National Parks Service
Entering into Arizona’s Grand Canyon from mid air? That’s an adrenaline rush like no other. Our helicopter smoothly lifts off the pad, hovers for a moment, and then zips above the pine forests of the flat Kaibab Plateau. Blades thumping the air, sweeping over the treetops, the pilot chats on about climate, topography and natural history as we head toward the edge.
There are five of us in the chopper, connected through puffy headphones and microphones – and we’re able to carry on a crackly conversation. A few are filled with anxiety, hanging on for dear life. Mostly there is anticipation, excitement and awe. But as we cross over the rim and dip into the canyon, there is complete silence. No words can describe that feeling.
I was one of the anxious ones. But crossing the rim of the nation’s largest canyon – one like no other – and dragon-flying into the countless side gorges? Well, I am quickly hooked.
There’s something about the unfathomable dimensions of the Grand Canyon that makes it one of the world’s must-see natural wonders. The scale of this red and orange abyss overwhelms hikers, rafters and experienced canyoneers. It’s a dramatic place that could easily swallow buildings into its deep gorge: it would take three CN Towers stacked from the canyon floor before the spire would even break the rim.
Arizona is known as “Canyon Country.” If not the largest canyon in the world, the Grand Canyon is unarguably the most famous. When discovered by mapmaker John Wesley Powell in 1869, the sheer size of it was unimaginable – well outside the scope of previous explorations.
Our pilot chats into the headphones, describing rock formations that form a calendar equivalent to almost half the estimated age of the Earth. The walls and layers are geologic snapshots of at least 10 large-scale events occurring during the last two billion years. Erosion has left massive features like temples and pillars scattered through the length of the canyon.
It was Powell’s surveyor, Charles Dutton, who began the tradition of naming these geological features after mythological and religious deities: Buddha Temple, Thor Temple, Jupiter Temple and Cathedral Stairs. We fly by dozens of them, as well as multi-coloured cliffs, buttes, gorges, waterfalls and pools.
I pull out binoculars and gaze down at the brown ribbon of water that snakes along the canyon floor. From above, the Colorado River looks tiny. But it is a powerful, silt-laden fluvial chisel that drains Arizona’s deserts, canyons and mountains, all the while carving through the stone in the same way it has for the past six million years. Almost all of Arizona’s land eventually drains into the Colorado River, through more than 75 tributaries.
With binoculars I can spot several bright blue rafts tied up along the shoreline, waiting to run the rapids. These rafts are large enough – holding passengers and enough gear for the popular multi-day river expeditions. But from up here, they look like tiny specks, easily missed.
A trek from the rim to the canyon floor crosses four different life zones – from an environmental standpoint it is the vegetative equivalent of hiking from Mexico to Canada. There is evidence that the ancient Anasazi people were travelling through the Grand Canyon almost a millennium ago. From the ground and from the air, the beautiful canyon is a transit way that has always captured the imagination.
- The new Flagstaff Extreme Adventure Course is an elevated obstacle course set in a forest of Ponderosa pines. Networks of suspended bridges, ziplines, swings, slides, wobbly bridges and hanging nets are colour-coded by skill level for both adults and youth. The course is a challenging way to test personal limits in a safe and controlled environment. www.flagstaffextreme.com
- Guys’ getaways have a new home at Mancation Nation, a one-of-a-kind package experience located right on the Colorado River. Guests can choose from extreme water sports like wakeboarding, sky skiing, water surfing, tubing and kneeboarding. The Tactical Weapons Experience gives pro instruction in the handling and operation of powerful, exotic weaponry. And to make sure no one goes hungry – packages include a personal chef and a party boat that always has food and drink at the ready. www.mancationnation.com
- In the forested White Mountains, Sunrise Park Resort offers mountain biking, archery, fishing, horseback riding and hiking. When the snow falls (yes, the high country of Arizona does get snow!) the resort opens its 65 ski runs, snowboarding park, terrain park, children’s’ hill and cross-country ski trails. www.sunriseskiparkaz.com
- Tempe was named to Bicycling Magazine’s prestigious list of Top 50 Bicycle Cities in America. The city boasts one of the highest percentages of bicycle commuters in the country – supported by a comprehensive 280-kilometre network of biking trails that are also perfect for two-wheeling visitors. Try a romantic pedal around town, and cross the new, illuminated pedestrian and bike bridge at night. www.tempe.gov/tim
- In the summer months, Arizona Territorial Adventures offers High Moon tours, a 4WD jeep excursion into the desert to watch the setting sun and the rising moon. Year-round desert tours are a fantastic way to explore the Sonoran Desert and its majestic Saguaro cacti. www.arizonaterritorialadventures.com
- When the desert heats up, the best thing to do is to slow down, seek shade and head for water. The new FlowRider boardsport simulator (opening September 2012) at the Scottsdale area Westin Kierland Resort is part snowboarding, part skateboarding and part wakeboarding designed for thrill seekers. www.kierlandresort.com
- Hard core ball fans know all about baseball’s Cactus League Spring Training. Ten Valley of the Sun area stadiums feature games between 15 Major League Baseball teams – it’s a chance for fans to get up close to players with the Chicago Cubs, San Francisco Giants, Seattle Mariners and, of course, the Arizona Diamondbacks. www.cactusleague.com
- The Great Bisbee Stair Climb was picked by Runner’s World magazine as one of the must-do, featured events in the country. Participants use any combination of walking, running and resting to traverse nine sets of steps and numerous back-roads at a challenging mile-high altitude. It’s not all gruelling: musicians serenade runners along the seven-kilometre route. www.bisbee1000.org