The Amazing Vacation Part 1 – The Grand Canyon

Two months ago, we set out on our first big family trip – the combined result of having a little extra money burning a hole in our pocket, wanting to expose our kids to travel more complicated than a car trip up I-95, and the desire to see what our great country has to offer beyond the east coast. So in mid-June, we headed off for the first of several legs of a trip that would eventually take us to the Grand Canyon, Hollywood, Sequoia National Park, Monterey, Big Sur, and San Francisco.

Why did we choose these particular destinations? I don’t know – sounded like a good idea at the time, I guess. In reality, we wanted to see the Grand Canyon and we figured well, while we’re already there, we should go a little farther to California. And we wanted to see the big trees, so we figured well, let’s do Sequoia because it doesn’t look that far on the map. And we couldn’t go to California without seeing the Pacific Ocean. Ever since I was nine years old and watched a 1970’s disaster movie about a car wreck on the California Freeway in which one of the couples was heading to Big Sur,  I’d been curious about it, too. No, really, that’s been rattling around in my head all this time – like a steel trap I tell ya.

Anyway, we left on a Monday evening with a 6:30 p.m. flight out of Raleigh Durham International Airport on Southwest Airlines. Now, understand that flying gives me minor anxiety, less because of a fear of crashing than because of the logistics involved. I worry about getting to the airport on time, checking in successfully, ensuring our checked bag isn’t too heavy (it was 49 pounds – one to spare), getting through security, and keeping track of all of our stuff. All made more complicated by the first-time flyer status of our kids. Fortunately, the check-in guy was nice – he immediately complimented me on my packing prowess (one bag for the four of you for a trip out west – impressive!) and I, in turn, immediately liked him. We did act like the Beverly Hillbillies trying to navigate ID’s and boarding passes at the tsa counter and I did almost take someone else’s laptop from the gray bin at TSA (oops! all Macs look the same!), but somehow we made it through to the gate just fine.

Coming in to Phoenix, 8:30 local time and just starting to get dark.

I’d paid extra for early-bird check-in to secure a decent boarding position in Southwest’s cattle call set-up. We had respectable A40 – A43 boarding assignments, and had no trouble finding seats near each other. We spent much of the flight peering at the ground below, pointing out what must have been the Mississippi River, windfarms across Oklahoma and Texas (there are quite a lot of them!), forest fires as we neared Arizona, and twisters with big houses caught up in them and a witch on a bicycle across Kansas … no, wait.

Toward the end of the flight, we did have a moment when we thought we all might die – a flight attendant took to the loudspeaker, in a far too frightened and nervous voice, and demanded we TAKE OUR SEATS IMMEDIATELY! due to severe turbulence ahead. Um, what kind of turbulence are we talking about here lady? Like kiddie ride at the state fair turbulence? Or nightly news-worthy turbulence? Because I did not sign on for the latter. It turns out it was state fair kiddie ride turbulence. Which apparently really freaks the stewardess out. We landed just fine without incident.

Upon departing the plane in Phoenix, we were immediately smacked in the face as we walked through the tunnel to the terminal. By heat. Arizona was in the middle of an unprecedented heat wave, the temperature was about 118 degrees at 8:30 p.m., and woah! put some butter on me and turn me over after 25 minutes because walking through the gang plank was like stepping into an oven. I mean, it just about knocks you over at first. Truth be told though, once you get over the initial shock, it’s really not that bad. No seriously – there’s no humidity. It’s hot, but it’s dry.  You sweat, but you don’t feel the sweat. I liked it!

The Phoenix airport is nice – big with a cool southwestern vibe. Lots of restaurants where we should have stopped to eat. We retrieved our bag, headed to the shuttle to the car rental counters. Were promptly parted from a totally unnecessary $60 loss-of-use insurance add-on (we were tired and we apparently we had ‘sucker’ written on our foreheads). We retrieved our standard-sized SUV, made our way to the airport hotel, and found that all area restaurants were now closed. The airport is in a rather industrial area, as are the airport hotels. There aren’t many restaurants around and at 10:00 at night we weren’t into sightseeing in Phoenix. Dinner therefore consisted of pretzels, crackers, and cookies foraged from the hotel vending machine, and an extra packet if peanuts from the plane. And some cokes. Very nutritious.

