Image: Hiking the Grand Canyon
Carson Walker  /  AP
Hikers walk along the South Kaibab Trail on Sept. 27 in Arizona's Grand Canyon National Park. For the well-prepared who are relatively physically fit, hiking into the canyon is safe and offers an experience that's difficult to duplicate.
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updated 11/9/2010 2:12:12 PM ET 2010-11-09T19:12:12

About 4.5 million people visit this natural wonder every year, with relatively few venturing too far below the rim — where the trails along the cliffs offer constantly changing 3-D views that quite simply are otherworldly.

Even a short trek makes it clear why.

Temperatures in the inner canyon, a mile below the rim, soar well past 100 degrees much of the year, even though rim temperatures are cooler because of 6,000-to-8,000-foot altitudes. And unlike the typical downhill exit to most mountain ascents, the end of any climb in the Grand Canyon is always uphill — or in a helicopter if you're injured, sick or worse. More than 250 people are rescued every year.

"As beautiful as this place is, I think some people, perhaps, forget that it is a wild and rugged environment and, therefore, there are inherent dangers," said Shannan Marcak, park spokeswoman.

But for the well-prepared who are relatively physically fit, hiking is safe and offers an experience that's difficult to duplicate.

The South Rim is open year-round, though the trails can be covered with snow and ice on the upper elevations during winter yet still warm on the canyon floor. The North Rim is accessible in winter by skis. Most people hike in the spring and autumn because the desert environment is much cooler than summer.

The vastness of nature
Even in early fall, the high temperature hit 110 on the bottom when I set out with my wife, brother and his wife for our first trek of this wonder.

We went down the expansive 7.2-mile South Kaibab Trial from the South Rim, stayed two nights in one of the four-person cabins at the historic Phantom Ranch and then hiked out the 9.6-mile Bright Angel Trail, both of which connect to the North Kaibab Trail that leads to the North Rim. Bright Angel is also a good trail for short day hikes.

The trails are narrow and relatively steep but there aren't any vertical climbs. The hardest part is near the top.

The view is breathtaking from the rim, and the layers of earth are easy to see, but hiking through those strata and the various formations gives you a close-up view. Every switchback offers a different, overwhelming scene. The changes are also visible by the different colored dust that collects on your shoes: tan, then red, then another shade of brown.

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"It keeps unfolding like a puzzle," my brother observed.

Geology was never so interesting.

The erosion that created the canyon deposits silt into the Colorado River, giving it a red hue much of the year.

"This river's nature is to be red and full of sediment," Marcak said.

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Besides the coolness of the morning, hiking early also lets you see the shadows advance along the landscape as the sun treks across the sky.

At night, there is no light pollution on the bottom of the Grand Canyon, so the stars shine brightly and the constellations are clearly visible. We hiked out before dawn and found that headlamps are helpful but even a half-moon offers more than enough natural light to see the trail — and clear views of the river that rushes far below on two bridges.

It's one of those moments you take in and recall again and again after the trip: You're under the heavens on the bottom of the Grand Canyon and the only natural sound is the rush of the Colorado River.

"The vastness of this is literally overwhelming to many people. I think some people are really struck with their insignificance," Marcak said.

Time to linger
One of the hikers we met on the trail was Bob Stevenson, 67, of Boss, Mo., who rode down the Grand Canyon on mule with his wife in 1995 and had returned with his adult son.

The mule ride wasn't as taxing physically, but hiking gave the father-son team a chance to linger on the trail, take it all in and spend some quality time, he said, comparing the only two ways to get to the bottom on land.

"I think the hiking just gave you an opportunity to get a better feel for the canyon itself because you could stop and look. And we had the squirrels getting in our backpack and the ravens all around us. It was pretty neat," said Stevenson, a retired accountant.

If you go ...

He thought he might be the oldest hiker but saw people years his senior.

"If you're in reasonably good shape and understand what you're getting into and have plenty of water and train for it, then it's very doable," Stevenson said.

Next to actually hiking, the biggest challenge is getting reservations.

