GRAND CANYON, ARIZONA, USA
As you stand in the cold darkness of an Arizona night, waiting for dawn, you will have no comprehension of the enormity of the landscape in front of you. In the dull early light your first view of the Grand Canyon will be a flat, almost painterly composition. Then gradually the sky turns to blue and red, and golden sunlight starts to pick out details - first the edge of the far ridge, then the tallest pinnacles inside the canyon itself.
As the sun rises higher, more is revealed. Rock formations sculpted by years of erosion are illuminated, and long, convoluted shadows are cast on to giant screens formed by cliffs. Only when you notice details, such as a row of trees, or a flock of geese flying overhead, do you come to realize the true scale of the canyon. That far ridge might be 15 km away, and the mighty Colorado River - a mere stream viewed from above - is 1500 metres below.
Consisting of an inner and outer gorge, the canyon is some 450 km long in total, so it is impossible to try taking it all in at once. Far better to spend some time at one or two of the lookout points that punctuate the roads along the rim of the canyon and see the changing light from them. From Hopi Point, a short distance from the Grand Canyon Village, you can look both ways along the canyon, getting spectacular views of the scenery and watching it change colour throughout the day. You can also see the Colorado River looking deceptively small and tranquil far below.
There are a number of trails down into the canyon. Some of the longer ones will involve camping en route but you can hike down and back up in a day on others, such as Bright Angel Trail - provided you start early enough. However, even for this shorter trail, the park authorities recommend that you break your journey at Indian Garden campsite and spread your hike over two days. Remember, it will take twice as long to walk back up the trail as it took to walk down, and it's a hard uphill slog. Those not used to exercise can hire a mule to carry them, but the ride is fairly uncomfortable. Trail-walking provides some idea of the scale of the canyon. Distances become more real as you descend, and details of the scenery unfold around you. Soon the walls of the canyon tower above you, and you realize that the landmarks that looked so close from the rim take hours to reach.
The canyon receives over a million visitors a year, although most stay only a few hours and tend to congregate on the more accessible south rim. To avoid the worst of the crowds, visit in spring or autumn. Although it will be cold at night and in the mornings, the air is clearer and you can observe the canyon in very different conditions. The weather can change suddenly, giving clear blue skies one day and a white-out blizzard the next. However, the great depth of the Canyon leads to huge temperature variations between the top and the bottom, so in the course of one day you might walk through heavy snow at the top and hot sunshine at the bottom.
The nearest major airport to the Grand Canyon is at Flagstaff, a couple of hours' drive away from the south rim. If you are coming from Las Vegas you can fly directly to Grand Canyon airport at Tusayan. There is a free bus service around the park. but hiring a car is recommended as it will give you more freedom to explore. Grand Canyon Village offers a range of accommodation. but as it is all run by the same company there is little competition in pricing. The best place there is El Tovar Lodge, which is right on the rim. It gets very booked up, though, so make a reservation well in advance.