Sure, everyone goes to the Grand Canyon National Park to see the jaw-dropping geology and endless vistas. But next time you’re at the park’s South Rim, turn your back on nature for a few moments and wander through some of the historic architectural treasures perched on the canyon’s edge. You’ll find as many Instagrammable visions in the bricks and mortar as you would in the sandstone and limestone layers below.
The Fred Harvey Company /Santa Fe Railroad Buildings
Many of the historic buildings at the park’s South Rim were operated or built by the Fred Harvey Company, which provided hospitality services along the Santa Fe Railroad’s scenic western routes, pretty much creating the tourism industry west of the Mississippi. Harvey’s portfolio ranged from lunch counters and gift shops to hotels and elegant dining rooms.
One of the first Harvey projects at the Grand Canyon was its signature El Tovar Hotel, opened in 1905. It was designed by the railroad’s chief architect, Chicago-based Charles Whittlesey. Going with the turn-of-the-century architectural zeitgeist, Whittlesey designed a Tyrolean fantasy steps from the precipice, a multi-level log palace that offered luxe comforts to well-heeled travelers. The oft-booked hotel still has luxury accommodations, plus an upscale restaurant and a cozy bar.
Another railroad architect, Francis W. Wilson, was tapped to design the Grand Canyon Depot, which opened in 1910, to serve rail passengers flocking to the canyon. Also built with logs, it was created to complement the architecture of the El Tovar Hotel, which stood uphill. The depot is still in use today for the Grand Canyon Railway.
The Mary Colter Years
About the same time, Mary Colter began working for the Fred Harvey Company as an interior designer and architect. Her first commission at the Grand Canyon was the Hopi House, which also opened in 1905. It was meant to be a simple gift shop, across the drive from El Tovar, but Colter knocked it out of the ballpark, architecturally speaking, after immersing herself in northern Arizona’s Indian culture, as well as the natural history of the surrounding Colorado Plateau. Instead of a European-influenced building, Colter went native–quite literally–and built a hand-crafted structure of local sandstone that closely resembled a Hopi pueblo, right down to the small entryways and exterior ladders leading to upper terraces.
Colter’s organic, regional design sensibilities lead to numerous other projects at the Grand Canyon, including Lookout Studio–now a gift shop–that was designed as a photography studio, built to look like it grew out of the canyon’s edge; Hermits Rest, another gift shop crafted to look a rock-walled hermit’s cabin; and the Desert View Watchtower, a four-story structure influenced by ancient Native American watchtowers in the Southwest. One of Colter’s last projects at the Grand Canyon was the 1935 Bright Angel Lodge, meant to be a rustic alternative to El Tovar. The cabins, rooms, restaurant and bar still accommodate guests today.
Other Architectural Treasures
Some of the South Rim’s commercial enterprises operated outside of the Fred Harvey Company and railroad’s umbrella. The Verkamp family began selling souvenirs out of a tent to tourists in the late 1800s. By 1905, the enterprising family built what could best be described as a gracious mission-style bungalow, complete with a front porch overlooking the canyon. The family lived upstairs and sold curious on the first floor. The building is now a bookstore and a visitor center.
Ellsworth and Emery Kolb arrived at the Grand Canyon in the early 1900s, looking for adventure, not to mention a way to make a living. They soon began making films about the canyon and photographing tourists riding mules down the Bright Angel Trail. For years, they trudged nine miles up and down the trail to the only source of water to develop the photographs, but eventually built a gravity-defying cabin literally on the canyon’s edge. With multiple additions, the cabin morphed into a multi-level home, studio and movie theater. The Grand Canyon Association now runs it as a bookstore and art gallery.
Finally, if you get to the Grand Canyon National Park through the town of Williams, stop by the 1908 Williams depot, now home to the Grand Canyon Railway. The depot, one of the oldest cast-concrete buildings in Arizona, was also once home to the Fred Harvey Company’s Fray Marcos Hotel, which included 43 guest rooms, a dining room and a cigar stand.
Get on The Bus, Gus.
Nifty Ways to See The Canyon
In 2016, some 6 million visitors came through the Grand Canyon National Park. The park service folks really, really don’t want you to drive your car within the park (and if you’re visiting during busy summer months, neither will you).
Here are a few alternative ways to get around in (and get to) the Grand Canyon’s main visitor destination, the South Rim.
Grand Canyon Railway
Hop on vintage rail cars at a historic train depot in nearby Williams, then enjoy an entertaining ride (cocktails, live music and a few other surprises on board) to and from the park’s South Rim. Do it as a day trip, spend a night in the park or stay at the railway’s hotel back in Williams. thetrain.com
Maverick is one of several helicopter companies authorized to fly over the Grand Canyon. Some of the most popular tours leave from Grand Canyon Airport in Tusayan, just outside the park’s South Rim entrance, while others depart from Las Vegas. Either way, bird’s-eye views are eye-popping. maverickhelicopter.com
The park offers free shuttle buses with routes connecting the park’s Visitor Center–where you can leave your car–to just about everything on the South Rim. Want to skip the long line of cars at the entry pay stations? Park in Tusayan, buy an entrance pass at a local business, hop a shuttle and cruise right into the park. nps.gov/grca
You can also purchase tickets for special guided bus treks, such as a sunset tour or a drive to other scenic spots within the park. grandcanyonlodges.com
Rent a bike and pedal your way around the South Rim along designated paths and roadways, or join a guided bike tour to learn about the canyon’s history, geology, flora and fauna. bikegrandcanyon.com
These steady beasts will still take you down to Phantom Ranch if you’re planning on spending the night at the bottom of the canyon, but the park has recently added the Canyon Vistas mule ride, an activity that’s perfect for day-trippers. The guided ride hugs the canyon’s rim for four miles, offering plenty of views and interpretation without having to traverse steep trails. grandcanyonlodges.com