There are two options for overnight stays on the canyon floor: the cabins or dorms at Phantom Ranch or one of the three campgrounds — Indian Gardens, Bright Angel and Cottonwood. Combined, that means there are only several hundred people in staying in this part of the canyon at any time. The campgrounds require a backcountry permit; the ranch does not.

A year out, my brother secured us bunks at the men's and women's dorms at the ranch — a 1920s-era spread that serves as an oasis for hikers, mule riders and rafters — but we were able to get a cabin once we arrived by checking in with the office on the South Rim.

It's like going back in time.

You're truly isolated and can't just run to town for something. Supplies come by mule. Breakfast and dinner reservations are required ahead of time. There's no cell phone signal, television or Internet, which provides a much-needed break from the daily constant of flickering screens. A book, card game or just good conversation are the main sources of entertainment. Here, social networking entails asking others about the hike down or hearing from veterans who have done the trip before.

Finding out which team won Monday night football proved to be a challenge, especially when we asked European tourists.

There is a pay phone but we didn't use it. The kids were with grandma.

The canteen at Phantom Ranch is a community gathering place for its temporary residents. Besides breakfast, the dinner menu is limited to two meals that are served at alternating times each evening: steak and hiker's stew. The dinner bell usually beckons guests, most of whom are already waiting outside for the door to open. At other times, the canteen is a place to cool off and converse. And every afternoon, red-faced hikers start arriving and head to the water cooler.

Bright Angel Creek, which snakes along the bottom of the canyon next to the ranch, also provides a great place to cool off, rest sore muscles — and look up to survey where you'll be hiking in the morning.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Photos: America's national parks

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  1. Acadia

    Acadia National Park in Maine boasts the highest mountain on the U.S. Atlantic Coast and was the first national park east of the Mississippi River. Visitors beware: temperatures can vary 40 degrees -- from 45 degrees to 85 degrees in the summer and from 30 degrees to 70 degrees in the spring and fall. (Gareth Mccormack / Lonely Planet Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Rocky Mountain

    Bear Lake, with mountainside aspens changing colors in mid-autumn, is one of the popular attractions in Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado. (Universal Images Group via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Badlands

    The climate in South Dakota's Badlands National Park is extreme. Temperatures range from minus 40 degrees in the dead of winter to 116 degrees in the height of summer. Visitors are drawn to the park's rugged beauty as well as the area's rich fossil beds. (Mark Newman / Lonely Planet Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Yosemite

    One of the nation's first wilderness parks, Yosemite is known for its waterfalls, scenic valleys, meadows and giant sequoias. (Robert Galbraith / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. North Cascades National Park

    The North Cascades National Park complex offers something for everyone: Monstrous peaks, deep valleys, hundreds of glaciers and phenominal waterfalls. The complex includes the park, Ross Lake and Lake Chelan National Recreation Areas. (David Mcnew / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Zion

    This spectacular corner of southern Utah is a masterpiece of towering cliffs, deep red canyons, mesas, buttes and massive monoliths. (Mark Ralston / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Redwood

    Created in 1968, Redwood National Park is located in Northern California. Today, visitors to the national park can enjoy the massive trees as well as an array of wildlife. (David Gotisha / msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Joshua Tree

    Joshua Tree National Park is located in southeast California. The area was made a national monument in 1936 and a national park in 1994. Outdoor enthusiasts can go hiking, mountain biking and rock climbing. (Gabriel Bouys / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Great Smoky Mountains

    Straddling the Tennessee-North Carolina border, Great Smoky Mountains National Park encompasses more than 800 square miles in the southern Appalachian Mountains. Visitors can expect mild winters and hot, humid summers, though temperatures can differ drastically as the park's elevation ranges from 800 feet to more than 6,600 feet. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Arches

    More than 2,000 natural sandstone arches, many of them recognizable worldwide, are preserved in Utah's Arches National Park. Temperatures can reach triple digits in the summer and can drop to below freezing in the winter. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Grand Teton

    The Snake River flows through Grand Teton National Park, and the jagged Teton Range rises above the sage-covered valley floor. Daytime temperatures during summer months are frequently in the 70s and 80s, and afternoon thunderstorms are common. (Anthony P. Bolante / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Haleakala

