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UNDER GROUND

Descend into the Grand Canyon to discover one of the most beautiful places on Earth

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Most visitors to the Grand Canyon don't stay long. They emerge from cars or tour buses to peer out from the rim and pose for photographs. Sometimes, they stay for a picnic or to have lunch at one of the rim lodges. Then they're gone, the visit checked off their bucket list. The average visit to this Arizona attraction lasts just two hours, Grand Canyon National Park officials say.

The Grand Canyon can be a disappointment. Viewed from the top near one of the visitors' parking lots, the fissured network of buttes and desert plateaus that make up one of the world's largest river gorges can appear almost like a two-dimensional painting. More than one spectator has called it overrated.

But for many of those who take the first steps to descend below the canyon rim, something magical happens. Despite all the beautiful parks and places to discover on Earth, they'll decide this is the place they have to return to, again and again.

When hikers step through the canvas of pastel pink, orange, grey and deep blue, they become part of the landscape. Down foot trails gouged from the side of rock cliffs, the view expands to 360 degrees and the canyon takes on dimensions and distances that can't quite be reckoned. Only the condors and ravens have mastered the terrain. A vast world such as this leaves plenty of room for the mind to wander, to graze and to rest.

No one knows for sure how the canyon came to be. Much of it was formed from rocks nearly 2 billion years old, and it was once a seabed. Seismic shifts, and wind and water erosion continue to create a kind of living work of art. At the centre of it all is the Colorado River, which threads its way through 446 kilometres of the canyon, from west to east.

It's believed the first human visitors to the Grand Canyon were aboriginals who hunted here some 4,000 years ago. Spanish explorers arrived in the 16th century; American fur trappers followed in the late-1820s. After 1880, prospectors came to the canyon in search of copper, silver and asbestos. Tourism took off in 1901, once the railroad reached the canyon's South Rim. In 1919, the Grand Canyon was declared a national park. Today, it gets up to 5 million visitors annually.

The trails that descend into the canyon are open to anyone, but backpackers who want to spend a night or more below the rim need to reserve spots at designated campsites. The competition can be fierce; reservations often are booked up four months ahead of time. Same goes for travellers who want to ride a mule to the bottom and spend the night at the rustic lodge at Phantom Ranch.

But the best, and safest, hiking season isn't the summer peak visitor season. Summer months below the rim can be brutally hot, and deadly. Temperatures higher than 40 C at the bottom are common. Spring and fall are the best hiking seasons, when the cool temperatures at the 2,100-metre-high South Rim give way to warmer weather along the 1.6-kilometre descent.

On our first two visits, we hiked on the Bright Angel and the South Kaibab trails, known as the "corridor" trails because they're the most travelled. Both lead to Phantom Ranch and the Bright Angel Campground near the Colorado, where we stayed. These trails are well-maintained and well-patrolled by park rangers.

Most recently, we ventured onto the tougher, slightly more remote Hermit Trail, and from there, to the Tonto, a relatively flat trail that runs along a plateau roughly parallel to the Colorado River.

Hikers in the Grand Canyon share a special bond. Conversation -- about the stunning views, the tired and sore feet and what freeze-dried delicacy is going to be eaten for supper -- comes easily. Most of the people we met during our three trips were return visitors, in many cases heading to the same trails over and over.

Jerry Jones, 62, a retired engineer from Ohio, has lost track of the number of times he has hiked the Grand Canyon. The first time was nearly 50 years ago. It was New Year's Eve and Jones was 13. He and his parents were vacationing on the Canyon's South Rim when he decided to hike down to Indian Gardens, a campsite about halfway down to the Colorado River. "I about froze to death," Jones recalled.

Since then, Jones has made many more pilgrimages. His most recent was a three-night stay -- two nights at the Bright Angel Campsite, and for old time's sake, a third night at Indian Gardens.

"This place gets in your blood. There's no place like it on Earth. I feel closer to God here," he said.

