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The Grand Canyon Greenway: A Model for America's National Parks

photo: Paved trails at Grand Canyon National Park
Paved trails at Grand Canyon National Park

The work of the Team hinged on redesigning the transportation system to resolve traffic problems while enhancing the natural solitude for visitors, so that they may experience the true grandeur of the setting.

Map of Arizona

"Our Grand Canyon National Park is a place of tremendous beauty, peace, and scenic grandeur, as well as a place of vast natural and cultural interest. The canyon is one of the world's most spectacular products of the combined natural forces of uplift and erosion, and as a world heritage site, it has been identified as a place of universal value to all people."
-- Grand Canyon National Park General Management Plan, 1995.

The Grand Canyon Greenway represents a significant change from the Park's existing "drive your car to the scenic view."

This overview of the Grand Canyon summarizes the magnificent resource that is situated in northwestern Arizona. The awe-inspiring value of the canyon has always been its drawing card. Today, more than 4.5 million people from every corner of the globe visit the North and South Rims of the canyon to take a moment and gaze over the sheer cliffs. The popularity of this natural wonder has overwhelmed the infrastructure of roads, lodging and viewshed areas that were established by the United States Government during the 1930's, 40's and 50's.Today, the National Park Service is faced with a serious problem: how to accommodate the ever-growing number of people who want to have an opportunity to experience the exhilaration of their first view.

photo: Conceptual planning for the Grand Canyon Greenway
Conceptual planning for the Grand Canyon Greenway

In 1995, the Park Service completed the General Management Plan for the National Park. Among the many recommendations of this Plan is a set of major infrastructure reforms for the North and South Rims. Based on current and future estimated usage rates during peak seasons, visitors face an experience which is unsatisfying, disappointing, and potentially hazardous. Traffic flow is slow, and congested at overlooks; vehicle noise damages the natural solitude of the experience; poor air quality diminishs the visual experience; and visitor facilities were designed for lower capacities. The result can be only brief "drive-by" experiences for many visitors, if not actual conflicts between them.

Under a traditional remedy, roads would be extended, parking lots expanded and service facilities developed in order to accommodate the needs of increased visitation. To accomplish this at the National Park would further degrade the visitation experience and destroy the natural landscape that makes the canyon popular.The National Park Service determined that the best method for accommodating the crush of visitors would be to diversify the transportation system, and offer a wider range of experiences at the Rims. To accomplish this without restricting visitation, both a new transit system and a Greenway would need to be established along the Rims. This Greenway, primarily a transportation facility consisting of bicycle and pedestrian trails, would extend from Desert View to Hermit's Rest, a distance of approximately 25 miles on the South Rim; and from the Grand Canyon Lodge to Cape Royal, approximately 22 miles on the North Rim.

The Grand Canyon Greenway represents a significant change from the Park's existing "drive your car to the scenic view." It is a balanced approach which replaces unsightly parking lots and traffic congestion with a quiet, enjoyable and environmentally beneficial visitor experience. This project will return the North and South Rim's to places where visitors are amazed by the view, not frustrated by overcrowded conditions.

Provided with a definition of the problems facing the North and South Rims of Grand Canyon National Park, a volunteer, private-sector Greenway Team was invited by the National Park Service and the Grand Canyon Fund to develop a plan of action for implementing the "Grand Canyon Greenway." To accomplish this mission, the Team divided into two subgroups: a subgroup that explored landscape architecture, civil engineering, transportation engineering and implementation strategies for constructing the 47-mile trail system and ancillary facilities; and a subgroup that defined the cost of development and proposed ways to generate funding in support of full build-out of the Greenway.

The objectives of the Team were to redesign and redefine the visitor's experience to both better protect the resource, and to better manage visitation throughout the resource. The work of the Team hinged on redesigning the transportation system to resolve traffic problems while enhancing the natural solitude for visitors, so that they may experience the true grandeur of the setting.

The Team felt that it was important to provide opportunities for quiet, reflective, and very personal experiences, and to allow an individual to choose how to explore and enjoy the canyon, from hiking canyon trails, walking the rim, and visiting overlooks by bicycle, to using quiet, clean transit to reach their destinations. The Team also recognized that the amount of visitation, for example at Mather Point, no longer allows private automobiles to be the primary element of this experience.

