Few wilderness trails anywhere elicit as much praise as the Nankoweap Trail. Those who have hiked the North Rim-to-river route speak of crowd-free camping in the heart of Marble Canyon. Then in the same breath, they recall the grueling elevation loss and gain, harrowing traverses, and challenging route-finding. Conclusion: This is an experts-only trail but an absolute must-do. From the West Nankoweap trailhead, the path drops 14 miles (23 kilometers) and 6,000 feet (1,829 meters). Most hikers take two days for the descent, two for the climb back out, and one as a layover. As you dip below the North Rim, you'll first pass through aspen and ponderosa pine, then start switchbacking and corkscrewing down slopes of Supai sandstone and steeper faces of Redwall limestone. The going is tricky—look for cairns when the trail is less than obvious—but the views of buttes and red-rock temples are superb. Your camp is on a sandy beach near Nankoweap Rapids, overlooked by a set of 900-year-old ancestral Puebloan granaries. On the return trip, overnight at Nankoweap Creek, and be sure to top up your water bottles for the last 10.6 dry miles (17.1 kilometers) back to the rim.
Seven-day visitors pass, $25. Backcountry permits are necessary for overnight trips into the canyon ($10, plus $5 per person per night; nps.gov/grca). Note that the North Rim is closed from mid-October to mid-May.
With a park permit visitors can camp right on Ruby Point, 30 miles (48 kilometers) from the crowds of the South Rim developed area. The sweeping overlook is stunning, especially at dawn when the morning sun first hits Sagittarius Ridge and Point Sublime.
Built by the Santa Fe Railway to lure travelers west, the El Tovar Hotel has been wowing visitors since 1905. Its Oregon pine facade, broad terraces, and swarthy hunting lodge decor are proof that some things never go out of style (doubles from $174; grandcanyonlodges.com).
Originally published as part of "America's Ultimate Parks 2009," National Geographic Adventure magazine
Calling All Grand Canyon Hikers
For most visitors, hiking is the most straightforward way to see the park. The challenge, however, is to do it without the company of "most visitors." One way is to tackle a 28-mile (45-kilometer) route starting from the South Rim's Grandview Point. Day one descends three miles (five kilometers) to Horseshoe Mesa, a plateau rife with old copper-mining ruins. An early start will net you a campsite there or allow you to push on to Cottonwood Creek. (Check with backcountry rangers about water availability, and carry plenty with you.) A west turn at Cottonwood puts you on the East Tonto Trail, which traverses the Tonto Plateau, a microcosm of the immense Grand. But don't be misled by that "plateau" business: The next three or four days entail skirting impassable side canyons, rounding sandstone buttes, and tracing the precipice of Granite Gorge, below which flows the Colorado. Along the way are a number of intermittent creeks and campsites. Finally, after Cremation Creek, pick up the South Kaibab Trail for the 4.4-mile (7.1-kilometer), 3,000-foot (914-meter) trek back to the rim and a return to the great known.
If you're short on time, skip the heavily trafficked South Rim Entrance for one of the Grand's most colorful side canyons, Havasu (accessible via a combination of Old Route 66 and Route 18). The canyon's famed blue-green waterfalls are a ten-mile (16-kilometer) and 3,500-vertical-foot (1,067-meter) hike from the parking lot at Hualapai Hilltop. Camp within earshot of Havasu Falls and hoof back to your car at sunup. Only have a day? National Geographic Expeditions has partnered with Off the Beaten Path to offer half-day excursions (on foot, in a van, or both) along the South Rim.
For those prepared to commit more than two weeks, the best way to see the Grand is, without question, the way Powell did—from the Colorado River. O.A.R.S. leads a full-canyon trip, with regular hiking stops along the way to sites like Vasey's Paradise and Red Wall Cavern. The point isn't whitewater thrills (though there are 47 major sets). It's to go slow and gape.
For less than half the cost of tonier (and usually full) places in the park, the cabin rooms at Maswik Lodge are one of the Grand's best kept secrets ($86; grandcanyonlodges.com). You're only a quarter mile (0.4 kilometers) from the South Rim, and the hotel is served by the Grand Canyon Railway, a throwback that runs to the park from Williams, Arizona ($309 for the train trip and one night each at the Maswik and the Grand Canyon Railway Hotel; thetrain.com).
Park is open year-round, but North Rim closed in winter. Backcountry permits, $10, plus $5 per person per night. Seven-day park pass, $25. Campsites, $18 (nps.gov/grca). Havasu Canyon: $35 entrance fee; campsites, $17 per person per night. Space fills quickly-book early (havasupaitribe.com). National Geographic Expeditions Grand Canyon Excursions, from $90 (offthebeatenpath.com/gcvc). O.A.R.S. 18-day rafting trips, $4,727 (April through October; oars.com).
Originally published as part of "America's Ultimate Parks 2008," National Geographic Adventure magazine
National Parks Photos
Of the five million people that travel to the Grand Canyon each year, most only view the canyon from a few select viewing points. Get off the beaten path with the Grand Canyon Photo Gallery.
2015 Traveler Photo Contest
Do you have what it takes to win? Submit your best shots today and find out.