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AAA Traveler Worldwise | Western States
Exploring the Grand Canyon from River Depths to Canyon Heights

WHETHER FROM ABOVE OR BELOW, SEEING THE GRAND CANYON IS AN EPIC THRILL

We threaded our legs through the life jacket’s armholes to wear it around our hips instead of our chests and jumped into the cool, milky-aqua Little Colorado River. We looked ridiculous, but our safety gear protected us from rocks as we bobbed down tiny rapids, laughing and shrieking. We clambered out near the confluence of the Little Colorado and the Colorado rivers, marveling at the clear dividing line of aqua and dark-green waters.

After our brief float in the water, my group of 17 Americans, Canadians and Australians, ages 10 to 72, and four guides, climbed back onto our two motorized rafts. We were three days into a weeklong Grand Canyon trip with Wilderness River Adventures, and our group was bonding and having a fabulous time together.

Grand Canyon raftingRafting in The Colorado River; Photo courtesy of Xanterra travel collection

Only about 27,000 of the Grand Canyon’s annual 5 million visitors see the park from this perspective. My husband and I were on a raft piloted by Shyanne “Shy” Yazzie, a member of the Diné tribe. In between navigating ferocious rapids, Yazzie shared stories of her culture, such as a baby’s first laughter celebration—paid for by the person who elicits the laugh—as well as tales of white explorers of the past. Yazzie and her colleagues call the top of the canyon the “rim world.”

Though not the most comfortable, that raft excursion last June was the most incredible trip my husband and I have ever taken together. The camp loo (a bucket with a toilet seat) is a deal-breaker for some would-be rafters. Sandstorms often arose at dinnertime, rendering the delicious food gritty. And just when we feared evaporating in the dry 100-degree heat as we rafted down the river, a wave of 55-degree water would wallop us in the head.

But ahh, the views. By day, we were surrounded by the raging Colorado River. At night, tossing on my narrow, rickety cot, I would open my eyes to see enormous rock walls jutting skyward and a black sky full of stars.

We covered 188 miles and survived 67 rapids on our expedition before exiting the canyon by helicopter. After a week of river tunnel vision, as the helicopter lifted straight up, we saw the canyon widening all around us. I was too in awe—and too busy taking pictures—to be nervous about my first-ever helicopter ride.

Snow dust in the Grand CanyonThe snowy canyon rim in February; Photo by Teresa Bergen

THE RIM WORLD
Eight months later, I returned on my own for three days because I wanted to view the canyon from the rim world, as Yazzie would say. Instead of looking up at the towering rock walls, I was looking down. Instead of camping with a group, I stayed solo in a comfortable hotel. And instead of scorching heat, a February snowfall covered the ground. Whatever the season, the Grand Canyon is all about the views—and getting over ourselves as our lives are dwarfed by millions of years of geology.

When I arrived at the South Rim, I felt nostalgic for my rafting trip and the scenery I had seen at the bottom. But the trails down are steep—after all, it’s a mile-deep canyon—and the upper portions were icy. A few intrepid hikers descended anyway.

For those whose knees or nerves disincline us from steep downhill hikes, there’s the 13-mile Rim Trail that you can traverse on foot or via the national park’s free shuttle buses, which stop at the best vantage points on the South Rim.

Yavapai Point became my special sunset spot, always surprising me with a smoky-blue rock formation or a fiery band of red over a mesa, depending on how the light hit. Yavapai is at one end of the 1.4-mile Trail of Time, a paved and wheelchair-accessible subsection of the Rim Trail with wayside geology exhibits and chunks of ancient rocks you can touch. It’s a crash course in how nature formed a canyon as big as Rhode Island.

El Tovar HotelAn aerial view of El Tovar Hotel; Photo courtesy of Xanterra Travel Collection

DEEP HISTORY
Of course, humans have also influenced the canyon. While rafting, Yazzie had told us about the 11 tribes who have lived in and around the canyon for more than 4,000 years. We heard stories of adventurers who had run the river in various types of crafts—some more river-worthy than others. On my trip to the rim, I was interested to learn more about people who had settled and built up the canyon for tourism.

The park’s oldest intact structure is Bucky O’Neill’s cabin, built in 1895. O’Neill was an Arizona politician, prospector and gambler who founded the Grand Canyon Railway. His historic cabin is now part of Bright Angel Lodge, and visitors can rent it for the night.

El Tovar Hotel, built for railway passengers in 1905, is the park’s oldest hotel and most upscale accommodation. Early promotional brochures described the 79-room hotel as a combo of Swiss chalet and Norwegian villa architecture. In the dimly lit lobby, the heads of moose shot by President Theodore Roosevelt stare solemnly down.

Between 1905 and 1932, pioneering architect Mary Jane Elizabeth Colter designed the park’s most iconic buildings, including Hopi House, Hermit’s Rest and the Desert View Watchtower. Their indigenous-inspired designs showcase her lifelong passion for Native American art and architecture. Her Lookout Studio, designed in 1914, integrates so well with the canyon walls that it’s hard to see where the structure ends and the canyon begins.

One stormy morning, I joined a bus tour to Desert View Watchtower and climbed to the top. Seventy feet up, surrounded by murals of Hopi legends by 20th-century Native artist Fred Kabotie, I watched fog roll in from the north, filling the canyon like a bowl. Snow began to fall.

confluence of Little Colorado and Colorado riversConfluence of Little Colorado and Colorado rivers; Photo by Teresa Bergen

PRIVILEGED VIEWS
On my last day in the rim world, I met young Hopi artist Duane Koyawena at the park visitor center. He was painting the Hopi sun above angular red lines representing the Grand Canyon. “I’m going to put some prayer feathers down here,” he told me, indicating a spot on the canvas, “because the place of our emergence is at the confluence where the Little Colorado meets the Colorado.”

I know that place! I remember floating in that chilly, unbelievably aqua water. It was a thrill and a privilege to have been to this sacred place of origin the Hopi call Sipapuni. Or to visit the Grand Canyon at all, whether from above or below.