We got an early start the next morning when the temperatures were still in the mid 80’s (at 7 a.m.), eating breakfast and purchasing a case of water for the trip at some nondescript nearby shopping center. By 9 a.m., temps were already at 100 degrees and climbing and we headed out. We never really saw anything of the city outside of its flat openness, gridded street pattern (I might actually be able to navigate there) and mountains in the background. It felt considerably less claustrophobic than Raleigh –  no trees. It was a nice change.

The view heading north out of Phoenix. Plenty of cactus and mountains.

As we drove north, I was surprised by the topography – it was much more mountainous than I’d expected, with plenty of elevation climbs and dips. It had never connected with me that the rim of the Grand Canyon sits at 6,000 feet above sea level. Lots of desert – brown and green, cactus everywhere for a while. As we neared Sedona and Flagstaff, it changed – less desert, more ponderosa? I don’t know if that’s the right description. There are large evergreen trees and wide open, green fields. It’s really pretty and I wish we’d had time to stop in Sedona because everyone says it’s gorgeous but it really wasn’t something we’d planned or had time for.

After a brief stop in Flagstaff for gas and a call to the credit card company to assure them the $1 gum purchase wasn’t fraud, we turned west onto I-40 – the same I-40 we all know and love in North Carolina – where we saw signs for Los Angeles – a reminder that we were nowhere near North Carolina. About 20 minutes further, we turned north near Williams, Arizona and then headed on toward Tusayan, the small town immediately outside of the Grand Canyon, for the last hour of our drive. We’d originally considered staying in Williams – it’s less expensive. But  – an hour.

There are numerous hotels in Tusayan, none of them particularly fancy, and there are several lodges and cabins inside the park as well as camping. The inside the park accommodations book up pretty far in advance and we booked our trip pretty not far in advance, so we stayed in Tusayan, which is right outside the park entrance. Tusayan is fine, but I’d really recommend staying inside the park if at all possible, just for convenience sake. You’re right there, which means you can easily watch the sunset or sunrise, ride a bike around the area, whatever. It’s just more convenient.

The view further north, in the Sedona and Flagstaff area where the landscape is much greener.

We expected the park to be insanely, obnoxiously busy. Approximately five million people visit the south rim of the Grand Canyon each year, according to the National Park Service website, with June being one of the busier months.

Perhaps I’m just not seeing things from the park service’s perspective. I realize these guys spend the majority of their time out in the wilderness with maybe five other people around for company, so maybe to them, the number of people around truly was busy. For an east coast girl who grew up in the D.C. area, it was not busy. Not busy at all.

Like, if I can make a left turn without a traffic light onto a street that dead ends at the Grand Canyon in the height of tourist season without horns honking and fingers flying, it’s not busy. It’s actually a bit weird. The crowds and lines of cars backed up waiting to enter the park. Nope.

Outside of a visitor center, IMAX theater and a handful of restaurants there’s really not much to the town. Perhaps the heat was keeping people away, Or maybe it was just quiet on the weekdays. Either way, really not exactly what we’d expected.

We arrived around 12:30 – too early to check in to our hotel – so we stored our bags, grabbed like ten bottles of water, and headed to the visitor center where we bought a 7-day, $30  entrance ticket, grabbed some lunch at a little general store next door, and then hopped on the shuttle, which loops around to several stops in town before heading straight into the park.

Along the drive, which takes maybe 15 minutes with stops, we amused ourselves by playing spot the elk which, as it turns out, are everywhere comfortably lounging on the side of the road among the trees and brush, oblivious to the tourists, taking a break from the midday heat. They are quite tame due to the (under)abundance of tourists and they’re known to hang out by the visitor center inside the park, where they like to try to drink from the water refilling stations.

