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Grand Canyon National Park

The Grand Canyon is 277 miles long, from 4 to 18 miles wide, and up to a mile deep. The Colorado River, according to theory, carved the gaping chasm within the last 6 million years or so as the Colorado Plateau rose straight up in response to the collision of continental plates. The result is a stunning layer cake of geologic history, with rocks from one epoch stacked in orderly fashion above older materials. The oldest and deepest, the Vishnu schist, is estimated to be between 1.7 and 2 billion years old. The youngest and topmost layer of Kaibab limestone is a mere 245 million years old.

The North Rim of the Grand Canyon rears to 9,000 feet on the Kaibab Plateau, whose subalpine meadows and forests of Quaking Aspen and Engelmann Spruce remain locked in deep snow for much of the winter. Open only from about mid-April to mid-October, the North Rim offers a more primitive viewing experience than the heavily visited South Rim. Hikers can descend 6,000 feet on the well-maintained North Kaibab Trail, or on other more rugged routes most suited for those with extensive backcountry experience. Rim visitors can camp in neighboring Kaibab National Forest.

The South Rim is busy at all times of year, but especially during the summer. Many hikers and mule riders make their way down the Bright Angel and South Kaibab Trails to Phantom Ranch, where a lodge and campground allow overnight stays along the Colorado River. The rim itself, much of it paralleled by a paved road, provides endless views. The headquarters complex at Grand Canyon Village offers services including hotel rooms, campsites, restaurants, and shops.

The Grand Canyon is said to begin at Lees Ferry, where the river begins to incise itself deeply between cliffs of sandstone and limestone. Lees Ferry is the starting point for canyon river trips. Running through a narrow slot canyon that begins in southern Utah, the Paria River meets the Colorado here and offers superb hiking, though it is dangerous during summer rains.

Home of the Havasupai Indians, Havasu Canyon is an oasis in the desert. Fed by a large spring, Havasu Creek thunders through a deep canyon system and over a series of waterfalls. The calcium carbonate carried by its blue-green water slowly precipitates out, forming graceful travertine terraces and hanging rock curtains. Visitors stay at either a lodge in Supai (the Havasupai village, accessible only by foot, horseback, or helicopter) or a campground 2 miles downstream; from the campground, a strenuous 7-mile trail reaches the Colorado River.

Separated from the rest of Arizona by the canyon, the sagebrush plains, pinyon-juniper woodlands, and Joshua Tree stands of the Arizona Strip have few visitors. From the Toroweap Overlook it is possible to look almost straight down at the Colorado River more than 3,000 feet below. Nearby are the Mount Logan and Mount Trumbull Wildernesses, high volcanic outcrops that stand over jagged lava flows and are crowned with fine stands of old-growth Ponderosa Pine.

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