Like Jones, Wade and Ben Cox got hooked on the Grand Canyon when they were kids. The brothers, who live in Baton Rouge, La., enjoy a challenge. Their most recent hike, their sixth, lasted eight days, and took them down -- and then back up -- some of the roughest, scariest trails.

For Wade, 43, and Ben, 37, this last hike was an excuse to get back in shape. In preparation, Ben lost 70 pounds. He says his big brother always looked out for him -- and still does.

"On the trail, we're never more than 15 feet apart," Ben said.

Hiking the Grand Canyon can be perilous. The park is open year-round, and most casualties, and sometimes even deaths, are from heat exhaustion and dehydration in the summer months. There can be a difference in temperature of nearly 20 C between the rim of the canyon and its base.

During one trip, the Cox brothers encountered ice at the top of a trail.

"It popped into my head that this might be the end of the trip," Ben said.

On their latest trip, the brothers spent several days on the Tonto trail.

"Some parts of the trail were only six to eight feet wide -- and on an angle," Ben said.

Before leaving Louisiana, the Coxes left their mom a detailed itinerary of their journey -- and promised to phone as soon as they were within cellphone range.

Backpackers, especially those on multi-day trips, do their best to travel light. In addition to carrying tents and sleeping bags, they also have to bring enough food. Though piped-in water is available in spots along the corridor trails, hikers who take more advanced trails, such as the Tonto, must bring along water purifiers to treat the water they take from creeks.

The Cox brothers were proud they had managed to reduce the weight of their backpacks from previous trips.

"We've been getting more and more weight-conscious," said Wade, whose pack weighed in at 35 pounds; brother Ben's was 38.

Some hikers are competitive about making good time. Not Marian and Harvey Yergin, who have made the trip to the Grand Canyon from their home in Ohio six times in the 12 years they've been married.

Last fall, the Yergins did a nine-day hike. Some days, they kept their hikes short, doing only a few kilometres and taking plenty of time along the way to rest and take in the view. At 70, Harvey Yergin is pleased he's fit enough to keep hiking the canyon.

"I like to feel like I can still do it. And where else can you get this scenery? You can stop at the top of the Grand Canyon and look down, but you don't get a feel for it," he said.

For Marian Yergin, the lure of the canyon is more emotional.

"I love the solitude," she said. "You kind of put things in perspective."

If the canyon is a place for the mind to wander, it can't be allowed to run loose altogether. On the Hermit Trail, for instance, close attention is in order. Loose rocks underfoot can cause a trip-ending ankle sprain -- or worse. And during the short days of late fall, hikers must pay attention to make sure they reach their destinations before sundown.

On our last trip, we got caught in the dark. I'll spare the details here, but let's just say there's a hefty fine for setting up your tent and sleeping on the trail. The following morning, when we arrived at the Monument Creek campsite, some of the other hikers gave us admiring looks. Clearly, they wondered how we could have made it down from the trailhead so quickly.

Only the Yergins guessed our secret.

"The same thing happened to us last year," they told us. "In fact, we think we may have camped at the very same spot you guys did."

-- Postmedia News

IF YOU GO

Rent a car at the McCarran International Airport. The Grand Canyon's South Rim is about 400 kilometres from Las Vegas. The drive takes about 4.5 hours.

To book a room at one of the six lodges on the South Rim, contact Xanterra Parks and Resorts. Rooms start at $93 per night. Xanterra can be reached by telephone at 303-600-3400 or online at xanterra.com. Xanterra also handles reservations for Phantom Lodge, the rustic lodge at the bottom of the canyon. Bookings for Phantom Lodge need to be done a year in advance, though there is sometimes last-minute availability.

Backpackers planning to stay below the rim overnight will need to apply for a backcountry permit. Permits cost $10 per night, plus $5 per person. There is a lot of competition for permits, and it's wise to apply four months in advance. Check the U.S. National Park Service website for application details at nps.gov/grca/ planyourvisit/backcountrypermit.htm or telephone 928-638-7875

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 7, 2012 D1

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