears. The squirrels and chipmunks have learned to beg for food, but as at a zoo don’t feed the animals. It’s unhealthy for them and potentially dangerous for you.

The crowds thin as you close on Yavapai Point, the first landmark and a good place to rest. The point’s observation station dates to 1928 and offers geology exhibits inside, making it a great place for the kids to learn a little science while getting out of the sun.

Mather Point
From Yavapai Point, you’ll walk 0.7 miles roughly southeast to Mather Point. Along the way, views of the canyon seem to shift like pictures in a marquee. The trail also is only a few feet from the edge at spots, so keep a very close eye on children.

Mather Point is a popular viewpoint, especially at sunset and sunrise, and a good place to rest.

The spot also is a good end point if you have preschoolers or early elementary school children. You either can go back the way you came or take a 0.25 mile spur to the Canyon View Information Plaza. At the plaza, you can catch a shuttle back to the lodges, a great relief to any tired little feet accompanying you.

For older children and teens, consider continuing on to Pipe Creek Vista. This marks the eastern terminus of the South Rim Trail, and as the road swerves away from the rim, you’ll find it very peaceful. The vista offers an impressive view of Pipe Creek, which merges with Garden Creek before flowing into the Colorado River. A shuttle is available at the vista for return to the lodges.

Slideshow of day hike

Read more about day hiking the Grand Canyon in my Hittin’ the Trail: Day Hiking Grand Canyon National Park guidebook.