    Visitors watch the sun rise at 10,000 feet in Haleakala National Park in Maui, Hawaii. If weather permits, visitors at the top of the mountain can see three other Hawaiian islands. (The Washington Post via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Grand Canyon

    Grand Canyon National Park is perhaps the most recognizable national park. Nearly 5 million visitors view the mile-deep gorge every year, formed in part by erosion from the Colorado River. The North and South rims are separated by a 10-mile-wide canyon. (Gabriel Bouys / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Yellowstone

    Yellowstone National Park, America's first national park, was established in 1872. The park spans parts of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho. Grizzly bears, wolves, bison and elk live in the park. It is well known for Old Faithful and other geothermal features. (Mark Ralston / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Mount Rainier

    Glaciers. Rainforests. Hiking trails. Mount Rainier National Park, located in Washington state, offers incredible scenery and a diverse ecology. The park aims to be carbon neutral by 2016. (National Park Service) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Hawaii Volcanoes

    Two of the world's most active volcanoes can be found within Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. In 1980, the national park was designated an International Biosphere Reserve; in 1987, it was added as a World Heritage Site. (David Jordan / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Everglades

    Everglades National Park covers the nation's largest subtropical wilderness. It is also a World Heritage Site, an International Biosphere Reserve and a Wetland of International Importance. Visitors to the park can camp, boat, hike and find many other ways to enjoy the outdoors. (Joe Raedle / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Glacier

    A view from atop the Grinnell Glacier Overlook trail in Glacier National Park. With more than 700 miles of trails the park is known for its glaciers, forests, alpine meadows and beautiful lakes. (Matt McKnight / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Bryce Canyon

    Located in southwestern Utah, Bryce Canyon National Park is known for its distinctive geological structures called "hoodoos." (Mark Ralston / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Crater Lake

    The brilliant blue Crater Lake, located in southern Oregon, was formed when Mount Mazama, standing at 12,000 feet, collapsed 7,700 years ago after a massive eruption. Crater Lake is one of the world's deepest lakes at 1,943 feet. (David Gotisha / msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Olympic

    Washington state's Olympic National Park offers visitors beaches on the Pacific Ocean, glacier-capped mountain peaks and everything in between. Keep the weather in mind when visiting, though, as roads and facilities can be affected by wind, rain and snow any time of year. (National Park Service) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Sequoia and Kings Canyon

    A woman stands among a grove of a Giant Sequoia trees in Sequoia National Park in Central California. The trees, which are native to California's Sierra Nevada Mountains, are the world's largest by volume, reaching heights of 275 feet and a ground level girth of 109 feet. The oldest known Giant Sequoia based on its ring count is 3,500 years old. (Mark Ralston / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Denali

    Alaska's Denali National Park spans 6 million acres and includes the 20,320-foot Mount McKinley, North America's tallest peak. Many park visitors try to catch a glimpse of the "big five" -- moose, caribou, Dall sheep, wolves and grizzly bear. (National Park Service) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Kenai Fjords National Park

    The National Park Service considers the 8.2-mile round-trip on Harding Icefield Trail in Alaska's Kenai Fjords National Park to be strenuous, saying hikers gain about 1,000 feet of elevation with each mile. (National Park Service via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Death Valley

    California's Death Valley encompasses more than 3.3 million acres of desert wilderness. In 1849, a group of gold rush pioneers entered the Valley, thinking it was a shortcut to California. After barely surviving the trek across the area, they named the spot "Death Valley." In the 1880s, native peoples were pushed out by mining companies who sought the riches of gold, silver, and borax. (Gabriel Bouys / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. Wind Cave

    Bison graze in Wind Cave National Park in the southern Black Hills of South Dakota. Millions of bison were slaughtered by white hunters who pushed them to near-extinction by the late 1800s. Recovery programs have brought the bison numbers up to nearly 250,000. (David McNew / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. Canyonlands

    The Lower Basins Zone is outlined by the white rim edge as seen from the White Rim Trail in Canyonlands National Park, Utah. (Doug Pensinger / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. Shenandoah

    Fall colors blanket the Shenandoah National Park, drawing tourists to Skyline Drive to view the scenery. (Karen Bleier / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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