After living in the USA for almost 36 years, I can finally say that I have visited the Grand Canyon! And yes, it’s everything I imagined, though I could have done without the wind and snow. Anyone who has visited this wonderful national park knows that it’s hard to capture with words or pictures, but I will try to describe some of our activities there and share some of the photos we took.
We drove into the park on Tuesday morning from Flagstaff and headed straight for the visitors’ center on the South Rim (the North Rim is open May 15 – October 15). We took the first parking spot we saw, even though it wasn’t super close, since the spring break crowds were thronging. However, we were well situated for me to get my first look at the rim from Mather Point. It was everything I’d imagined!
After our obligatory examination of the visitor center, which also included getting our parks passport stamps (yes, we’re that geeky), we planned our day. Our main interest was in riding our bikes to gain access to some of the areas that can’t be reached by private car after March 1, and staying off the shuttle buses at least on one day, since they get pretty crowded. We first rode from the visitor center out to Yaki Point. It was quite busy there, with people getting on and off the shuttle buses. There are free and paid shuttle buses (these seem to be tied to the lodges) so there was a lot of coming and going of people on these vehicles. We rode back to the South Kaibab trailhead and sat in relative peace there for a little bit, watching what we thought was a condor soaring high in the sky. Amazing, huge creatures. We doubled back and rode as far as Powell Point going west. It was a grind riding uphill beyond the Bright Angel trailhead on our steel bikes and we knew we had an uphill ride on the way back going past Grand Canyon Village, so we decided it probably wasn’t smart to try to ride all the way to Hermit’s Rest. Even with only 17 miles ridden, we managed almost 1,200 feet of climbing! Since we also managed about 11,000 steps on foot, it was quite a day.
After loading the bikes back on the van, we decided to find our campsite and get set up for the night. We had decided that since the weather was supposed to get kind of nasty, that we would not set up our tent, but would sleep in the van (another reason we call our Toyota Sienna the poor man’s RV). Sleeping in the van on the first night, even though the weather was mild, proved to be a smart move for a couple of reasons. First, if the weather got bad while we were out and about the next day, we wouldn’t have to try to take down a wet tent. Second, it gave us a chance to figure out the setup in the van without the pressure of trying to do it in rain or snow. And of course, when I say we, I mean Angie, the logistics queen of the family. I just followed her instructions…. The only real downside of sleeping in the van was that the bikes were on the rack, so they did end up getting snowed on.
After a mac and cheese dinner using our new stove (we love our new stove!), we took ourselves up to the Shrine of the Ages to hear a ranger talk. I don’t remember the name of the ranger, but she gave a very stimulating talk about the history of Grand Canyon Village, including about some of the interesting characters who were European business pioneers in the area, and some of the great buildings, many of which are now on the National Register of Historic Places.
The talk was well attended and we both enjoyed it, but we were beat. Angie did some final setup in the van and we quickly passed out.
On Wednesday, we got up just a tad too late to watch the sunrise over the rim, though it was pretty outside and we got some good views from Yavapai Point.
We went into the Geology Museum, which seemed to be open rather early, to get one of the passport stamps. As I closed the stamp pad, a ranger came in, ordering everybody out. Apparently, someone had failed to lock up the museum overnight, and we weren’t supposed to be in there! After beating our retreat, we drove back to the campsite and cooked up some egg fried rice to fuel ourselves for the morning. We planned to leave the van at the campsite today and use the shuttle buses and our feet to explore the park some more. We walked up to the bus stop near the Shrine of the Ages and took the shuttle to the edge of the Grand Canyon Village.
We first went into the two historic buildings at the east end of the village, the El Tovar Hotel and Hopi House, which was designed by Mary Jane Colter. Colter was a pioneering designer who had a tremendous influence on the architecture of the southwest, taking into account the surroundings and the style of earlier inhabitants of the region, and of course being one of the first woman architects to gain great renown. Our presenter from the night before had mentioned that ironically, Theodore Roosevelt had enjoyed staying at El Tovar, even though, years before he had said of the Grand Canyon: “Leave it as it is. You cannot improve on it. The ages have been at work on it, and man can only mar it. What you can do is to keep it for your children, and for all who come after you, as the one great sight which every American… should see.” Hopi House was interesting to see because it had in fact been built for the purpose of housing Hopi artists!
