Roughly 6 million people visit Grand Canyon National Park in a year, but fewer than 100,000 of them spend a night in the park's backcountry.
My wife and adventuring buddy of more than 30 years had never seen the Grand Canyon, so we figured, why not really visit the place. The only person willing or crazy enough to come along on our wilderness jaunts is my wife's brother, a physician from Iowa. He joined us with his good humor and roomy van that eased the marathon commute from the Chicago suburbs to Arizona.
To venture below the canyon's rim, visitors must walk, raft or ride a mule. We chose the first. Starting at the South Kaibab Trailhead, a few miles east of the touristy Grand Canyon Village via shuttle bus, the trail drops close to 5,000 feet during almost seven miles of descent into panoramic vistas. The deeper you hike, the greater the visual rewards. But even a casual walker can scamper down just short of a mile to Ooh Aah Point for a stunning view.
Within the national park's massive, silent beauty, humanity seems insignificant compared with time and nature. On the other hand, every step you take is a testament to human drive, innovation and hard work. The trail was literally cut into the cliffs nearly 100 years ago, largely with manual tools. The heavy cables holding up bridges far below were once carried down on the shoulders of Native Americans.
"It's a spiritual place," said Bruce Rawlings, a veteran Grand Canyon hiker from Calumet City. The adjunct finance professor at Illinois Institute of Technology has been coming here -- often with rookie friends in tow -- for nearly two decades. We bumped into him while waiting for the free Hiker's Express shuttle bus to the trailhead.
Despite the canyon's visual and spiritual wonders, hikers will find plenty of time to curse the trail, the sun, their legs, feet, boots and the person who convinced them this was a good idea.
Young and healthy backpackers with no fear of knee damage might be able to crank down to the Colorado River in four to five hours -- faster yet if a mule carries their gear. But even in late October, the trek to the bottom was hot and dry, taking our party seven hours. When you finally catch a glimpse of the river, it's still many steps away.
At the canyon floor, most first-time hikers' goal is to get to the confluence of the Colorado River and rumbling Bright Angel Creek. There lies an oasis that includes the bustling Bright Angel Campground and the rustic-but-comfortable Phantom Ranch, with its small cabins, communal bunkhouses and a common dining room. The remote, natural setting turns this otherwise simple lodge into an indulgent luxury. (Reservations are available via an online lottery system up to 13 months in advance; get details at www.grandcanyonlodges.com, or call 888-297-2757.)
Phantom offers meals, prepaid, by reservation, but it's also a popular spot for people to drop by to buy lemonade, beer, snacks and souvenirs. River rafters on weeks-long float trips often stop at Boat Beach and hike the quarter mile to the ranch for cold beer and mule-delivered mail before tackling more rapids.
To get a backcountry camping permit, apply through the park's backcountry office four months in advance. We snail-mailed our fees ($82 for three people, three nights) and a few preferred dates at the end of May for an October trip. We received confirmation -- for our third choice of dates -- in mid-June.