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Years ago, upon completing a hike in the Grand Canyon, I stood at the rim, gazing one last time at the colors below, and vowed right then to inform everyone how lucky they were to be alive. My good intentions lasted for only a day, but it was an unforgettable one, and when it was over I realized that the canyon had moved me the way religion moves fervent believers. At the time I wasn't sure why. Only after I began work on this book did I begin to understand all those things that, for me, make the canyon not just a beautiful place, but a sacred one as well.

When I returned to the canyon, I was awed by the terraced buttes and mesas, rising thousands of feet from the canyon floor and dividing the many side canyons. Early cartographers and geologists noticed similarities between these pinnacles and some of the greatest works of human hands. Clarence Edward Dutton, who scouted the canyon for the U.S. Geological Survey in 1880-81, referred to them as temples and named them after eastern deities such as Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva. François Matthes, who drew up a topographical map of the canyon in 1902, continued the tradition by naming Wotans Throne and Krishna Temple, among other landmarks.

The temples not only inspire reverence but tell the grandest of stories. Half the earth's history is represented in the canyon's rocks. The oldest and deepest rock layer, the Vishnu Formation, began forming 2 billion years ago, before aerobic life-forms even existed. The different layers of sedimentary rock that piled up atop the Vishnu tell of landscapes that changed like dreams. They speak of mountains that really did move, eroding away into nothingness; of oceans that poured forth across the land before receding; of deserts, swamps, and rivers the size of the Mississippi -- all where the canyon now lies. The fossils in these layers illustrate the very evolution of life.

Many of the latest products of evolution -- over 1,500 plant and 400 animal species -- still survive at the canyon today. If you include the upper reaches of the Kaibab Plateau (on the canyon's North Rim), this small area of northern Arizona includes zones of biological life comparable to ones found as far south as Mexico and as far north as Alaska. The species come in every shape, size, and temperament, ranging from tiny ant lions dwelling on the canyon floor to 1,000-pound elk roaming the rims. And for every species, there is a story within the story. Take the Douglas fir, for example. Once part of a forest that covered both rims and much of the canyon, this tree has endured since the last Ice Age on shady, north-facing slopes beneath the South Rim -- long after the sun-baked rim itself became too hot and inhospitable.

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As much as I like the stories, I also enjoy the mysteries that can't be explained. The web of ecological cause-and-effect among the canyon's species is too complicated for any mortal to untangle. It leaves endless questions to ponder, such as why the agave blooms only once every 20-odd years. Similarly, the canyon's rocks withhold as much as they tell. More than a billion years passed between the time the Vishnu Schist formed and the Tapeats Sandstone was deposited atop it -- a gap in the geological record commonly referred to as The Great Unconformity. Other gaps -- or unconformities -- exist between other layers. And river gravels that would have explained how the canyon was cut have long since washed away.

The more time I spend inside the canyon, the better I hope to understand the first people who dwelt here. A number of different tribes have lived in or around the canyon, and the Navajo, Havasupai, Kaibab Paiute, Hopi, Zuni, and Hualapai tribes still live in the area. Before the white man arrived, they awakened to the colors of the canyon, made their clothes from its plants and animals, smelled it, touched it, tasted it, and felt it underfoot. The Hopi still regard the canyon as their place of emergence and the place to which their dead return. Native Americans have left behind more than 3,000 archaeological sites and artifacts that may be as old as 10,000 years. All this runs through my mind when I walk the canyon floor.

I also contemplate some of the first white people who came to this mystical place. The canyon moved them to do extraordinary, if not always productive, things. I think about the prospectors who clambered through the canyon in search of precious minerals, and then wonder about the ones who stayed here even after their mines proved unprofitable. I wish I could have met icons like Georgie White, who began her illustrious river-running career by swimming 60 miles down the Colorado River in the western canyon; and Mary E. Jane Colter, the brilliant architect who obsessed over creating buildings that blended with the landscape, even going so far as to grow plants out of the stone roof at the Lookout Studio. I'd still like to meet David Brower, who, as executive director of the Sierra Club, helped nix a proposal to dam the Colorado River inside the Grand Canyon. He did so by running full-page ads in the New York Times that compared damming the canyon to flooding the Sistine Chapel. I admire these people, who felt blessed and inspired by the canyon.

Theodore Roosevelt would also belong in this group. During his 1903 visit, the canyon moved him to say: "Leave it as it is. You cannot improve on it. The ages have been at work on it, and man can only mar it. What you can do is to keep it for your children, your children's children . . . as the one great sight which every American . . . should see." That wasn't just talk. He backed up his words, using the Antiquities Act to declare the Grand Canyon a National Monument in 1908. Congress established Grand Canyon National Park in 1919.

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Although Congress called it a "park," the canyon still has a daunting, even ominous side. Everyone, no matter how many times they enter it, must negotiate with it for survival. One look at the clenched jaw of a river guide as he or she rows into Lava Rapids will remind you that the canyon exacts a heavy price for mistakes. And the most common error is to underestimate it. Try to escape, and it becomes a prison 10 miles wide (on average), 277 (river) miles long, and with walls 4,000 feet high. The canyon's menace, for me, is part of its allure -- a reminder that we're still living creatures who haven't completely conquered nature.

Clearly, you can suffer here, but reward is everywhere. It's in the spectrum of colors: The Colorado River, filled with runoff from the Painted Desert, runs blood red beneath slopes of orange Hakatai Shale; cactus flowers explode in pink, yellow, and red; and lichens paint rocks orange, green, and gray, creating art more striking than the works in any gallery. It's in the shapes, too -- the spires, amphitheaters, temples, ramps, and cliffs -- and in the shadows that bend across them before lifting like mist. It's in the myriad organisms and their individual struggles for survival. Perhaps most of all, it's in the constancy of the river, which, even as it cuts closer to a beginning, reminds us that all things break down, wash away, and return to the earth in time.

