Flagstaff, AZ – Grand Canyon tour bus driver Dick Lott is taking a photo for a couple posed against the Mohave Point overlook. Beyond them, abrupt slopes and impossible cliffs descend almost a mile to an aquamarine ribbon that is the Colorado River.
Lott has been showing people the Canyon for four years. He says he has seen some drop in visitors.
"The whole park, the whole area, has been a little lower," Lott says. "Visitation's been a little lower, because of the economy I imagine."
Last year almost four and a half million visitors explored the Grand Canyon. This year, attendance is down, but only marginally, by 1%.
John Streit runs Xanterra on the South Rim, the concessionaire that operates the lodges, restaurants and some gift shops. He employs 1,200 workers. He hasn't had to lay anyone off, but revenues in retail sales are down by about three percent.
"Nothing's recession-proof but national parks have been fairly recession-resistant over the years," Streit says. "People are still sleeping. People are still eating. But in the retail revenue, you know, you don't have to buy five or six T-shirts."
Tourists Still Coming
Along the rim of the canyon a group of Japanese tourists are posing for photos near the famed El Tovar Hotel. Nilloofel Dumasia of Mumbai, India, sits nearby, looking out over the rim.
"Oh it's a beautiful place, very beautiful, and there are none to surpass it in the world, Dumasia says. "There's no other place like this canyon in the world."
International travelers like Dumasia typically make up more than a third of the Canyon's visitors. But international travel to the U.S. is down this year, by about eight percent. That brings the attendance numbers down in all of the national parks, the Grand Canyon among them.
Still, the park remains one of the most popular tourist destinations for Americans. And the economy has hardly budged that.
Carrol Terbrock and her husband Joe of Forrestal, Missouri are visiting the canyon during a three week road trip.
"We've seen it on TV, you know," Terbrock says. "But just to see it in real life, my goodness. Anyone from the Midwest really would be fascinated by this. They can't visualize it. You know you see pictures of it and you fly over it going to Vegas or something but until you really get down here and see it, this is neat."
The couple says the economy really hasn't affected their travel plans this year. But Carol Terbrock says "I hope gas doesn't go too high for us. We've decided we're too old. We want to take off and travel. So we're going."
A line of mules with tourists clinging desperately to saddle horns is headed down-canyon from Bright Angel Point. Their guide is Kevin Varley, who everyone at the canyon calls "K-Bar." He sports a brown Stetson, blue cowboy shirt with pearl snaps and a mustache as large as his voice.
"Today I had the day ride which is a 12-mile round trip ride down to Plateau Point and back," Varley says. "We go down there, have lunch, then turn around and come back out on the same trail."
The mule guide agrees that like the trail, some things are headed down, but not everything.
"Throughout the park I can see attendance is definitely down," Varley says. "But we stay very busy here at the mule barn just for the fact that it's such a unique ride."
According to Varley, mule rides that require advance bookings are doing fine.
Running the Rapids
About ninety miles up-river, at Lee's Ferry, the big blue rafts of another Colorado River expedition are loading up. More than 20,000 people float through the Grand Canyon each year. The numbers this year are somewhat down, though the river remains extraordinarily popular.
Milton Frank of Walnut Creek, California, is stowing his last bit of gear. He decided last year to make a second trip down the Canyon when he and a friend were gazing at another river the Rio Grande outside Taos, New Mexico. He recalls they were considering just how short life actually is.
"This is a very special thing," Frank says. "You can only do this once or twice in a lifetime. My friend Peter said I'd sure like to go down the Grand Canyon and I said, well, we've done that and we'd love to go again. And he said, well, let's do it. He called about three days later and said it's a three-year wait however somebody just canceled and we could get on if we accepted tomorrow. And we did. And here we are today."
Frank quotes the famous San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen to help explain his decision to see the Canyon for a second time.
"We all hear that, you know, live today like it's going to be the last day of your life," Frank says. "And Herb Caen said, 'Because someday, you're gonna be right.' So you have to look at it like that."
Back on the South Rim, Ranger Ron Brown recounts the California Condor's comeback to about three dozen tourists. He's been a park ranger almost ten years, and says he knows why the recession rumbling along in the outside world has barely touched the Canyon.
"So many people come here and they tell you I waited my whole life to see this," Brown says. "People who really can only afford one vacation they come here. This is the place, you know."
Teddy Roosevelt knew that in 1903, when he articulated his vision of what the Grand Canyon would become for Americans. "Keep it for your children," he said, "your children's children, and for all who come after you, as the one great sight which every American should see."
-with reporting by John Paxson