At Verkamp’s Visitor Center (the longtime site of a general store run for many decades by the family of that name), we ran into the ranger who had given the talk the night before. She had asked us if we were interested in her educational walk, not having met us at the talk, but we told her we’d heard her talk and had thoroughly enjoyed it but were heeding her suggestion that we didn’t need to hear her again.
Next, we worked our way to the other end of the village. The history is interesting, though of course the geology is why most of us visit the park. We spent some time in the History Room in the Bright Angel Lodge, which offered extensive artifacts related to the Fred Harvey hospitality system and the Harvey Girls. I had never associated the Judy Garland film with these women until this day!
Angie thought it would be good to take a walk down below the rim. Sadly, we didn’t get very far. We were limited by a combination of the unruly crowds, including inconsiderate kids climbing up onto dangerous rock formations, and how hard the steps and slopes are for me with my bad knee. We went down a little bit but it was a challenge for me and we decided not to push our luck. Speaking of people doing stupid things at the park, we learned later in the day that about 17 people a year die in falls at the park (off the rim!), that three people have died this year so far, and that most of the deaths are from stupid pranks or unthinking behavior.
We walked all the way from the village to Trailview Overlook (mainly uphill), where we stopped to enjoy some quiet and eat some food (peanut butter tortilla rollups!). Along the way, we chatted with a sweet couple from Seattle before hopping on the shuttle and riding all the way to Hermit’s Rest. Hermit’s Rest was a bit of an anti-climax, although the fireplace in the building was spectacular (and was another Mary Colter design). This story about the site notes: “Mary Colter herself rubbed soot into the rocks in the alcove above the fireplace and carefully chose antique decorations to create a feeling that the building had been well-used for many years.”
The area was crowded and the weather was changing, so we decided to take a shuttle back to the bottom of the hill (there are four different shuttles in the park, covering different routes). However, on a whim, we got off at Mojave Point, where we were treated to some of the most spectacular views of the visit so far, including sights of the Colorado River as it snakes along the floor of the canyon.
We had to wait a while for the next shuttle as snowflakes swirled in the wind around us, but we both agreed it had been a worthy stop along the way. After getting back to the bottom of Hermit Road we walked back towards the campground, before jumping on a shuttle to go the rest of the way when we got to Village East. We each managed about 18,000 steps in the course of the day, so we didn’t feel bad about taking advantage of the shuttles.
After a quick shower at the paid facility near the campground, we went to dinner at the Bright Angel Lodge, picking the more casual Bright Angel Restaurant over the Arizona Room for our meal. We didn’t have to wait too long for our table. We had barely ordered our drinks at the adjacent bar when our buzzer went off!
The food at the Bright Angel restaurant follows the Fred Harvey tradition of simple classics, such as the Tom Turkey that Angie ordered, and the River Runner that I picked, which is a trout dish. Both were satisfying and provided us with more than enough to eat, especially since our meals came with a choice of soup or salad. We both picked soup (cream of broccoli for me, tortilla for Angie), so we were able to box up about half our entrées to eat the following evening. Both our dishes were directly inspired by Fred Harvey dishes of the 20th century.
Since we knew that the weather was not improving and we didn’t want to spend the rest of the evening in the van, we went to another ranger talk at the Shrine of the Ages. We had also been given the inside scoop by the ranger we’d met earlier, that even though she didn’t know what Ranger Ron would be talking about exactly (the talk was called Fire Planet), he is very knowledgeable and entertaining. Ranger Ron had arrived at the park in part to study the birds, but he was very quickly captivated by the way fire was being used in the park to protect the environment, not to mention the politics of fire. It used to be the dominant paradigm that ANY fire in nature must be stopped, but scientists have learned that fire is part of the cycle of life for forests, and actually makes them more healthy. This is why the park service and many other services start prescribed burns, to control where wildfires will burn if they start accidentally (though sadly so many start due to carelessness or malice). According to some research, the best way to control wildfires is by setting these fires, and is much more effective than logging and other methods. The talk was quite entertaining, though as a fire survivor myself (my home was destroyed in the 1990 Painted Cave fire in the Santa Barbara area) I was fairly well informed on how fire operates, sadly.
The weather had been storming and we had been seeing lightning and hearing thunder during the presentation. It rained quite hard at times, but by the time we got back to our campsite, wet snow was falling. We felt very vindicated about our decision to set the van up for sleeping. It wasn’t super warm, but it was definitely warmer than sleeping in the tent in the snow. We quickly wended through the fat flakes to perform our ablutions before settling in for the night.