Grand Experience Arizona: No matter how you look at it, the Grand Canyon is one of nature's most amazing spectacles.

February 16, 1997|By Robert Cross | Robert Cross,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

"How long is this durn mountain?" one man asked another as they left the tour bus.

"It's 277 miles!" came the reply, each syllable drawn out for dramatic effect.

The first man glanced toward the abyss and shrugged. This, the most famous canyon in the world -- thought by many to be the most beautiful, the most astounding -- seemed to astound him not at all.

Mountain? No. The south rim does stand more than 7,000 feet above the ocean at some points, and there are rocks everywhere you look, but the fact is, a river cuts through the stone of the Colorado Plateau and burrows down a good 5,000 feet, forming a canyon of astounding proportions -- from just below the Utah state line, westward through Arizona to the Nevada border. But the blase tourist stood uncorrected.

A few hundred yards away, inside the Grand Canyon National Park visitor center, an irate tourist wanted to know what was the big deal. "Well, just take a walk out past the building and down that path along the rim and look around," a shocked park ranger advised.

"I did that," said the man. "I don't see why you charge $10 to my family for just this."

It was the ranger's turn to shrug. Sorry, no refunds.

What does it take to impress some people?

Maybe I'm naive, but the Grand Canyon gets to me every time. When the transcontinental pilot announces that we can see the Grand Canyon through the windows on the left side of the plane, I lean across cluttered tray tables just to get a glimpse. When I find myself anywhere in the vicinity of Arizona, I detour so I can take another peek.

One reason I like the Grand Canyon is because it always seems to alter itself. Perhaps the season of the year or the angle of the sun will make it more purple than the last time I was here, or more orange than the time before. Maybe I'll notice a pinnacle that I forgot, or discover a point of view that somehow I had missed on every previous visit.

Because the Grand Canyon pulls so many surprises, in its presence I feel a part of geological time. The excavation has been going on for 5 million years, and still the Colorado River tells me, "Come back in another million and check out my progress." So I return, during a moment in my limited human chronology, and, sure enough, a few things look different.

How the eons fly.

During certain periods, the south rim of the Grand Canyon has the ambience of a crowded art gallery. At dawn and dusk, people gather on the ledges and gasp appreciatively as low-level sunbeams paint glorious pictures on the serrated walls. That may be enough to stir their souls and last them until they and the canyon meet again.

17 minutes per visitor

They even may be among those who figure in this startling estimate calculated by park officials: The average visitor spends a mere 17 minutes looking at the canyon.

Ranger Katharine Gloistein told me that's only a rough guess, based on all the heavy traffic traversing the rim.

In Gloistein's ideal Grand Canyon world, travelers would come at it from several angles. "People should do a little bit of driving, a little bit of walking -- either up on the rim or, if they feel strong enough, a bit of hiking down in the canyon," she said. "There are half-day, smooth-water rafting trips and longer whitewater trips on the Colorado River that give an entirely different perspective.

"The more variety you have in your visit, the more you'll have an idea what the canyon's about."

Spanish explorers in the 16th century visited the Grand Canyon only long enough to decide it held no precious minerals and was therefore useless; 18th-century prospectors and fur trappers came to pretty much the same conclusion. Hundreds of years earlier, the Anasazi did their farming farther out on the mesas, or settled at riverside, where they could find receptive soil in and around the forbidding ditch.

They, however, did not require fabulous riches from their surroundings. If the canyon sustained life, that was good enough.

The typical modern visitor comes to marvel -- not to capitalize. You could stack five Sears Towers in that canyon before the antennae would tickle your toes at the rim. Way down there, the Manhattan skyline would resemble a little spilled granola.

In 1869, Maj. John Wesley Powell, a retired Union Army officer, led the first expedition to travel the entire length of the canyon by boat. His journals sparked the initial glimmer of interest in the Grand Canyon as a stimulus to wonder and contemplation, even if otherwise it was -- as an earlier explorer scoffed -- "a profitless locality."

Powell touted the canyon as "the most sublime spectacle on the earth," a place where "the glories and the beauties of form, color and sound unite."

Some must hike

Most of us manage to absorb that message from the south rim. Others simply must become one with nature and escape the crowds. They follow steep trails leading down and across into solitude, past the distinctly tinted rock layers representing the different ages of Earth itself -- a parfait of geology.

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