A note: If you refill your water inside the Grand Canyon, be aware you might also be getting elk spit mixed in. In fact, I just might specifically recommend avoiding the refilling station right at the main visitor center in the park. Also, don’t let elk drink from your water bottle. We witnessed a verbal brouhaha between tourists who felt this was a good idea, and tourists who didn’t, which was entertaining. Avoid a fight folks – don’t water the elk.

The shuttle drops you off at a centralized stop where you can then either walk right to the rim, or choose to take a different shuttle bus that will take you along one of three designated routes that run from east to west through the park. The blue route takes you west and connects to the red route which takes you along the far western end of the south rim.

The red route ends at Hermit’s Rest trail. We had planned on taking that one, but it was closed that afternoon. Rumor had it a tourist had fallen off the edge of the canyon, but bus drivers and park rangers were pretty tight-lipped about it. We learned the grim reality several days later through local news reports that someone had committed suicide which, well, is really sad. Apparently, it happens several times a year at our national parks. What more is there to say about this. So.

With the red route closed, we started off instead toward Mather Point. Understand that until this point, you still don’t see the Grand Canyon – that huge hole in the ground, that thing for which people travel across the country and even across the world.

So can I just say that it’s very odd to emerge from a grove of trees and desert shrubs that give no indication that anything out of the ordinary lies beyond, and suddenly find yourself teetering on the brink of a 6,000 foot high cliff, as a vast canyon stretches out a mile into the distance ahead of you with varying layers of rock in every shade of red and orange against a bright blue sky above? It’s enormous. So much so that it takes time for your eyes to adjust. It seems more like a painting than an actual landscape. Millions of years of history, just right there. What must have the early explorers thought when they first came upon it?

If you’ve ever been to Pisgah Forest in the NC mountains, you know what it’s like to be at 6,000 feet in elevation, but there are trees as far as the eye can see, so the height doesn’t necessarily resonate save for the temperature difference and the ears popping. At the Grand Canyon, you can see every bit of that 6,000 feet. Sheer cliffs drop straight down, formations sit throughout the entire canyon populated with perhaps a single tree or maybe a bit of scrub brush that no human has likely ever touched. And the Colorado River peeks out from the bottom, small and winding and blue.

The view at the top of the South Kaibab Trail.

We immediately put our arms around each other and recreated the scene from National Lampoon’s Vacation. ‘Look kids, the Grand Canyon,’ and then we went home. Okay, no we didn’t.

But not knowing what to do first, we immediately headed down the first trail we saw – the South Kaibab Trail, a rather steep, narrow and dusty route that you could take all the way to the bottom if you wanted, the operative word being “could.”

Thankfully, there are helpful and alarming signs everywhere indicating we would be the victims of certain death if we attempted to do so. You see, temperatures inside the Canyon are considerably warmer than those at the rim. Because it’s a canyon. Apparently people routinely set off on the trails with inadequate water and a poor understanding of the actual distance to the bottom, and they occasionally don’t make it. So the signs, with the picture of a badly sunburned tourist vomiting on the side of the trail are meant to prevent tourists from facing a similar fate.

Now, you could take a mule to the bottom. I think they did that in an episode of the Brady Bunch. There is no way in hell I would take a mule down that trail. I’m sure they know it by heart, but unless they duct tape me to the animal, it’s not going to happen. I cannot sit straight on a horse. I have a tendency to bounce dramatically from side to side. I have visions of myself, bouncing too far to the left, pulling the poor mule off balance, causing us both to careen off the edge to a rocky and painful death. So, no mule.

Graphic signs everywhere warn of the dangers of hiking in the Grand Canyon.

We descended the trail for about a mile. We figured we’d go to Ooh Aah point which is supposed to offer a good view, before turning around. But it really was hot and though we had plenty of water, the signs had sufficiently spooked me. Plus, our girls are soft and complained a lot. I knew the steep trip back up was going to be filled with lots of complaining.  And it was. And we drank just about all of our water, despite my husband’s drill sergeant attempts to ration us … “just one sip! ONE SIP!” How he didn’t get pushed over the edge …

Sunset at the south rim.

