One night last year some friends and I pulled into Mather Campground on the Grand Canyon's South Rim. The 6,000-foot-deep, 277-mile-long and 18-mile-wide chasm nearby looked like an ocean masked by the dark. Come morning, watching the sun rise over the whittled canyon was as mesmerizing as watching waves roll in. But just as you can't grasp the size of the swells without swimming, you can't comprehend the depth of the rust-colored canyon until you venture down into it—and hike rim to rim.
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The National Park Service recommends starting at the steeper North Rim, with a seven-mile hike along the North Kaibab Trail to Cottonwood Campground. From there, Day 2 entails a seven-mile hike in the gentler basin to historic Phantom Ranch, the only lodge below the rim. Day 3 bodes a ten-mile push up the Bright Angel Trail to the South Rim.
The three-day odyssey allows time to appreciate the two-billion-year-old cross section of the earth. "Rushing through the canyon is like rollerblading through the Louvre," says David Meyer, general manager of the Phantom Ranch. "You really have to take your time." As you hike, the gradually changing plant life—from the fir- and spruce-covered North Rim to the cactus- and mesquite-lined Colorado River—is the botanical equivalent of trekking from Canada to Mexico. As Mike Buchheit, director of the Grand Canyon Field Institute, says, "I've seen the canyon under a meteor shower, under an eclipse, all its moods and melodies—any one of which would be a memory of a lifetime."