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Grand Canyon, with a difference

Visitors to the Grand Canyon National Park this year will find new water-bottle refilling stations, a South Rim bicycle rental and bike-tour operation that is expected to open and a multiuse trail, also expected to be finished.

Grand Canyon National Park, the 5-million or 6-million-year-old granddaddy of Arizona tourism, 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. And despite its age, it does keep changing.

Visitors to the South Rim — by far the park's most heavily trafficked area — will find six recently installed water-bottle refilling stations near major trailheads. (There are three more on the North Rim.) The stations are designed to improve hikers' access to free water and boost reuse of bottles. Park officials say disposable water bottles make up as much as 30 percent of the park's solid waste. For more, go to www.nps.gov/grca.

Other developments:

  • 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 (May 15-Oct. 15) 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.
  • 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. For more, go to www.grandcanyonlodges.com.
  • Mule trips from the South Rim are still offered year-round (and often fill up far in advance). Mule riders and hikers with overnight itineraries can still 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. For more, go to www.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. For information, go to grandcanyonlodgenorth.com/
  • Twenty-one visitors died in the park last year from causes that include a heart attack, suicide, falls, a lightning strike, a boating accident, an 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. The driver crawled up to safety; rangers said they found the vehicle lodged against a tree 200 feet beneath the rim.

Then there's the Hualapai Tribe's Grand Canyon West operation, two-and-a half-hours' drive from Las Vegas and five hours from the South Rim. The Hualapai'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 tribe 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 $76.10 under the tribe's complex ticketing system. For more, go to www.grandcanyonwest.com.