Having survived the trail, we chose a tamer tour around the rim for the remainder of the afternoon before heading back to Tusayan to grab some dinner. Then we drove back into the park just barely in time for the sunset, and hung around for the annual star party.

So, the star party. It’s a once a year event and we were lucky enough to be there at just the right time. Amateur astronomers are invited to set up their equipment around the main parking lot and visitors can wander around and look at various celestial objects through some pretty sweet telescopes at one of the best places in the country for viewing the night sky.

While it seemed to me like a supremely bad idea to be walking around the Grand Canyon in the pitch dark, it was still a pretty cool experience to see the milky way stretched so brightly across the sky. We managed to not fall off an overlook anywhere so it was all good. It wasn’t fully dark until probably 10 p.m., and the girls were exhausted when all was said and done, but it was a hell of a view.

The next morning, we headed back to the Canyon. We drove our car this time, taking a side road in that brought us closer to the west side of the park, and waited for the red route shuttle bus, which was back up and running. While in line, we struck up a conversation with a couple from the Abruzzo region of Italy. They were on their honeymoon, having already been to northern California, and Bryce and Zion Canyon in Utah. They had an Alaskan cruise planned out of Washington to finish out their trip. For our honeymoon, we went to Martha’s Vineyard. Just sayin’.

The husband had a shirt on that represented one of the Italian football clubs – Delfino Pescara. He said something about it being his team. But as we don’t speak italian or follow soccer, to this day we don’t know if he was a fan or a member of the team. Given the extravagant nature of their honeymoon trip, I’m betting on athlete. Either way, they were incredibly nice and the area in Italy where they live looks beautiful – they showed us pictures to prove it.

An overlook on the red route.

The red route makes multiple stops along the western part of the south rim. There’s a walking trail that winds along the entire length, but we had limited time so we utilized the shuttle, getting off at each stop. The overlooks are more precarious here than along the blue route but that did not stop people from getting as close to the edge as possible! Seriously, there is no better argument in favor of national park service funding than the need to install something more substantive than the pissy little fences currently in place at the edge of these overlooks. We’re talking almost nothing to protect you from a sudden and certainly deathly fall over the edge.

What parent thinks it’s a good idea to stand right at the edge, with their back to the canyon, and their kid at their side, as they take a selfie? I couldn’t watch. I annoyed the heck out of the girls with my desperate pleas to be careful. It was anxiety-inducing.

There are some unusual points of interest along the red route. There used to be an active uranium mine and you can still see the entrance as you peer over one of the overlooks. It’s a big round hole in the ground. At some point, there were plans to build a hotel into the side of the canyon wall. The thought of construction or mine workers rapelling down the side of a cliff to work on these projects is terrifying.  Part of the trail is currently off-limits due to potential residual radiation exposure. I did feel like I was glowing at the end of our trip.

The red route ends at a small gift shop and there is another trailhead there where you can hike to the bottom. There were coincidentally signs all over the park about an older gentleman who’d gone missing earlier in the spring after heading out on that trail. We opted to not hike on it.

We bought some souvenirs, did NOT feed the squirrels (more terrifying park service warning signs about this) before heading back to our parking lot.  We had a nice chat with a couple on the shuttle who were also from the east coast. Sadly, we never made it to the far eastern end of the south rim – there simply was not enough time as we had to head back to Phoenix for an evening flight to California. We  discussed possible future plans to actually camp at the bottom of the Canyon and see the Colorado River up close, which is fine with me but only with plenty of water, in the fall, with a guide and not if it involves mules.

We left around 2:30. plenty of time to get back to return the car and check-in for our next flight, which would bring us into (cue the deep game show announcer voice) ‘beautiful downtown Burbank!’ later in the evening. Onward.

Next stop … California!



Categories: This and That

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