  • The Greenway Summit Team's solutions for the Grand Canyon Greenway focused on the following key elements:
  • An interpretive welcome center that offers the visitor a variety of clear and enticing ways to enjoy their visit.
  • An improved pedestrian environment and continuity from Mather Point to Grand Canyon Village, and from Grand Canyon Lodge to the new transportation center at CC Hill.
  • An expanded bicycle and pedestrian trail system that provides alternative transportation along a 47-mile system of trails.
  • Easy availability of bicycles, skates, strollers and wheelchairs for visitors at reasonable costs.
  • Access for all visitors and clear trail markers and signs.
  • Enhanced interpretive opportunities, including unique information kiosks/checkpoints along the rim trails which would encourage greater visitor exploration.
  • High quality, accessible transit to serve visitors.

Understanding the User/Visitor

The Team began its work by defining the broad range of user groups and visitors that currently access and enjoy the resources of the Park. Most visitors arrive at the Park after a considerable journey of 4 to 6 hours. Many arrive by tour bus, and are off-loaded at a view point parking lot. They travel by foot for 10 to 15 minutes to an observation area, where the National Park Service estimates that they spend 10 to 15 minutes absorbing the awesome view. They are then usually herded back onto buses and are driven to another observation point where the experience is repeated.

Many of these visitors have paid a considerable sum of money for this experience, and therefore the desire is to see as many observation points as possible. The Team defined this visitor experience a "Kodak moment," an opportunity to have a picture taken to prove that you in fact were at the canyon. A great number of visitors also arrive by private automobile and have a similar experience as that previously described for tour bus visitors. The difference is that their private car transports them to the various viewpoints.

When thousands of these visitors attempt to enjoy the same experience on the same summer day, the congestion among tour busses and automobiles chokes the Park Service roads, parking lots and facilities.The Team felt that the most significant problem facing the South Rim area was the fact that visitors were dependent on the automobile or tour bus in order to have a successful visitation. At the North Rim, better access by foot trails is offered. The Team determined that the Greenway, as a non-motorized transportation corridor, could disperse the crush of visitors into a number of different travel choices, and then begin to offer a diverse range of visitation experiences from a peaceful contemplative experience at the canyon rim, to a family bike ride along a wide and well marked trail system, to an interpretive tour of the desert landscape.

Recommended Greenway Facilities

The design subgroup determined that the future Grand Canyon Greenway will beckon visitors to step out of their buses and autos and become more intimate with the Canyon. The Greenway will offer visitors more than just a view from the rim. The Greenway will offer a choice in access and sensory experience. The Greenway will also accommodate backpackers, equestrians, in-line skaters, strollers and people with disabilities. There will be places for large groups of people to congregate as well as places to get away and find solitude.The Greenway system will link together and provide non-motorized access to virtually all of the North and South Rim's key destinations and attractions. It will be a way to move along the Canyon edge in relative solace, a way to experience the sights, scents and sounds of the gorge and the high desert with places to stop and rest and to learn about the geology, ecology and culture of the Grand Canyon. The greenway will also provide convenient links to the existing trails along the rim and trails that go into and across the Canyon.

Fiscal Goals of the Greenway Project

The Greenway Team determined that completion of the Grand Canyon Greenway system would require a total of $30 million to be invested by the year 2000. This investment would come from both the public and private sector, through a unique partnership. Due to the world-wide significance of Grand Canyon National Park, the Team felt that participation would be enough to lure investors from throughout the United States.

Call to Action

Several important actions must be quickly and efficiently implemented in order to bring the concept of the South Rim Greenway to reality. First and foremost, money must be generated to support the development of the Greenway plan. In order to raise the estimated $30 million needed to develop the project, it will be necessary to begin a Greenway Capital Campaign.

Other short term actions include, but are not necessarily limited to the following:

  • File an application with the State of Arizona Department of Transportation, the National Park Service and the US Department of Transportation for federal transportation (NEXTEA) funds.
  • Distribute this Master Plan report to the President and Vice President of the United States, Interior Secretary Babbit, United States Senators and House of Representative members from the state of Arizona, Governor of Arizona and other key public officials.
  • Make available for distribution copies of Grand Canyon Greenway Master Plan report, produced by the Team, so that immediate fund raising activities can commence.
  • Host a ground breaking ceremony with national public figures for the North and South Rim's on National Trails Day, June 7, 1998 and July 4, 1998.
  • Sponsor the development of a pilot project to demonstrate the effectiveness of the proposed Greenway system.
  • Conduct a Field Institute course for the Superintendents of the western National Park Service Units to share the experiences of the Grand Canyon Greenway partnership.

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