September 29, 2009

Our National Parks, Part II

With the kickoff of Ken Burn's documentary series, "The National Parks, America's Best Idea," we continue our highlight of a few of our nation's topographic treasures.

This week: Grand Canyon National Park (Courtesy of
The road to the Grand Canyon from the south crosses a gently rising plateau that gives no hint at what is about to unfold. You wonder if you have made a wrong turn. All at once an immense gorge a mile deep and up to 18 miles wide opens up. The scale is so vast that even from the best vantage point only a fraction of the canyon's 277 miles can be seen.

Nearly five million people travel here each year; 90 percent first see the canyon from the South Rim with its dramatic views into the deep inner gorge of the Colorado River. So many feet have stepped cautiously to the edge of major overlooks that in places the rock has been polished smooth. But most of the park's 1,904 square miles are maintained as wilderness. You can avoid crowds by hiking the park's many trails or driving to the cool evergreen forests of the North Rim where people are fewer and viewing is more leisurely.

The Grand Canyon boasts some of the nation's cleanest air, with visibility averaging 90 to 110 miles. Increasingly, though, air pollution blurs vistas that once were sharp and rich hued. Hazy days have become more common, with visibility dropping as low as 40 miles. Haze from forest fires and pollen has always been present, but the recent increase is traced to sources outside the park, like copper smelters and urban areas in Arizona, southern California, and even Mexico.

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Coming Soon! Explore the wondrous Grand Canyon National Park with our new Trails Illustrated trail maps.