By Boot, Back or Boat: Below-the-Rim Grand Canyon Adventures

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Many visitors claim to have experienced Grand Canyon but did they simply take in the view from the rim, snap a couple photo, and return home? Every year nearly five million people visit Grand Canyon, but less than one percent explore below the rim. Grand Canyon is one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which places it on a lot of people’s “must visit” list, so why not venture below the Kaibab Limestone? With a little planning and a week’s worth of vacation, one can experience a “below-the-rim” adventure – on foot, on the back of the mule, or on a raft.

Consider a guided hike or overnight tour to experience the canyon up close. A free, interpretive program called “Into the Canyon Hike” meets Sundays, Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, May through October, at 7 a.m. at the South Kaibab Trailhead. This 3-4 hour, 3-mile round-trip hike is led by a Grand Canyon National Park Service (NPS) ranger. The hike leads to a panoramic view at Cedar Ridge and an ancient animal tracks on sandstone along the way. Per NPS: “Discover the canyon’s beauty and natural history while descending 1,120 ft (340 m) on an unpaved trail. Strenuous hike; not recommended for people with heart or respiratory problems or difficulty walking. Bring water, snacks, sunscreen, and wear sturdy hiking shoes” (nps.gov/grca).

Grand Canyon Field Institute offers tours for beginners to advanced overnight backpackers. A four-day, introductory program titled “Take a Load Off: Mule Assisted Backpacking Trip” includes descending the South Kaibab Trail, a two-night stay at the Bright Angel Campground (at the bottom of the Grand Canyon) and an ascent back to the rim along Bright Angel Trail – a chance for a stunning view of the Redwall limestone cliff, originally a bluish-gray color but now stained red from rock layers above it. The guide might suggest to memorizing the phrase: Know The Canyon’s History, Study Rocks Made By Time. Hence, some of the canyon layers’ names: Kaibab Limestone, Toroweap Formation, Coconino Sandstone, Hermit Shale, Supai Group, Redwall Limestone, Muav Limestone, Bright Angel Shale, and Tapeats Sandstone. “Because pack mules are hauling the bulk of the group’s camping gear and food, participants can devote more time and energy to uncovering the canyon’s secrets,” according to Grandcanyon.org. For a different kind of exploration consider the following…

For those comfortable with heights, a ride on the back of a sure-footed, well-trained mule might be the ticket. Xanterra offers an overnight trail ride from the South Rim to Phantom Ranch (at the bottom of Grand Canyon) for those meeting the minimum requirements: 4’7” in height, weighing less than 200 pounds, in good physical condition, not pregnant, able to speak and understand English, and able to follow the clothing specifications. The tour includes the ride down the Bright Angel Trail, overnight lodging and meals at Phantom Ranch, and the return ride up the South Kaibab Trail. Witnessing the changes in the environment from Juniper forest, desert scrub, and cacti, to riparian vegetation and sandy beaches, then back up to Pinyon Pine trees unfold from the back of the mule.

Even more exhilarating, a mile down from the rim runs the mighty Colorado River. From the vantage of a raft, one can look up in admiration of the Canyon walls. Hatch River Expeditions offers a 4-day Lower Canyon Motorized Expedition. Meet the hiking guide at 5 a.m. inside the Bright Angel Lodge for a hike down Bright Angel trail to Indian Garden, where a rafting guide will take over. Continue onward to Pipe Creek boat beach to a raft and start an immediate adventure in the “Inner Gorge,” where the Vishnu Schist and Zoroaster Granite make for some exhilarating rapids. Old rocks, waterfalls, and the vibrant blue-green water of Havasu Creek characterize the lower canyon. After travelling 100 river miles and three nights of beach camping, the fourth day offers a helicopter ride out of the Canyon to Bar Ten Ranch, where a small plane connects back to the Grand Canyon or Las Vegas airports. Only a few people can say they hiked down to the Colorado River to go rafting!

Ruminates “Lonely Planet” author Andy Murdock, “On my first trip to the Grand Canyon, I made a classic rookie mistake: part of a longer road trip, I didn’t give myself much time and I didn’t do any advance research, so I ended up with a version of the Griswold experience. There it was – big, beautiful but somewhat underwhelming. Back in the car.” It’s possible to venture below the rim and wear out a hiking boot, get on the back of a mule, or ride the rapids on a boat. So, who is ready to experience this wonder of the natural world in style?

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