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Getting there and taking everything in



Published: Sun, September 29, 2002 @ 12:00 a.m.



To get a better idea ofthe canyon's scope,try a 'flightseeing' trip.

WILLIAMS, Ariz. -- Grand Canyon National Park discourages private vehicles during the summer months, and you can't blame them. With more than a million visitors annually, mass transportation makes a lot of sense.

The park operates eastbound, westbound and central shuttles with multiple stops every 15 minutes. It isn't hard to jump on a shuttle, ride to a new destination, jump off, stay as long as you like, then jump aboard again.

The shuttle system is a good idea, but it could be a lot more user-friendly. Newcomers are easily confused when they can't remember if the Red Line goes east or west, or which color line goes to the village.

The shuttle dropoffs don't have identifying signs, so riders depend on the drivers to tell them where they are.

It's frequently necessary to get off one shuttle and board another to get to a particular destination.

Still, it's possible, and even desirable, to get around without taking your car into the park.

Railway

The Grand Canyon Railway Co. is happy to pick you up in Williams, 63 miles away, and entertain you all the way up and all the way back.

Put in operation in 1901, the train was a cheap and comfortable way to travel for most Grand Canyon visitors. Back then, tickets were $3.

The railway folded in 1968, but the city of Williams worked for 20 years to resurrect it. The next train left Sept. 17, 1989, and tourists have been chugging happily to the canyon ever since.

Steam and diesel locomotives pull the restored coaches out of the Williams station after a staged Wild West show that features horses, bad guys, good guys and a few gunfights.

On the trip up, free soft drinks were served and a fiddle player entertained each car. A guitar player strolled up and down during the trip back to Williams, and the bad guys from the Wild West show staged a robbery, collecting tips at "gun" point.

Scenery from the train is uninspiring, consisting mostly of private ranches that features cows, flat scrub land and more cows.

'Flightseeing'

If train rides aren't your idea of a good time, save your money for a "flightseeing" trip. Several charter companies offer small plane and helicopter trips over the eastern Grand Canyon and Kaibab National Forest. We used AirStar, which offers an hour-long flight in a six-passenger Cessna.

Everyone gets a window seat, and the plane's wings are above the windows for an unobstructed view.

It's impossible to get a good idea of the canyon's scope from the ground -- seeing it from the air is a wonderful way to get a wider perspective.

When the plane crossed the South Rim, taking us instantly from an altitude of 500 feet to one of 4,000 feet, it was almost as though we'd slipped into a separate reality. We saw what the golden eagles see as they soar through endless twisting canyons and over jagged precipices. We were able to spot the odd confluence of the Colorado and Little Colorado rivers, the almost undeveloped North Rim, and dozens of named and unnamed pinnacles and chasms.

Returning to the ground was disappointing, but at the same time we were satisfied that we'd seen the best of the canyon, and the reason why it's called "grand."




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