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At the edge of the Grand Canyon, even the breezes seem to take a deep breath. Sometimes the best thing to do at the canyon is to take one yourself. Find a quiet place on the rim or off a trail and sit for an hour or so. Feel the warm air rise, watch the shadows and light play across the monuments, and listen to the timeless hush. No matter how fast you drive, and no matter how many angles you see the canyon from, you'll never completely "do" the canyon. So relax.

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Access/Entry Points

The park has three gated entrances -- two on the South Rim and one on the North Rim. The one that's most convenient to travelers from Flagstaff, Williams, and Phoenix is the park's South Entrance Gate, 1 mile north of Tusayan on Highway 64. Traffic occasionally backs up here during peak hours in high season. Many travelers from Flagstaff, as well as those from points east, prefer entering the South Rim area through its East Entrance Gate, near Desert View, 28.5 miles west of Cameron, Arizona, on Highway 64. From Flagstaff, the drive to the East Entrance Gate is about 8 miles longer than to the South Entrance.

The gate to the North Rim (separated from the South Rim by 210 highway miles) isn't convenient to anywhere, except perhaps the small store, motel, and gas station at Jacob Lake, Arizona, 30 miles north on Highway 67. (The North Rim itself is 14 miles south of the gate.) The closest real town is Fredonia, AZ, 71 miles to the north on Highway 89A. Parts of the park can also be accessed via Forest Service dirt roads.

Entrance Fees

Admission to Grand Canyon National Park costs $20 per private vehicle (includes all occupants) and $10 for adults (ages 17 and over) on foot, bicycle, or motorcycle. The receipt is good for a week and includes both rims. Adults who enter the park in organized groups or on commercial tours usually pay about $8 each, though the rates vary some.

Special Discounts & Passes

A number of special passes are available at the park's entrance stations. Golden Eagle Passports entitle holders to unlimited use of all National Park Service sites, including Grand Canyon, for 1 year from the date they make this $65 purchase. A Grand Canyon National Park Pass ($40) entitles the holder to free admission to Grand Canyon for one calendar year. For $10, U.S. residents aged 62 and older can purchase a Golden Age Passport, which admits the holder, free of charge, for life at all National Park Service sites. Another card, the Golden Access Passport, entitles U.S. residents with permanent mental or physical disabilities to the same privileges afforded by the Golden Age Passport. This card is free, but the applicant must apply in person at Canyon View Center.

Camping Fees

Camping at Mather Campground, the largest on the South Rim, costs $15 per site during high season. Desert View Campground, open from mid-May to mid-October, costs $10 per site. And the North Rim Campground, also open from mid-May to mid-October, costs $15 per site. At all three campgrounds, no more than two vehicles and six people can share a site. Trailer Village, an RV park on the South Rim, charges $25 per hookup for two people, plus $2 for each additional adult.

Park Rules & Regulations

The following list includes a set of rules established to protect both the park and its visitors:

Bicycles must stay on roads. That means no mountain biking on the trails or on the park's new stretch of greenway.

It's illegal to remove any resources from the park. This can be anything from flowers to potsherds. Even seemingly useless articles such as bits of metal from the canyon's old mining operations have historical value to the park's users and are protected by law.

Dogs must be leashed at all times. They're allowed on certain rim trails in developed areas of the park, but are banned from trails below the rim, buses, or in park lodging. The only exceptions are certified service dogs.

Fires are strictly prohibited except in the fire pits at North Rim, Desert View, and Mather campgrounds. In the backcountry, you can use a small campstove for cooking.

Weapons including guns, bows and arrows, crossbows, slingshots, and air pistols are all prohibited, as are all fireworks. If, by chance, you have a hang glider and are considering jumping into the canyon, forget it. It's illegal, and you'll be fined.

Exploring the Park Without a Car

The best time to be car-less inside the park is from March 1 to November 30, when all of the park's free shuttle routes are operating. Departing regularly from 1 hour before dawn until 1 hour after sunset, the shuttle buses serve all of Grand Canyon Village, Canyon View Information Plaza, Mather Point, Yavapai Point, Yaki Point, and Hermit Road. Because the buses run every 15 to 30 minutes (depending on the time of day and the route), you seldom have to wait too long at a stop. The shuttles operate seasonally on Hermits Rest Route, and year-round in Grand Canyon Village. Consult the park's free publication, The Guide, for detailed information on shuttle stops and schedules.

Condor Viewing--In recent years, many Grand Canyon visitors have spotted the largest land bird in North America. Members of the vulture family, California condors will cruise up to 100 miles a day, at speeds approaching 50 mph. When mature, condors are grayish-black except on their heads, which are orange and featherless. Under each wing, a triangular white patch is sometimes visible.

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Adventure Land Travel

Current Grand Canyon Fee Schedule

Entrance Fees
Single Family/Vehicle - $20.00
Single person on foot/bicycle - $10.00

Overnight Camping Fees
Backcountry Permit - $10.00 per permit
User Fee - $5.00 per person per night

River Fees
Permit Launch - $100 per person (one time flat fee)

Example: You are currently on the waiting list and do not have a scheduled launch date. If you wish to remain on the waiting list, you are required to submit a Continuing Interest Form every year until you receive your official launch date. The first renewal request must be made by January 31 for each successive year. Currently, there is no fee to remain on the waiting list.

If you have a scheduled launch date, below is an example of your total fees:

Permit/launch fee $100 per person (one time flat fee)
Number of people launching at Lee's Ferry 10 x $100 = $1,000
Number of people hiking in at any location 2 x $100 = $200
Number of people under the age 16 1 x $10 = $10
Total $1,190



Grand Canyon National Park Colorado River