Improvements at the Grand Canyon

The Grand Canyon may be 5 or 6 million years old, but the granddaddy of Arizona tourism is keeping up with the times. Visitors to

An undated photo of a visitor looking over

An undated photo of a visitor looking over the edge at the west rim of the Grand Canyon. (Credit: MCT/Los Angeles Times)

The Grand Canyon may be 5 or 6 million years old, but the granddaddy of Arizona tourism is keeping up with the times.

Visitors to the park this year will find water-bottle refilling stations, a new South Rim bicycle rental and bike-tour operation and a multiuse trail among its new features.

While the park logged 4.3 million visitors last year, rangers say that's a dip of 3.7 percent from the year before. But the canyon remains among the nation's most-visited parks. On the heavily trafficked South Rim, hikers can keep hydrated at six recently installed water-bottle refilling stations near major trail heads. (There are three more on the North Rim.) The stations are designed to improve access to free water and boost reuse of bottles.

Other developments:


BIKES

Park officials may have a new South Rim bicycle rental and bike-tour operation running as soon as May 15 in the Mather Point area. The new summertime concession will replace a pilot program that operated in 2010-11.

Also due this year: completion of an eight-mile multiuse trail that connects the South Rim visitor center with the gateway town of Tusayan.


LODGING

The park's Bright Angel Lodge & Cabins has moved and returned the South Rim's oldest building to service as a two-room cabin. The unit, built in 1890 and known as Red Horse Cabin, was used for storage for decades until a recent rehab effort by Xanterra, the South Rim lodging concessionaire. Now, standing a few feet from the rim, it rents for $340 a night.

There are about 950 lodging units on the South Rim (details at grandcanyonlodges.com).

At the canyon's more isolated North Rim (a 210-mile drive from the South Rim), lodging and camping facilities are open mid-May through mid-October (grandcanyonlodgenorth.com).


MULE TOURS

Mule trips from the South Rim still are offered year-round (and often fill up far in advance).

Mule riders and hikers with overnight itineraries can stay in the rustic cabins and dorms at Phantom Ranch (built in 1922 at the canyon bottom), where beds often are reserved 13 months in advance.


SAFETY

Twenty-one visitors died in the park last year from causes that include heart attack, suicide, falls, lightning strike, boating accident, RV fire and hypothermia/dehydration, a park spokeswoman said. In late April, a 21-year-old man accidentally drove his vehicle over the canyon rim -- and survived.


SKYWALK

Then there's the Hualapai Tribe's Grand Canyon West operation, a 2 1/2-hour drive from Las Vegas and five hours from the South Rim.

The tribe's 5-year-old Grand Canyon Skywalk, a glass-floored, horseshoe-shaped walkway, allows visitors to look straight down to the red rock gorge 4,000 feet below.

The Hualapai also offers Colorado River rafting day trips and pontoon boat rides, helicopter rides, horseback rides, lodging, dining and a faux Old West town for kids near the canyon's edge, along with more lodging on tribal land along Route 66 at Peach Springs.

The minimum cost to walk the Skywalk is $87.81 in a package that includes a meal, fees and taxes (grandcanyonwest.com).

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