By Andrew Collins
The Grand Canyon astonishes even the most seasoned travelers, but a visit here offers far more than a jaw-dropping view across a 6000-foot-deep, vermilion-streaked chasm. Park staffers point out that a significant number of visitors simply drive into the park, walk up to the canyon rim, snap a few photos and speed away. Don’t be that tourist. Give yourself 48 hours, and you’ll have the opportunity to examine fascinating exhibits on the region’s impressive human and natural history, embark on a light (or strenuous) hike and feast on local elk and trout in a grand dining room perched on the canyon’s rim. So grab your camera (and at least a 16-gig memory card) and spend some time getting to know the country’s second-most-visited national park.
Day 1: Evening
Begin your adventure with a leisurely meal in the elegantly rustic Dining Room at the historic El Tovar Hotel. The shingle-roof, pine-and-limestone lodge dates to 1905 and is filled with arts-and-crafts furnishings and mounted deer and elk. Beneath dark-wood beam ceilings and angular stained-glass lanterns, feast on regional specialties like grilled buffalo rib-eye with caramelized onion-fig compote and quail stuffed with oyster cornbread dressing. The restaurant fills up quickly, so book a reservation well before your visit.
Follow dinner with a nightcap in the genial hotel bar before venturing outside for a stroll along the paved promenade that fringes the South Rim. In the sparsely populated high desert, the night sky pulses brilliantly with twinkling stars, and when the moon is even half full, you can see a good way across the canyon.
Day 2: Morning
Drive, bike or take a free shuttle bus to the main Grand Canyon Visitor Center, at Mather Point. Here you’ll take in your first daylight views across the canyon toward the North Rim, which is 1200 feet higher. The North Rim has its own lodge and attractions but is open only in summer and lies 4 hours by car from the South Rim. In the newly redesigned visitor center, watch the 20-minute movie (“Grand Canyon: A Journey of Wonder”) and check out the dynamic exhibits on the park, including a huge 3-D relief map. Then walk 20 minutes west along the rim to Yavapai Point and the Yavapai Geology Museum, which sheds light on how this massive canyon formed.
Day 2: Afternoon and Evening
Grab lunch to go from the generously stocked grocery store and deli at Market Plaza and head back toward El Tovar, where you can walk along the rim and enjoy a picnic overlooking the canyon. Peek inside the century-old Kolb Studio, which hugs the canyon rim, and admire the art gallery inside. Make a quick hike partway into the canyon via the precipitous but well-marked Bright Angel Trail. Give yourself twice as much time to hike back up out as it takes you to hike in. In about 3 hours (round-trip), a fairly fit hiker can make it as far as the Three-Mile Resthouse and back. If you’re rushed or have limited time, turn back at the Mile-and-a-Half Resthouse.
In the early evening, drive or take the free shuttle bus along picturesque Hermit Road (closed to autos March to November). It’s a 7-mile drive, with stops at numerous viewpoints, to Hermit’s Rest, a cozy 1914 way station designed by legendary architect Mary Colter. This is a great spot for watching the sunset, and you may spy a few bighorn sheep lumbering by as well. Return to Grand Canyon Village and dine at the Arizona Room, inside the stone-and-timber Bright Angel Lodge. The food isn’t as good as at El Tovar, but the views of the canyon are stellar.
Day 3: Morning
Return to El Tovar’s Dining Room for breakfast — hearty dishes like polenta corncakes with prickly pear-pistachio butter, and blackened trout with eggs will keep you nourished for the rest of the day. Then begin the journey east 23 miles along Desert View Drive, stopping at the many viewpoints along the way, the Tusayan Ruin and Museum, and what may be Colter’s most stunning creation, the recently restored Desert View Watchtower, designed to resemble a millennium-old Puebloan monolith. Climb the stairs to this 70-foot tower’s glass-enclosed observatory for one of the park’s best views of the Colorado River, a surprisingly modest-looking ribbon of water that — over a period of about 6 million years — carved America’s grandest canyon.